Thursday, July 19, 2007

My New Personal Trainer

About 6 weeks ago I went to the local family practice physician (at Prairiewolf's request) to have my blood pressure checked out. To make a long story short(er), the doc recommended the typical "walk for 30 minutes every day," which I knew I should be doing but somehow never managed to accomplish on a regular basis. About two weeks ago I finally quit procrastinating and, with our German Shepherd, Becker, as a companion, I hit the road, walking about half an hour each day for a couple mornings in a row.

A couple mornings was all it took. It turns out that Becker is a strong "J" (to use the Meyers-Brigg personality profile terminology). That means he likes his routines...ah, no, that means he craves his routines. Within those "couple" days, he had decided that this morning walk thing was a GREAT addition to his morning rituals.

Becker is an extremely talented nag. Obviously he can't say anything, but his body language is unmistakeable: "Okay, Mom, time to get up" (cold nose nudge in face, whine, whine). "Okay, Mom, time to get dressed" (hopeful look back upstairs, dancing feet if I head even slightly in that direction). "Okay, Mom, time to go outside" (alert stance, whine, whine, dancing feet when I pass near the door). "O boy, Mom! Now you're talking!" (dancing happy dance as we go out the door).

Do you know how hard it is to ignore a 110+ pound German Shepherd?

Any thoughts I now have of occasionally skipping this morning walk are not about to be least not by Becker. It doesn't matter what the weather is. It doesn't matter if I'm feeling groggy from allergy meds or from an interrupted night of sleep. It doesn't matter if my feet hurt because I stood on them all day the day before. We ARE going walking every morning. And we ARE going walking as soon as he can nag me to get out the door. No lolligagging is permitted.

It irritates the living daylights out of me, especially when I've been up half the night and sleep is seductively calling my name after Prairiewolf has left in the morning, but some taskmasters are simply inescapable.

Once I get outside and on the road, though, I'm usually glad we came. Becker settles down right beside me, ears slightly back, nose quivering, eyes scanning, panting as he contentedly pads along the side of the road. I notice the wildflowers blooming in the ditches and the birds singing in the fields. (The dickcissels have been particularly vocal lately.) Becker notices the roadkills. We both do our own versions of neighborhood watch.

Back at home once again, I have to laugh. Some people actually PAY for personal trainers. For better or worse, I've got mine living with me 24/7...and he WILL NOT be ignored.

Monday, July 16, 2007

New Tricks for An Old Dog

You can teach an old dog new tricks! And I taught myself a new trick just today. It feels great!

After years of growing basil (I love the smell as I brush by it in the garden), I finally got myself together enough yesterday and today to harvest some and actually use it.

To be precise, I made basil pesto. It took a lot longer than I expected, mainly because I think I am the most inefficient basil leaf picker known to humankind, but it was wonderful and well worth the effort. (Since my food processor instructions said to be sure that fresh herbs were DRY, I had to first pick fresh basil branches, then wash them and pat them dry, then pick the leaves off individually and blot them dry. It takes a lot of basil leaves to make 2 packed cups of fresh basil leaves!)

Note: When I described how long it took to pick the basil leaves, my mother got concerned about how long I was out in the sun, evidently envisioning me picking off leaf after basil leaf out in the garden. It's nice to have someone who still worries about me.

The pesto turned out excellently! Now I have plans to harvest much more. I have 3 different kinds of basil, so I'm planning to make pesto out of all 3 separately, noting the flavor difference between varieties. I'll also be freezing some. Lots of new experiences ahead.

The last few days have been the beginning of our serious attempt to eat more locally. The pesto is part of this. (The basil was VERY local. The other ingredients, unfortunately, were not. I have some work to do there.) We grilled (local) corn on the cob in its husk for the first time last night. Another new trick for us old dogs. Our chicken tonight was local, free range, hormone and antiobiotic free - and was excellent. And we've been eating tomatoes, cucumbers, cinnamon rolls, and whole wheat bread from local folks too. It's fun, tasty, somewhat of a challenge to learn to plan menus differently, and altogether an excellent adventure.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Past the Tipping Point of Summer

It's barely into double digit days in July, but already it feels like we've passed the tipping point of summer.

Mom mentioned yesterday that she's noticing a few yellow leaves on the cottonwoods, and that the willows are beginning to shed a few early leaves too.

I noticed the first cicadas about 2 weeks ago. They're not omnipresent, like they will be soon, but they are definitely moving into full chorus mode.

When I walk in the morning, I see families of barn swallows sitting on the wires or on the fence near the creek bridge.

Lastly, this morning on my walk I noticed the second and third of the fall flowers and grasses beginning to open up. (I noticed a few sunflowers open several days ago - those were the first of the fall flowers.) Right next to the road, I saw the first turkeyfoot flowerhead of a big bluestem grass clump, and further down the way, an ironweed bloom cluster was beginning to show its brilliant purple color.

The change of seasons is beginning to feel like a rollercoaster ride to me - the ups and downs are thrilling, but come at me amazingly fast and almost take my breath away.

My Southern Nemesis Reappears

Since we've moved in, both Prairiewolf and I have occasionally seen a hole that looked suspiciously like armadillo work. We've known that they are here, but they don't seem to be present in the numbers found further south, so we've assured ourselves that the hole probably wasn't actually made by an armadillo and moved on with life.

Well, all of those holes probably were made by an armadillo. Proof that we have (had) at least one resident armadillo is currently lying dead in the ditch in front of our house, a victim of a run-in with a car.

I normally mourn when a wild animal tragically meets its end, but in this case I feel more like celebrating. I want to be able to assume that we're done with armadillo damage for a while, but logic tells me, "Where there's one, there's plenty more."

Bah! Humbug! That was one garden scourge I was truly hoping we'd not have to deal with here.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

A Challenge to Become a Locavore

I just finished Barbara Kingsolver's latest book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. As I mentioned in an earlier post, it is a book about the year that she and her family (husband, 2 daughters) decided to eat locally. They consciously and carefully tried to make their entire menu out of food produced as close as possible to their home, as well as food produced organically. They grew quite a bit of their food, including eggs, chickens and turkeys, but also relied on area farmers and farmers' markets.

"Why would anyone do that?" I hear people asking. There were several reasons. One was the realization that every calorie they were eating had used many more calories being shipped to them, and in this time of growing environmental concern, that seemed tragically wasteful. Then, too, local food is fresher, tastier, and in buying it you are supporting local farmers rather than soul-less mega-corporations. Eating locally meant becoming more in tune with the natural rhythms around them. And by eating locally and getting to know the local producers, they not only developed a stronger sense of community, but they helped keep that community (and themselves) healthier by supporting organic agriculture.

It's an interesting book, a true family affair. Kingsolver writes the bulk of the story and her narrative voice is casual and fun, but knowledgeable. Her 19 year old daughter Camille writes occasional sections primarily focused around specific recipes and meal plans for taking advantage of seasonal fruits and vegetables. Her husband, a biology professor, writes sidebars that provide more specific scientific information.

While I'm not courageous enough to jump headfirst into a year's contract to eat locally, I've been slowly trying to work more local foods into our diet. We've been eating local eggs (wonderful! with bright orange yellow substantial yolks), hamburger (no hormones or antibiotics - very tasty, but we're still looking for straight pasture fed beef), bread (very good), cinnamon rolls (fantastic, but I'm not sure the ingredients are local for either the bread or the cinnamon rolls) and vegetables. Many of these things we found at the local farmers' market in West Wichita. After reading this book, I'm even more dedicated to that changeover, and I'm specifically looking forward to trying some of the recipes Camille presents.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Smoke Clouds on the Horizon

It's been such a rainy spring and summer here that everything is still bright green. Everything, that is, except the wheat.

By now the wheat should have been harvested and all that should remain is stubble. Instead, field after field still contains its crop...or what remains of its crop. After decades of living in Kansas, I've never seen the wheat look this bad. Instead of golden brown, it's gray and thin and scraggly. As each week passes and more rain comes, keeping it impossible to get into the fields, more and more weeds are poking their heads through and the wheat itself gets grayer and skimpier and sadder.

I've wondered what the farmers will do. It doesn't even look like you could harvest these fields for hay - too much of it is bent and all of it looks like it's rotting in place. However, leaving the wheat standing and eventually plowing it under doesn't seem like a good option either, because that would just leave seeds in place to contaminate next year's crop.

This weekend I got my answer: smoke clouds started appearing in several different directions. Many farmers have made the painful decision to burn the remnants of their wheat as it stands.

Hopefully most of the farmers will have crop insurance and will thus be able to weather this disastrous year. However, there's certainly not much diversity built into farming any more to allow them to weather it the traditional way, through the offset of a different crop thriving under these weather conditions.

In fact, the condition of the wheat is quite ironic, really. So many other plants are thriving this year: the wildflowers have been outstanding, lawns and gardens are lush even without watering, and many trees are putting on strong growth. This year is pointing out the biological vulnerabilities that underlie our country's current agricultural system: the economy of scale (literally putting all our eggs into one or two baskets) provides phenomenal results when the conditions are right...but provides colossal failure when those conditions aren't perfect.

It reminds me of the stock market debacle of several years ago: tech stocks "couldn't fail" for several years...then suddenly they did fail, wiping out entire portfolios of investors who had concentrated on only the "best performing" stocks. It also reminds me of the loss of so many communities' trees when Dutch elm disease wiped out most American elms; many communities had planted little but elms because they were such a "perfect" street tree.

So the smoke clouds send signals to me. They signal me that what works most of the time doesn't work all of the time, and to plan for that. They signal me that, in the midst of plenty, things can still go wrong and be hard for others, and to take that into consideration in my dealings with them. They signal me to celebrate courage, and to cultivate the courage to cut my losses and move on when things don't go well. Most of all, the smoke clouds signal me to celebrate diversity and to work to incorporate it into my life wherever I can.

(Does this mean I've got some loss cutting and diversity increasing that I need to do right now? Hmmm. Much as I hate to admit it, I suspect that it does and that I do. If I'm going to interpret the smoke signals and write about them publicly, the least I can do is actually pay attention to them irritating as that is!)

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Questioning the Status Quo

Yesterday we went to see Sicko, Michael Moore's new movie about health insurance here in the U.S. It wasn't an unbiased piece of journalism, but it was an interesting look at our country's health care system compared to the health care systems in several other, generally "similar" countries.

If you can temporarily suspend the automatic "our country is always better no matter what" mentality that most of us seem to absorb with the air we breath, the movie definitely raises some difficult questions about whether our current health care system is serving us, as a people, adequately.

For me (and on a more philosophical note), the movie also raised questions about who we, as a people, are becoming. I have to say that I like our IDEA of who we are, rather than the current reality of who we seem to be, based upon how we are acting.

During much of the movie, average people tell their own stories. For the most part, this is specifically a movie about working people who have health insurance. There are definitely many "there but for the grace of God, go I" moments.

Go see it. It's entertaining, not preachy. You get a chance to see life through some other countries' glasses. And, if nothing else, it raises some interesting questions for us to ask ourselves. It's well worth the price of admission and the small time investment...even if it only gives you ammunition for argument!

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Beginning the Rebalancing Process

For the first time since we got our "stuff", I spent much of yesterday outside, continuing the organic process of settling in to our new homestead.

I worked on 3 main tasks I've come to view as critical to maintaining my yard organically: weeding, pest control, and mulching. First, I cleared (by hand) the beginnings of my frontyard perennial garden. As I weeded, I separated the weeds into "not yet seeding out" and "seeding out" piles - the former went into the compost pile; the latter was bagged and put into the trash.

Weeding has become meditative for me. While I'm weeding, I notice things that I would normally miss while I hurry through the yard. It was gray and overcast. And quiet, at least as far as human noise was concerned. When a car came by, I could hear it from at least a mile away before it zoomed past the house. The cottonwood leaves were rustling in the breeze. In the swale, the yellow-billed cuckoo announced its presence with its distinctive, drum-roll song. Cardinals frequently defended their territories with melodious liquid notes. An eastern wood peewee sang its name over and over. The robins nesting in the honeylocust nearby alternated between singing, alarm pips, and silence as they fed their young. And the neighbors cows lowed insistently for at least 15 minutes, presumably quieting once they were fed.

When I got bored and ready for a change, I moved around to the back and cleaned out the little deck-side beds that I started late last winter. Given the time of year and my absence as a gardener, they were choked full of crabgrass just beginning to form seed heads. "A year of seed; 7 years of weed" kept running through my head.

Later, as I was walking out to the mailbox, I noticed a mass of caterpillars on the leaves of a small walnut along the driveway. They had defoliated one moderate branch and were beginning to work on a second. There seemed to be 2 broods: one getting big enough to pupate, and one newly hatched.

So, I got out the big guns: a old peanut butter jar filled with water and a few drops of dishwashing soap. Then I did one of my least favorite tasks of all - I handpicked all of the older brood and most of the younger brood, dropping them into the water where they rapidly drowned. I hate killing anything, but at least this way I'm only killing the insects that are out of balance. Which leads me to why I only killed part of the younger brood: there was a hemipteran nymph feeding on one group of the newly hatched caterpillars. I decided to leave it chowing down, in hopes of increasing the population of predatory insects doing 24/7 guard duty in the yard. I'll keep an eye on that tree and remove the remainder of that brood after he's has his fill and moved on.

An hour later (it was evening now), Prairiewolf came in and said that squash bugs were "running all over" the squash vines. So I got out the big guns again and hunted squash bugs. I probably got 15-20 adults, 2 broods of newly hatched young, and (most importantly) I found and removed at least a dozen batches of eggs on the underside of the leaves. I've kept squash bugs at bay for weeks on end using this somewhat primitive method. Whether it will work here or not, I don't know, but I certainly set the population back a bit last night.

Of course, once I was looking that closely at the vegetable beds, more weeding was in order. (Why do people plant bermuda grass? It is the most awful plant to keep out of gardens.)

Last but not least, before I went in for the evening, I decided to spread some corn gluten on my newly weeded flower beds, then cover it (and them) up with cedar mulch.

Weeding - pest control - mulching. This year will be the most time intensive as I try to establish new biological balances. (Or should I say, reestablish old balances?) Birds and predatory insects should eventually solve most of my plant-eating insect issues. Mulching consistently and keeping weeds from setting seed will decrease weeds in the yard. These aren't quick fixes, but they are satisfying and ultimately richer. It's a recipe I've followed several times before, and the results have always been well worth it.