December 23, 2006

a pond walk

Since returning from my last trip, I have made a daily ritual of walking down to the pond. It is frozen now, at least on the edges. My first day back the ice was gloriously smooth and it was such a thrill to slip around on it. I didn't trust it to be frozen clear across, so despite my very strong inclination to run to the other side, I remained near the edges. I thought about carrying a long pole with me, so that if (when) I fell through, hopefully the pole would not and I could then use it to lever myself out. But I decided I should probably just wait until there were some people around to save me.

The normally murky pond, frozen smooth, was crystal clear. Specimen of leaves and tree branches and little fishes were preserved so beautifully by the ice. And trapped air bubbles gave a clue to it's depth, so that I could step confidently. A day or two later, a dusting of snow curtained my frozen window down into the pond, but I am still compelled to walk there daily.

Another snowstorm passed through this week and put down several more inches (enough to close the school for three days!). I have been loving this winter-time immensely. It is a shift of perspective and sensibilities that I haven't had for SO LONG.

The muffling of small sounds by the snow-blanket and the echoing of big sounds by the frozen pond. The contrast between the white and the dead brown, new shapes exposed by the way each branch and stem catches the snow. The soft crunch of each step.

Snow makes me more cavalier - regardless of what may be hiding underneath, I trust the snow to soften my fall and so my movements become more bold. Old paths are covered over, and so new ones are tromped out, via more direct routes, former obstacles now hidden.

Today, the eaves are dripping from each icicle and where the animals and I have stepped, the snow is nearly melted to the ground. The sun is doing it's best, but I think we will still have a white christmas this year.

November 09, 2006

the [not quite] blue state

I can't imagine that many people outside of western Nebraska have heard of Scott Kleeb. He works on a ranch in western Nebraska. But apparently he grew up in Italy and recently finished his PhD at Yale on the history of cattle ranches. A gypsy cowboy Democrat - Hallelujah!

And he came very close to becoming Nebraska's 3rd District Representative. He would have been the first Democrat to represent the 3rd District in over 50 years. A few days before the election, I had the dramatic realization that if Kleeb won, I would be truly proud - for the first time IN MY LIFE - of the person representing me in Washington. I can't help wishing that I'd paid attention to the local races earlier, so that I could now feel like I'd done all that I could to help get Kleeb elected.

Here is a link to Scott Kleeb's Declaration of Independence (from special interest groups).

I guess local politics are a deeper level of really living in a place - a level that I hadn't really gotten to until I heard about Kleeb. And the fact that a candidate I was really excited about was nearly elected makes me wonder if I have more in common with the folks I call neighbors now, than I had thought. Perhaps I'm not such a liberal outlier around here, afterall.

October 18, 2006


We were dusted with 2 or 3 inches of snow last night. It started around 6 pm and slowly accumulated through the night. I drove home last night after it had been snowing for a while. Snow had already drifted over the hood of the vehicle and stayed put until I reached the state line (and thus the end of the asphalt). Once I hit the washboard gravel road, the snow on the hood started to dislodge. A spray of snow would whoosh over the windshield every few moments, like a distant flash of lightning out of the corner of your eye. When I pulled into the place, a nice young buck deer was standing in front of the bunkhouse. A deer in the headlights, quite literally, he stood for a moment and then ran through the yard towards the pond.

I have been looking forward to some eventual snow, having missed the last eight winters out on the west coast. Nevertheless, I could have enjoyed a bit more autumn than the measly three weeks we've had so far. And considering that there was snow on the ground last April, this could be the beginning of six months of wintery weather (which is a little more than I had bargained for, frankly). Then again, it was 85 degrees on Sunday. I spent the better part of the day taking off the window screens and putting up the storm a tank top. It seemed a bit ridiculous at the time to be preparing for winter, but such is our wildly unpredictable weather. It really is true what they say: "If you don't like the weather in the Sandhills...wait ten minutes."

I put on my boots and coat, while I was waiting for my coffee to brew this morning, and went outside. I had forgotten the silence that follows the snow. All the noise around you is muffled and you feel so pleasantly alone in the world. The only sound is the soft cadence of your own breath. It felt nice, as did the cup of hot coffee awaiting me inside.

October 17, 2006

the owl, the coyote, and the star-crossed procupines

Have I mentioned that there is a Great Horned Owl living on the place? She is so big and so beautiful. Hopefully she'll find a mate and stick around for a few years. Towards evening, she starts to stir, calling and swooping around the yard. Many nights she'll perch on the radio tower, just a few yards from my open window, occasionally ho-ho-hoo hoo hoo -ing as I sleep. Whenever the owl is out, the kitties know to stay hidden. The owl has such an arresting presence - my jaw drops in awe every time I encounter her.

I've also been crossing paths with a coyote lately. I usually see her near the road in the afternoon when I go to get the mail. We both stop and then we'll just sit and look at each other. A couple of times, she was only 8 or 10 feet away. She doesn't seem scared of me, just a little unsure. Once, after a good long stare, she just circled around and laid down in the grass. I try to snap myself out of 'dances with wolves' fantasies, but regardless I consider her a neighbor and feel a bit protective of her.

Driving home late one night last week, I encountered another unexpected neighbor. As I turned over the auto-gate, onto the trailroad, a bushy fluff was bobbing down the road. Once the porcupine heard me coming, her formerly-relaxed needles shot up. I chased her around the pasture for a few minutes, trying to get a good picture. Not having much success, I let her be and headed towards home. But then not a mile down the road, yet another porcupine was wobbling down the trailroad. This guy was about twice as big as the lass by the gate. He was very intent on getting out of the path of my headlights and seemed pretty exasperated in general. In trying - yet again in vain - to get a picture, I managed to chase him off course. Afterwards, I realized that if I hadn't intervened, the two porcupines would've eventually found each other that night. I felt a little bad for thwarting their romantic fate.

And the surprise visitor tonight is...SNOW!!!

September 24, 2006

first frost

The last few days have kept me in the warm kitchen, amidst the sweet and spicy smells of Autumn. We had our first frost in the wee morning hours of the 19th of September. We knew it was coming, from the still chill of the air and cool colors in the sky AND the weather report, so the garden's bounty was picked (or covered) to save it from icy death. Most of the garden in town was surrendered to the frost. I picked all the tomatoes and now have a countertop covered in green ones, slowly ripening [stems down is apparently the proper way]. I also cut most of the rhubarb and mom pulled up the green bean plants, to pick inside where it was warm. I wasn't ready to lose my little caprese bed, so I covered it with blankets the night before.

The next morning was chill and sparkling. The spots of grass where the sun had yet to reach were crunchy underfoot, our steps leaving green footprints on a field of frosting. I love these kind of mornings. As all the green turns to brown over the next few months, the white frosted mornings will become even more special, turning the dull brown world into a bright and shimmering (temporary) fairyland.Luckily, I'd picked apples a few days before, or we'd never had gotten everything picked in time. I harvested apples on a warm, windy afternoon - a perfectly Fall activity that was extremely satisfying. The apple trees in town were just LOADED this year and despite numerous batches of applesauce and chutney, I've barely made a dent in their abundance.

My grandma taught me to make applesauce her way (the right way) in this kitchen, on this same old stove that love. She never cooked the apples so long that they became complete mush - and heaven forbid that nonsense about using a food processor to puree the sauce. I detest store-bought applesauce with it's perfectly even consistency - yuck. So I cooked up a few batches of applesauce, using the apples soon to spoil (partially worm or bird eaten), and canned most of it to enjoy later.

Grandma Blondie's applesauce 'recipe':
1. Peel (at least partially), quarter, core, and chop apples into large cook pot. [Note: if you use a fancy apple-peeler - which is a simply fabulous invention - the slices are fairly thin, so don't chop them up too much. maybe only halve or quarter them.]
2. Add 'just enough' water to the apples. Adding water until you can just just barely see it through the apples is a fairly good rule of thumb. Fresher apples require less water, in general.
3. Place on medium heat and cover the top with sugar. I suppose a reasonable ratio of sugar to apples would be 1:5. But remember, you can always taste it later on and add more, so definitely err on the side of too little.
4. Cook apples at a simmer (or a boil if you're impatient like me) until they reach the desired consistency. This could be anywhere from 30 minutes to 2 hours. My preference is to put on a pot full of apples and then once they have reduced by about a quarter or so, I add as many more freshly chopped apples as I can. This way, though the majority of apples may get good and mushy, there will at least be a few that are left more or less whole and comparatively firm. In my opinion, you should cook the apples at least until they become somewhat transparent.
5. Grandma seasoned her applesauce with only cinnamon and sugar. I could imagine that orange rind or allspice might also be nice. Perhaps you have other ideas for inclusions.
6. To can the applesauce, pour the still-hot sauce into sterile jars, [top with a teaspoon of lemon juice, to prevent browning], wipe the rims, place the seal, screw on the cap, and process in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes.
7. If you can't bear to let anything go to waste (or you're just a food preservation over-achiever) you can save your apple peelings, boil them in a minimal amount of water for several hours, strain out the solids with a cheesecloth, and save the liquid to thicken other jams and jellies with natural pectin (a thickening agent). When you add this pectin to blackberries or huckleberries or whatsoever you wish, you won't have to use as much sugar to make a nice thick jam. [The 'Joy of Cooking' informed me that most of an apple's pectin resides nearest the peel, so this seemed like a nice way to Use Every Last Bit.]
The other hurry-and-harvest item was the grapes in Mom and Dad's yard. We had hopes of making ice wine with them by crushing frozen grapes, extracting only the intensely-flavored sugary parts of the grape and leaving behind the watery frozen parts. It takes a tremendous amount of pressure to accomplish this type of crush, and ice-wine presses being restrictively expensive, we finally decided to just make wine (the regular way). After de-stemming and crushing them all by hand (only about 10 gallons, but still!), I decided that a crusher/de-stemmer would be at the top of our 'Necessary Equipment' list for next year. Since we picked them so late, the Brix (sugar content) is pretty high and they are not as acidic as you'd like. Next year I plan to test the sugar and acidity of each variety continually as they ripen, so that eventually we'll be able to pick each variety at the moment when these two factors are most optimized. I bet there are old-timers who can 'test' for these factors simply by tasting the grapes. I guess that would be the way to turn this 'science' into more of an 'art'.

So far, the Autumn harvest has stocked my pantry with: 11 pints applesauce, 3 pints rhubarb, 1 quart strawberry-rhubarb pie filling, 7 pints apple chutney, 4 pints tomatoes, 1 pint frozen pesto, and 10 gallons of soon-to-be wine
Being in this house this time of year is flooding my everyday moments with memories from my childhood. I guess that I'd never really spent much time in the house during the warmer months, so most of my memories in this house are of the Fall and Winter. Sitting in front of the heater when it clangs to life, turning rotisserie-style to get all warmed up. Planning meals to utilize the oven as much as possible, in order to keep the kitchen nice and warm (I'm discovering a new respect and delight for casseroles...go figure). Sudden enthusiasm for indoor projects like sewing and cleaning. Though I've been living here for four months now, I think this weather will coax me to finally MOVE IN to this house.

September 10, 2006

Most noteable change in the last two weeks:

Before I left, we were still having 100-degree days and Fall was just a whisper under the wind. Now the wave of Autumn is breaking all around - it was 40 degrees yesterday, cool and misty. I even had to get out my boots, as my trusty Chacos were just too chilly for my toes. And a sweater and a coat, for walking outside. I am ready for the fall, but regret to have missed the moment of tipping from one season to another. I'm sure we'll still have a few summery days yet, though.


Max gained about 4 pounds while I was gone.

I harvested a mountain of basil yesterday and made a giant batch of pesto (sans parmesan) to freeze.

The good (not crab) apples have disappeared without a trace - probably the deer ate them while I was away.

The crab apples are ready for jelly-making.

Wild plums are deliciously ripe now and I think I'll start some wild plum wine tomorrow.

cement work

Before my recent trip, one of my projects was to frame out a new sidewalk and steps from the garage to the back step. It was important to get a sidewalk in before winter, so that we'll be able to scoop the snow off and keep it from getting slippery and sludgy. Cement framing doesn't need to look pretty, in general, but it is important to pay attention to the slope so that rain and snow melt will run off the surface, instead of pooling precariously in spots. The hardest part was driving stakes into the hard ground to attach the runners to.

The cement truck came while I was in California. I stepped back onto this:

Now I'd like to mortar some bricks onto the edges of the steps, to make them more noticeable (and pretty).

September 09, 2006

here is something fun

Check out Mike's September 8, 2006 blog entry.

long time

I am in Omaha. Today I will drive back to the ranch. I have been out in California for the last two weeks, for K & B's wedding. I miss Max and Gus and am worrisome about my basilico and tomatoes. Also there were a few new arrivals just before I left:

Their mama kept putting them in inconvenient places, so I had to keep moving them around. She seemed pretty settled in the bunkhouse until the day before I left, when she moved them to some new mystery location. When I last saw them, they didn't even have their eyes open yet. I am anxious to find where mama has them now. It would be nice if I could get them comfy with humans while they are still just small.

Also Gus and Max found this little guy the night before I left:

If I hadn't been leaving, I probably would have tried to save him. Instead I had to just take him out back in the trees, likely to be eaten.

The intersection of 'nature' and 'civilization' is sometimes so tragic. I am learning the hard way not to meddle too much with the natural course of know, like the Food Chain and the Survival Of The Fittest. I am gradually giving way to certain aspects of the wild - spiders in my bathtub (ok, fine), snakes on my front step, mice in the kitchen cupboards (alright, that's where i draw the line) - but it requires a certain detachment from the fate of the creatures in my neighborhood. It is a different sort of detachment than I experienced living in an apartment building in the city and not even knowing my neighbor's names. It is a respectful distancing, recognizing where an injured, abandoned baby rabbit fits into the scheme of this community - and respecting his role as someone's breakfast enough to keep from meddling.

August 14, 2006

for lack of a clothesline... apple tree works just fine.

relief, finally

I'm mostly pretty optimistic in general, but as each day passed without rain, my hope was drying up. The first day of relief was Tuesday. I was cleaning my studio and noticed a funny little cloud to the East, so I grabbed my camera and went out to take a picture.
Then I turned to the west and saw the thunderhead moving in. The light turned yellow and green and glowing. The towering dark formation was such a contrast, moving in on the blue sky and scattered white wispy clouds. Oh, it was dramatic and wondrous! The first drops of rain were sparse but gigantic. It briefly turned to hail and then settled into a nice downpour.
As the storm passed on, the wind started blowing out of the East and the storm clouds were splendid, lit by the setting sun, luminous in orange and pink.
Mom and dad pulled in just as the rain was stopping, with the new chute (it will get its OWN blog entry). Mom took one look at me and said, "I knew you'd be drenched!". I just can't bear to take cover from the rain - it seems ungrateful somehow.
It has sprinkled every evening since, and though the week's worth probably doesn't even add up to an inch and is hardly going to turn the tides of this drought, it sure as hell feels good.


A few weeks ago the word, for what is now clearly more than a dry spell, was 'catastrophic'. The first time I heard the word, it was almost in a whisper, as if the naming of it would make it more true. Then I started hearing it more often, still not spoken with ease, but with a sense of 'facing the facts'. At one point dad said that if i could conjure up two inches of rain, I could probably retire - he thought he could probably put together a few million dollars from the farmers and ranchers around here who'd give anything for just a couple inches of rain.

The small ponds and lakes around this country are as low as I have ever seen them - many are dried up altogether. Ranchers are working Plan B, preparing for Plan C, and have Plan D in the waiting. The main issue is feed. In a good year, cattle could graze the pastures of the ranch until winter, at which point they'd start feeding the hay that was cut during the summer. With the drought, the pastures don't have enough grazing to last until then. Also as a result of the drought, the hay harvest was smaller than usual. So ranchers have some tough choices to make - buy hay to start feeding earlier (but as a result of the obvious supply and demand, hay prices are sky high this year) or lease ground to move their cattle on once their own grass is gone or work with a farmer to plant a field of feed (turnips are one possibility) to tide the herd over for a few months, or sell cows now and hope for more rain next year. All of these options will result in a considerable loss of profit for the rancher.

The calves were 'preconditioned' last week, which means they were given a round of vaccine to prevent respiratory problems that they're prone to during weaning. Normally, we'd wean in October but waiting that long will be too much stress on the cows, so we'll probably be weaning around the beginning of September. The cows are already carrying their next calf, while still nursing last year's (isn't that incredible!?). The lack of grass could have repercussions into the next generation if we don't cut them a break and wean early.

I can't help but wonder if this is just the beginning of the catastrophe. Is this the beginning, not just of some dry weather, but of a dry climate? It wouldn't take long, in the scope of things, for these fragile prairies to dry up and blow away, taking this way of life with it. Hopefully this it is just a little blip that we must bear and everything will be greener next year.

August 06, 2006

just a flower, part 1

Belamcanda chinensis broke my heart.

My grandmother grew so many beautiful flowers. But the heyday of her gardens was about 15 years ago. Then she started "cutting back" - digging up plants and distributing them about the country to friends and folks just getting a flower garden started. Her flowers are scattered all over the Sandhills. But not a single flowerbed on the ranch has been tended (watered, weeded, or noticed) for at least 5 years. So every time I find a flower blooming, it is a little miracle.

And this little lovely was tucked over in the corner of the yard, in the shade of the lilac bushes.
It is called a 'Blackberry Lily' (or Leopard Flower), though it is related to neither blackberries or lilies. If you break open the seed pod, you find a tiny cluster of shiny little black seeds that looks like a blackberry. The flowers and foliage do resemble a lily, though their petite delicacy reminds me more of an orchid. Apparently, there is new DNA evidence that suggests that Belamcanda chinensis is closely related to Iris.

July 24, 2006

Wind Makes Water

In the Sandhills, wind makes water.

Beneath these sandy hills, there is a vast ocean of water. The Ogallala Aquifer. Windmills pump the water up for the cattle to drink. Several new windmills were put in on the ranch this summer. Drilling wells is relatively simple here, because there is water underneath us everywhere, sometimes only 20 feet below the surface. But each well needs a tank to hold the water - and building tanks is a bit more laborious.

I went out to help put a new tank in yesterday - the farthest well from the homeplace. It wasn't the hottest day, but there was hardly any breeze, and not a scrap of shade to be found, so there wasn't much relief. The first task was for the tractor: tearing out the old tank and clearing a spot for the new one.

Each thirty-foot tank comes in twelve sections. Each joint is positioned on a block, all of which are painstaking leveled, as it is important that the tank be level. The leveling process was actually pretty ingenious: using the fact that the water level in a hose of water will be of equal height on both ends, the height of each block was matched to a control height, using a clear hose of colored water. The tank sections were edged with a strip of super-sticky watertight goo and then loosely bolted together.

Once all twelve sections were in, the generator was fired up to power the drill. Once all the bolts were tight, we double-checked our levels and made a few adjustments.

Next, dirt was dumped in and smoothed out, to bring the ground level up to the bottom of the tank.

Bentonite was spread over the dirt floor of the tank. Bentonite helps expedite the formation of a mucky impermeable layer of slime. The overflow pipe was set in, so that water wouldn't spill over the edge and erode the 'bank' around the tank.

Then giant single sheet of plastic was laid down, to keep the water from disappearing down through the sand, until the Bentonite sludge forms.

And then the dirt started coming in - to keep the plastic from getting damaged by cattle tromping around in the tank. About six inches of sand was spread around and then more Bentonite was mixed in. Meanwhile, the tank was banked in all around with the loader-tractor.

Ta-Da! Time for a beer.

July 12, 2006

pretty lights

We really like pretty lights here in Cody. Christmas lights and fireworks. Both shows get a little bigger every year.
When I was a kid, Ronny, who owns the gas station, had the best fireworks in town. When people started coming over with their lawn chairs to see his show, he decided that we might as well join forces. In the early days, everyone would gather at dark behind the grocery store (which is now the fire hall), bringing whatever fireworks they had, and we would light them all off together.

Nowadays, there is a can in the gas station for donations to the fireworks. Everybody contributes to the fund and Ronny puts together the show. Everyone gathers in the park beforehand for a potluck picnic and then heads out to the football field for the fireworks. My parents' house is on the edge of town, right next to the football field, so we have a front row seat in our own yard. I heard that last year they even had the whole show choreographed to music on the local radio station.

A few years back, Ronny decided to start making some of his own fireworks. So far, so good, I'd say. There was only one 'oh shit' moment this year, when a bouquet of screaming red rockets launched into the air, except for the ONE rogue rocket that went straight into the crowd. No one was hurt, though the fire truck did drive around to make sure everything was alright.

A few highlights from this year's show:
Maybe not too spectacular in the scheme of things, but not bad for a village of 150 folks, in one of the darkest little spots of night on the globe.