Friday, August 27, 2010

How I Spent My Summer Vacation

Farm News

But first, the results of the Heater Hunting Quiz:
2 of you voted for A. Wrong.
5 of you voted for B (shooting from a warm car along Hole in the Wall Road) – and you were CORRECT.
6 of you voted for C, a drinking game at Ralph Heater’s Pub - and I was gratified because I thought it was a very clever game. One suggestion was to use beer soaked spitballs in the straw shooters for extra flavor in the baked potato. BUT WRONG.
1 of you voted for D, which wasn’t even an option.

I thank you all.

And now the Farm News:
The bees are bringing in bright yellow pollen from the super tall sunflowers.
This should come as no surprise.
Even more interesting was to watch the bees (along with yellowjackets, bumble bees and even pollinating flies) collecting nectar from the porcelain berry flowers.
The porcelain berry (Ampelopsis brevipedunculata )has overgrown much of the field. At first I thought it was Wild Grape (Vitis vinifera subsp. sylvestris ) but it is not, because in fact Wild Grape looks a lot like a cultivated grape, and also is edible, which porcelain berry is not. Unless you are a bee. Then I thought it might be Jewelweed (a puzzling member of the Impatiens genus of the Balsaminiceae family), which is very good for alleviating the pain and itch of poison ivy. But it is not; jewel berry has a small yellow or orange flower that looks almost orchid-like.
My brain just wasn’t coming up with the right name. Then CSB suggested I Google “invasive vine on the Saw Mill Parkway” and ta-da, the porcelain berry it is. Extremely invasive, and having no merits except this important one: the bees love it in late August.

In Clucker Hall, the chickens are getting plumper and plumber. In order to encourage egg production (any day or week now) someone suggested placing a wooden egg in their nesting box to give them the right idea. I couldn’t find any wooden eggs in the pantry, but I did find three colored marble eggs that my grandmother used for some arcane purpose now forgotten. So I gingerly nestled them in the pine shavings lining the nesting boxes, and we await the big ovarian moment.

The less said about Dodder ( Cuscata and Grammica), the better.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Heater Hunting Quiz

This year we went to the Pond earlier in August than in past years, so we missed the Woodsman’s Day (especially the Grannies’ Hatchet Hoot) as well as the Giant Pumpkin Competition at the Windsor Fair. This was of course dismaying.
But all was not lost. For the first time, I went to the Skowhegan State Fair and witnessed a first class Ladies Skillet Toss. A much bigger event than the Skillet Toss previously seen in Windsor, it was held in the Coliseum and had 3 age categories: 18-35; 36-55; 56 and up. In case you are thinking that the latter age group would be the easy one to beat (well, that’s what I thought), you would be wrong. I watched as the barefoot Darlene, last year’s champion, won the 18-25 year class with a 42’9” toss. The winner in the 26-35 year class was less impressive, with a 37’8” toss, and then the shocker: a gray-haired little old lady of at least six-plus decades won her class with a 39’9” toss. The first prizes in each category were $75 and a skillet.
Back at the pond, where cast iron skillets are in abundance, I practiced for next year, and it is clear that I will need a lot more practice.

Talk about a culinary disconnect: At the Skowhegan State Fair (the nation’s oldest continuously run agricultural fair) the food carts featured fried dough, and fried clams, and fried dough, and fried potatoes, and fried dough, and fried onions, and caramelized popcorn. A month earlier those same fairgrounds hosted the 4th annual Kneading Conference, where organic farmers and artisanal bakers gathered to celebrate the resurgence of locally grown grains.
But we did not go to the fair for the food.
CSB went for the Harness Racing. Like his father before him, CSB is not averse to wagering small sums on large horses pulling small carts bearing small jockeys in silk. He won $8 with Riot Act. And then he went to see the darlings in the building marked “SWINE”.

In other news from Skowhegan, from a very attractive cashier at Hannaford we learned about Heater Hunting. And what is heater hunting?
a. / A competition sponsored by the Maine Woodstove Association to seek out and identify the most perfect wood-burning stove in the state. Points are given for: visual appeal; warmth generated, in BTUs; efficiency; and ease of cleaning.
b. /Driving along Hole-in-the-Wall Road in Athens and shooting at startled partridges from the comfort of a (heated) car.
c. / A form of conceptual moose hunting, in which the participants gather at Ralph Heaters’ Pub and set up a course using beer bottles as trees, a baked potato as the prey, and straws as shooters. Then they proceed to stalk a bull moose. When you miss the moose you are required to drink the nearest bottle of beer, thus clearing the terrain for the next player. The winner gets all the baked potatoes he – or she - wants.

Please email me ( or post your answer.

One last bit of news: the seven Merganser ducklings that were tiny hatchlings in July are now almost as big as their mother and their distinctive feathery reddish crests are developing nicely, thank you very much, imparting to them a permanent bedhead demeanor.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Seeking Yemeni Honey & an Explanation for Twin Beds

I used to consider CSB and me as quite daring, middle-aged scofflaws engaged in apian civil disobedience, tending our rooftop beehives while the NYC ban was still in effect. And I relished the fact, because the truth is that beekeeping does not have all that many opportunities for criminal behavior.
It seems I was wrong.
The other day I was reading about sugar and specifically the sugar trade and how it has impacted the course of history. None of this is news but I always find it interesting because of my epiphanies while perched on the perforated metal walkways of the infernal sugar mill at Taboga, watching tons of cane being fed into the maw of the crushing molinos. In an aside the author mentioned that, back in 2001, Osama bin Laden was laundering money through retail honey shops all over the Middle East.
Why honey stores? Honey is an important food in Islamic culture. The average Saudi Arabian family consumes 2 pounds of honey a month, which seems like a lot until you consider that the average Saudi Arabian family may include several wives and their offspring, all with sweet teeth.
Additionally, honey is sticky and messy and that makes it a perfect medium for shipping both weapons and drugs, because no one wants to inspect a shipment of honey very closely.
Al Qaeda has a strong foothold in Yemen. And Yemen is the epicenter of this honey-money laundering, because the purest and by far the most expensive honey in the Middle East comes from Yemen.
This tickled my fancy and I wasted the better part of an hour seeking Yemeni honey on line. I did not acquire any Yemeni honey, for several reasons. The websites were largely in Arabic, not my first tongue.Or else they were translated unintelligibly:
Yemeni Sidr honey is called to the proportion of trees known in Hadramout, which produces this honey bee, including, where blooms of the trees at the beginning of spring to the end of each calendar year.
Yemeni Sidr honey is the best honey varieties in Yemen and Upscale, which is characterized by pure and powerful scent and color of golden light, as distinguished from all other types of taste wonderful. Value of the purchase of liquid honey.
Yemen Sidr Honey is very expensive and is more expensive types of Yemeni honey , and Yemeni Sidr Honey To treat all diseases, Collection which is on the prairies and valleys.

The honey cost upwards of $100 for a small jar. They don’t ship honey directly to the United States anyway. Unless you care to order the opium steeped in honey, and then they will send it via UPS International. Yemen’s finest honey comes from the nectar of ‘ilb flowers, growing in the desert. Not only is it delicious, but also it is highly sought-after for its aphrodisiac powers.
I found the article about bin Laden’s honey connection through the New York Times search engine, which also led me to a 1903 article titled, “Hints for the Raiser of Bees, A More Profitable Occupation than Keeping Chickens”. This tugged at me since neither of those enterprises seem remotely profitable to CSB and me. The article’s writer claimed to know of a beekeeper who in one year earned more money than the President of the United States. It was in the New York Times, so I have to believe it was true.
Because it was hard to read on the computer screen, I printed up the article, but instead of being easier to read, it was much much harder and in fact required a magnifying glass because what the printer spat out was – of its own volition – a miniaturized copy of the entire newspaper page. And there at the bottom of the page was a small paragraph about beds: “ Twin Beds Growing in Favor”. Based of watching television in the fifties and sixties, I had always assumed that twin beds were a uniquely American phenomenon.
I was wrong. In 1903 twin beds were just beginning to invade the American consciousness. Twins are described as a custom brought over from Europe. Doctors started prescribing twin beds as a cure for nervousness. Mattress manufacturers rushed to fill the need. And thus, Ozzie and Harriet were made possible.
It seems to me that if you are going to the trouble and expense of ingesting the potent Yemeni honey, you are unlikely to want twin beds.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

I am here in gorgeous Georgian Bay, at Belle au Clair beach in the Township of Tiny, which is named for one of the dogs of Lady Sarah Maitland, the tall, red-haired asthmatic wife of the Governor-General. Neighboring townships are named for her other dogs, Tay and Floss. There is a traditional prayer recited by the locals on Canada Day, expressing gratitude that her dogs were not called Spike, Killer and Vicious.

At Belle au Clair beach, stately pines stand erect at the point where the white sand dunes meet the sandy soil that loves oaks, and the water is tropically warm on account of the shallowness of Lake Huron, but in order to connect to Wi-Fi I have bicycled three relatively flat miles to the Tiny Fire Station in Lafontaine which is not named for the author of the fable of the Bees and the Hornets.
From the cottage at Belle-au-Clair to this Fire Station is exactly 1/200th the distance traveled by the intrepid Father Jean Brebeuf, the Jesuit missionary, ‘Apostle to the Hurons’, who paddled and portaged from Trois Rivières in Quebec to the Huron Country around Georgian Bay.
This tubercular but determined young man arrived in Canada in 1625. At that time, the Hurons were engaged in friendly trading with the French; all the while warring with their traditional enemies, the Iroquois. Brebeuf set out to learn the Huron language and wrote the first French-Huron Dictionary, which includes seven different words for bear, to distinguish the age and temperament of the bear in question, as well as a 23-letter word for “a splay-footed female who used to be my wife”. By 1647 Brebeuf had managed to convert thousands of Hurons from their heathen ways to the rituals of Christianity. He even composed a Huron Christmas Carol, in which the friendly Indian Christmas tree is an eerie foreshadowing of the clear cutting of their vast pine forests. The denuded lands were later replanted and reinvented as Christmas tree farms, and this leads us directly to the fact that every December a Quebecois, hawking his hewn conifers, inhabits every street corner in Manhattan.
But this happy state of affairs (caroling Hurons living in harmony with bilingual frog-eating blackrobes) could not last forever. By 1648 the Iroquois were winning the war with the Hurons, and in 1649 Jean de Brebeuf and another Jesuit were captured and tortured to death. It was said that the Iroquois were so impressed by his courage under duress that they cut out his heart and drank his blood, in order to ingest his strength. The Iroquois may have remained adamantly unconverted, but apparently they had their own form of communion.
A few days later his body was recovered, and some forward-thinking Hurons – anticipating Brebeuf’s canonization as well as the touristic value of his bones – boiled his body with lye and gathered his bones as relics.
And that is how Jean Brebeuf’s skull came to reside in a gold Gothic reliquary at the Martyrs’ Shrine in Midland, Ontario where I dragged my three friends, a former Christian Scientist, an Anglican and an atheist, for all of whom this Papist relic-worshipping is anathema.
Actually, it only the left half of his skull that inhabits Martyrs’ Shrine. Was this decided because that part of the skull encased the left brain that enabled Brebeuf to learn several Native American languages? Not that fluency in their tongue stopped the Iroquois from hanging red-hot tomahawks around his neck.
And where is his right skull?

A Klondike bar would have been perfect after viewing the skull of Brebeuf, but sadly The Martyrs’ Shrine Café was closed. Nous etions desolées. Imagine the menu possibilities.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

If you have a country full of springs, then it is a good idea to make sure that lots of saints – preferably virgin martyrs – die near those springs, so the springs can become Holy Wells, which by definition are pilgrimage destinations that are good for the local economy. Just in the past few days, to make my point, we have Saints Almedha (or Eiluned), Sidwell and Sithney.

Almedha (August 3), a 6th century* Welsh Princess and one of King Brychan’s 24 daughters, wished to be chaste & devout and so she defied her father’s wish to marry her off, and she ran away. You might think that with 23 other daughters he would have relented and allowed just this one off the hook. But no. Brychan found poor Almedha and beheaded her; her head rolled down a hill into a nearby spring that instantly gained Healing Powers. Though some say it was her rejected suitor who did the deed.
And consider Saint Sidwell (August 1) whose stepmother**ordered reapers to remove Sidwell’s head from its body with a scythe. A well sprang up at the site of the heinous crime, and the Healing Waters beckoned paying tourists.
Saint Sithney (August 4) was neither a virgin nor a martyr. No, he was a 6th century* Breton monk. God spoke to Sithney and asked him to be the patron of unmarried girls seeking to find husbands. Sithney demurred; he said that sounded like too much work and he would rather be the patron of mad dogs. God agreed to his request, and ever since, mad dogs have been cured with a drink from Sithney’s holy well.

Later, Sithney’s relics made their way to Cornwall so that mad Cornish dogs can seek solace there.

* The sixth century, as far as I can tell, was the Golden Age of Holy Wells.

** One of those days I would like to address the bizarre and fraught state of step-motherhood (she whose default epithet is wicked), a condition most of us never imagined inhabiting.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

How I got through, am getting through, this heat wave

I started with the Siberian Arctic and Valerian Albanov’s 1914 trek across the frozen seas. Then I went back a couple of centuries and read David Roberts’ Four Against the Arctic, about four hardy Russian walrus-hunters whose ship is wrecked in 1743 and they end up stranded for six years on Svalbard, way north of the Arctic Circle. Their story presents a model of how to survive in grim conditions: shooting reindeer and foxes, keeping out of the way of polar bears, and gathering scurvy grass. During the long dark & boring winter days and nights, they took turns reciting the Old Testament forward and then backward, and renamed the stars.
But since I am not going to the Siberian Arctic any time soon, I thought I should start reading about where I am heading, the Canadian north. And once you start reading about that region, it seems to be All Franklin, All the Time. To say that there is a whole industry of Franklin-driven searching and Franklin-obsessed books is not to exaggerate. Au contraire.
In that remarkable British way (think Robert Falcon Scott) of deeming him the greatest hero he-who-fails-nobly, Sir John Franklin is revered. On his first voyage to the Arctic (1819) he got lost, over half his crew died miserably, and Franklin ended up eating his boots (and maybe a few of those dead sailors). On his 1845 expedition to find the Northwest Passage, Franklin perished along with all 134 sailors and officers.
In the century and a half since the Terror and the Erebus were last sighted, dozens of expeditions have gone in search of Franklin, of the remains of Franklin and his crew, of anything at all to verify what went so terribly wrong. In the course of those searches, many more lives were lost and much of the Canadian arctic coast was mapped.
So enough of explorers.
Today I am keeping cool with Peter’s Freuchen’s Book of the Eskimos, and there is nothing cooler than proper Eskimo attire. If I were an Eskimo female, this is what I would be putting on to leave my snug igloo: for undergarments, a bird skin shirt with the feathers next to the skin, hare skin stockings; then sealskin boots called kamiks that reach the crotch and are trimmed with the mane hairs of a male bear (the longest and most elegant) and short panties of fox skin. Over everything a loose fitting coat of fox fur with a sealskin hood edged with foxtails. And finally, caribou skin mittens.

Another reason all this information is useful: if this weather persists, and climate continues with its apparently inexorable slide into cauldron-hot summers, deluges at all the wrong times and tornadoes in all the wrong places, then many of us will be moving to the Arctic and it is always good to know the local culture and history.


I did not count my chickens before they hatched. But I did count on chickens.
The latter was clearly no less foolish than the former. We incubated 25 eggs and 15 lovely exotic chicks emerged. When they were about a month old it became clear we had a rooster in the henhouse, Alonso. Alonso crowed his lonely doodle mornings and evenings. Eventually he was joined by Attila, and soon the duet went to Yonkers. Once they had departed, Tux started crowing and a while later he was joined by Snowflake. They too went to Yonkers to grace a stewpot. Once they were departed yet another rooster started crowing, a shy black and white thing (to remain unnamed for obvious reasons) that had not previously emitted a peep. And another and a third. About 2 weeks later they were named Sopa, Empanada and Rosti-Pollo.
Only then, in our depleted henhouse, did yet another rooster proclaim his masculinity, only then did he trumpet the testosterone flowing through his avian veins. He has handsome too, with a black and white striped scarf and iridescent green feathering.
He’s now gone, with 2 more cohorts. So from 15 eggs that hatched, we are left with 5 chickens of the hen-variety. And that is wishful thinking.

Alternative titles:
And No Cock Crew
With one Fell Swoop, from the Harem to the Nunnery
All's Quiet in the Henhouse
They Call me Sopa