Bear Sighting

Have I told you about our late night bear visits? That’s right. We’ve had a bear in our front yard, on our wooded hillside, even on our deck. We named her Shadow. I tried to capture the tale in a rhyming story for the grandkids.

Okay, not the greatest shot, but hey, I was staring at a bear!

SHADOW

It was late, late one night—
I woke up to a crash!
A Kapow! And a Bang!
I jumped up in a dash!

I wandered outside
and what did I see?
A great big black bear
staring at me!

That bear was so black,
that bear was so big
with her cinnamon nose,
I just flipped my wig!

But why was she there
in my yard late at night?
She was eating my birdseed—
every single last bite!

What could she think
of seeing me now
peeking out in the dark
and watching her chow?

I thought she might run,
but I found that instead
she sat on her haunches
slowly turning her head

To give me a stare.
So I stared right back
till I suddenly thought
I ought to backtrack

Or she’ll give me a whack
with her giant bear paws,
or carry me off
in her great big bear jaws.

I tiptoed inside
and called Grampa Ron.
“Come here to the window!”
But the big bear was gone.

And so was the birdseed,
and the bird feeder, too!
We found it next day
at the edge of the wood.

Can you picture that bear,
feeder swinging from mouth
like a big picnic basket,
traveling south?

The next night and the next
she did not come back,
but the following night
what a thwack, whack, and crack!

A tree limb she broke.
Another bird feeder gone!
And where do you think
we picked up this one?

Right! Right you are—
at the edge of the woods
just where she left
the first of her goods!

She was so clever,
that great big old bear;
She gobbled her food
with nary a care.

She hasn’t returned.
I do not know why.
Maybe she’s patiently
waiting for pie!

The Tyranny of the Garden

Last week I extolled the virtues of gardening, and here I am saying the garden is a tyrant. I know. I’m a bundle of contradictions.

It always happens about this time of year—when the garden’s productivity turns into excess and demands more time than I have to give it. And I’m not talking about weeding and watering. For the most part, the Gnome takes care of those chores. I’m talking about harvesting the results of all the labor that has gone before. I’m talking about the next steps. This is the time of year I begin to reevaluate my relationship with the garden.

When the Gnome and I purchased our first home, we couldn’t wait to plant a garden. A few years after we moved to the diagonal, we tried gardening again. But we were too busy with child-rearing, house building, and jobs to keep up with it. When we retired, we took up gardening yet again—it was a natural extension of the simple lifestyle we were after. He liked working out of doors, doing something where he could see results, connecting to the earth.

I had my own reasons. Gardening is a huge part of my heritage; it ties me to my ancestors. Besides, I wanted to prove to myself that I could. If we were to find ourselves in the midst of a worldwide food catastrophe, I wanted to know I could still make food happen.

I like the smaller footprint we make by growing and eating our own food. Getting food from thousands of miles away costs the environment and decreases food’s quality and flavor. It doesn’t get much more local than taking a few steps from door to garden.

I like knowing exactly what’s going into my body. When I grow my own, I do. And there’s something almost magical about realizing the food I prepare and eat is mine! I made this happen. There’s nothing quite like looking at a plate of lima beans, broccoli, squash with onions, sliced tomatoes and cucumbers, and cornbread cooked with meal ground from our own corn and realizing that everything on the plate is fresh from the garden.

Gardening is primal. It’s healing. It’s hope. But it also takes over my life for about half the year. In the dead of winter, that’s a good thing. I need a break from winter’s tedium. But I have more in my life than gardening. At least I want to.

At this time of year, the garden is a demanding taskmaster. Food that isn’t harvested at the right moment gets tough and seedy. Failure to pick inhibits further growth. (Sometimes I could do with a little growth inhibiting, but it feels almost criminal to let it go.) Or it rots. Heartbreaking.

If it were only the hour or so of picking beans and squash, digging potatoes and garlic, pulling up beets and carrots, it wouldn’t be so bad. But that’s only the beginning. There’s the rinsing and scrubbing, there’s rearranging the fridge to find a few more square inches of space for the day’s gleanings, there’s the meal planning—what needs to be eaten right away and what can wait a day or two or three (when there will be yet another kitchen full of fresh produce filling kitchen counters), there’s the search for recipes to learn how to prepare that weird new veggie I just had to plant and for other recipes to keep yet another meal of green beans or summer squash from becoming boring.

There’s the pickling and root cellaring and dehydrating and freezing and canning so we’ll have food from the garden all year long. Cleaning the kitchen and emptying it of everything nonessential, because processing food takes a LOT of space. Getting out equipment and supplies and cleaning them. Filling huge pots with water and waiting for it to boil. Sweating in a kitchen that was hot even before I turned on the stove. Setting timers, watching pots and gauges, adding ice to already icy water to chill freshly blanched foods. Labeling freezer containers, filling them, and finding space in a freezer already bursting at the seams. Cleaning up. Putting away. There will be no time left today for those other things I hoped—or needed—to get done.

There’s figuring out how to distribute the excess. Harvesting on a day my donation spot will be open and able to take my offering, on a day I can afford to leave the garden and kitchen to make a delivery.

There’s postponing vacations and family visits until after gardening season ends and before it starts up again.

And there’s the refrigerator-full of vegetables crying out to be eaten. Squash and beans and tomatoes last night, eggplant and peppers and carrots tonight, beets and chard and zucchini and cucumbers tomorrow night. Yes, it’s all good, an embarrassment of riches for vegetarians like us.

But every once in a while a person just wants some chips and a ‘Not Dog.’

Soul Food

Since the Gnome and I took up gardening in a serious way, food has sort of taken over my life. It all starts in January when I sit down with the tall stack of seed catalogs that have been filling my box for the last month or so.

The pictures alone make me drool. The exotic new vegetables, the colorful ones, and especially bean seeds capture my imagination. In truth, beans aren’t my favorite dish, but I’m batty over the seeds. So, beans take up a fair amount of the garden landscape.

After the seeds arrive in February or March, I begin diagramming the garden. How much space to allot to this or that veggie, how to rotate the crops, which plants will be good companions are all questions that come into play during the planning process.

Spring means cleaning up the previous year’s garden, weeding, and watching long-term forecasts to determine when I dare to plant the earliest crops. By late spring, I do an almost daily dance with the weather, trying to outguess its long-range plans. Can I push the planting up a week this year or should I err on the side of caution and wait for that ‘last average frost date’?

At whatever date I settle on, planting begins in earnest, along with mulching and more weeding. Seeds need moisture to germinate, so I find myself in the garden with a hose on dry days. Within days, maybe up to a couple of weeks in some cases, tiny green sprouts begin popping up out of the ground. It’s a magical time and my joy is palpable.

When I’m gardening, I’m following in some mighty big footsteps. Feeding the family from the land was the work of all my grandparents and theirs before them. For them, it was honest work that meant survival. Every moment I’m in the garden feeds me ancestrally.

But harvest time is what truly feeds me, both literally and figuratively. I can’t help but smile when I look at a dinner plate filled with only the bounty of our garden: green salad, asparagus, Swiss chard, squash, rutabaga, corn, kale, eggplant. Whatever the dishes of the day, I’m satiated before I take the first bite.

Harvest time also means preserving, another soul-fulfilling activity. The hours and days I invest in food preservation mean we’ll have tasty, healthy eating from our garden all the way through winter and right on up until the next harvest season rolls around.

Typical grocery list during gardening season

Harvesting food and preserving it make me sing. It doesn’t get much better than that.

So Beautiful It Changed My Life

What an amazing concept—something so beautiful it could change a life. Most of us, if we’ve lived long enough, have had at least a couple of life-changing experiences. But by nothing more than beauty? That was the writing challenge I was presented recently: a time when something was so beautiful it changed your life. It took me aback for a moment. But only for a moment. As I scoured my memory, it came to me.

Driving from Kentucky to the mountains of North Carolina in 1979, after the Gnome and I had made the mental decision to move but before we had actually taken action to make it happen (in other words, it would be easy enough to back out), I looked at the mountains on the horizon with new eyes. It was as if they were cloaked in blue-green velvet.

Their apparent softness overwhelmed me. Though I didn’t have words to articulate it, I sensed something magnificent. Those ancient rocks, some of the oldest in the world, had been worn down by eons of rain and wind; in the process, they had been reshaped from the haughty cragginess of youth into the gentle wisdom of age. Their strength lay in their graceful endurance. I didn’t want to back out.

We spent a week searching for a spot to call home Discouraged by all the not-right-for-us places we’d been shown, we were about to head back to Louisville with unfulfilled dreams. At the last minute, our realtor recalled a secluded piece of land tucked away on a mountainside, and our decision was made. In early April, things were still pretty barren; still, we were confident we’d found what we were looking for. We signed some papers and went back to Louisville to prepare for the big move.

When we returned to our mountain with all our worldly goods not quite three months later, my heart stopped as we drove into a meadow bursting with daisies. (How did the universe know to greet me with this outsize bouquet of my favorite flower?) 

It stopped again the first time I looked over a cloud-filled valley, mountaintops peeking out like islands in a sea of snowy foam.

I knew I’d never leave.

pict0068

(To read more about our adventure of moving and building a home with our bare hands while living in the wild, begin here.)

Here’s to What We Don’t Know

Another quick assignment in my Wednesday writing group—you’ll find the prompt in the last nine words of this post. (Unh-uh! No skipping to the end!)

Living in a tent on ten acres of land in a strange place with no water, no electricity, no phone access, no knowledge of local weather conditions—like that severe thunderstorms could and would pop up daily with no warning, no jobs, and no money but with two elementary-aged children, two neurotic cats, and a notion we could live this way for as long as it took to design our own house, get planning approval, and build the entire thing with nothing more than our own four hands and a few hand tools . . . well, it seemed like a good idea at the time.

Grandparents’ Camp, Part II: Lessons Learned

If you read last week’s blog post, you know we sponsor Grandparents’ Camp every year for our grandchildren. Some have told us the name is topsy-turvy—sounds like someone’s sending the Gnome and me to old people’s camp. Hey, maybe when they get older, the grandchildren will actually host a camp for us. That would be totally awesome!

A friend of mine hosted her own grandparents’ camp the same week as ours. She’s a natural born planner with a strong theatrical bent—each year her camp has a different theme. She even engages her grands in planning and preparation. That must be fun. Our camps are more a hodgepodge: a few new activities scattered among a host of old favorites. That works, too, though it can be a challenge finding activities that suit a toddler, a soon-to-be ’tween, and a couple of teenagers all at the same time.

(Hover over picture for caption. Click a second time to see captions in their entirety.)

Here’s a little compilation of things I’ve learned from hosting Grandparents’ Camp. Some I learned long ago; now, with a little one added to the mix, I’m learning a few new things, as well as relearning a few old tricks.

1. Children thrive when they get to explore outdoors, sometimes completely on their own. Children thrive when given the opportunity to be creative. Children thrive when they discover it’s perfectly fine to get dirty. Children thrive when they know it’s okay to use their ‘outside’ voices.

2. Almost-three-year-olds ask a lot of questions, especially ‘why’ questions, often about life’s great unanswerables: why do you have (insert any visible object)? Why do you wear clothes? Why do you have stairs? Why are birds here? Why are we eating (insert any visible food item)? Why is it still light?

3. Almost-three-year-olds also talk about their parents a LOT! Mommy this, Daddy that. It’s only natural—an almost-three-year-old’s world is small and those in it loom large. Our almost-three-year-old has set his parents on such high pedestals they’re in danger of breaking something when they inevitably crash to the floor with the rest of us mere mortals. (They are mighty special—and lucky to have his adoration.)

4. Little girls idolize their older cousins, looking at them with wondrous eyes, mimicking everything they see. The older ones are a little stunned by the awesome responsibility that just dropped in their laps once they notice a younger cousin adopting their hairstyles and clothing tricks.

5. There’s nothing quite so good for one’s self-esteem as having an almost-three-year-old scoot next to you for a cuddle with these words: “I love you. You’re my best friend.” Hundreds of times a day. Literally. Hundreds. (Smiling gramma!)

6. There are a few things you should check out with the parents before they say their goodbyes. If certain routines that have become sacred traditions, you need to know about them, word for word. You need to know the bedtime sequence of events.

7. Planning activities for vastly different ages in a camp-like atmosphere is best done with more than one adult on hand. Occasionally, one set of campers needs a break from the other age group and separate activities are called for. A shopping trip for the older ones, a visit to a playground for the younger ones gives everyone the breather they need to be happy to spend their remaining hours together.

8. Just like at home, campers need to be given some responsibilities, such as helping with the dishes, putting things away when an activity is over. Not too many—they’re not at Basic Training—but enough to build their confidence as able human beings and enough to be reminded we’re all in this thing together.

9. It’s important to refrain from the temptation to overly rely on the older ones. They shouldn’t be made to feel like babysitters or ‘junior counselors.’ Camp is for them, too. Sometimes the balancing act is delicate.

10. When older campers notice that the camp directors have hit a wall and offer their services unbidden, you love them more than you thought possible. (Clearly, they’ve  been raised right.)

Bonus: This year, I also discovered that the almost-three-year-old and his camp director, seventy years his elder, now use the same cautious technique to climb stairs! Oh, my!

Grandparents’ Camp, Part I

The Gnome and I sponsored our annual grandparents’ camp a few weeks ago. Lots of folks do these days, but I’d never heard of such a thing when we opened our first camp seventeen years ago.

A lot has changed in that time. Back then, we had only one camper. Easy peasy. As the years passed, the number of campers has, at times, quadrupled; the camp directors’ ages increased dramatically, along with the number of cranky joints. The age gap between campers grew, too. We’ve had as many as four campers simultaneously, their ages ranging from two to eighteen. That makes planning a little more complex than back in the early days of our camp.

Our pioneer camper is clearly aging out, no doubt soon to be followed by the next eldest—too soon. But they will always be welcome in our home, camp or no camp.

I still look forward to camp and, unsurprisingly, still feel a bit of a letdown when the last camper says goodbye and heads for home. Kind of like that feeling I get as a wonderful vacation is nearing its end or the way I felt as a child as the holiday season wound down.

The first few camp years, I began planning weeks in advance. Now, with nearly two decades of experience, I’ve pared the process down a bit. I keep a notebook with all essential information (menus, recipes, activities), adding new ideas along the way. But planning still begins about three weeks in advance—I just don’t spend so long on it in a given day or week.

For campers of a certain age, I send camp invitations and registration forms, SASE included. I insert a goofy questionnaire asking, for instance, if the camper has ever been bitten by a tsetse fly or suffers from conditions like whinitis or pre-teen angst. I send a checklist of potential activities, including a few goofy options, such as eating worms or picking up rocks. I include a list of common-sense items to bring with them, and I request that they leave some items at home, absurd things like pet crocodiles.

About the same time, I put together a menu and shopping list. It’s fairly standardized because I can count on the same special requests from year to year: fondue, cookout, s’mores, sweet potato casserole, and a baked spaghetti dish.

I break buying trips into two parts. Perishables are purchased only a day or two before the start of camp. But to save myself from too much sticker shock, I buy non-perishables a week or two in advance.

I check the status of our regular supplies: canvases, paper, and acrylics for painting along with glue, food coloring, and liquid starch for that all-time favorite, slime. I collect materials for new projects I’ve discovered over the year.

I make sure bedding is in place, pull out equipment that’s been stored for the last twelve months, and do a last minute clean-up. I don’t know why I do this—it will take about five minutes for the house to explode in suitcase innards, toys, crayons, and more. Still, my illusion (delusion?) is that starting the week organized helps keep things under control.

In addition to the ever-popular painting and slime-making, we blow bubbles, watch fireflies, stargaze, make homemade ice cream—with a different fruit each year, add an item or two to one grandchild’s wooded fairyland, go for walks. I try to stay away from rigid schedules as much as possible. At the risk of hearing those dreaded words, “I’m bored,” I still prefer the freedom from routine that comes with grandparents’ camp.

The best part of making ice cream is getting every last drop from the can and dasher.

Learning to arm knit

Harvesting supper from the garden is great fun.

We include a few field trips. They break up the routine, but too many and the week starts to feel overscheduled. Field trips have included a trip to our favorite local park for picnicking, playground fun, bicycling or strolling, kite flying, and splashing in the icy mountain river that bounds the park. We’ve visited local tourist attractions, we’ve gone gem mining, we’ve toured a cavern. Lately, we’ve included a shopping trip to boutiques for the older kids while the youngest one visits a playground or library story hour. (Shopping bonus: I get surefire gift ideas.) We’ve gone on downtown scavenger hunts, visited a working alpaca farm, attended a street festival, spent long evenings at fireworks displays.

One of our all-time favorite activities was the “spaghetti pool.” It involves playing naked in a kiddie pool full of oily spaghetti sprinkled with food coloring, so it’s only suitable for the youngest campers. But since it’s one of the first camp experiences the grandkids have, they’re sure to anticipate future camps as a wildly fun adventure. (A long, warm, bubbly soak in the tub inevitably follows this activity.)

We’re seventeen years older than we were when we held our first grandparents’ camp. We’re a little slower now, but I love our special week with grandkids every bit as much now as then. It’s a rare opportunity for them to spend time with each other; it’s a different pace than their norm with different freedoms—and different rules; they get to know us one-on-one. Invariably, the kids initiate conversations on subjects that don’t usually come up when the house is filled with mostly adults, so we get to know them better, too. Their conversations are open and free, and they treat us like one of their own.

John McCutcheon, one of my favorite folk artists, sings the song, “Water from Another Time. It tells of childhood summers spent with grandparents, getting water from a rusty pump “primed with water from another time.” The point of the song is that we all need a little from the past to feed our souls—old melding with new to help us make our way in this world.

I hadn’t really thought about it before I heard those words, but that’s what the Gnome and I are trying to give our grandchildren with these precious summer moments. My fervent hope is that one day my grandchildren will utter the words I so often do: “I want to be kind of grandmother my grandmother was.”

Water from another time.

Dressing Gramma’s childhood doll in clothing made by Great-gramma—water from another time.