More about Trees

More about Trees

I’ve been thinking about trees a lot lately. For all their beauty, grandeur, and life-sustaining qualities for us humans, the thing that most impresses me about these remarkable specimens is their sheer tenacity.

Nature confounds and amazes me. Plants can be so finicky, demanding just the right kind of soil, the right number of daylight hours, the right amount of water. But what’s right for one tree is wrong for another. Magnolias prefer acid soil while maples do just fine in alkaline. Willows like it wet; palms prefer dry. Some like it hot; others are happy in cooler climates.

But the one thing all trees need is roots, and roots need soil. Yet, I’ve seen trees thriving in the most inhospitable places, defying all the odds. Like this baby rhododendron that has somehow taken root on a boulder.

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And look at this bristlecone. Maybe when it was a wee thing five thousand years ago, the rock it now stands on was rich, loamy soil, but that hasn’t been true for ages. Yet the tree keeps on. (Even though it doesn’t look it, it’s still alive).

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Then there are these trees clinging to the side of a rock cliff, almost as if they’re suspended in mid-air. How do they do it? Really, they shouldn’t survive in these conditions. Nevertheless, they persist.

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Life is complicated, and we humans are often plagued by complex physical and psychological conditions. Sometimes it’s not enough to say, “Just hang in there.” Still, when times are tough, it seems we could take a lesson from trees.

Trees

Trees

“I think that I shall never see a poem as lovely as a tree.” —Joyce Kilmer, “Trees”

It may not the be one of the world’s great poems, but the sentiment rings true. Poems are just . . . well, poems. But trees! Trees are magnificent. The oldest known non-clonal living tree is a Great Basin bristlecone pine. At more tan 5,000 years old, it resides in California.

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It may not look it, but this 5,000 year-old bristlecone is still living. (Public domain photo by Mark Wilson.)

As old as many bristlecones are, they’re not all that tall, ranging from 16 to 49 feet. The award for tallest tree goes to one of those gargantuan redwoods we grew up learning about. There’s a Coast Redwood, also in California, that’s just twenty feet shy of being 400 feet tall.

Then there’s the General Sherman giant sequoia in—you guessed it—California, the largest known living tree by volume, at more than 52,000 cubic feet. A wild fig tree located in Mpumalanga, South Africa has roots that go down 400 feet—that’s a deeper root system than the above-ground height of the General Sherman.

Honors for the tree with the largest diameter (38.1 feet) go to El Arbol del Tule, a cypress in Oaxaca, Mexico. Its circumference is a whopping 137+ feet. It would take about 25 adults standing in a circle, arms outstretched, fingertips touching, to reach around that tree. To put that in perspective, it would only take 18 of those same people to encircle our home, with its 24 x 26´ footprint.

About those clonal trees. If you’re like me, you’ve never heard of clonal and non-clonal trees, so here’s a lesson in a nutshell, so to speak. A non-clonal tree is an individual tree, just like you and I are individual people. A clonal tree, though, is a colony of genetically identical trees. The individual trees originate vegetatively from a single ancestor instead of sexually. So, when we talk about the age of a clonal colony, we’re really talking about the root system. Since the entire colony is part of a single root system, the whole is considered in determining age and weight. Pando, a colony of single Quaking Aspen located in Utah’s Fishlake National Forest, is at least 80,000 years old (by some estimates as much as 1,000,000 years old) and weighs an estimated 6,000 tons, making it both the world’s oldest known clonal tree and its heaviest known organism.

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Pondo Quaking Aspen colony, Fishlake National Forest, Utah (Public domain photo, US Government)

These are the exceptions, of course, and there’s more to trees than their age or size or weight. Trees provide shelter and food. They cool us with their shade. When they’re downed, they provide heat in stoves and fireplaces. And let’s not forget that they absorb carbon dioxide and provide life-sustaining oxygen for us humans. Remember those 18 people surrounding my home? An acre of trees produces enough oxygen to let them breathe for an entire year.

See? I wasn’t exaggerating when I said trees are magnificent. Yes, poems are just words. Trees are the real poetry.

Here’s some tree poetry in photographs (all photos taken by the Gnome or the Crone).

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(Note: The statistics referenced above came various crosschecked online sources. Occasionally, there’s some contradictory information out there, but the point remains the same.)

Found Art

A few weeks ago, I shared some found poetry on this page. That’s when you pull words or phrases out of newspapers or other documents to form their own story in verse. Today’s post is short on words but full of another find—found art. I’ll tell  where it was found at the end. Bonus points if you figure it out before you get there. (No peeking!)

Group I:

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Group II:

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Group III:

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Anyone?

The Gnome gets credit for finding all this art and photographing it. Actually, he had two sources.  But both come from the same event: what we call Grandparents’ Camp. That’s when we host our grandchildren for a week of pure fun. Every year, the number one item on each of their lists is painting. The Gnome took a closer look at what might pass the rest of us unnoticed. (That’s the way he is. It’s one of the reasons I love him so.) And this is what he found.

The art you see in Group I came from a piece of foam board that supports canvas panels on an easel, usually with binder clips or painter’s tape. What you see above is nothing more than where the artists’ strokes have extended beyond their work of art and onto the foam board.

The art you see in Groups II and III came from a palette that in a former life was a plastic fruit platter from the grocery store. (It’s all about recycling here on the diagonal.) And next summer as more painting takes place, we’ll have a whole new selection of found art.  Pretty cool, huh?

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Look closely. Can you find any of the art the Gnome discovered?

Food in the Forest

This is the time of year when the Gnome and Crone’s fancy turns to thoughts of maple syrup. Yes, we make our own. It’s foraging at its sweetest and just one more door to modern homesteading.

It’s no way to save money, though. There’s a reason real maple syrup costs more than the gooey stuff made with corn. We figured our first cup cost us a hundred dollars in materials alone. If we factored in labor, the real cost would quadruple—or more.

First we had to buy taps (or spiles), blue sap collection bags, and metal bag holders. There are cheaper ways, like making your own spiles with sumac stems and hanging buckets under them to catch the sap. We tried that, but the buckets filled with bugs and bits of bark, and the sap didn’t always make it into the buckets. So we opted for a closed system.

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Our sap-collecting system at work

Nor did it take many days of standing in the rain, wind, cold, and snow to decide that there had to be a better, if more expensive, way to monitor the heating and evaporation process.

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Boiling sap in the snow didn’t last long.

We bought a turkey fryer and a couple of twenty-pound propane tanks and moved the operation to our covered deck.

 

With glass doors leading to the deck, we’re able to check on the syrup-making progress from the warmth of indoors, and it also allows us to do a few other chores during the hours and hours of watching the pot boil. It takes a lot of boiling to turn tree water into syrup. Ten gallons of sap will make only one quart or so of syrup.

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The Gnome hauls eighty-five pounds of maple sap with each trip from the woods to our deck where it goes into the pot to boil. This amount will yield about a quart of syrup.

But you can never take your eyes off the pot for very long, especially as the sap begins to thicken, or you’ll find yourself with burnt caramel seriously stuck to the bottom of your pot. (Ask me how I know.)

Of course, our cost has dropped with each batch since most of those supplies were a one-time expense. Our method will never win any awards for efficiency, though, partly because of the on-going propane expense. Still, we keep at it. At the end of a good season, we find ourselves with twenty or thirty pints of that sweet amber liquid, enough to enjoy a year’s worth of maple syrup over pancakes, on yogurt, with acorn squash, in smoothies, and still have plenty to share with friends and relatives.

The syrup-making season is short and unpredictable, especially where we live. Conditions for collecting sap have to be just right: night temperatures in the 20s and sunny days in the 40s, all before the trees begin to bud. The last couple of years haven’t been good ones.

So, why do we do it? While living frugally is part of our mantra, homesteading—modern or not—isn’t always about frugality. It’s more about being in touch with nature, about discovery, about doing for oneself, as well as the self-confidence, knowledge, and self-awareness that go along with all that. We like knowing that if we have to, we can. Whatever it is.

Besides, there’s nothing quite like the light, sweet taste of warm maple syrup you’ve cooked up yourself.

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One pint of  homemade maple syrup coming up

World’s Best Granola

I love it when someone shares a favorite recipe and it turns out to be one of my faves, too. I always include the name of the giver, in this case Becky B, when I rename it. That way, I always think of these special people when I’m preparing or eating the dish they brought into my life.

This is a seriously delicious and seriously easy recipe. The hardest thing about it is melting the butter. The most time-consuming—and most crucial—task is checking it every five minutes while it’s in the oven. You don’t even have to be all that great at measuring because exact measurements just aren’t all that important.

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Becky B’s granola with yogurt and berries

If you have a nut allergy or they’re too expensive at the moment, just substitute with more seeds. You might want to use different nuts or seeds. It really doesn’t matter. For instance, I’ve rarely added almonds just because they don’t happen to be in the house when it’s time to mix up another batch. I’ve also tossed in a couple tablespoons of chia, sesame, or flax seed at one time or another.

In truth, the recipe didn’t originate with Becky. The copied piece of paper she handed me said it came from her uncle who apparently got it from Emeril Lagasse. I have no idea how many iterations it’s been through, but here’s my take.

Becky B’s Granola

Preheat oven to 325.

Mix together the following:
3 c old-fashioned rolled oats
½ c slivered almonds
½ c shredded coconut (sweetened or unsweetened)
¼ c hulled pumpkin seed
¼ c sunflower seed
½ c chopped pecans and/or walnuts (I always add more, sometimes as much as double)
1 tsp cinnamon

In a small pan on low heat, melt
4 T butter mixed with
1/3 c honey
(You could also do this in the microwave, but be sure to cover your container to keep the liquid from spattering.)

Add: ½ – 1 tsp vanilla, depending on your preference.

Pour liquid mixture over dry and mix well.

On large baking sheet, spread granola evenly in thin layer. I find it works best to use two baking sheets (with sides). Otherwise, it’s too easy to make a mess each time you need to stir.

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After five minutes in the oven

Bake, stirring every 5 minutes to keep from sticking or burning, moving the outside edges (which will cook faster) to the inside each time you stir. Bake until golden brown and crisp, about 20 minutes. Important: do not overcook. Unless you oven cooks lower than the temperature you set, it’s better to remove the pans from the oven after 20 minutes even if the mixture doesn’t look quite done. The granola will continue to crisp as it cools.

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Crisped perfectly

Now, right here is where I part ways with the recipe that was given to me. The instructions say to add ½ cup raisins and ½ cup dried cranberries or blueberries or both at this point. But if you do that, all that wonderful crispiness disappears almost overnight. I’d much rather add my fruit when it’s time to eat. Bonus: if you do it my way, you can use your choice of dried, fresh, or even frozen fruit.

Cool granola on pan. Keep in airtight container. Recrisp if needed.

Note: I’ve never needed to recrisp once I started omitting the dried fruit. Even though this tasty mixture usually goes pretty fast in our house, on occasion we’ve still had some after several weeks—still no recrisping needed. It keeps really well. It’s a terrific topper for your favorite yogurt, too.

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This recipe makes about four cups of granola. If you leave out the dried fruit, the granola stays fresh for weeks–but it rarely has that chance at our house.

 

A Love Story: The Beginning

The place: Furman University dining hall

The time: February 1, 1965, sophomore year; registration day for second semester classes

The scene: a group of friends sharing a long table at lunch. I’m facing the wall of glass that looks out onto the lake and its iconic swans.

My friend and future roommate has just come rushing to the table, practically dragging a guy we’d never seen before along with her. Jan wants to introduce us to this fellow she’s just discovered walking across campus. They are old childhood buddies. She’s bursting with excitement to have found him here, he having just transferred from the University of South Carolina. She’s eager for him to make fast friends and happily settle in to his new life as a Furman student.

* * *

Yes, this was the first time I laid eyes on The Gnome. His eyes twinkled and even then his lips curved into that amiably mischievous smile he’s so well known for. For the next year, our paths crossed in classroom building hallways or in the student center, where we usually stopped for a lighthearted chat. Sometimes we visited in the dining hall when he spotted our little group at a table. How did he approach us? Patty was the key. Whenever he saw Patty, he made his way over to give her a pat on the head saying something like, “Pat, pat, Patty.” She always smiled, but, oh, that little joke must have worn thin.

We’d known each other just over a year when he finally asked me out. As soon as word leaked that we we had a date, Jan and Martha (another of his childhood friends), both so protective of his feelings, started in on me.

“Don’t you hurt him.”

“He’s a sensitive soul.”

“You’d better not break his heart.”

Or words to that effect.

And here I thought it was just a date, a mere basketball game. They had me freaked—I nearly called it off. But I stuck it out. Besides, what was with them? He didn’t strike me as being particularly delicate, and, as far as I knew, I’d never done any heart breaking.

Even though it was a nail-biter of a game and Furman lost to the Citadel by a mere two points, we had a fine time and everything went just great—until evening’s end. Sitting in his car in the circular drive in front of the women’s dorm, we were saying all those nice, if awkward, things two people say when a first date is nearing its end. Then he told me he had a gift for me. Warning bells went off. They turned into ear-piercing alarm bells when he pulled out a little blue velvet box.

My heart leapt into my throat. Oh my gosh! What have I gotten myself into? I should have canceled, I should have canceled, I should have canceled!

But I’d forgotten the mischief that was always dancing at the edge of those green eyes. He opened the box to show me a gaudy adjustable ring featuring a huge—and I do mean huge—chunk of glass. There was a little card inside that read, “Hope Diamond.”

I was so relieved that it didn’t occur to me to be insulted at the implication.

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The Hope Diamond 51 years later

It was never stated, but we were a steady couple after that. My dorm sign-out sheet (now, there’s a story!) shows that I only went out with two other people following that February 12th basketball game, and both of those occasions were within the next five days. Chances are those dates had been made well in advance of my first date with the Gnome.

By early in our senior year, a future together seemed like a fait accompli. Without any formal declarations, we’d begun talking about where we’d live, children, things like that. So, when December 2nd rolled around and he took me to Ye Olde Fireplace, the swanky steak restaurant where all Furman couples went for special occasions … well, yes, this time I was thinking about a ring. Even more so when, after dinner, we headed to the top of Paris Mountain, that popular, romantic peak that overlooked the city and its night lights. Surely this was the moment.

Then came the bombshell. With a serious look on his face and an ominously somber tone in his voice, he said, “Carole, I have a confession.” Uh-oh.

“I haven’t been completely honest with you about our relationship, and I have to confess something.” This time my heart thudded into the pit of my stomach.

“Remember our first date?” he asked. “That ring I gave you—it wasn’t a real diamond.”

(Pause)

“But this one is.”

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Yes, of course I still have the ring box!

Well, you can’t say I didn’t know what I was getting into.

Cream of Pumpkin Soup with Cinnamon Croutons (Yum! Yum!)

Several folks have asked that I write more about our experiences related to moving here, hand-building our home, and trying to live more sustainably. I’m tackling that project, but it’s a big one. In the meantime, how about I leave you with our favorite pumpkin soup recipe?

We’re pumpkin fools around here. It all started a few years ago when I was browsing through a seed catalog and my eyes fell upon these words: Baby Pam pumpkin. Pam’s my mother’s name. That’s all it takes for me to become infatuated with a plant—a name that rings my chimes. (I’d be terrible betting on the horses!) The Baby Pams were great eating pumpkins, but awfully small, maybe softball size. It was always guesswork figuring out how many we needed to, say, bake a pie, and too often we found we hadn’t cooked up enough of the vitamin-rich orange flesh.

But the lure of pumpkin growing had gotten under our skins. With their bright colors, huge leaves and sprawling vines, we were hooked. And there was this plus–pumpkins store well, which means good eating well into winter with no up front preserving effort. All you need is a cool, dark place. A basement or unheated closet will do.

Catalog pages were filled with colorful displays–so many varieties. We got carried away with the weird-looking pumpkins: the green ones, the white ones, the ones with warts. Most of those were more for decorating than eating. We thought the grandkids might enjoy using them at Halloween. But they never did particularly well in our garden.

After that experiment, we read about Long Pie pumpkins, also called Nantucket Pie.

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Various pumpkins and other winter squash from our garden

An heirloom variety, the Long Pie is known for its sweetness, and it has very little of the stringiness pumpkins are known for. If you were to see it in the garden, though, you might think it was a zucchini on steroids with its elongated shape and dark green skin which rarely fully ripens to a deep orange until it’s in storage. Since trying our first Long Pie, we’ve never so much as looked at another pumpkin variety.

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Long Pie Pumpkin

But the problem with Long Pies, if you can call it a problem, is that they are both prolific and pretty good-sized. On average, they weigh five to eight pounds apiece—we’ve had some quite a bit heavier. One is always enough for a pie. In fact, whenever we’ve roasted and pureed a Long Pie, we’ve usually had extra to put in the freezer for some unknown future use. The last year we kept a record of such things, we harvested more than 250 pounds of Long Pies. That’s a lot of pumpkin. And just how many pumpkin pies can two people eat, anyway? (The Gnome says, “A LOT!”)

So we began looking for other ways to use pumpkin. We’ve substituted it for sweet potatoes, we’ve made pumpkin bread, pumpkin muffins, pumpkin chili, pumpkin risotto—all delicious, by the way. But our favorite alternate use for pumpkin has got to be this cream of pumpkin soup, especially on chilly winter nights. The cream makes this dish extra smooth and rich. Add the cinnamon croutons and it’s a standout.

Of course, you don’t have to grow your own pumpkin to make this pie, nor even buy it fresh (though if you do, you’ll need to roast and puree the pumpkin first.) A can of pureed pumpkin will do fine. Just be sure you don’t accidentally buy pumpkin pie mix.

Unfortunately, I don’t know where I found the recipe for this soup, and I hate not giving recognition. I’ve searched my cookbooks, recipe cards, and online favorites, all to no avail. I found one that’s awfully close, though, from Judith N. over at the Food Network website. Since I can’t find the exact recipe I use, why don’t I just go ahead and give her credit?

CREAM OF PUMPKIN SOUP (approximately six servings)

Croutons

3 tablespoons butter or margarine, softened
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
4 slices whole wheat bread

Soup

1 cup chopped onion
2 tablespoons butter or margarine, melted
4 cups homemade or 2 cans veggie broth (chicken, if you prefer)
2 cups fresh pumpkin puree (or one 15.5 oz can)
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon ground ginger
1/8 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 cup heavy whipping cream

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F (200 degrees C).

For the croutons, combine butter, brown sugar, and cinnamon in a small bowl and mix well. Spread this mixture evenly over one side of each bread slice. Place bread, buttered side up, on a baking sheet. Bake until bread is crisp and topping is bubbly, about 10 minutes. (You may want to do this step ahead of time to give the croutons time to crisp up as they cool.) Cut each slice of bread into bite-sized pieces.

Saute onion in butter in a saucepan (one that will comfortably accommodate eight or ten cups) until tender. Add half the broth and stir well. Bring to a boil. Cover, reduce heat, and simmer 15 minutes.

If you have an immersion blender, use it to process the mixture until it’s smooth. Otherwise, transfer to your blender or food processor for blending. (When it comes to outfitting the kitchen, I’m kind of a minimalist, but an immersion blender is a wonderful tool to have on hand. It works like a charm, saves on dirty dishes, takes up very little real estate, is easy to clean, and is relatively inexpensive. So glad I finally learned about this device.)

In the saucepan, combine blended mixture with remaining ingredients and stir well. Bring to a boil; cover, reduce heat, and simmer 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.

When the soup is cooked, you have a choice. You can add the cup of whipping cream to the entire mixture and warm, being sure not to boil the soup or scorch the cream, but it’s much prettier to dip the steaming soup into serving bowls and swirl the cream directly into each bowl, approximately 2-3 tablespoons per bowl. Top each serving with cinnamon croutons, and call everyone to the table for some super deliciousness.

(Disclaimer: No chefs live here. But with a great big garden, we’ve discovered lots of terrific recipes–mostly simple to make and without exotic ingredients. I enjoy sharing our finds with others just as much as I enjoy being on the receiving end. I do try to be clear, accurate, and thorough, though. And I can promise that all the recipes I put on my blog have been rigorously taste-tested right here at Living on the Diagonal and have received the Gnome’s seal of approval.)