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What happened to winter?! January 31, 2012

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, homesteading, pets.
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Our indoor-outdoor thermometer is telling our friend Ben that it is 62 degrees F. outside at 4:19 in the afternoon on January 31. For me and Silence Dogood, this is tee-shirt weather. And no, we don’t live on the Gulf Coast or, say, Saudi Arabia. We live in the precise middle of nowhere, PA, where a typical January 31st would see us buried in snow in our bitterly cold little cottage, shivering miserably and praying for an early spring.

Is this global warming at work? Or is it a little trick of Mother Nature, plotting to slam us with nonstop snow, ice, and record cold from February through April to revenge herself on us for humanity’s greed and lack of respect for natural resources and the web of life in general?

If it’s early spring, at least it’s not silent spring. Geese, crows, and our regular assortment of backyard birds have made sure of that. Hating cold as we do, looking at the still-green grass, walking on unfrozen ground, Silence and I are hoping against hope that this pseudo-spring will turn into the real thing.

If it does, it will be the first time we’ve ever experienced weather like this. But, walking blissfully in our tee-shirts through the backyard with our black German shepherd Shiloh enthusiastically lifting her snout to smell the fresh air, we have to confess, we hope it won’t be the last.


Great balls of fire! January 31, 2012

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. I was stuck in traffic for hours last night en route back from going with a dear friend to visit her son at college. (Not only were we returning exactly at rush hour, but a massive accident had blocked the road.) By the time I finally made it back to Hawk’s Haven, it was dark, so our friend Ben, bless his heart, had turned on the outside light over the front door so I could see to find my way in. As it turned out, his thoughtfulness may have saved our lives, and definitely saved our beloved cottage home.

Once I’d come in and locked the door, I reached for the switch to turn off the outside light. And it was hot! In fact, the whole switchplate was hot, and I burned my finger on one of the red-hot switchplate screws. The wall surrounding the switchplate was still cool, but there was a definite smell of hot metal in the air. Fire!

Our cottage home is pretty old—some parts date back to the early 1900s—and its previous owners were jerryriggers (aka jury-riggers) par excellence. (Our living-room ceiling came down once during a heavy, prolonged downpour because, it turned out, rather than fixing a leak in the roof, they’d simply stashed a plastic dishpan under it in a dark, ancient, unvisited part of the attic.) So God alone knows what kind of wiring lay behind that switchplate.

Nonetheless, we’ve lived here upwards of 16 years, and no wiring problems have ever surfaced before. Our combined electrical knowledge amounts to plugging in and unplugging appliances and changing lightbulbs, but even I didn’t really think that turning on the outside light (a single bulb over the front door) would be enough to overheat the switchplate. So what was going on?

Looking around the front living-room wall, I tried to tally up our power usage. To the left of the front door was a surge-protector power strip that we use to power a boom box (to play our CDs), an infrared heater, and (at this time of year) a short string of small white Christmas lights. The heater and string of lights were on. To the right of the door, our Christmas-tree and wreath lights were plugged in. (As usual, our friend Ben, the last great sentimentalist, has refused to let me take our Christmas display down yet.)

Needless to say, these items were all plugged into wall sockets that ostensibly had nothing at all to do with the switchplate in question. But also needless to say, I frantically unplugged them all and turned off the power strip. And sure enough, eventually the switchplate cooled down and the burning-metal smell abated. The wall surrounding the switchplate remained cool, and I’m still here this morning to tell the tale.

So, what the bleep?! I really have no idea. It seems to me that the logical culprit is our new infrared heater, which we’ve been running pretty much nonstop in an attempt to lower our appalling fuel-oil bills. I can’t believe that any of the other items would draw much more electricity than a light bulb. But needless to say, we’re not turning on anything, inside or out, on that wall until we can scrape together enough money to get our handyman out to check the wiring. And I still have no clue what any of it had to do with the switchplate.

But on the plus side, your faithful bloggers are still alive and in possession of a roof over their heads and a more-or-less working laptop so the blog posts can continue here at Poor Richard’s Almanac. And as an added bonus, since we can’t turn on the lights, maybe OFB will see reason and finally agree to take the Christmas stuff down…

                 ‘Til next time,


A very spoiled dog. January 30, 2012

Posted by ourfriendben in pets, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. Our friend Ben and I dropped by what used to be called a dog show, but is now apparently a “canine learning experience,” in nearby Allentown this past weekend. Our goals were to find a special toy for our black German shepherd, Pioneer Hawk’s Haven Shiloh von Shiloh Special (that’s just Shiloh to you), check out the German shepherd booth, and admire all the other great dogs that typically turn out for this show.

Unfortunately, by the time we got there, all the breed booths had packed up and left. (And mind you, this was three hours before the show closed. Harrumph!!!) There wasn’t a German shepherd or golden retriever in sight. I was crushed.

But all was not lost. We were able to find a (comparatively) indestructible lizard toy for Shiloh, which of course she loves. (In the past, we’ve presented her with two bone-shaped toys by this company, and unlike the usual toy, it takes her months of hard work to dismantle them.) As amateur herpetologists, OFB and I were especially pleased to find the lizard.

I finally also got to see my first real, live shiba inu and a pair of akitas (all three super-friendly and all much smaller than I’d expected), as well as plenty of other wonderful dogs, all of whom were calm, happy and friendly. Anything but the stereotype of the nervous, high-strung show dog, and the owners encouraged us to interact with their dogs, also against stereotype, and spent lots of time talking with us about them, even as they were grooming or walking them pre-competition. We were very pleasantly surprised!

But the biggest (and best) surprise of the night was provided by OFB. Prior to the arrival of Shiloh on the scene, we’d had two golden retrievers, the sweet, gentle Annie and the huge, rambunctious Molly (better known as “the little Mollycule”). Ben had adored them both, but especially Molly, and we’d both been devastated to lose them to slow, excruciating deaths from cancer, Annie at just 2 1/2 and Molly at 7. Ben, of course, assumed we’d get a third golden.

I had other ideas. I’d always wanted a shepherd, and after our dual losses, I felt we needed a change. After a vigorous pro-Shiloh campaign, OFB reluctantly caved, and we brought our little lacquer black puppy home. For me, it was love at first sight, from the comical conehead effect of huge, not-quite-risen ears to the bright eyes and joyous, nonstop smile. (Even at almost-three, Shiloh remains the happiest dog I’ve ever seen.) Not so OFB.

Shiloh adored Ben from the first, but our beloved Molly still loomed large in his heart and he found it hard to make room for the new pup. He was a dutiful “dogfather,” but I could see that the spark just wasn’t there, and it broke my heart. Shiloh never gave up on him, though. Lying close beside his chair when he was home, bringing him toys, romping around him, ecstatically happy when he would return home or whenever they’d walk and play together, she must have worked on him like water on stone.

The transformation became clear to me as we were leaving the dog show. “Which did you like better, the shiba inu or the akitas?” I asked him.

“They were all nice dogs,” he answered, gesturing to the entire show floor and all the breeds we’d visited with. “But I like German shepherds.”

Thanks be to dog.

                 ‘Til next time,


A view of the world (with cheese). January 28, 2012

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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“Eeeewww, Ben, listen to this!!!”

Silence Dogood was reading the “Review” section of The Wall Street Journal with more than her usual enthusiasm. She’d discovered a review of the world’s most disgusting foods, and was determined to share them with our friend Ben, doubtless on the (correct) assumption that there would be no requests for breakfast forthcoming after the dramatic reading.

The review was actually an excerpt of a book on the nature of disgust (That’s Disgusting: Unraveling the Mysteries of Repulsion by Rachel Herz, Norton, 2012). And the excerpt focused on fermented foods, since they tend to be regional, locally beloved but greeted by outsiders with everything from astonishment through horror to outright nausea.

Ms. Herz had come up with some stellar examples, too: A Sardinian cheese that’s eaten while still crawling with thousands of maggots (if the maggots have died, the cheese is considered too rotten to be safe to eat). An Icelandic shark that’s killed, gutted, and buried in a sand-covered pit to decompose for two to five months, then cut in strips and dried. Natto, a popular Japanese breakfast food that she describes as “a stringy, sticky, slimy, chunky fermented soybean dish… [that] smells like the marriage of ammonia and a tire fire.” She mentions others in passing, including gravlax (fermented raw salmon), chorizo (fermented, cured uncooked pork sausage), kimchee (Korea’s sauerkraut equivalent), and, of course, fried grasshoppers. (She refrained from adding those other popular delicacies, grubs, ants, and ant eggs to the list.)

Smell, taste and texture typically combine to make us back away from fermented foods, which are really just foods that have rotted to a specific point under the action of specific microorganisms that give them their characteristic odor, taste, and appearance. They are, in our friend Ben’s opinion, always an acquired taste, but one that is culturally encouraged from an early age. Take sauerkraut, which is eaten with relish all over this part of Pennsylvania, which was settled principally by Germans. Having never encountered this traditional Pennsylvania Dutch delicacy while growing up in the South, our friend Ben and Silence have still never been able to get close enough to it to try it. Phew!!!

And then there’s cheese. Our friend Ben’s prankster uncle actually caused a sibling’s visiting friend to pass out by sneaking up behind him and shoving a piece of Limburger cheese under his nose. (Or so family legend goes.) As a child, I learned to love the extremely sharp, flaky, pale gold Cheddar my grandfather loved to eat with sliced apples because I loved my grandfather, not because I was drawn to the pungent smell of the cheese.

And what about all those ripe, oozing, mold-encrusted, reeking cheeses, the best known being Brie and Camembert, that we all love to smear on slices of crusty baguette and eat with relish, accompanied by a glass of red wine and an assortment of fruit or olives? (Bread and wine being two other famous fermented foods.) Or the yummy blue and gorgonzola cheeses, shot through with tendrils of mold, that add so much to salads, pastas, omelettes, and Silence’s famous Endive Boats?

Yes, our friend Ben can see why cheese is viewed with suspicion and disgust by cultures where it isn’t normally consumed. Not all cheese reeks, of course, but it strikes me that the milder the flavor, the more plastic the texture, and that’s a cause for suspicion in and of itself. (Pass the string cheese, please.)

Mind you, I also know why fermented foods hold such a tenacious place in our cultures, and why they’re still revered and even enjoyed when the reason for their existence no longer matters. In the bad old days, when having enough to eat ranked right up there with fire and shelter as one of the only things that really mattered, fermentation—along with drying and curing (typically by brining)—was one of the few ways people could keep food for the seasons of scarcity, rather than having to eat it all immediately.

Unless you lived in the far North, refrigeration wasn’t an option. The absence of sugar made jellying and jamming impossible. And canning was an undreamed option until Louis Pasteur came along.

To have food—any food—was wealth, was luxury. Who cared what it looked and smelled like? The desperately-needed calories from alcoholic beverages (fermented grains and fruits), rendered fat, and grubs, the minerals and protein in foods like tempeh, yogurt, and cheese, and the residual vitamins in foods like kimchee and sauerkraut, kept people alive and comparatively healthy until the season of planting and harvest returned.

Silence and I think the preservation of these fermented food traditions is a very good thing. Year-round abundance and readily available food, refrigeration and canning, are all very recent phenomena. Burgeoning world populations, shrinking resources, and natural disasters, not to mention longterm nightmares like desertification, could return us to the days when knowing how to dry and cure and ferment food means the difference between eating and starving.  

Which brings our friend Ben back to the reason I actually wanted to write this post (which I’d planned even before Silence discovered the Wall Street Journal piece, which you can read at WSJ.com, “You Eat That?”). It was a photograph of Earth from space.

When I turned on my computer earlier in the week, the Yahoo newspage announced that there were phenomenal new photographs of earth shot from space, “Earth as you’ve never seen it before!” Eagerly, I clicked the link to see these photos, and encountered an archive of general photos, not the new ones of Earth. Luddite that I am, I never was able to get to those photos. But I could see the original photo, which happened to be of North America, all too clearly. 

The photo showed, in brilliant full color, a brown desert continent, with a tiny fringe of green along each coast. Mind you, it is winter, and perhaps the photos were taken in winter. But even so, all I could think about was my first transcontinental flight, to attend a horticulture conference on the West Coast.

I grew up on the verdant East Coast, where lush greenery predominates until autumn colors glow and then winter drains all the colors away. Okay, it’s not the rainforest, but plants abound and water is plentiful. And I’d grown up taking all this for granted.

Yes, I’d read about how desertification, the greedy creep of desert across formerly green, fertile landscapes, was an international phenomenon; how the clearcutting of trees had radically changed landscapes from Tibet to the Scottish Highlands; how out-of-control population growth was threatening water supplies worldwide. But I’d never thought any of this applied to America, the Breadbasket of the World, until I took that flight.

I always choose a window seat when flying, because I love to see the living map of the land spread out beneath me during the day, and the patterns of lights illuminating the landscape at night. But that trip, I made a horrific discovery that forever changed my worldview. Not that long after the plane took off, the landscape turned brown. And it stayed brown, stayed brown virtually until the plane touched down on the California coast. In some states, I could see unnatural green circles, powered by huge irrigation machines, but it was obvious that the machines were the only reason for this apparent lushness. And where, I wondered, was all that water coming from?

My flight back simply reinforced my impression. What I saw then wasn’t quite as appalling as the tiny green fringes shown in the new satellite photos, but it was enough to open my eyes: I wept with relief when the plane landed back in verdant Pennsylvania. Never again have I taken abundance for granted; I know that we only have it on loan, and only a tiny percent of us, at that.

What to do? Well, one option is to explore the global cuisine that our modern world has made available to us. Since Silence is a vegetarian, I don’t have to contemplate the prospect of being served dried rotted shark or fermented raw salmon or sausage made from raw pork, or, say, maggot-infested cheese or grubs. But she’s a fan of Sandor Katz’s seminal book, Raw Fermentation, so kimchee or (gasp) sauerkraut could be in our future. We already eat yogurt, tofu, and miso, and I know Silence is trying to work more tempeh into our diet. I’m not sure we’re ready for natto, or Limburger, for that matter. I still think you should be able to get close enough to food to want to eat it. But while there’s still time, embracing all the options the world has to offer may help us all survive the changes that may come.

Achoo! Now what? January 27, 2012

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. Our friend Ben and I have been trading really bad colds back and forth all winter. Talk about a drag! You’re not seriously ill, but you feel horrible, depleted, exhausted, miserable. You can’t breathe, you’re paying for the Kleenex CEO’s second home in the South of France, your lungs appear to be making Olympic efforts to explode out of your chest, and nobody wants to come anywhere near you. Yuck!

So, what to do? My sister called the other day and suggested that I mash up 20 cloves of garlic, pour hot water on them, and drink a cup of this every 2-3 hours. I guess she’s still getting even for my being the oldest child. Vampire hunters, please do keep this recipe in mind! For the rest of us, garlic-rich dishes like hummus and other veggie dips, garlic knots (yum), pasta and pizza sauces, and the like should suffice. My sister also recommended echinacea in mass quantities, but if memory serves, echinacea is only effective before you get a cold, not afterwards.

Not that I’m dissing teas in general. I really love herb teas, and actually drink them without sweeteners (though honey might be beneficial for a sore throat and cough). Some of my favorites when fighting a cold are Breathe Easy, Gypsy Cold Care, and Throat Coat from Traditional Medicinals and Yogi Teas’ Breathe Easy equivalent, which is super-delicious. Because a really bad cold is stressful, drinking Celestial Seasonings’ Tension Tamer Extra, Sleepytime Extra, or anybody’s chamomile tea before bedtime is very helpful, too.

So of course I’m on the alert when anybody recommends an herb tea that fights colds and/or keeps them at bay. And yesterday, when a friend recommended an enhanced form of kuchika tea, I was all ears. She suggested using the tea as a preventative, drinking a daily cup of kuchika tea enhanced with 1/2 teaspoon umeboshi paste and 1/2 teaspoon shoyu sauce (tamari).

Umeboshi paste, derived from plums, is highly alkaline, correcting our modern diet’s acidity and balancing the body. High-quality organic shoyu introduces beneficial organisms to help you fight every kind of systemic disease. Both also happen to taste good, so so far, I was on board. But what was kuchika tea?  

Turns out, it’s a tea made from the twigs and stems of the tea plant (Camellia senensis) rather than its leaves. Hmmm. Twig tea?! Sure enough. And kuchika is a favorite tea of folks who follow a macrobiotic diet, one of the most pure diets on earth.

The flavor is described as “mildly nutty and creamy.” Um. I’ll believe that when I taste it. But actually, I suspect it will be pretty delicious with the addition of umeboshi paste and shoyu. Not unlike miso soup. And I was pleased to see that brands available in coops and health food stores here, like Eden, offer kuchika tea. So why not try it? Sure beats garlic tea in my book!

And please. If you have a foolproof cold remedy, won’t you share it with us? We’re pretty sick here…

                 ‘Til next time,


Welcome, Natasha! January 26, 2012

Posted by ourfriendben in homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. I’ve been housebound with a really rotten cold (courtesy of our friend Ben; thanks, Ben!) for the past week, and have spent most of the time sleeping, sniveling, hacking, and sneezing, doubtless causing a local run on Kleenex as panicked consumers noted that the shelves were suddenly stripped of boxes. Yuck!

Even OFB was feeling sorry for me, so last night, he proclaimed that I appeared to have passed the sniveling wretch stage and we should take advantage of the comparatively mild temperatures to get me out of the house for a bit. Our ultimate goal was supper at a favorite local restaurant, but we decided to run a few much-needed errands in the nearest little town, Kutztown, before heading off to eat.

“Ben, let’s stop in at that new thrift store that’s opened by the grocery,” I suddenly announced, much to OFB’s chagrin. “Just for a minute,” I pleaded, discreetly coughing to remind him of my weakened, consumptive state. We were parking in front of the shop in two coughs, and OFB considerately accompanied me inside.

I was exclaiming over a Corningware dish that would actually fit in our toaster oven but was big enough for a lasagna (a huge challenge, since our oven died a couple of years ago and most of my ovenware’s too big for the toaster oven), a pair of beautiful handmade pysanky Easter eggs, and a pair of cardinal ornaments for our Christmas tree, when I suddenly saw her: Natasha! I’d been looking for her for weeks, hoping against hope to stumble upon her, and sure enough, there she was. The price was right, and soon OFB was escorting her to our car and I was in an exalted mood.

Mind you, Natasha’s not much of a conversationalist. But that’s not her fault, since she doesn’t have a head. Her mobility is somewhat limited as well, since she has no legs, or arms, either, for that matter. In fact, she’s a slim but shapely neck-to-hips body mannequin, discreetly cloth-covered and set on her own three-legged wooden stand.

I’d been looking for just such a mannequin since I started planning to launch a handmade wearable art business this year. I’d need one to photograph my wares for displays and online, and if I’m lucky enough to be accepted into any crafts shows, I’d need her to be part of my booth or table so people could see how my creations would look. How phenomenally lucky to find her just like that and for that price, especially after pricing mannequins, even second-hand ones! Fortune smiled.

Why Natasha? I’m so glad you asked. It seems to me that shopping for accessories and indulgences should be fun, delightful, and playful, since, after all, it’s something you’re doing for pleasure. And creating a setting for your shopping experience should be fun, etc. for me, just as creating the wearables you’ll be viewing (and hopefully buying!) is.

Natasha sounds like a supermodel to me. I love the idea of writing descriptions of my creations that go something like “Natasha is modelling Mandarin Moonlight, an opulent knotted silk halter with entarsia designs in flame and jade.” Needless to say, I just made that up. But the point is that it amuses me to show a torso mannequin and write her up like a runway model. (Admittedly, I’m easily amused.)

I still need a white, cream, or black wool turtleneck minidress for Natasha, since one of those would show off my creations to best advantage. If anyone knows where I can get one on the cheap, please let me know! Needless to say, I’ll keep checking the thrift stores around here and hoping to luck out.

Meanwhile, Natasha is sporting a white ribbed Salvation Army turtleneck and one of my favorite pieces to date. And so far, she’s managed not to attract the attention of our black German shepherd, Shiloh, or our three cats. Whew! Maybe it’s her undemonstrative nature.

Welcome, Natasha! I feel very lucky to have you. 

                  ‘Til next time,


Radical homemaking. January 25, 2012

Posted by ourfriendben in chickens, gardening, homesteading.
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Silence Dogood here. I was intrigued and excited to receive an e-mail from PASA, the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture, announcing the keynote speaker for their upcoming symposium: Shannon Hayes, the author of a book called Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture (Left to Write Press, 2010).

Heading to Amazon to read what people had to say about this, I found this bio of Shannon: “Shannon Hayes writes and farms with three generations of her family on Sap Bush Hollow Farm in West Fulton, NY, where she grew up. The family raises all-natural grassfed lamb, beef, pork, and poultry. She holds a BA in creative writing from Binghampton University, and a Masters and PhD in Sustainable Agriculture and Community Development from Cornell. Shannon is the author of three books: Grassfed Gourmet, Farmer and the Grill, and Radical Homemakers….  Shannon currently blogs for Yes! Magazine, and her books are available through most conventional channels, as well as directly from the author at RadicalHomemakers.com and GrassfedCooking.com. Shannon’s newest book, Long Way on a Little: An Earth Lover’s Companion for Enjoying Meat, Pinching Pennies and Living Deliciously, is due out from Left to Write Press in 2012.”   

The cover of Radical Homemakers shows Ms. Hayes defiantly brandishing a rolling pin with one well-muscled arm, much like the iconic poster of Rosie the Riveter. You can see that she’s picked her battle and joined it exuberantly. And that battle is an old and honorable one, agrarianism versus industrialization, family and community values versus blind consumerism, honorable, rewarding work versus the mindless climb up the corporate ladder, whatever the price.

The roots of this argument go back to the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. It shaped the lives and thoughts of the Founding Fathers; it spawned the Agrarian Movement in the early 20th-century South, led by such literary luminaries as Robert Penn Warren, Allen Tate and John Crowe Ransom.

It inspired the Back to the Land/homesteading movement of the 1970s, led by those pioneering intellectuals, Helen and Scott Nearing, in their Living the Good Life books; it has been the life work of the fine novelist and farmer Wendell Berry, and has been embraced by the novelist Barbara Kingsolver. It has inspired the rise of local and seasonal eating, of CSAs (consumer-supported organic farms) and farmers’ markets, and has created a renaissance of home cooking and a backlash against fast so-called food. It has inspired chefs and cookbook authors like Alice Waters, Mollie Katzen and Laurel Robertson, and seedsmen and seedswomen like Rose Marie Nichols, Rob Johnston, Jere Gettle, and Renee Shepherd. 

Our friend Ben and I are totally on board with this. We moved to Pennsylvania back in the day when an opportunity arose to work for Organic Gardening, a magazine we wholeheartedly believed in. Our escapist reading has been publications like Mother Earth News, Back Home, Backwoods Home, and Plain, and the works of the Nearings, Wendell Berry, Gary Paul Nabhan, Ruth Stout, Jackie Clay, and Gene Logsdon. Our families still scratch their heads over why we chose to make our home in a rural cottage and fill our property with a greenhouse, chicken yard, compost bins, raised beds, fruit trees, vine trellises, woodpiles, rain barrels, and the like. Our colleagues have always asked us why we didn’t seek jobs in New York and Philadelphia, just a few tedious hours’ commute away.

Well, we didn’t want to. We’ve enjoyed our organic connection with our work and with our land, and all the plants and animals we share it with. We’re so grateful to the internet for making broader connections effortlessly possible, enabling our lives to be home-based while still keeping us connected to friends, family, world events, and the latest discoveries in every field. Letting our minds and hearts reach out, even as we’re able to remain centered.

Our choices have had, as you might expect, considerable impact on our style of living. Our cottage home needs painting in the worst way. Our cars are ancient and battered, held together with a prayer and a few strips of duct tape. We need a new stove, new laptops, a digital camera, a washer-dryer. We dream of travel but stay at home. Going to a movie, eating out, buying even the most basic new clothes become major decisions. (Thank God for thrift shops, home cooking, and Netflix!) And yet, imagine this: A life without deadlines, without meetings, without commuting, without constantly having to check your smartphone and talk, text, tweet. “I know a place where dreams come true and time is never planned,” James Barrie, author of Peter Pan, wrote longingly. We know that place, too. We’re lucky enough to live there.

But let’s get back to Radical Homemakers. The title should have clued me in right away that this is an interview book, a profile book, not a how-to book. Homemakers, not Homemaking. The author is also apparently very eager to show that homemaking is not anti-feminist, and feminism apparently occupies a good deal of her approach. (To me, true feminism is doing whatever you feel is right, not wasting time trying to prove that you’re really as good as men—shock surprise!—or that what you’ve chosen to do isn’t demeaning. But I digress.) And she was fortunate enough to have a working family farm to move her family to (for free) when she decided to leave the rat race for a more meaningful life.

Shannon Hayes has, in my opinion, created the meaningful, home-based life she sought for herself and her family. And in Radical Homemakers, she interviews families across the country who have also achieved this goal. What the book doesn’t do is provide a roadmap to help others who have the same dream achieve their goal, especially if they don’t have a family farm to move to or a family who will pay their expenses.

This is in marked contrast to the Nearings’ books, in which they explained exactly what they thought, exactly what they learned to do, exactly how they planned, exactly what they gave up,  and exactly what they did to create “the good life.”

And yet. The Nearings inspired the entire Back to the Land movement with their books. But they made their move in the 1930s, when land was cheap and plenty was available. They were published and accomplished authors, who had led privileged and cosmopolitan lives and had influential connections across the globe. Their connections allowed them to spend half of every year visiting friends and lecturing abroad, and the earnest (young, strong) groupies who flocked to their Forest Farm allowed them to delegate unpaid work, often for years, while they wrote and made music and led a civilized life.

Not that they didn’t feed, shelter, and include their volunteers in their cultural life. Not that they didn’t work hard themselves and live very simply (mostly on unbuttered baked potatoes, raw apples, and undressed salad, if memory serves, on the theory that if you aren’t hungry enough to eat plain food, you aren’t hungry enough to eat, period).

Rather, the problem was that they were delineating the new/old Utopia, based on backbreaking agrarian labor, and their vision was espoused not by farm workers but by Hippies, who embraced peace, love and drugs rather than hard work, who had no experience of work, much less farm work, and who had no support network. The Nearings were as horrified by the people who created a cult around them as JRR Tolkien was by the fans of his Lord of the Rings trilogy. There simply was no meeting of the minds. The Flower Power generation tried the homestead life, alone and communally, and next thing we knew, they’d become Yuppies, pursuing their parents’ have-it-all consumerist lifestyle with a vengeance.

Well, we’ve seen what happened to the ’80s. We’ve also seen the resurgence of the back-to-the-landers, with urban farms and urban chickens and CSAs and farmers’ markets and slow food and seasonal eating and locavores. We’ve seen how the internet has given all these trends vitality and longevity. And we love that.

So what if Radical Homemakers is an inspirational rather than a how-to book? As long as readers expect inspiration rather than how-to, I see no problem with that. Reading the Nearings and Organic Gardening opened our eyes to new possibilities, honorable livelihood, the concept that you could go back to the land without giving up culture and civilized pursuits. This realization changed our lives’ directions. Who knows what you might find that would trigger a total life change, or a minor tweak that would make your own life whole?

The world of blogging offers a great opportunity to explore the lives of real-time homesteaders, family farmers, and urban bioneers, to see how hard they work, what they’ve chosen to do, the rewards and trials, how their families like it. Some places we love are Jackie Clay’s blog (http://www.backwoodshome.com/blogs/JackieClay/), Gene Logsdon’s musings (http://thecontraryfarmer.wordpress.com/), Alan’s adventures over at Roberts Roost (http://www.robertsroostfarm.com/), Daphne’s Dandelions (http://daphnesdandelions.blogspot.com/), Aunt Debbi’s Garden (http://auntdebbisgarden.blogspot.com/), Future House Farm (http://futurehousefarm.blogspot.com/), and The Home Garden (http://www.growingthehomegarden.com/). We love many other blogs, of course, but these cover various aspects of self-sufficiency and food gardening, from urban and suburban spaces to a few acres to a few hundred. Check them out! 

And if you’ve read Radical Homemakers, please let us know what you think!

           ‘Til next time,



Who killed Joe Paterno? January 22, 2012

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Today, former Penn State head football coach Joe Paterno died, ostensibly of complications associated with treatment for lung cancer, at age 85.

Prior to this past fall, Paterno—affectionately known as “JoePa”—was known as the winningest coach in major college football, with 409 wins, 37 bowl games, and 2 national championships to his credit. “He will go down as the greatest coach in the history of the game,” according to Urban Meyer, head coach of Ohio State’s football team and a strong contender for the title himself.

Paterno had coached for Penn State for 61 years, 46 of them as head football coach. A starring quarterback and cornerback at his own alma mater, Brown University, he had plans to go on to law school before his Brown football coach convinced him to come with him to Penn State as an assistant coach. Paterno never looked back, devoting his life—and millions of dollars of his own money—to Penn State.

But he never lost his own drive for academic excellence, and passed it along to his players, insisting that they pursue their academic studies along with their football-glory aspirations. As a result, more of his players graduated including 49 academic All-Americans. “Besides the football, he’s preparing us to be good men in life,” former Penn State linebacker Paul Posluszny summed up. And what did his millions go to build at Penn State? A stadium? How about a wing of the university library?  

So why does his AP obituary notice read “Fired Penn State coach Joe Paterno dead at 85”? Why did the Big Ten ignominiously strip his name from its championship trophy, and Penn State drop plans to honor him by naming its football field after him? Why did columnists like TheAtlantic.com’s Andrew Cohen feel free to make statements, days before Paterno died, like “College football legend Joe Paterno gave his first interview about the sexual-abuse scandal at Penn State last week, portraying himself as a confused, sick old man… Sorry, Joe, no one outside Penn State is buying it.” 

Well, our friend Ben is buying it. And I think Penn State’s treatment of Paterno is disgraceful. This man gave up his personal dream and devoted his life to his teams and his adopted university. He has never been found guilty of a single shred of wrongdoing. Yet, after 61 years of whole-hearted service, he was summarily fired by Penn State’s Board of Trustees because of monstrous acts committed by another man, a man who, as far as I can discover, was not personally close to Paterno in any way. It’s as though President Obama was summarily impeached, dismissed from office in disgrace, and stripped of all his achievements because one of his staff members had been discovered molesting interns.

This really burns me up. There is absolutely no excuse for molesting anyone, ever, be they political interns or very young boys, the chosen prey of the sexual predator Jerry Sandusky, Joe Paterno’s defensive coordinator. Sandusky’s perversions not only extend over decades, but extend to helping himself to a ready-made supply of helpless boys via adoption and foster-homing boys himself and establishing a nonprofit, The Second Mile, specifically to, uh, assist homeless boys to “better” their lives. Assuming Sandusky’s definition of “bettering” meant being raped by him on numerous occasions, even while screaming for help in Sandusky’s own home while his suddenly-deaf wife lurked on the floor above. 

Is Sandusky a monster? No, not in our friend Ben’s opinion. From everything I’ve read, he’s a Peter Pan, an eternal little boy who loves the company of other little boys, but unfortunately developed the hormones and hormonal reactions of a grown man and turned them onto his little buddies. He’s one of those people society should have identified as a danger and controlled.

And in this case, society’s failure is everyone’s failure, not just Joe Paterno’s failure. JoePa was focused on football, on giving back to the university that had given him a job and a name. How likely was the devoted husband, father, and grandfather to have perceived that one of his subordinates was totally, hypocritally, tragically perverted? I suspect he had a few other things on his mind.

Critics of Joe Paterno will blame his death on lung cancer, ignoring how quickly it came on, how quickly it killed. Others may blame it on modern medicine’s shortcomings, since his official cause of death was from complications from treatment. But our friend Ben has two other suspects to propose: Jerry Sandusky, whose completely selfish, childish, childlike behavior failed to take into consideration the consequences to his wife, his family, his boss, and his college. And the Penn State trustees, whose cowardice in pinning this tragedy on Joe Paterno rather than taking responsibility themselves is not just inexcusable and unacceptable but makes them the true moral monsters, and cowards, of the story.

Shame! Shame on them! I pray that every one of them may be dismissed from their posts, and forced to spend their lives wondering if their own children have come to grief because of their personal cowardice. What have they done for Penn State compared to what JoePa has done? Hateful, craven, miserable bastards. Shame!!!

May we all try to see our way clear in this crisis. May we all learn from it. And may we all say a prayer for Joe Paterno, who in my opinion died from a broken heart and deserved better from us.

Marvelous mushroom soup. January 21, 2012

Posted by ourfriendben in recipes.
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Silence Dogood here. It’s snowing here at Hawk’s Haven, the cottage home our friend Ben and I share in the precise middle of nowhere, Pennsylvania, and I confess that I’ve been watching the birds at our feeders rather than writing this blog post. Colorful birds against the white backdrop is one of the consolations of snow. So is the excuse it gives to cook something rich and comforting, like homemade cream of mushroom soup.

I’d been lucky enough to be gifted with a huge boxful of freshly harvested gourmet oyster mushrooms a few weeks ago and, wanting to cook them at their freshest, I’d chopped and sauteed the entire bunch with button mushrooms and sweet onions, along with Trocomare (spicy herbed salt), black pepper, and a pinch of garam masala and ground fenugreek.

I’d been using the cooked mushrooms in and on everything from lasagna and pizza to a topping for rice, but there were still plenty left. So I decided to get decadent when the weather turned really cold and make cream of mushroom soup. It turned out to be so delicious that our friend Ben has been begging me to make more ever since. When I heard we’d be hit with snow today, I hit the store and got the ingredients to make a fresh batch. OFB was ecstatic!

Mind you, this is rich, decadent comfort food, not something you’d want to eat every week. (Remember that word “cream.”) But it’s easy to make and so delicious! So here you go. This recipe serves two generously, three comfortably, or four if you’d just like a cup. Needless to say, if you’re lucky enough to get a windfall of oyster mushrooms, by all means use them! But this is the version I’m making tonight:

                     Silence’s Supreme Cream of Mushroom Soup

1 small (8-oz.) carton button mushrooms, chopped

1 small (8-oz.) carton baby bella mushrooms, chopped

1 package (8-oz.) gourmet mushrooms, mixed, or one carton shiitake mushrooms, chopped, or equivalent amount of mushrooms of your choice, or splash shiitake broth concentrate (I find this in health food stores)

1 large sweet onion (Vidalia or WallaWalla type), diced

1/2 stick butter for sauteeing

1 pint light cream

vegetable stock (any boxed brand is good)

salt (we like RealSalt) or Trocomare

fresh-ground black pepper or mixed peppercorns

1/2 teaspoon garam masala, or more to taste

1/2 teaspoon ground fenugreek, or more to taste

Marsala wine

bourbon (optional)

Melt butter in a heavy pan (I love my LeCreuset Dutch oven), and saute the onion until it clarifies. Add the spices, stir well to blend, then add the mushrooms. Continue sauteeing, stirring frequently to prevent sticking, until the mushrooms cook down and release their liquid. Add more butter and/or a splash of veggie stock as needed to prevent sticking. When the mushrooms have cooked down, reduce heat to low and add a cup of veggie stock, stirring well to blend. Add the cream, again stirring well.

When the soup heats up, taste and adjust seasonings. You can also add more veggie stock at this point, if desired. The goal is a rich, silky soup with a lot of added body from the cooked mushrooms and onions, so if you add more veggie stock, make sure you don’t thin it down; give the soup a chance to thicken up again as it slowly simmers. Finally pour a ring of Marsala just inside the rim of the pan and fold it into the soup. I like to add a splash of bourbon to intensify the flavor; you could add port instead, or skip this step. Taste again after five minutes, give a final tweak to the flavors, and serve.

I enjoy serving this soup as a meal in itself, accompanied by a crunchy salad and thin buttered rounds of French baguette that have been crisped in the toaster oven. The baguette rounds add a delightful crunch to complement the creamy soup, and of course the salad adds a refreshing mix of raw veggies to counteract all that cream.

Want to dress up the soup even more? You could hold back a little cream, and pour it over the top of each bowl in a spiral, then give each bowl a final grind of pepper, immediately before serving. Or roast a whole baby bella mushroom cap with a drizzle of olive oil in the toaster oven and add it on top of the cream/pepper spiral in each bowl.

But frankly, I’d save all that for a state dinner, and simply enjoy the hot soup, crispy, buttery baguette slices, and crunchy salad with a glass or two of Cabernet and the company of those you love. Life doesn’t get much better!

                  ‘Til next time,


Conspiracy theory for gardeners. January 19, 2012

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, gardening, wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben is generally no fan of conspiracy theory. Even if the theory turns out to be true, it seems to me that it does no good to sit around wallowing in paranoia when you could be doing something useful and rewarding instead, such as getting on with life.

However. After Silence Dogood and I recently received two long-anticipated gardening catalogues that arrived in our mailbox ripped to shreds, I may have to rethink my position. After all, we regularly receive clothing, home, pet, and cooking catalogues here that invariably arrive in perfect condition, however little we wish to see them. Why would the post office single out gardening catalogues for this abuse?

The answer seems obvious: The post office is involved in a massive conspiracy to wipe out home gardening in America. Either that, or it’s attempting to hasten its own demise by driving outraged gardeners to the online versions of gardening catalogues, which as we all know are never as satisfying as the ones we can hold and page through after dinner. What kind of organization would deliberately attempt to drive itself out of business? Thus, our friend Ben is left with no alternative but to fall back on the conspiracy theory. But why persecute a bunch of harmless gardeners, you might ask?

Hmmm. Perhaps the post office is in secret negotiations with Monsanto, and is hoping for a second life in the private sector after the government shuts it down. Perhaps gated communities across the nation have enlisted the post office’s assistance in their attempts to ban all plants from yards except lawn grass. Perhaps the entertainment industry has decided that gardening is dangerous, since it keeps people outdoors and away from their TV sets, and it’s bribed the post office to destroy catalogues on the grounds that any activity besides shopping and watching TV or playing computer games is clearly unAmerican. Perhaps grocers and florists have lobbied the post office to do its part to keep people from growing their own.

Then again, perhaps the post office has been taken over by outraged residents of the former planet Pluto, who have mistakenly blamed gardeners rather than astronomers for their home planet’s humiliating demotion. The possibilities are endless. Our friend Ben invites you to choose your favorite or add your own to the list.

This whole business is especially offensive given that our hero and blog mentor, the great Benjamin Franklin, was the Founding Father of the U.S. postal system. Though no agronomic whiz like his fellow Founders Washington and Jefferson, old Ben was also extremely interested in plants and gardening, introducing several species, including rhubarb, to the Colonies. A rare and wonderful small native tree, Franklinia alatamaha, was named to honor his contributions to botany and gardening by his friends, the famous early American botanists John and William Bartram. Harrumph! Et tu, post office?!

Incidentally, in case it turns out that everybody else is getting their gardening catalogues in perfect condition, our friend Ben can still fall back on that oldest form of paranoia: Why me?!!! But frankly, I think it’s the Plutonians…