Monthly Archives: April 2012

Country Gifts

When invited over to a friend’s house for dinner, what do you usually bring for the host? A bottle of wine? I don’t know about you, but as I’ve aged my tastes have become more refined, which means I can no longer choke down “three-buck Chuck.” Which also means that I feel uncomfortable bringing cheap wine as a gift. Which, of course, means that I’m spending at least $15 on a good bottle every time I go to someone’s house.

That can add up!

Consider a country alternative—bring some jam that you made! I used to buy half-pint jars for that purpose, so I didn’t lose the super-thick old-school jars that my friend Catherine mailed to me from her grandmother’s house. Easier than asking for your good jar back.

Another country gift: I used to saw an egg carton in half with my bread knife and pack six eggs. Since we had Ameraucanas and Barred Rocks, our friends received beautiful green and brown eggs. You can make it fancier by tying some ribbon around it.

Be sure that you are not casting your pearls to swine—only give a lovely country gift to someone who will appreciate (and eat) it. Before Mike and I lived in the country, a friend once brought us a jar of plums she had canned. We were afraid to eat them, thinking them somehow suspicious and unsafe. Once I brought one of my little egg-gifts to a friend’s house, and I could tell immediately that she was afraid of them.

“How long will they stay good?” she asked, eying the carton carefully.

“Weeks,” I assured her. “Those are way fresher than any you’d buy in a store.”

I knew she would never eat them. Oh, well. Sacrificial eggs. Other friends would squeal with delight.

So—give your magical country gifts to people who will appreciate them, and save some money on store-bought treats!

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Last weekend I met my family at my cousin Bill’s house because his sister, Betsy, was visiting from Rhode Island. As Bill poured wine and Betsy and my parents chatted, Bill’s partner Jessica asked if I could help her with the garden. We walked outside, accompanied by six-year-old Owen, and she pointed out the young bean plants in a garden bed next to the garage. Jessica had purchased a package of six four-foot bamboo stakes from a garden store but wasn’t sure how to arrange them.

The purpose of a trellis is to support a growing plant. Beans and other legumes are designed to climb; they develop tendrils that are deceptively strong. The tendrils reach out until they make contact with something and wrap around it, giving the plant a leg up toward that open sky and sunshine. Since people plant garden vegetables in isolation to guarantee they (and not weeds or competing vegetables) receive the nutrients, we have to provide something for them to cling to.

Owen weighed in with a teepee design for each plant, which really wasn’t very far off. The bean plants were in two short rows of three, so we stuck a stake next to each, about a foot deep. Then, we bowed each stake over to its mate on the other side and tied them together. I pointed out that the knot would be more stable if Jessica wrapped it over-and-under, rather than side to side, and that a small, tight knot was more important than wrapping it around and around a bunch of times. Twine stretches, and once it rained the knots would loosen a bit.

Owen ran off and returned with another length of bamboo, which he offered as something to run across the top to help stabilize the entirety. Jessica and I lashed it above the joints we had created.

“Look, it makes a tunnel that you could crawl through!” Jessica observed. “Wait, that’s not such a great idea—did I say that?” We laughed. Owen is not the kind of kid who needs encouragement to run roughshod over things.

Near ground-level on either side, I showed Jessica how to run lengths of twine from one end of the trellis to the other, tying on at each stake—above the bamboo joint, if possible. Bamboo grows in segments, and at each new segment there is a little “knuckle” which is a great place to support the knotted-on twine. Near the bottom, it’s also helpful to run additional twine up and down from each length of twine—because the beans plants are young and small their tendrils are short.

Once the plants latch on to the trellis they take off like wildfire, but at first they need a little extra help. Just like gardeners.

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Epsom Salt: Your New Best Friend

How did I circle the sun 43 times before I learned to appreciate Epsom salt?

I’d always been a bubble bath gal. As kids, my sister and I never got the coveted Mr. Bubble because my mom was an Avon Lady—ours came in a nondescript, tall bottle with rounded bumps along the sides. The soap was pink, at least.

I thought that a bubble bath was the only kind of bath one could have. I’d heard of Epsom salt but it seemed like one of those old-fashioned things people used to do, like take castor oil. Anyone on television who was bathing was always covered in rich lather. It never occurred to me that this was done solely to make it possible to have a naked woman on prime time TV.

I hadn’t taken many baths as an adult; I’m only 5’3” but even my tiny frame barely fits in a shower-insert tub, so it didn’t seem worth the trouble. However, the house Mike and I currently rent has a big ol’ claw foot tub, so I’ve been trying to take advantage while we’re here. I have to give Mike credit; he bought a bottle of bubble bath from the organic section of our grocery store (after first considering Mr. Bubble!) and poured my inaugural bath.

It wasn’t until some friends gave me a jar of “bath salts” for my birthday about ten years ago that I was even aware of such a thing. I was suspicious of it, and my doubts were confirmed when I dumped a bunch of the powder into the bath. No bubbles. What was the point? It smelled good, at least.

But bath salts are not Epsom salt, which isn’t salt at all. Originally extracted in the English town Epsom, magnesium sulfate is a special combination of minerals that soothes muscles, improves circulation and moisturizes your skin. It even has nutritional value, for crying out loud.

I went skiing on a weekend in March, and the following Monday was totally wrecked. My legs were sore, of course, but the pain in my shoulders was creeping into my neck and threatening to immobilize my head. I happened to have recently purchased a package of Epsom salt, intending to find out what it was all about. It is about MAGIC, dear readers! Two cups in a warm bath, and my neck and shoulders unclenched completely. My quadriceps were still sore on Tuesday, but I was no longer walking like Frankenstein.

It may be hard to give up the aesthetic appeal of a bubble bath. There are even bubbles in the bath on the official Epsom Salt Council website! But after a day of bucking hay or digging garden beds, you are going to very pleased I introduced you to your new best friend, Epsom salt.

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K&M Wellness Retreat

In the fall of 2002, my friend Jane (one of two best friends since fourth grade), called me with hilarious news: her husband, Keith, had been diagnosed with skin cancer. Even more ridiculous: the doctor had given him five years to live. Five years? Hysterical. It’s just skin cancer—my grandma gets bits of it cut out of her face all the time.

We laughed because it was so absurd. We laughed because we were in our early thirties, and those things simply did not happen. Not to a healthy, active guy with two young daughters. Someone might die in a car accident, or maybe even commit suicide. But cancer? No way.

After we learned that there were two kinds of skin cancer, and Keith had The Bad Kind, we stopped laughing so much. In 2003, while Keith was enduring chemotherapy, radiation, surgeries and skin grafts, Mike and I bought our farm in the Columbia River Gorge. We traveled to Minnesota to visit them that December. I brought freshly smoked Pacific salmon, which Keith couldn’t enjoy because his surgeries and medications had destroyed his sense of taste.

In the spring Keith was in bad shape, but still fighting and still optimistic. He and Jane pulled out all the stops: In addition to working with oncologists and surgeons at the Mayo Clinic, they visited nutritionists and spiritual healers. They traveled to New York to visit a well-known naturopathic physician who specialized in cancer patients. Part of his treatment regimen included coffee enemas.

I really wanted them to come out to Washington for a visit. I felt like our place had been so wonderful for Mike and me that it would serve them equally well. “Come to the K&M Wellness Retreat,” I wrote to Keith, “where you’ll enjoy beautiful views, fresh eggs in the morning, and coffee—however you take it!”

Unfortunately, Keith couldn’t suspend his treatments long enough to come out. He died the following spring. Not five years after his diagnosis, just eighteen months. At the end of May, Jane brought her girls out. She was exhausted, and more than ready for the K&M Wellness Retreat.

I bought rubber “farm boots” for Claire, who had just turned five, and Amelia, two. Mike took the girls on hikes through the fields and woods. Claire learned to whistle, and Amelia learned to push stalks of wheat, like little piñatas, through the fence of the chickens’ enclosure, where they would go crazy fighting over the kernels. Jane rested and stared at the mountains that surrounded our house. We planted a pear tree along with some of Keith’s ashes.


Claire whistles

In 2008, Jane, Claire and Amelia returned to our farm—with Jane’s new husband, Scott, his daughters Meghan and Morgan, and their new baby, Joanna. Claire and Megan tried Mike’s guitar. Amelia reacquainted herself with the chickens. Morgan enjoyed the swing chairs in the garden house. Baby Jo launched herself from one interesting thing to the next, making sure that the strawberry patch was part of her route. Jane and Scott relaxed and stared at the mountains that surrounded our house.


Baby Jo and Amelia pick strawberries

Things had come full circle at the K&M Wellness Retreat.

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Got Mouse?

WARNING: This blog post includes a photo of a dead mouse.

Damn it, the things are so cute! Skittering here and there; scuttling under the refrigerator and behind the garbage can. But they can’t live in your house.  Mice are adorable, germy, flea-carrying disease nubbins that poop and pee everywhere they go. You can’t have it.

“Mouse!” Mike just yelled. He wasn’t yelling to me; he was yelling to the mouse that had run toward us from the kitchen. We both talk to animals directly, and call them their species names unless we know their human names. “Crow!” “Chickens!” “Horse.”

“You can’t be so bold,” Mike told the mouse, which had scurried out of sight. “You can’t live here.”

I got out the mousetraps and laid them on a paper towel. Three had been under the sink, untouched, surrounded by mouse poops. Two were lying in the corner near the door, where each had been kicked from in front of the stove when Mike or I accidentally nicked it with our shoe and set it off. (Unexpected tripping of mousetraps may lead to you poop and pee wherever you go, as well.)

I dug the stale peanut butter from the levers with a toothpick and replaced it. You don’t need a lot of peanut butter; in fact, if you use too much the mouse can eat some of it without ever hitting the lever. I set the traps and put one back under the sink, one in front of the stove (which Mike will doubtless set off tomorrow morning when he’s making coffee), one behind the garbage can and two in front of the refrigerator, where the mouse had taken refuge. Each was set against and perpendicular to the baseboard, as mice generally travel along the walls—at least until they become so comfortable with their surroundings that they run straight into the dining room, as this mouse had so recently done.

I have never had luck with anything but the old-fashioned wooden traps with the metal lever and bar. I tried similar traps that had fake plastic cheese as a lever, but they wouldn’t stay set. Many years ago, I got these big plastic ones that purport to suffocate the mouse. I still have post-traumatic stress from that experience—the broken-back-but-still-very-alive mouse screamed for mercy as I tried to bludgeon it with a hammer to finish the job. Ugh. Whatever you do, do not get glue traps. I’m not a fan of poison, either. I am resigned to killing when it’s necessary but have no tolerance for torture.

I settled into the couch with a cup of tea and started writing this blog post when SNAP! We got him already. Mike and I looked at each other. Sorry, Mouse.

This is the way you want a mouse to hit a trap—it did not feel a thing.

Its neck was broken and it died instantly, floating away on a waft of peanut butter fumes. I have killed other mice that didn’t go so cleanly, but they all died quickly. One was even next to the trap, with only one foot stuck, its head in a tiny pool of blood. I think that mouse actually got clocked by the bar when it came down and died that way.

Coda: If this blog post is disturbing to you, then you may not be ready for country living. Dealing with a dead mouse is the least of it!

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