How to Make Your Own Stonehenge Type Solar Observatory  

Posted by Dave in

Ok, so I'm a week late. Last week was the Summer Solstice, and the frenetic activities that occupy the longer days of summer have proven to be a false economy. Posting has taken a step back as the added burdens of garden weeding, fruit picking, mowing and such have stepped up as we have been preparing for freezing, canning and drying the upcoming harvests. Though our garden is still dismal owing to the thin covering of heavy soil (is that an oxymoron?), and the depredations of the deer, squirrels and ground hogs. Family, neighbors and local farmers seem thus far to be having a decent year, though. Hopefully their excess will be available to help carry us through until our little plots mature and are strong enough to provide.

Often, while struggling to finish some long task at the end of an even longer day, I look up to realize that, although the sky is still light enough to see, it is long past the kids' bedtime and I haven't even cooked supper yet. I know it is summer, but proper sleep is a commodity that we are often short on as a society, and I try to keep their schedules regular.

But back to the solstice. Growing up it was a regular part of our family routine to observe the position of the sunset each evening at supper. Our table was in the western part of the house, and the fact that, by happy coincidence, our barn ran almost directly north and south, so it was easy to mark the progress of the sun as it progressed on it yearly cycle. It was as much a matter of conversation as the weather, and a part of our internal clocks. Precision was less important than the act of observation, the act of appreciation.

Our observatory was the product of years of living and watching, and a certain amount of osmosis. We just kind of absorbed the positions and related meaning. We drew encouragement in the dark days of February to note the sun had moved toward a certain point on the barn roof and spring was surely coming. Similarly, even though the days were long and beautiful, we were reminded to get the harvest ready and prepare for winter as the sun began its trek back south. Without realizing it, we were in tune with the seasons more surely than we could be if the calendar was our only regulator. Though this is just one of the cycles we are all influenced by, often too little thought or credit is given.

In the years since I left home, I have always, to some degree, paid attention to the the position of the sun. Depending on the specifics of my location, it has either been the sunset, or the more traditional sunrise. Sometimes I have simply taken note of the positions as the year progressed, making improvised observatories such as our "barn roof observatory", and sometimes I have taken a bit more time and built simple observatories.

One year I planted my green beans and pole according to my previous year's observations. I dubbed this creation "Beanhenge". Other years I have stacked rocks, adjusting for precision throughout the year, only to find myself changing homes before my creation was complete.
Since moving to this current home, I have not yet had time to actually build a formal structure. Happily a combination and a few coincidences have handed me a ready made observatory.

My desk sits beside the massive stone chimney that heats our winters (and helps hold the cool in the summer), and windows wrap around me to both the south and the east. On the morning of June 21, when viewed from here the sun seems to rise between the two tall poplars that shelter my outdoor cooking area. Next December, I know if I sit here, it will rise over the very back edge of the outhouse. Once during a particularly dark year (of mood), when I first noticed this, I dubbed my "creation" with the slightly disrespectful moniker of "Sh*thenge" and the name has since stuck.

I believe everyone should be just a bit more aware of the workings of the world, and so I propose you make your own stone henge. It can be as easy as picking a spot to observe either the sunrise or sunset, and occasionally noting the difference, or it can be as complicated as getting a compass, and marking the various points from a central observation point, then making daily observations and markings. Here are some cool activities that can make it a part of your family's routine, and maybe create a tradition and a re-connection with the natural world.
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A Recent NPR Story on Raw Milk  

Posted by Dave in

Here is a bit more on the raw milk controversy. It seem s what is at stake here is more related to individual rights than public safety. No one is for stopping the pasteurization of milk on the greater scale, simply for the right to buy and sell a healthy alternative if one so chooses. Although I am a bit stretched for time right now while getting my little bit of the world in order, I am starting another, more informational blog which is currently at . Please stop by and check it out.

White Tail Flight  

Posted by Dave in

This morning my son and I are trying to replant the entire garden that has been destroyed by the deer. The deer here are a mixed blessing; venison is an important part of the local diet, and a part of the beauty of the local landscape. They are fewer here lately, some say due to recent changes in the game laws. I don't know. Just a few years ago there were so many deer they were a danger when driving and even a nuisance to be fenced out of your garden. Not it seems they too have joined in the flight to suburbia. To their detriment. By moving among the masses they have attracted the attention of the media.

"Hazardous and out of control," the headlines read. And so, for whatever the reasons, the game laws changed. I don't pretend to understand the bigger plan, but since hunting doesn't take place in suburbia, but rather out here in the hustings, the result I have seen is fewer deer in local freezers and on local tables, while deer seem unchecked in the more populous areas.

The increase in hunting and hunters flows outward from suburbia. "Sport Hunters", Folks who often do not like, much less eat venison, none the less feel the yearly urge to brag about the deer they got. Recently, talk about the size of "the rack" have been giving way to tales of the numbers of doe or the several tags the intrepid hunters were able to fill out and thus prove their prowess. Many of these deer are wasted, a few perhaps given away. The ones that do make it into a freezer are still often discarded. Much meat will sit unused until next year when it must be thrown out to make room for the next deer.

A few years ago, when I first moved here, the winding mile or so of road up over the top of my mountain might have had two or three cars of hunters on opening day of buck season. Everyone had a reasonable amount of meat and the braggadocio of the size of the rack was often answered with "you don't eat the antlers". Though deer were more common, we had, really, less trouble avoiding the nuisance aspects. Perhaps we were just more used to it. The last several seasons, I have counted over two dozen cars, with several hunters each on the same road on opening day. Most of theses cars are not even local, but out-of-towners coming to "the mountains" for a little fun. This is on a road that gets fewer than a dozen cars every day.

Which brings me back to my current day. Lately I have been watching a (very) few doe in the evenings, only one of which seems to have a fawn with her. Thus, far in the season, my garden has been relatively untouched, and I suppose I have been a little lax in its defense. After all, I reasoned, there is plenty of food for the deer to browse, and if I share a little, it will mean more meat this winter.

This morning as I make my rounds, coffee in hand, I see my entire garden has been decimated. Stems devoid of leaves where my tomato plants lived, basil, uprooted and devoured, only the woody root ball remaining. Where my lovely rows of peppers with their promise of colors and flavors only tiny footprints and piles of pellet-like scat. Radishes, lettuce, everything but the onions gone.

Once, I might have been more philosophical about the loss, balancing the disappointment in vegetables with the promise of meat. Now, I'm not so sure. The young does and the sole fawn stand a greater chance of ending up in a suburban landfill. It is little wonder many of the daughters of the suburban sportsmen forgo meat as a social statement, considering the current trend of disrespect for all of our food sources, animals, plants, even the soil.

As my son, an early riser goes to the house to stir his sister and we all begin the process of salvaging, replanting, strengthening our barriers, I wonder. Is there a parable in all of this?

I hope America always has the resources to recover these losses.

Thank goodness for CSA.

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Paradigm Lost, or How I Built a Natural Lifestyle With No Money Down  

Posted by Dave in

I grew up in the country. Being self sufficient, at least to some degree was a way of life not a lifestyle choice. As our ancestors did, we grew, foraged, or raised much of our own food. But we were not stuck in the stone age. We embraced mechanization to the extent that it helped, though not for the sake of technology or keeping up with the neighbors. For a time we even tried chemicals and fertilizers, though after watching yields spike up then creep down, and watching the tilth of the soil become more and more dependent upon them, we abandoned them without so much as a junkie's remorse.

Like many kids, I grew up and thought that abandoning the rural lifestyle for the glamorous, materialistic city lifestyle would be more exciting. And it was. But it was not healthy, and like all things unhealthy, it was not sustainable. After the madness of a corporate day, a miserable commute, and all the problems that follow from making a living not a life, I quit. Cold turkey.

I bought a restaurant in my old home town, and for a while it was great. But still, things weren't as they should be. I worked round the clock and seldom left the store. Still that was not the problem. I never minded working, I loved the work anyway, and besides any dairy farmer will tell you he seldom gets time off. But where was the connection to sanity I sought?

I started a garden and began to preserve the excess. I canned, I froze, I dehydrated. I fermented, I pickled, I vacuum sealed. I worked fresh stuff into my menu. And I found that the production of the ingredients was at least as satisfying as cooking them, and certainly more than selling to folks who maybe were just too busy to notice any difference. I became healthier, both in body and in spirit. I began to notice the taste of everyday life. My purposes were more important, more honorable than chasing the excitement. But I found that those who were addicted to the lifestyle no longer wanted to be a part of my life. Like any addict, I had to decide, did I want to hang with the addicts or go on and try to improve myself. Did I make the right choice? Its too subjective to tell, I suppose. But more and better thing have happened to me that would never have happened had I ignored the urge to "go clean", and forgo the "lifestyle". I still love the excitement of the city, but in a newer, fresher way. Of course, to some extent, I suppose, I am still a consumer, but in a less self destructive, and hopefully more thoughtful way.

Perhaps our society is following a similar path. Perhaps we are, as a culture, experiencing much the same transformation. Perhaps the popularity of gardening and the resurgence of more natural lifestyles are a reflection of a society that is ready to mature, to "go back home". It is unfortunate that many individuals may have forgotten the methods and the paths of going back, but as long as there are folks trying to remember, maybe we all can go home.

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Milk and Honey, or How to Become an Outlaw and Live off the Fat of the Land  

Posted by Dave in , ,

I have a confession to make. I buy raw milk. And I drink it. And I even let my kids drink it.
I know, I know, this is a fairly new blog, and I probably just lost your trust. After all, who wants advice from a lawbreaker. At least I think I am a lawbreaker, I'm really not sure. There are now a slew of new laws and enforcement of old laws and a general hodge podge of reasons why not to drink, sell or buy raw milk.

Why? For an inkling, look at this link.

I don't believe the oft quoted saw about health reasons. I know my farmer, though he shall have to remain anonymous here. He is a neighbor, and has milked all of his long life. And drinks raw milk. Like his parents, and his children. They are all the epitome of health. In addition to the hard work of producing the aforementioned illicit substance, including producing all of the hay and and such to feed the cows and removing their waste, and keeping milking facilities and machinery clean and in order and just generally working harder than most of us ever dream of, the grown sons hold down full time jobs, and the father (now grandfather, and soon to be great grandfather) oversees daily operations since he has retired after a lifetime in a local steel mill. All the long suffering wives of these miscreants, and their children look longingly at the "better lives" of their legal, town bearing friends and wish they too could have a materialistic lifestyle. Or maybe not.

I believe there is a certain amount of, for lack of a better term, 'life' in everything, and especially any given food. The further from the place where it lived its life, the less life left in it. Likewise the more processing and or the less healthy or "life-ful" its upbringing. Did it consume healthy nutrition that was also full of life? Was it handled in a safe, and yes even respectful manner after harvest? This is really as important for a carrot or a cow. Whether the beef or the milk is healthful depends in large part on whether the farm was. The lack of safety that has resulted in tainted beef, tomato recalls, and bans on raw milk are more a reflection on a society that views it food sources as simply commodities.

Should we regulate the production of food to ensure safety? I give a reserved yes, but we need to apply a certain amount of common sense. If milk is going anonymously into a bulk tank, and then a tank truck to be mixed with gallons of other anonymous milk, then to a factory to be further lost in the mix, and then is expected to stay on a shelf for a week or two, maybe we should take the life out of it. Almost a mercy killing. Is this any way to live? Anonymously and without any life or purpose? How much life has to be removed from a food so that it is "shelf stable"? There are lots of arguments for and against raw milk. But in the America I still remember, we had choice. No one buys raw milk unknowingly, and so the burden is on them. For me, the health benefits outweigh the downside. I know where each drop came from, and I even know the cows, as my kids frequently have to be pried out of the barn where they pet and talk to the animals.

Last night, we had to wait for a few minutes while the bulk tank was being cleaned.

While we stood outside a breeze brought us the incomparable smell of fresh cut hay. It was enhanced by the wonderful smell of the manure, which our friends also sell by the truckload, an incomparable treasure for gardeners. Yes, I love the smell of manure. And not just for the aesthetics, it is a great indication of the health of the herd, and can even show differences in seasonal diet. Those who know cheese or wine can tell a lot about the weather and the soil and more from the end product. Although, such information is not as available in cheese from pasteurized milk or wine from pasteurized juice. There just isn't as much life in it.

Salamanders and Soil Development  

Posted by Dave in ,

Lush. Not an adequate word to describe an Appalachian forest morning after a June thunderstorm. Or during one for that matter.
The rain has replenished our little creek (pronounced "crick"), and it runs amiably past the cabin this morning. Though it is too small, too cold and too fast for fish, it is populated with a wondrous assortment of crawdads (crayfish for the unfamiliar), water skippers and salamanders. Each quietly surveying their dominions - the bottom, the surface, the shore.

I wonder, are they aware of each other? Though they share the creek, they seldom if ever venture into each other's domain. Are we, perhaps a bit like them? How often do we consider the world of our neighbor? Are there worlds which we are a part of, perhaps even influence or impact, and yet we do not perceive. Too much pondering. Makes me hungry. Just as they spend their days in search of sustenance so do we, and so I begin to ponder supper.

The garden is in, and with the exception of a few peppers and tomatoes that succumbed to a recent frost and need replaced, is mostly doing well. This garden plot is new to us, and the soil needs to be built back up with care and compost. The soil on this side of the mountain is thin and little forgives neglect. the deep tap roots of native tree and weed are much more suited to digging for the necessary nutrition than are tender, cultivated perennials. A few more seasons and perhaps it will be as rich as the coveted bottom lands, that are, even as we speak being papered over with housing developments, flimsy but ostentatious houses, manicured lawns and blacktop. It is easy get upset when I think of the waste of all the great dirt, in these parts the product of two centuries of land stewardship, being laid to waste even as the radio news cries that the "world must increase food production and improve transportation by at least 50 percent just to keep up with current demands". To watch someone seeding fescue onto the some of the worlds richest croplands is baffling and nearly unforgivable. This land, this country, became the greatest by building solid foundations - the soil, industry that actually made things, men and women who worked with pride no matter the humble task. And yet, the very impermanence of the structures the first world is building, their homes and worse still their society gives pause for reflection...

Think I'd better go plant an extra row of beans.

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Minestrone from Leftovers  

Posted by Dave in

Mostly we can not see the sky directly, and pre-judge the fairness of the day by the quality of the light, the intensity and color. Today has been a rainy day, quiet thunder and steady drizzle sounding on the roof. Already the bright, enthusiastic young greens of spring are languishing, fading into the mature, solid greens of early summer, coloring the muted light that filters through the canopy to our cozy cabin in the woods.

Such days often seem to call out for a hearty stew or soup, and today is no exception. The children will not be home until late, and will have worked up an increase in their already healthy appetites. It is still too early for much help from our youthful garden and we still are relying on much of what we put away last season. Some frozen vegetables, quart jars of stewed tomatoes, the worthy produce of last summer's bounty, sustaining us until the current crops play out their life cycle for us to preserve, closing the circle.

Surveying the fridge, I find some chunks of venison and some mixed vegetables, and a few leftover butter beans, remnants of previous nights, and a fourth of a store bought cabbage, a refugee from the weekend's cole slaw. Roughly chopping the cabbage, I throw it into a stockpot and cover it with the jar of tomatoes and just a bit of water to thin. After it boils, softens and thickens a bit, I'll throw in the leftovers and once they are heated up perhaps a few wild greens, fresh and damp - gathered just outside, now that the rain has let up.

This minestrone served with some homemade bread, still crusty from yesterday's baking, and mugs of fresh cow's milk should sustain my little family until breakfast.

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