Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Guest List

The character of a place is, to a great degree, revealed in the guests that visit, for long or short stays. I hope to keep a record of all the plants and animals that, like me, are guests of this 8 acres. Some, like the twin maples on the north property line, have been here over one hundred years. They are likely descendants of the sugar maples that once populated a dense forest blanketing many millions of acres for many thousands of years. Others, such as the red-tailed hawk that perched in the twin maples for a few minutes two weeks ago, stay only a short time.   

Winter is perhaps the best time to start such a daunting project. Many species are still asleep under a blanket of snow, or vacationing in Florida, or Mexico, or even South America. I'll list only those I know, and my poor natural history skills will be revealed to all. Perhaps this will be incentive to finally learn my bird calls, or tracks in the snow, or scientific names. In future blog posts, I will add species with a corresponding number, at the end of the post, thusly:

1. Sugar Maple
2. Black Walnut
3. White Pine
4. Red Cedar
5. Box Elder
6. Mulberry
7. Autumn Olive
8. Yew
9. Poison Ivy
10. Wild Raspberry
11. Wild Grape

12. Foxtail
13. Smooth Brome
14. Quack Grass
15. Reed Canary Grass

16. Spotted Knapweed
17. Pokeweed
18. Queen Anne's Lace

19. Broadleaf Plantain

20. Chicory
21. Burdock
22. Tall Goldenrod
23. Bull Thistle
24. Sow Thistle
25. Common Milkweed
26. Clematis
27. Russian Sage
28. Iris
29. Pigweed

1. Rock Doves (i.e. common pigeons) - resident
2. English house sparrows - resident
3. Woodpecker
4. Red-tailed Hawk
5. Bats
6. White-tailed Deer - tracks
7. Dog - tracks
8. Cat - tracks
9. Fox Squirrels
10. Raccoon
11. Human
12. Snowshoe hare - tracks
13. Crows
14. Mouse
15. Box Elder Bugs
16. House Flies
17. Long-legged Spider
18. Asian Lady Bugs
19. Small black spider
20. Mosquito

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Silo Bowling

Kids say some strange things.

At dinner this evening I heard my eldest son mention something about a bowling alley in a "light house."

"Intersting idea," I responded. "Did they drop the ball straight down or did it bounce down the spiral stairs?"

The whole family looked at me like I was crazy. Not that that is unusual, and hardly worth mentioning, except to say that my son had learned in school today that the "White House" has its own bowling alley.

But I was not to be deterred. "We have a silo. We could drop a bowling ball from the top of the silo onto the pins." My younger son suggested we drop the pins on the ball, which is not a bad idea. Someone (probably me) mentioned a catapult. Soon pins and bowling balls were flying hither and yon across the farm. Someone (not me) mentioned toilet plungers, and how surprised passing drivers would be to find plungers stuck to their windows.

So you see, planning is progressing on the farm.

Friday, February 05, 2010


The old man at title company smiled and said it had been many years since he had seen someone do that. I counted the signatures I scratched into the papers during the closing. Thirty nine times I put pen to paper. Kathy, my ever so understanding wife, just laughed. "He's a scientist," she explained.

After much congratulations and shaking hands, we all left the cozy office. Kathy and I left the city for our new home. A place. Perhaps in another post, I'll write the details, or catalog something (the 1 basement bat is now 3 basement bats). Today, I am content to know that there is place I own on paper, but barely know. In many ways I will not own this place until I know it and it knows me.

I committed today to pay a sum of money over the next 30 years, yes. But I have also committed to know a place, and to be known. That is the real investment: time, sweat, and stewardship.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

My Brain Needs Brakes

For several months, as Kathy and I pursued buying an old farmhouse, we kept telling each other that there may be something horribly wrong that we cannot see. Termites. Bad septic. Broken furnace. Something so wrong with the house as to torpedo the sale. We kept telling ourselves not to count our eggs, not to plan, not to get our hopes up until our offer was accepted and an inspector had checked the place thoroughly.

The inspection was last Friday. My heart sank as we entered the house. No heat, and water sprayed from the bathroom wall. No heat, burst plumbing. This was going to be bad... But that was the worst of it. The heat was turned on, the bathroom water turned off. One leak. Other than a few hundred dollars in plumbing repairs, we were seeing a remarkably updated and solid old farmhouse.

So now many months, years, of dreams came crashing in. My mind will not stop. What should we plant? Where? How will we dig up the garden? Do we need a tractor? A truck? How exactly do you use a barn? When should we get goats? No, we need fences before goats. What kind of fences? Where? Do we need barn cats? Dogs? Is eight acres enough? Too much? After months of supression, my mind is running 100 mph, with no brakes. Yeehaw!

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Another Naturalist Shops for an Old Farm

Many years ago I purchased a book about a celebrated nature writer, Edwin Way Teale, and his experience in purchasing and then living on an old farm. I enjoyed the book, but more than the book, and enjoyed the fantasy, the dream of owning a few acres of land and an old farmhouse. I knew it was unlikely to happen. I am a bureaucrat by day, and thus lack the luxury of living wherever I choose. I am destined to live near a city, where acres are expensive and farms rare. Public servants are paid a fraction of their counterparts in the private sector. Furthermore, most houses are "new." By "new" I mean built since WWII.

Although I have been in the process of actually purchasing an old farm for several months, it is only in the last few days that the reality is beginning to sink in. Built about 1880 (positively modern by New England standards, but old for Michigan) with 8 acres and a 20 minute commute, it is all I could ask for. There is one more hurdle (inspection) and then closing in a few short weeks. How did this happen?

Let me start at the beginning... the Christian creation story. Setting aside the distraction of the evolution controversy, humans are imitators of an Artist obsessed with creating, especially creating life. This cultivating and creating is something my wife and I enjoy and have turned much of our city lot into gardens and (very) small plots of native prairie. But we want honeybees, and fruit trees, asparagus beds, and tomatoes, and goats, chickens, and turkeys.

Will it happen? Tune in next week...

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Making Gouda

I have made five goudas, and have yet to taste one of them. On gouda four I took pictures, and these are the steps as best I can remember them. If you want to do it right, I highly recommend following the steps (like I do) in Ricki Carroll’s excellent book Home Cheese Making, and purchasing her ingredients at New England Cheesemaking Supply.

First things first. Cheese is made from milk. So you need 2 gallons, more or less. That’s 32 cups, but who’s counting. I used goat’s milk. It’s local and the price is right. Free actually, because a friend has goats and is willing to give us the extra. We share our cheese.

I am reasonably sure that the milk should be heated slowly, but I am a busy man. So I turn our electric stove right up to med-high. That’ll bring cold milk up to 90 degrees F in about 10 minutes. You’ll want an accurate thermometer. Cheesemaking is all about temperature.

Then add a mesophyllic starter. Good bacteria. Stir it in good(ah) and then let it set for 10 minutes.

Add rennet. I use liquid rennet. Read the label carefully. This recipe calls for ½ tsp, but the directions on the bottle say double-strength. And they mean it. So use only ¼ tsp of the double strength stuff, dissolved in ¼ cup non-chlorinated water. Chlorine kills bacteria, which would be a bit counter-productive, now, wouldn’t it? Stir gently, up and down, for 1 minute. Then rest for 1 hour.

After you and the milk have had a nice rest, the curd should give a “clean cut.” In other words, it is not entirely liquid anymore. You cut it and it stays cut, which does not happen with milk. Cut the curd into ½ inch cubes. Let rest for 10 minutes. Start some regular water heating.

Pour off as much whey as you can without pouring curds down the sink. (Whey is the yellowish water that is not curd.) Whey is milk sugar (lactose) and minerals. Curd is fat and protein. Mmmm. Save the whey for making ricotta, or making Kool-Aid (just add flavoring), or making bread, or feeding to your pigs, or fertilizing your (outdoor) plants. Make whey good whey puns any whey you can.

Now add the hot (almost boiling, about 175 degree F) water to the curd/whey mix, slowly, and only enough (a couple cups at most) to bring the temperature of the curds to 92 degrees. Rest another 10 minutes.

Drain off more whey, half of it if you can. Slowly add more hot water to bring the temperature to 112 degrees F. And stir for 30 minutes, gently, to keep the curds from matting together. Let the curds rest for 30 minutes, while you…

Make a brine solution by pouring 2 pounds of salt into 1 gallon of water and heating it nearly to boiling. Allow to cool to room temperature and then refrigerate for tomorrow.

Pour off the rest of the whey. Scoop the curds gently into a butter muslin or cheesecloth lined mold. Press at 20 pounds for 10 minutes, 40 pounds for 20 minutes, and 50 pounds for 12 hours, turning and re-dressing the cheese after each weight change.

Drop cheese into brine solution and soak, refrigerated, for 12 hours, turning occasionally.

Place in a cheese cave or dorm-size fridge set to 50 degrees F. Turn over daily. After several days to several weeks, when a good dry rind has formed, wax that cheese with cheese wax. Continue to turn daily, for at least 2 months, although a year or more is ideal.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Tomato tripods

One post per year is either pathetic, or an interesting way to see a garden change. Let's go with interesting. Like last summer the house is on the market, and like last summer, there are not enough fully employed in the state to sustain a housing market.

In the past year we have added several hundred square feet of garden. The neighbors are allowing a silver maple (i.e., giant woody weed) to grow over our vegetable garden. So we dug a new bed, actually expanded an old bed along the garage. Here you can see the tripods that I set up today. Apparently I planted heirloom indeterminate tomatoes - in other words: tomato vines.

Heirloom tomatoes are a hot topic this year, and I enjoyed trading seeds all winter. Pictured here are Black Krim from seed that we saved from last year, black or white cherry tomatoes (the seeds got mixed, oops!), and a unique rare variety called "Sojourner's South American." The latter are big plants with huge blossoms. The pictures really do not do them justice. They have grown a foot at least this last week, already outgrowing the cheap store-bought tomato cages.

We have been enjoying salads this week. The looseleaf lettuce was the first to bolt, and romaine started bolting this week. They get bitter when they switch from making leaves to making stems, flowers, and eventually seeds. The red oak-leaf variety in the front yard is still might tasty, and prolific.

We have garlic scape hummus, kale, swiss chard, a few strawberries, and sugar snap peas. Not to mention more oregano, sage, and thyme than I know what to do with. Soon we'll probably dig some new potatoes and soft-neck garlic.

The native plants are once again in bloom, pulling in native pollinators and other good bugs. I'll save that for next time, maybe next year.