Monthly Archives: December 2009

New Year’s Molt

Poor bedraggled Latifah

For the past week or so, the coop has been aflooff (I just invented that word, but none other would do) with feathers and down. The chickens are staging a mass molt. According to flockkeeper lore, molting ain’t fun for anybody. The girls are dropping their old plumage and growing their new. From an evolutionary perspective, it must be part of what links chickens to their close reptilian cousins (scientists tell us that chickens are direct descendants of the T. rex) — shedding skin, shedding feathers.

Poor scrawny Lili

They do seem pretty miserable. Most of them aren’t laying, and they look pathetic — all mangy and scraggly. And they’re cranky and tired — Victoria spent all day in a nesting box last week. (The rain, mud, cold temperatures, and short days don’t help.) It takes a lot of energy to build new feathers.

I wonder if the girls chose the turn into new year for their big molt on purpose. It seems like a good idea, to slough off all the old, dead stuff and to replace it with something tender and delicate with new life, with potential to be healthy and luminous and resilient. Clean out the closets, the expired foodstuffs in the pantry. Let go of past resentments and fears — the scars that have formed over old wounds.

Off with the old

It’s a hell of a process — uncomfortable, exhausting, even ugly — but aren’t we ready to be shed of those vestiges and welcome whatever comes next?

When I cleaned the coop the other day, all those dropped feathers went with the straw and manure into the compost. It’s not as if the old stuff is to be left behind and forgotten. It will work under the surface now, in new, hidden ways. It starts the cycle over again, preparing to help nourish the spring garden.

I’ve felt a bit bedraggled this holiday season, myself. Guess I was due a good molt. For the days of auld lang syne.

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Giving summer for Christmas

Our old family friend, the pressure canner

Most of my canning supplies — my standard canner, my jar lifters, my pressure canner, my 1932 edition of the Ball Blue Book of Canning and Preserving Food – belonged to my mother. Before the pressure canner was my mother’s, it was my paternal grandmother’s. Before it was hers, it belonged to her next-door neighbor. And since I now live in the house that belonged to my father’s parents for more than fifity years, that pressure canner has come full circle, from Decatur to Rabun Gap then back to Decatur.

This to say that despite its rustic reputation, canning and preserving food has never been just a rural thing. The US Department of Agriculture encouraged urban homemakers to put their Victory Garden bounty up especially during wartime. (An aside: my friend Elizabeth Engelhardt, now a faculty member at the University of Texas at Austin, is finishing up a fascinating book on the subject of southern food and gender titled A Mess of Greens, in which she touches on the girls’ “Tomato Clubs” of a century ago–can’t wait to read it!)

Muscadine jam (purple), green tomato relish (yellow), and roasted tomato and tomatillo salsa (red)

The locavore movement has recently brought about a resurgence of interest in home canning amongst my generation. I was delighted to learn that my next-door neighbor, who is my age, asked for some home canning equipment for Christmas this year. For years, though, I have been giving her my canned goodies for Christmas — pear butter, apple butter and apple sauce (none this year — the apples and pears come from my dad’s trees, and the deer got most of them); fig jam and preserves; pickles.

This year, I’m giving muscadine jam (the CSA vines were bounteous), green tomato relish (made from my green tomatoes and cucumbers, along with Vidalia onions and CSA cabbage), and some of that roasted tomato and tomatillo salsa. It’s the summer harvest at its ripest peak, sealed and delivered for the holidays. The gift of summer flavor and color on these chill, bleak, brief days.

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Filed under Feasting, Making things, Putting Up

The Winter Garden: Waiting

Goodbye, summer garden

Several nights of temperatures in the twenties last week blackened the remnants of my summer garden — pepper plants and a few herbs. I covered most of the area with rotted chicken manure and hay. It’s brown and flat. A pitiful sight.

Strawberries abed

Broccoli buds wait

This is a pause, a frozen moment, in which the garden doesn’t have much to say or do. If you study on it, however, you see life stirring in small ways. There are a few sturdy broccoli plants with tiny heads buried in the center, waiting for a bit of warmer weather to coax them out. They will wait until spring if necessary.

Swiss chard waits

There remain some arugula and salad greens, although I stripped much of them for a little dinner party last weekend. There are parsley plants thriving, as well as some new cilantro. The strawberry plants are buried under (what else?) straw, still green, waiting for their time. Carrots, beets, Swiss chard — all established, having grown some in the fall, now also wait. Everything waits.

Cilantro waits

Last week a friend asked me if I had ordered my spring seeds yet. I haven’t even thought about it. A few catalogues have arrived, but I will wait until well into January.

Carrots wait

Like Advent itself — the true season now passing on the Christian calendar (Christmas doesn’t start until December 25) — this is a period of gestation before the new birth, the transformation. It requires patience, and stillness, and continued watchfulness on those signs of life. Any little movement — a broccoli bud is slightly larger, the top of a carrot pops up out the ground — is cause for quiet rejoicing.

The garden is dead; long live the garden.

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Each little inch

Adorable hat my mom made

It stands to reason that someone who grows vegetables, keeps chickens, cans and preserves, and loves to cook should also be able to sew and knit and crochet and such. But I think the fiber arts gene skipped a generation for me. My mother is a skilled seamstress–she made many of my clothes growing up (actually, I was wearing her creations well into adulthood and still have a few skirts she made for me in my closet). She tried to teach me, but I had neither the patience nor the ability. Plus, I’m left-handed, and left-handed scissors hadn’t been invented when I was learning to use scissors, and so I can’t use them today, which means at best I cut badly with my right hand. You have to cut a straight line to sew. Forget it.

She also was–remains–a mad knitter. I have a beautiful black mohair sweater she knitted decades ago that I still wear. And a white mohair cardigan that shrunk to the perfect, stylish size a few years ago when she accidentally machine-washed it, then tossed it in a pile bound for charity (“I’ll take that!”). Recently she made a hat for me that is so adorable that several of my friends asked for one, too. When she tried to teach a teenaged me to knit, though, we both got frustrated. She couldn’t show me what to do left-handed, and I couldn’t work in mirror-image to her hands.

The incredible shrinking cardigan, made by my mom

It’s satisfying, however, to see the rising numbers passionate knitters recently, especially among my generation and younger. I love to watch them do their thing–it draws your attention to each little inch of pattern. I love the deftness of motion in their hands, the rhythmic clack of the needles. I love the smell of a hand-knitted garment: a mammal combination of  lanolin and the scent of the knitter, her lotion, soap, skin–it’s the odor of life itself. And what a transformation to go from yarn to garment, to know someone had her fingers on every single stitch. All that with nothing more than a couple of sticks! I am in awe of my childhood friend and now knitting guru, Theresa, who colors her own fiber with natural dyes and spins it into beautiful yarns.

Over the Thanksgiving holiday, I was cleaning out a closet and found a long-forgotten impulse purchase from several years back of some yarn and a pair of needles (I think it was all a dollar at Target). On a whim, I pulled it out, found a YouTube video that showed me how to cast on and do a basic stitch, and I was off and knitting. I would make a scarf! And soon would come sweaters and hats and maybe even some cute mittens. Visions of urban homestead self-sufficient beauty danced in my head.

I took my project along to the mountains on Thanksgiving day and proudly showed my mother my progress. She politely stifled a guffaw (but then couldn’t contain a cackle when I dropped three stitches at once). She saw I was struggling with needles that were too small and gave me some larger ones. She told me my bouclĂ© yarn was impossible, but it was what I had, and so I persisted.

"Knitting" my "Thing"

I posted an update to Facebook: “Allison is learning herself to knit.” The response was overwhelming–I had no idea knitters were such evangelists for their craft. I received all sorts of good and enthusiastic advice and encouragement, including from Theresa, who also told me to ditch the difficult yarn (I didn’t).

I kept at it obsessively. It was relaxing and meditative–that simple, repetitive motion, the gradual emergence of a . . . thing . . . as I worked. But then I noticed that somehow my “thing” was getting wider with every row. I was adding stitches, and I couldn’t figure out why. And then I saw the holes. My thing was Swiss cheese.

I took my thing home and unraveled it and started all over. Four times. I tried different yarn I had gotten from Mom. I couldn’t hold the needles with my clumsy right hand. I spent hours at it, lost sleep over it. Relaxing and meditative gave way to stressful and frustrating. Almost coming unraveled myself, I quit. Bagged the whole thing to give to Mom later on. On Facebook: “Allison is not a knitter.” Lots of consoling comments from the knitter friends.

My scarf-in-progress, plus a beautiful bag my mother knitted and felted.

And then. A few evenings back I passed the little knitting shop in Decatur, and I couldn’t help myself. I stopped in, and the next thing I knew I was leaving the store with a pair of #9 needles and some rich brown 50 percent wool/50 percent llama hair from Peru. That night I started all over–about five times, but then I was suddenly getting the hang of it. No more dropped or added stitches (the yarn really was the problem, but it was also the way I was holding it) and I now have about five inches of a scarf to go with the hat my mom made. It isn’t elegant or beautiful, even, and I’m slow and awkward, but the rows are (pretty much) the same size, and the holes are few and tiny–not terribly noticeable. And it’s relaxing and meditative again.

There may never sweaters or hats or mittens from my needles, but I feel like I’m in on a secret now. It’s the knowledge of a skill, the assuredness of competence. And that, I think, is part of the reward of the Southern Urban Homestead lifestyle–knowing how to do things, to make something of value (if not quite beauty) from so very little, to provide.

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