Leaves with Purpose

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“There are more things on heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy”

 – Hamlet 

The town where Sithean stands is an old one, by American standards.  It was incorporated in 1650, and the miles of old stone walls and the ability to trip over history everywhere you go bears that out.

Prior to incorporation, the Annisquam Indians called it something that translates to ‘the pleasant place by the flowing waters’, and that still holds true today – it is a pleasant place to be, with meandering country roads, wildflowers everywhere, and gardens of blossoms and vegetable gardens.  

We reside in a spot called ‘Witch Hill’.  The Salem Witch trials were not confined to what is now Salem, Massachusetts.  In fact, Salem Village is now named Danvers, in one of the earliest efforts at image rebranding ever to occur – Salem was anathema after the Witch Trials, for good reason.

Witch Hill got it’s name because Mary Eastey, sister to Rebecca Nurse, came here to her son’s home after being released from the Salem Witch trials.  She and Nurse were both upstanding citizens, and married to landholders.  Even Judge John Hathorne, who presided over the trials, and an ancestor of Nathaniel Hawthorne, went so far as to ask if the girls accusing her if they were certain she was a witch.

It’s hard to visualize what it might have been like.  Suspicion, and not a little bit of vengeance, reigned.  Women were dragged from their beds in the night and put in irons.  They didn’t eat unless their families brought food, and then it might be stolen by their jailers.  They didn’t bathe.  They were housed in places where it was cold, dark, and bug-infested, on the words of a bunch of pre-teens and teenagers.  If you ever doubt the need for due process but also the ability to challenge it by citizens, the transcripts are worth a read.  The originals are in Salem, but the University of Virginia keeps a copy online. 

After all, the Witch trials were perfectly legal.  Moral – not so much.

For Mary Eastey, she is released after 2 months in prison, on May 18th.  She came here to Topsfield, but not for long.  2 days later, Mercy Lewis accuses her again.  She was dragged from her son’s home in the night and brought back to prison.  She was hanged on September 22nd, 1692.  Her death, along with others, was the tipping point in bringing Witch Fever to an end.  On the gallows she begged for the murders – for they were that, trial or no – to stop.

Superstition seems to be part and parcel of the human spirit.  Here on Witch Hill, the real story of Mary Eastey has long faded, and she is spoken about most typically in order to establish the historical bona fides of this place.  In some ways, the peace and beauty force that forgetting.  There is no time of year that I don’t believe I live in one of the most beautiful places on earth.  Making it more so is one of my greatest goals.

One of the interests in the back of my mind as I have gardened over the years is herbs.  Herbs have very real benefits – let’s be clear here, there’s no magical food, essential oil, or herb that is going to change your life.  Herbs, oils and supplements have become intertwined with the idea that if we just consume cleaner, healthier and purer, we will be safe from disease, early death, etc.  It’s true that the healthier we eat, the healthier we live, sure and some exercise is necessary.  Herbs are helpers when used correctly.  They can relieve anxiety, calm a stomach, make a headache go away, and even restart a heart or kill you.  That these things can just grow by the side of the road, in nature, can feel a lot like a gift of magic, and maybe they are.  There’s much that still defies human understanding in the natural world.

Herb lore is intricately tied up in superstition and magic.  So while I diligently plant flowers to attract pollinators and vegetables and fruit to feed us, I’ll also be adding Witch Hazel, Dittany, Rue, Valerian, Yarrow, Lavender and others.  Sure, they are (mostly) edible, have medicinal benefits, and they are all lovely.  But they are also the herbs of protection.  From what?  I don’t know.  Maybe nothing.  It doesn’t matter.  But here at Sithean history incorporates both the beautiful and the not-so-much, intertwined together, and sometimes, like with magic and herb lore, the beautiful and the not are one and the same. As I grow them, I’ll post about what they do and how I use them.

Next year we will plant both a fig tree and a Rowan tree. The former will feed us, but of the two, I tend to think the latter will be more important.

Trefoil, John’s Wort, Vervain, Dill
Hinder Witches of Their Will
Betony, Dittany, Yarrow, Rue
Deprive Witches of Their Due

 

Spring Forward

House with new roof

The first day of spring arrived, and with it almost 50-degree temperatures here in Massachusetts.  After two years of almost nonexistent (read: frigid) springtime weather, this year feels like we might get something resembling the real deal.  It’s hard to tell, but it might be time time to start packing the winter gear away.

Still, it’s March in New England, so I’m not doing anything about that feeling quite yet.  The adage of ‘if you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes’ is truly applicable here at Sithean.  Despite the unpredictability of the season here though, it’s definitely time to start making ready for the warmer weather.

The chicks are now almost 2 weeks old, and their fluff is starting to slough off and reveal feathers.  We lost two babies, including our beloved Peep, who just didn’t eat or drink enough to survive.  We buried her and her unnamed friend next to Aquarius the duck.  Losing animals is part and parcel of having them, but it never gets easier.  The other 26 are thriving though, and their mad cheeping fills the house.

I’ve been starting garden seeds.  So far, cool-weather crops and those that need a long time to germinate take priority – kale, broccoli raab, tomatoes, peppers and Brussels sprouts along with cucumber seeds are tucked into the dirt.  My goal is to plant at least one thing a day through May, and harvest one thing a day through October.

This year we’re going to add to our small orchard as well – we lost 2 baby apricot trees last year, so we’re trying again, and a dwarf Seckel Pear will be espaliered in the center of the new garden.  I was going to put a fig tree in there, but this land grew pears when it was first farmed, so it seems right to put one in a place of honor.  A fig can be added somewhere else next year.   I’m also looking for a spot for a few cranberry bushes in the hopes we can add ‘zero food miles’ to parts of Thanksgiving dinner.  I mull over raising a few turkeys every year, but it won’t be this year.  Biting off more than one can chew is endemic to gardening and raising food.  “Just one more thing!  How hard can it be?” is the gardener’s battle cry, there always – in my head – being space for just a few more flowers or vegetables or herbs or one more chicken, and of course, infinite time to tend and harvest.

Delusional, but in the best of ways.

“Where is this all going?”, you might well ask, and to that I say “Oh, valid question.”

If you assume that climate change is coming for all of us, which it is, you also have to assume that the limitless variety, packaging and options at the grocery stores will alter too.  In my lifetime probably, in my children’s for certain.  Making home for bees, butterflies and other pollinators, as well as building in egg, fruit and vegetable options for the future is our way of trying to create that ‘ounce of prevention worth a pound of cure’ here.  Sithean is meant to be a haven for all the generations that require it – and not just human generations.  I can’t control what the future brings, but I can certainly try to hedge our bets.

Climate change is not for one political party or another.  Denying science because we can’t imagine another way of life will not make it go away, nor make it not be true.  I can’t predict what the world will look like when my children are having children.  All I can do is hope that their world is full of apples, pears, asparagus and fresh eggs like my own is, and do everything in my power to make it so.  I can teach them how to plant seeds, pull weeds, tend chickens and cook from scratch.  I can teach them to want fewer things.  I’m still working through my feelings about travel – mine for work and ours for pleasure.  I’m a study in inconsistent application of my beliefs, and I know that.  I’m a work in progress, which doesn’t exculpate me from my own impacts on the environment, but it does give me room to figure out how to apply them.

Sithean has stood for 169 years on this land or the land nearby.  I hope what we build here outlasts us.  Spring, to originate or arise from – the perfect definition for renewal of this place, of the land and our approach to it.   This place, the garden, fruit trees and landscape around it is my version of church.  I thank the universe that my baby cherry tree survived winter and plows.  I rake knowing my life is a gift, this place is a gift, and I am it’s caretaker, as it is ours.

Spring leaves me feeling renewed, year after year, my hope and joy rising like the seedlings in the dirt.

I wish you the greenest of springs, this year and every one after.

 

Background Music

peep

Our babies arrived yesterday, all 27 of them.  After several springs of co-chickening with the neighbors, and losing just about all of them to predators, this year we chose a different course, and ordered a large chicken coop with an enclosed run.  We could have given up on chickens altogether, but we just couldn’t bring ourselves to that decision.  Sithean is a place for fruit trees and gardening and chickens.

Still, this is a leap of faith for us, after burying as many chickens as we have to date.

We waited on tenterhooks for them to arrive, having never gotten chickens in the mail before.  Eli spent hours on Tuesday preparing their bin and food.  The local post office was alerted, and at 7:42 am they called us, long before they opened for the day, and we rushed to get pick them up.  Our babies are here, and the endless peeping is the background music to my day.  My children have taken to even eating breakfast in front of their bin, endlessly fascinated by their ‘chickle babies’.

Baby chicks can survive up to 48 hours in transit after birth, but we worried from the moment the shipment notification kicked off our waiting period.  Our babies were cold and alone and what if something happened to them?  There was more anxiety in our household for the 36 hours from that shipment notification to their arrival than perhaps in the history of our little family.

When we picked them up, safe and sound, the relief was palpable and the excitement was for all 4 of us.

We do have one little runt named Peep, who is smaller and not as energetic as the rest.  All we can do is watch out for her and make sure food and water are available.  ‘Failure to thrive’ is real in the animal kingdom, just as it can be in the human one.  We’re hopeful and watchful.  If she makes it, she is almost certain to be the most petted and cosseted chicken in history.

In 6 months, there will be eggs, lots and lots of them. Before that we will be able to use the chickens as the disposal point for most leftover food.  Between compost and the chickens, our food waste should drop to almost nothing.  This summer, they will be allowed out of their coop to roam a few hours a day to eat ticks and garden bugs.  Chickens are curious creatures, and I look forward to them tromping around behind me this spring as I garden and weed.

This is Eli’s first experience with baby chicks, and I’m enjoying his relative awe and wonder at it too.  Two years ago our first batch of chicks grounded us here at Sithean, turning it from a place we had just landed to a home, weaving itself around us.   It’s happening again, this time for the four of us, one little ‘peep-peep’ at a time.

Gregory Peck March 13 2019

Springtime in Winter

Sithean March 2019

It’s been bloody cold lately, with snow coming at regular intervals.  Winter, as it always does at this time of year, is hanging on, not quite ready to let go.  There’s signs of hope though – forecasts for 50ish degrees later this week, the local Co-Op is advertising mulch rather than shovels, and tomorrow marks the beginning of seed-starting.  I rearranged the living room to accommodate the potting bench, and as soon as it stops sleeting we will bring it in.  The clocks changed last night, which is disorienting, but another sign that soon the white stuff will dissipate, and the earth will be closer to the sun.

It was icky today, with the weather changing from snow to sleet to rain and then cycling back through all three at intervals, so I postponed my long run for 2 days to avoid slipping on ice, and instead Eli and I went for a long walk.  A long wet walk, but a good one.  I’ve been thinking about goals a lot lately.  Setting them, working towards them, adjusting them.

Every year on New Year’s Day, we list out goals for 2019.  This is an all-in family endeavor and this year’s list included ‘finishing the garden’, ‘a new coop’, and ‘make new memories for the 4 of us’ among other things.  We’ve made steady progress on some, others not yet started, but as we head towards 1/4 of the year complete, I think we’re doing all right.  There is, of course, limitless things still to do, on our goals list or just on the to-do list.  So I did a lot of them, and then, after our walk and more things, I perched myself on the couch to watch the birds, write a little, and allow myself to ignore the endless things to clean, sort, iron and organize for a bit.  The kids are with Dad tonight, so the house is quiet.  Eli and I are going to make another batch of Thai Peanut Chicken Ramen tonight, because this weather calls for comfort food for a little longer.

The big news here is the imminent arrival of 27 baby chicks – 26 girls and 1 rooster –  from Murray McMurray Hatchery, a combination of beautiful varieties, such as the Pheonix chicken and the Crevacoeurs.  I have wanted to place an order with them for as long as I have had chickens, or longer.  We got some good layers, but we also got chickens for their looks and cool factor.

McMurrayHatchery_RareBreed_Crevecoeurs

But the real news is the impending arrival of our new chicken coop.  After years of free range co-chickening with the neighbors,  and losing them all to the large variety of predators that abound here, we decided that we needed to provide better protection, and invested in a coop with an enclosed run, complete with wire underneath the run, predator-proof latches on the nesting boxes, insulation for winter, solar lighting and automatic chicken door, and last but not least, epoxy floors, nesting boxes, and removable trays for easy cleaning.  This is, to be honest, the Tesla of chicken coops, and if I have to make a plug for a vendor, I’ll do it for this one – Lancaster Chicken Coops was helpful, friendly and some of the best customer service I’ve ever had.  They even offered to bundle delivery with other area customers to make it cheaper.  The coop isn’t even here yet and I’m already in love.

Chicken Coop

It’s dark and cold tonight, but spring is coming, and with it the tiny peeps of baby chicks to our little farmlet.

How to Simplify Your Life – Stocking (and De-Stocking) the Pantry

big churn

Today,  I wanted nothing so badly as to just have a very large, calorie-intensive italian meal delivered to me.  Whatever it was, it needed to involve lots of food slathered in sauce and ricotta cheese.  What can I say – it’s cold outside, and  I wanted Eggplant Rollatini and a lot of things to go with it.  I was hungry, more than a little, I certainly didn’t feel like cooking dinner, and I definitely wasn’t interested in anything I had in the house.

Even with my near-limitless pantry options, I get bored.  And unmotivated.

So when I pulled some meatballs out of the freezer, added them to tomato soup, and then tossed in some chopped, frozen kale, and added a cheese quesadilla (melt some cheese on a tortilla, fold, eat)  I felt virtuous on a couple levels.  First, because I really don’t need the calories from a large Italian dinner right at this moment – this was a loose take on it without the guilt.  But secondly, because this is food I have already bought and paid for.  Part of my effort to eat down the pantry over the next few months is pure housekeeping.  But there’s another, no less important part of this – to offset the myriad expenses that have popped up as Eli and I combine lives with some budget sanity.  Avoiding take out for one night will hardly offset the money we just put into a slightly used Nissan Pathfinder, or cover the cost of a new chicken coop with a predator-proof enclosed run, but I truly believe that attention to the small leaks of money is just as important as the big successes.

That doesn’t mean we never intend to eat out or pick up ready-made food again.  Just this weekend Connor and I ordered Chinese food, because that was what he wanted more than anything for our special weekend.  And I fully believe in prepared food -sometimes from the store, but often from my own freezer, like the meatballs in my soup.  But part of simplifying your life is learning to be content with what you have.  And today, that contentment consists of not having to drive to pick up food when there is plenty available right here.

I believe strongly in having a full pantry for a number of reasons.  They are, in relative order of importance:

  1. It is an emergency fund you can eat.  In times where paychecks might be spotty or income inconsistent, even the most well-prepared of us will want to tighten the belt.  A full pantry is a buffer against times of having less
  2. It offers options to the perennial question of ‘what’s for dinner?’
  3. If stocked properly and over time, it’s variety of the inexpensive sort – out of my pantry I can whip up Thai, Indian and lots of yummy favorites, like my Simple Lentil Sausage Soup

Stocking the pantry is simple.  Focusing on the things you eat, buy them at the most affordable points.  Some foods go on sale cyclically, such as baking supplies in November and December.  Others you have to watch sale flyers for.  Some things, like my favorite wine, that also happens to sell for $6.99 a bottle at Trader Joe’s, I buy half a case or a full case at a time – not just for the case discount, but because I am not the only one that likes it, and it sells out quickly.

By the way, a great skill to cultivate in life is to like the cheap wine just as much as the expensive stuff.  Cheap doesn’t have to mean bad, although you may have to taste a few bad ones to encounter something you like.   I know a lot of people who only like ‘good wine’ and while I do too, I cheerfully enjoy the not-so-fancy too.  Which leaves a lot more options open to me, and is a lot less painful, budget-wise.  

When pasta goes on sale for 69 cents a box, I might buy 10 boxes.  And then not buy any more for a while.

I admit, I’m lazy about it.  I’m imperfect about watching sales, and sometimes I end up paying more for bulk than I would individually – I try to be careful, but it does happen.  I have also learned that you will never get the best price in one place – one of the grocery stores I tend to find the most expensive has the best loss leaders around.  So long as I stick with the sales, I do very well there.

I also strongly advocate periodically eating through what you have in your pantry and freezer before restocking.  It will force you to be creative after the first week or so, but it will also be kind of…fun?  I found some Stone Crab meat in my freezer that I bought a month or so ago and promptly forgot about.  Apparently we’re having crab cakes pretty soon.  Eating down your food supply gives you a chance to clean the fridge, the freezer, the cabinets, as well as making sure the investment you have made with your wallet in your cabinets doesn’t go to waste.

What do you keep in your pantry, and have you ever skipped the grocery store to clean it out?

Garden Dreams Part 4

I had hoped this would be my final installment of my series on building a garden, but of course it isn’t.  Melissa and I have been cranking on the fence, and making great progress, but the magnitude of this project, and our mutual schedules mean we need more time.   The funny thing is that it’s totally ok.  I want to be done, and the plants need to go in the ground, but right now we are both so busy that being stressed about what isn’t done isn’t going to do anything but steal joy away from what we have accomplished, which is a ton.  All of the 8′ fence sections are built, and we have 5 more and a gate to put on.

The garden ended up being 40’x18′, smaller than originally planned, but not by much.
Darn that fence is level

Because I have some work travel coming up, and some of the plants were no longer thriving in their temporary pots, today we stopped construction, and I went to work on building some of the brick beds and planted.   Melissa went off to do some weeding and I immersed myself in measuring, bringing wheelbarrows full of bricks over, and planting.  After a few hours, I had some help from Sithean’s newest resident, H, an Environmental Studies intern staying with us for the summer so she can be close to her summer internship.  She didn’t have to like gardening, or volunteer to help, but both happened.

I built 2 5×5 garden beds today.  On 3 sides are 20″ paths, which will eventually be covered in mulch.  On the fourth side, at the front of the garden, the path is closer to 3′ wide to accomodate Hollyhocks and other fence-climbing plants.  The measuring tape is my best friend these days, keeping my rows of bricks straight and with even distances.

Each bed will eventually be framed internally into smaller squares, but for this year, putting the larger beds in place is what can get done.  Once they were framed out on 3 sides, I added about 3″ of compost on top of the dirt.

5x5 bed

Then we planted.  Today, dill, basil, pickling cucumbers, ‘Livingston’s Best’ tomatoes and begonias went into the beds.

I don’t know that I would have chosen to plant as I build, but I’m still pretty satisfied with the result.

First Planted Beds

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Cold Spring Nights

The weather here at Sithean continues to veer between summer-like warmth and chilly enough to light a fire in the wood stove.  Once, even, cold enough to turn on the heat, and usually I hold the line after May 1st pretty hard.  Sithean has oil heat, which isn’t cheap on the best of days.  Still, it’s starting to warm up generally, and the lilacs are finally starting to bloom.  The asparagus bed started producing about 2 weeks ago, and will go another 3-4 weeks.  I missed a few to bolting, but there’s still plenty for eating.

For most people, May probably doesn’t seem like a great time to recommend roasted vegetables.  But it’s an odd time for eating locally, barring making a few really delicious asparagus frittatas (asparagus, eggs, cheese, potatoes for the crust if you want one) from our eggs, and the occasional lettuce wraps. Farmers markets and CSAs haven’t started up yet, I’m basically out of everything I preserved last year, and it’s grocery store bounty until at least June 1.

I take advantage of the cooler nights to fill the freezer – come August when we go on vacation, I’ll take the meatballs I made tonight and froze, a couple pounds of pasta, and we’ll eat it for dinner our first night away with garlic bread and a salad – a tradition we have not broken in at least a decade.  I’ll be making Falafel for the freezer this week too, as well as Bulgogi , a house favorite, especially on the grill.  Food prep means there’s always something here to eat if I do it right, so no one (me) has to capitulate to the Takeout Gods.

There’s a few leftovers from my fall crops lying around too – a couple winter squashes that made it this far, and the last of the half-bushel of sweet potatoes to supplement what we are buying.  The squashes will be cooked down and the puree saved for soup, but the sweet potatoes are inevitably roasted.

I love sweet potatoes, and while there are lots of ways to prepare them, roasted with various spice coatings is my favorite.  It’s also the quickest and the simplest.  I keep spice mixtures on hand to toss them in, but salt, pepper and olive oil also works.

Roasting sweet potatoes is simple – preheat oven to 375 degrees, oil a pan, peel and slice the sweet potatoes into half moons or wedges, sprinkle salt, pepper, your favorite spice mixture and drizzle olive oil on top.  Bake until soft with crispy edges, 25 minutes or so.

My current favorite is Harissa seasonings, a mix of chili peppers and paprika.  I like the smokey flavor it adds.  I use Spice Road brand, but any will do.

Harissa_Silk Road

 

Harissa sweet potatoes.jpg

Another favorite here is Tumeric-roasted cauliflower.  When organic cauliflower goes on sale I always pick up a couple heads.  Cut the florets from the head (the bunnies get to eat the leftovers), put them in an oiled pan, sprinkle with salt, a generous amount of tumeric, and olive oil over the top.  Roast until tender, 45-50 minutes.

The great part of roasted veggies – aside from healthy, cheap and tasty –  is that the leftovers can be warmed in the oven repeatedly with no loss of taste or texture.

If you can’t have a warm spring night, at least you can have a warm spring meal.