Eat and be eaten

Bread loafOne of the components of dough is yeast, and yeast is a living being. It has been dormant but wakes to its potential when given food and water.  Food and water — along with a few other things — are what all living things on this planet need to survive.

Because they are living things I think of yeast as little beasties that I’ve given the opportunity to make whoopee in wet flour. They live, they eat, they digest, they multiply to eat some more, and in the act of doing so they transform flour + water into bread dough.

And then I kill them.

All things eat, all things are eaten

The above phrase is either a quote or, more likely given my faulty memory, a paraphrase from a science fiction book I read years and years ago. I don’t remember the author’s name, the book’s title, or much of the plot – but I remember that phrase because it is a truth that I remind myself of often.

I feed the yeast and the yeast feeds me. The little beasties perform an everyday kind of act that is easy to let pass by without acknowledging the miracle of transformation and the sacrifice involved. The living beings that are yeast will ultimately be given to the heat of the oven, where they will die. What is left is the structure they’ve built for me, a loaf of bread.

Keeping this in mind as I mix flour, salt, yeast, and water, then let it rise, fold it to give the yeast more to eat, and eventually bake the dough in the oven, makes it easier for me to remember to be grateful for my bread and all the food that I eat.  Gratitude is the only way to survive the harsh reality of eat and be eaten that describes life on this plane of existence.

No-knead bread recipe

More bread

Selfie with yucca crownBefore I say anything about bread I want to say something about the image posted here.  This is my version of a selfie.  I take photos of my shadows and mess with them.

This one particularly pleases me.  It’s called Self-portrait with yucca crown.  It would make a great album cover if I ever recorded an album (don’t hold your breath on that one — the world is not ready for my ukulele playing).  I have put it on the back cover of my limited edition chapbooks, though, and it looks pretty cool there I think.

So about that bread

I like making bread.  It’s not hard using the recipe I’ve shared with you and I like not buying bread from the store.  But I also like that making bread is such a great metaphor for the writing process.

Making bread and writing?  Well, yes — my writing process at least.

Bread dough is amazing stuff.  There are only three ingredients needed:  flour, yeast, and water.  And writing is an amazing process, too, if you’re crazy enough to be serious about it.  There are only three “ingredients” to writing:  writer, ideas, and writing implements.

Oh wait, there’s a fourth and fifth ingredient for each:  time and peace.

Bread dough ingredients get mixed together and then the yeast needs to be left alone.  No poking at it.  No jiggling it around.  No interruptions and no hurrying it along.  I’m convinced bread rises better and ends up tasting better when the rising is done in an emotionally peaceful environment, too, but that’s a subject for another blog post.

So yeah, it does seem to me that making bread is just like writing.  A writer needs the time to write and the peace to write — at least this writer does.  I can’t happily write if I feel the psychological equivalent of poking, jiggling, interruption, or hurrying.  I am in awe of those writers who can create novels by stealing a few minutes here and there from their busy lives, but I need time and peace.  Blocks of time and the peace of no interactions with the outside world.

That’s why I’ve designated the month of April as a writing month (I already take November for participating in NaNoWriMo). This is my time and peace month, when I’ve myself permission to just say no to everybody. No I can’t go anywhere, no I can’t take the time to __(whatever)__.  For a hermit like me it’s a relief to be antisocial anyway, but to be creative I have to get aggressive about guarding my time and peace.

It truly is more than just luxury to be able to settle into the world I’m writing about and just hang out there. Time and peace allow the yeast of my imagination to give form, breadth (oooh, see what I did there), and depth to my ideas.  Immersion in the world I’m building protects the dough of creativity that’s rising in me from the poking finger of collapse.

Well, enough of metaphor.  I better get to work.  But first — I think a slice of last night’s baked bread is in order.

Back cover of self-published chapbook

Bread

This.  THIS.  This is the bread I’ve been looking for.

You might recall that I’ve been trying to make the perfect loaf of bread for some time.  I started out decades ago wanting to duplicate the San Francisco sourdough I had gorged on for so many years.  It was a quest doomed for failure.  I didn’t have a clue about bread making, much less sourdough, and – as is usual for me – had no desire to read instructions first.  (If you are like me, then just jump to the recipe!)

I’m like that.  I like to learn by doing.  Jump right in.  This approach to life only works because I’m okay with failure.  It’s a reasonable price, in my opinion, to pay for not having to slog through reading (or worse, watching videos of) how to do things the way somebody else thinks is the way I should do whatever it is.  I get right into the doing.

Especially with bread.  I mean, come on. Humans have been making the stuff for thirty thousand years, give or take a few centuries.  Bakers on the go, running from lions and tigers and bears, oh my, didn’t have the luxury of messing around with measuring cups and gram scales.  Bakers in medieval kitchens had to churn out dozens and dozens of loaves a day to keep up with the needs of court for trenchers to eat off of.  They didn’t have the time to be kneading gallons and gallons of bread dough all day long.  Pioneers and prospectors wanted bread to take care of itself while they dealt with the realities of their dreams.

So I concluded that most of today’s bread recipes are modern inventions full of unnecessary and complicated steps that just get in the way of making a simple, ancient food.

Plus kneading bread is boring.  I never have figured out how much is too much or too little.  My dough has never ever felt or looked like what the fancy recipes describe.

Phase One: Sourdough

After moving to New Mexico  and a few years of bread failure, I searched online for a sourdough starter.  I had no basis whatsoever for my sole criterion, which was that it was old.  Why?  I can’t tell you because I don’t really know.  It just seemed like a good idea.  The starter I settled on supposedly came from the Klondike a hundred or more years ago and ended up on eBay, and what a long distance that was.  I read the ecstatic reports from various bakers and of course I had to order it.

It came, a small cellophane package of tan granules that looked suspiciously like commercial yeast.  But the package also came with charming instructions, which I glanced through and tossed aside so I could get on with the project

Two problems with sourdough.

First:  keeping the starter alive.  I reconstituted my eBay find.  That involved adding flour to the starter and throwing out some of it.  Or maybe the other way around – I forget.  But it doesn’t matter which because it was just plain wrong.  Innocent yeast was being sent out to the wilderness of my compost pile to die.  What a waste.  I did not like that at all, but I gritted my teeth and tried my best to make the survivors happy, ignoring the fact that baking was going to kill yeast anyway.

I told myself that regular bread-making would reduce the waste once the starter was up to strength.  Regular.  That word.  It’s the knell of death for anything I am interested in.  Keeping sourdough starter alive involves regular attention, which for me is like keeping a prisoner in Guantanamo.  It’s ugly.  I forgot the regular feeding all the time.  I had jars of icky grey liquid floating over water-boarded starter.  I became a yeast abuser and that was even worse than throwing starter out.

And then, when I figured the surviving starter was strong enough to make bread, the second problem arose: kneading.  Just because this was supposed to be sourdough didn’t mean I miraculously enjoyed kneading, no matter how many other people think it’s wonderful.  So what if the yeast was old and supposedly visited San Francisco at some point — that didn’t mean my wrists were happy with slapping dough around.  Okay, I know there’s no slapping involved.  It wasn’t Guantanamo, after all, but you get the picture.

I kneaded anyway.  I baked the first loaf of sourdough and got… yucky, boring bread that had no memory of San Francisco in it.  Not a bit of New Mexico or any other sour, either.

Back to Google.  Not to carefully read instructions, mind you, but to pick up a few tips that I could experiment with. [Note: the info I used when I started this project was not always the same as what baking experts say today.  I’m not the only one who learns more as time goes by]

I’m not going to go through all my attempts at duplicating the tang I remembered.  I’ll just say that it was never meant to be.  Yeast is not merely a leavening agent.  It’s not a chemical like baking soda or baking powder.  It is a living organism with its own needs and goals independent of mine.  Each of the one-celled life-forms, along with a whole bunch of like-minded friends, eats the sugars in flour and releases carbon dioxide.  Um.  Farts it out, so to speak.  The solid stuff of the flour – gluten – confines the gas, stretching as more gas is produced, and that’s how bread rises.

Don’t ask me how it works with gluten-free bread, I haven’t got a clue.

That said, it’s not the yeast that gives the sourdough its sour, it is the ambient bacteria, or rather the lactic and acetic acids produced by the bacteria that lives in the environment that the dough is made in.

Oh sure, I occasionally made a loaf that approximated the sourdough, but there came the day when I had to face the music.  Imagine my shock and dismay to finally realize that I was never going to make San Francisco sourdough unless I made it in San Francisco!  Plus it seems that the New Mexico bacteria that live in my house are not into sour.

Phase Two: no-knead

Seven years or so ago my friend Laura sent me an email telling me about an alternative that might appeal to me:  no-knead bread.  I glanced at the recipe and stored it for later.  I was at that time focused on baking bread on top of my wood stove.  As if somehow that would improve the sourdough flavor.  Mostly I just made hockey pucks for the next two years.  Even my dogs wouldn’t eat the stuff, though I tried to convince myself that I liked it.  Kinda sorta.

I gave up bread making for a while.  I didn’t kill off my yeast, but I did dehydrate it, figuring someday I’d want to use it again.

But the call of bread-making was too much, so a few years after Laura sent that first recipe I Googled no-knead bread.  It seemed easy enough, especially since the recipe was illustrated by photos of an eight year old kid making it.  And yet… what I produced was boring.

I kept making the bread, tweaking the recipes I used, adding rye, whole wheat, more salt, less salt, more yeast, less yeast.

In my poking around the web, trying to figure out how to make the absolute best, yummiest, sourest no-knead bread possible, I discovered a book by the guru of no-knead bread making, Jim Lahey.  My library got it for me and I studied it and tweaked my methods even more.

I finessed my technique till I could make the stuff in my sleep.  And I made loaf after loaf of beautiful bread.

But oh, so boring.

Then… THIS LOAF!  This lovely, crusty, slightly tangy perfect loaf of no-knead bread!

Fast forward to a couple days ago, when out of desperation I Googled “my no-knead bread is boring”.  I love Google.  You can find out just about anything you can imagine.  I was not disappointed in this search, either.

It turns out I was not truly understanding how yeast works.  I though more was better, but this is not true for no-knead bread.

Kneading strengthens gluten in flour like doing push-ups strengthens muscles in a human body (not in my body, mind you).  But no-knead bread means flabby gluten.  You can’t fix it by adding more yeast because that means means more carbon dioxide gets produced all at once.  Flabby gluten isn’t up to it.  The carbon dioxide leaks out.  The dough becomes a flat tire.

The solution is strengthening the gluten slowly – not by kneading, heaven forbid, but by folding.  Folding the dough after it has risen a few hours gently stretches and thus strengthens the gluten.  Folding 2-3 times during the raising phase instead of kneading is like doing lots of reps with light weights in the gym instead of power lifting 500 lbs.

Yeast also needs to breathe, not just to eat.  Just like us, oxygen goes in, carbon dioxide goes out.  During long fermentation (long rising time) the oxygen supply gets short and the poor yeast starts suffocating.  Yeast abuse!  Folding the no-knead dough several times during the rising releases some carbon dioxide and introduces oxygen into the mix and makes for happy yeast.

So folding the dough benefits the yeast and makes for better bread.  The gluten strengthens; the yeasts are happy campers because they get to eat and breathe more and longer, and so a loaf develops a nice rise and a beautiful texture, not to mention a perfect, chewy crust.

But wait!  There’s more!  Let’s not forget flavor!

Remember, my most recent Google search was about boring no-knead bread.  The answer wasn’t about yeast and gluten, but enzymes, which break down starches into sugar (yeast food).  You’d think it would be the yeast bringing enzymes to the table since they’re the critters eating the sugar, but no.  Enzymes come from the flour.  Wheat uses enzymes to break down the starch in kernels for energy to germinate.  Thrifty world that we have — yeast benefits from that same enzymatic action after the kernels have been ground to flour.

So finally we come down to the heart of the matter:  Flavor, lack of.  Why, after all this time, after all the experiments, the Googling, and the hockey pucks, was my bread so boring?

Sure, I had proven to myself I could make bread that rises nicely, that has nice texture, and that is oh, so pretty — but what’s the point if the bread doesn’t fulfill that yearning for something to replace San Francisco sourdough?

So here is my final and huge discovery: Less is more.  Boring bread happens when the greedy yeast eats more of the sugar than the enzymes can produce.

I did not believe it.  I had to try it.  So two afternoons ago I started another batch of no-knead bread, but this time I used a laughably tiny amount of yeast.  1/8 tsp.  My measuring spoons don’t even come in 1/8 tsp.  I had to eyeball it.

A tiny amount of yeast takes a while to get up to speed.  It took till the next day for the dough to get half again larger, and then I folded it.  It took hours for a second fold and more hours for the third.  But by the time the oven was hot and the dough went in to bake, I knew I had discovered something good.  It was clear by the texture and the yeasty smell that this was going to be a different bread.

The baking was done at midnight.  No-knead bread tastes best cool – talk about frustration, but there it is.  I had to wait till morning to try it.

This morning..

The first morning of the rest of my bread making years to come.  A perfect loaf of tangy, tasty bread.  Not sourdough, but way-outback-New-Mexico bread.  My bread.

I can’t believe it.  I think I had better have another slice to be sure.  Hey, it’s a tough job but somebody’s got to do it.


No-knead bread Recipe

2 3/4 c unbleached flour
1/4 c whole rye flour
1/8 tsp instant yeast
1 1/2 tsp salt
1 1/3 c water, room temp

  1. Mix dry ingredients, then add water and mix.
  2. Ferment the dough at room temp 12-16 hours covered with plastic (amount of time depends on how your bread is rising).  Fold three times during the fermenting (to fold use a wet spatula, scrape from sides, lift & stretch dough to center, rotating around bowl for 8 scrapes each session)
  3. After 12-16 hours,scrape onto floured work surface, fold 8-10 times, rest 15 minutes.
  4. Shape dough into a round, place on parchment paper, proof for 2 1/2 hours more.
  5. PREHEAT oven 450° 30 minutes before baking, including Dutch oven
  6. Lift dough with the parchment paper, CAREFULLY put it in the VERY HOT Dutch oven and put the lid on.
  7. Bake 30 minutes covered, bake 20-30 minutes uncovered.  Tap the bread — when it sounds hollow it’s done.
  8. Cool before slicing.

Notes:

  • I measured the dry ingredients by dipping the measuring cup and then leveling with a knife.
  • I could find no info on when to do the folds — I just did them when it seemed the dough had risen as much as it was planning to rise.
  • This bread is meant to be baked in a Dutch oven inside your kitchen oven.  The Dutch oven and its lid need to be preheated along with the stove oven.
  • When you take the bread out of the Dutch oven to cool on a rack, put your ear close enough to listen to it crackle and pop.  I don’t know why it does it, but it does make those noises.

 

Past blog posts on my quest for the perfect bread

 

 

So Happy I Could Cry

♪ I’m So Glad (Skip James, ca 1931) YouTube

What is it about joy that has such power to make me teary-eyed? How can I be grinning like a maniac as I’m hauling wood from the woodpile in a wind so cold it freezes my snot?

I want to ask how I ever got to this place, this happy place I am in this moment, but I don’t need to ask – I know the answer: Even though it seems like a miracle bursting into my life it’s actually the result of decades of work of purposefully changing who I am.

Purposefully creating a life as opposed to being tumbled through the stream of time willy-nilly. Making my own choices even though they often pit me against the flow. Risking drowning in order to save my life.

No – to create it.

We each have our own life story and we each are the sole author of that story. The question is how the story will be written: by chance or on purpose?

I’ve known my answer since I was a kid — but knowing isn’t implementing.

The problem is I keep forgetting to choose in spite of the fact that it feels so good when I do. It’s not my fault. It’s simply the nature of living as a human being. We have epiphanies but we are bound to lose them. We spend more time seeking than basking in enlightenment. It’s not our fault! We’re human!

Thank the gods for art, what we humans do to memorialize our connections with enlightenment and to remind us to remember them again. Doesn’t matter what kind of art: writing, music, dance, painting, sculpture – and yes, the art of being ourselves, too, if we allow it. Art stretches our inner selves, makes us high. What’s not to love about that?

But enlightenment is an impermanent state of being. We don’t live in the Zone, we aspire to it. While we bask in instances of great art our souls are hauled up to a higher level – but we don’t get to stay there.

We have to choose it over and over again. On purpose.

Enlightenment for human beings is not a state of being but moments of bliss. The trick, it turns out, is not to try to grab those moments and hold on to them, for they are ephemeral in nature and will slip away. The trick is rather to choose have lots of those moments, one right after the other, until miraculously it feels like they are all the moments there are.

Chop wood, carry water. That’s said to be the way of the path. Most people take it as a metaphor. Much to my surprise, in doing the wood and water thing in real life I discovered that those tasks have kept redirecting my feet back onto the path. The path is not to enlightenment but of enlightenment.

So, hey, make your choices. Choose to have a blissful moment or a million! Here, have a tissue.

♪ I’m So Glad (Cream, 1966) YouTube

This post was originally published on my Patreon site.  You can be my patron for a buck a month!

Let it blow

partly plastered straw bale wall 2019 Lif Strand

Plastering doesn’t happen by itself…  2019 Lif Strand photo

Today is one of those blustery winter days that remind me yeah, it’s still winter. Blast it.

Which is what it’s doing out there — blasting frigid winter wind that shoots down the barrel of my valley and through the walls of my straw bale house. Making me vow, yet once more, to finish plastering the place.

But wait! Before I plaster I’ve got to move the stuff of my daily life out of the house. I’ve made big inroads into that, but every time something gets shuttled to the barn I find I want it back in here. Too late, though, because once it’s piled in the barn it’s lost to the ages. I made a big attempt in the beginning to segregate by use, but that went by the wayside. Now it’s all wherever and so I can only find things that are on the top of the stacks.

I don’t like not having my stuff around me. I’m a person of impulse. If I get the urge to mess with fabric I want to do it now, not some day after I’ve plastered and can set up my sewing area again. If I want to reread a favorite book I want to be able to go to the shelf and grab it and settle in with it, not ask the library for it and if I’m lucky get to hold that book in my hands next week when I’m in town.

So much — too much, it feels like — gets put off because I need to plaster. Even writing.

On days like today, when my valley is creating its own polar vortex right through my house, my fingers get stiff with cold. It’s frustrating to try to type or write with stiff fingers, as time-honored a tradition it might be. Yeah, I’ve got a big fire in the wood stove and the eco-fan is spinning. My desk, unfortunately, is just far away enough that the the heat barely makes it. One of the drawbacks of wood heat in these circumstances is that sitting next to the fire is too close for comfort, and anywhere else is uncomfortably chilly.

So what am I going to do about it? Get up, move around. Make bread and let the bubbles rise in my brain. Or (oh ewwww) wash the dishes. Or tackle any number of tasks that leave my mind free to identify thoughts, test phrasing, compose sentences. When my fingers are warm enough, sit down and write until I can’t move my fingers anymore.

It’s actually a good practice for me. Otherwise I tend to sit obsessively at the computer and never get up — bad for my body plus it allows sludge to build up in my head. If only I could remember to do this when the wind’s not blowing.

Meanwhile, about the bread

I started a no-knead bread dough four days ago. I wanted to try fermenting the flour/water mix in my never-ending quest for making the perfect loaf of sourdough. Fermenting might not be the correct word for what I was doing but I’m too lazy to look it up. Anyway, the ferment was — how to put it?  Ugly.  It was ugly and it was alive. Well, yeah, yeast has to be alive to do its thing but… that alive?  By the way, the brew in that brief video clip is NOT boiling.  That’s just the action of the yeast in room temp flour/water!

Hoping for the best, I added small amounts of flour over the next couple of days and then yesterday a.m. added some more yeast, some salt, and enough flour to make the proper consistency dough. Sorry, I can’t share my quantities because I totally winged it, but I used a bit of rye, and some whole wheat, and mostly white flour (organic, of course!), plus a wee bit of salt and some bread yeast.

This morning the risen dough had started to slump so I decided it was time to bake it. I didn’t have high hopes for this experiment but boy, was I wrong.  It was still not sour, which is my goal.  But you know… it’s kind of … mmmmmm…..

Sure beats plastering.

No-knead bread 2019 Lif Strand

Isabelle the Traveler

Dede and Isabelle NM January 2019

Dede and Isabelle on a hilltop in New Mexico

Update on Isabelle.  She doesn’t live with me anymore.  Aha — bet that comes as a surprise.  But there’s a story to it (of course there is) and when you know it I think you’ll agree that not only is Izzy a traveler but that it’s right that she’s now called Bella.  I believe she’s going to be very happy in New York instead of New Mexico.

If you read about my anxieties prior to going to Grand Canyon, you’ll remember that one of them was about Izzy, who by that point I’d only had for three weeks.  I was concerned she’d feel abandoned by me.  In the Grand Canyon post, though,  I did acknowledge that my sister and brother-in-law love dogs and were looking forward to spending time with Izzy.  That she would be loved on. That she’d get to go in the truck with them, go on walks with them, and would sleep near them at night.

Hah!  Little did I know how right on I was!  Rather than feel abandoned, Izzy decided Dede and Jeff were the best thing since cats’ kibble.

My sister and brother-in-law own property south of Pie Town and they love to visit it and hike all over it whenever they are in New Mexico.  While they were here they kept Izzy with them all the time.  They took her back to my place to feed horses and cats, she went with them into town, and her bed was set up next to their bed.  Not only that, but they took her on long hikes on their property.

Izzy knew a good deal when she met one.  In this case, two good deals:  two people who loved on her and fussed over her and who made her forget all about wondering where I might be.

I was keeping in touch with Dede & Jeff from Grand Canyon and didn’t pay that much attention when Jeff mentioned having fallen in love with Izzy.  I thought, well of course, she’s a lovable dog.  But then Jeff casually mentioned he was thinking about not flying back home to NY with Dede, but instead driving back with Izzy.

Ha ha.  I thought he was joking.  But he was not.

Isabelle, navigator in Jeff's truck

Isabelle in the navigator’s seat, with Jeff on their way to New York

Laura and I got home on Friday afternoon.  Saturday morning Jeff took off with Isabelle.  He said he needed to get back to work on Monday but I think he really wanted to leave right away in case I changed my mind.

I don’t think they believed I’d let her go, not when I loved her so much.  Fact is, I love her so much that I would let two people I love have her because they love her, too.  And because Isabelle said she wanted to go with them.

So having traveled from Oklahoma to me in New Mexico, Jeff and Isabelle took of from New Mexico headed for New York.  She started out in the back seat, but you can see from the photo how long that lasted.

So now the traveler dog has a new home, a new life, and a new nickname, Bella.  Izzy is a kind of sharp sounding name, but Isabelle is such a lovely and sweet dog that a lovely and sweet name seems to fit her better.  So Bella is what everyone is calling her now.

I am happy for Dede and Jeff and, their family, including their older dog, Yuna.  I don’t feel that Bella has been lost to me, but that she gained more of me.  She gained family that I love.

And of course, Bella’s biggest gift to me is still with me.  She got me over the hump of thinking I could never open my heart to another dog again.

Getting plastered

Next month I will have lived in my straw bale house for twenty years. In all that time I haven’t managed to finish it — specifically, I have barely started the plastering. That would be the step that makes the straw bale house so incredibly insulated and worth the effort of going with straw bale in the first place.

So for just about twenty years I’ve been living in a structure that is basically not much more insulated than a tent. Wind blows right through the spaces between the bales, no matter how much I stuff those spaces with more straw and (lately) plastic bags. The exterior end walls have one coat of plaster, but the plaster doesn’t extend all the way up to the tops of the walls where they meet the roof. Wind blows through the gaps between the rafters so that when the wind blows hard the house becomes well ventilated. The long side walls are just straw.

The stuff holds up remarkably well in this dry climate but really, it’s time.

Problem is, I always seem to find something better to do than plaster. Writing, for instance. Or making fabric art. Or messing with the horses or walking or reading. Becoming enraged by Facebook, Googling all kinds of nonsense… so many things.

Even if I decided to get a move on, twenty years of living in a house means that there’s furniture against the walls and artwork hanging from them. And that means that in order to plaster inside, everything has to be moved away from the wall being worked on. In a tiny house it becomes a challenge to figure out where things can be stashed out of the way, and that means the plastering gets put off.

But then I started hearing people talk about what was coming this winter. If forecasts are accurate (and that’s not a given) this winter is supposed to be snowy in the southwest. I decided I had better get on with it. Wood is expensive and I don’t have much stockpiled whereas I’ve already got the cement and lime and sand.

I figured to start with an inside corner of the house where my fabric is stashed, because certainly I could live without working on wall art for a while. I started by moving the plastic tubs of fabric out to the barn, though since I wasn’t all that enthusiastic about doing so it took several days. Then I started on the boxes of stuff on shelves that had been hidden by the fabric… and that took longer because there were treasures in those boxes that needed examining.

Old photos. Books I had forgotten I had. Art supplies. It was like Christmas and birthdays all at once — great fun, but very time consuming.

Finally I got the corner emptied except for a chest of drawers, but I was not about to move furniture to the barn — so that just got pushed out of the way. Not very far away as you can see from the photo.  Maneuvering is a challenge in small spaces and I don’t like small spaces, but we gotta do what we gotta do.

I spent a whole day plastering this past weekend. Well, okay, most of a day. All right, about half a day. No matter, I worked till my arms felt like wet noodles and my back ached. One wheelbarrow load of mixed sand, cement, and lime yielded a discouragingly small amount of plaster on the wall: a section of about 4′ x 6′. Plus a section of wall outside , maybe 3′ x 3′, that used up the last of the plaster in the wheelbarrow without my having to go in and out of the house. Because there were now lots of flies in the house because I had to leave the door open so I could go in and out.
Out out damn flies!

In the big scheme of things house flies (or in my case, more likely manure flies) have brief lifespans. When they are in the house, however, they are around way too long. I swatted some but that’s icky. I put up fly paper and within hours managed to get it stuck on my sleeve. With flies on it. Ewwwww! I think I will resort to vacuuming them up when the house is cooler and they won’t want to move. Meanwhile, I have to accept that I’ll be driven crazy by them for a while longer.

Does that mean I can’t plaster any more till it’s too cold for flies outside?

Bad idea. Stay tuned to see what I do about the plaster/fly dilemma.

Meanwhile, I have a burning desire to do fabric art, now that everything is turned topsy-turvy. In fact, I woke up in the morning having dreamed about new techniques I could use. So today I have decided it’s much too cold out to be messing with plaster, and much too warm out to discourage flies from coming in through the open door — but it’s just right to play with fabric.

Let me throw some more wood on the fire.

 

PS: For those who are actually more serious about straw bale construction than I am, I do plan to use wire mesh on the corners by doors and windows. That’s a project for another day.

 

Farewell fish

Horse drinking from water trough "After the heron" (c) 2018 Lif Strand It didn’t have to happen but what did I expect?  I knew if I didn’t take defensive measures I’d lose them. There would ultimately be no escape because they were besieged by an enemy that had the patience of one who had felt hunger before and would feel it again.

But still. It was hard to imagine being consumed alive.  Down the gullet. Inevitable, yes, but still.

Years ago in a science fiction book I read this one line that has stuck with me ever since: all things eat, all things are eaten.  I wish I could remember where I read it because it is a concept I have to remind myself about all the time.

When I saw the oily slick on the water and when the mare went to drink and no fish congregated around her lips I knew all were gone. Last night they were there, this morning, sometime before I went out to feed, probably while the gentle rain fell through the gloom of dawn, a great blue heron had paused on its way south to fortify itself for the rest of its flight.

I could not begrudge the bird, and it was my fault that there were no survivors. I could have put screen over the center of the trough but I didn’t. Some of those fish were ten years and more old. Now they were calories fueling a bird.

PS — 10/16  Good news!  There are a couple goldfish left.  Understandably, they are unwilling to come up to a horse’s lips in search of food right now.

I’m just peachy

Peaches. That’s what’s on my mind. Last week I was given a couple dozen of them by a friend, freshly picked off his tree and handed over in a brown grocery bag where they would ripen. A couple days ago I remembered to check them and they were ready to go.

In the past I’ve made jams and liqueurs, but as yummy as they’ve been I didn’t want to do that again, particularly since I still have over a quart of peach liqueur left from last year. The peaches couldn’t wait for me to decide what to do so I decided to dry them. Easy peasy and I love dried fruit, so that was the way to go.

Ron’s peaches were all at the same perfect stage of ripe, and they all were wonderfully free of bug and bird damage, as well as bruising. Processing them was simple: Clean as needed, remove any damaged spots, cut around the peach equator and twist to break the peach into two, then pry out the pit, and slice the halves. Pop the end pieces in my mouth and place the rest on the dryer trays.

My dryer is the old fashioned kind — its contents are air dried. The drying takes longer than it would with an electric dehydrator but mine doesn’t use any power and I live in a dry climate so there’s no mold. The food being dried is protected from bugs and dust by a fine mesh cover that zips closed. The dryer is advertised as solar powered but I’ve hung mine inside the house, from the ceiling in my kitchen and have even rigged up a rope and pulley system so I don’t have to get on a ladder to check on how things are going.

Things are going nicely, two days later, as you can see. Maybe next week I’ll get to taste test. Yum!

 

April Snow

Snow at dusk in April

It had been a brutal day, a hard edged wind coming from the north and cutting through the many layers she wore.  Even when the sun broke through the heavy clouds it was cold, cold for late April.  But here in the mountains of New Mexico weather was like that.  Nothing unusual at all.

For a brief moment at sunset a rosy golden light limned the mesa top, gone as quickly as it had come.  She smelled rain, but there was nothing yet to moisten the dust and the struggling grass that was already turning gray with thirst.  It would come, though, she knew it.  If she could smell it, it would come.

She built a fire in the wood stove, smiling at the fancy she’d had that she was done building fires till next fall.  She settled into the evening, waiting.

The wind stopped.  The world held its breath.  Silently fluffy white flakes drifted down into the dusk, covering the branches of the apple trees that were only this morning braving the first bright green leaves of spring.