Sweet Pickles!

Our cucumber vines are bearing many fruit. So many that, despite eating the cucumbers in salads every day, we still have a lot. It must be pickle time!

Today, I picked 8 pounds of cucumbers and processed them into 8 quarts of sweet pickles. Recipe and procedure below the fold…

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The Rain Falls

It’s been a long, dry winter. The alstromeria have given up and decided it’s spring again, sprouting up fresh leaves in just the past couple of days. And now, we have finally received some rain!

I spent some time last week getting a second cistern, Seena, hooked up. I got up on the roof and cleared out the gutter and blew the leaves and redwood cones out of the way. This morning, we got enough rain to put the new system to the test and it was found wanting.

  • The pipe that takes water from our rain barrels down to the cisterns has a very reduced flow. Only a trickle is feeding into Joseph-Ann.
  • The fitting between the pipe and the hose at the rain barrel is a bit leaky.
  • The overflow hoses from the rain barrels have come off; ideally, they’d feed back into the downspout but at a minimum they should route overflow off the deck.
  • The patch I applied to Joseph-Ann at the first hole I made to connect her up to Seena is not 100%. It has a very tiny drip. I’ve applied more caulking there, but it’s a worry.
  • The pipe connecting Joseph-Ann to Seena seems to have a drip right at the fitting onto Joseph-Ann. I’ve tightened all those bits, but that’s very serious. If I can’t stop that drip, then the new capacity means nothing as it’ll all leak away by the end of spring.

So, I’ve got a bunch of plumbing to do, and of course it’s raining while I’ve got to do it. On the plus side, the rain is supposed to last for a few days, so if I get these problems sorted out there’s still a chance we can save some rain.

Fresh Salsa

It’s fresh produce season again, which is wonderful. That plus a little encouragement from Thug Kitchen has got me making fresh salsa and guacamole pretty frequently. Hooray for our house! In case anyone was wondering, here’s the OCD salsa I just made (OCD because I did all that tiny chopping by hand, sort of a meditation):

  • 3 tomatoes (the roma kind, because they’re less juicy)
  • 1/4 onion (it’s a darned big onion, this would be maybe 1/2 a regular onion)
  • 1/2 a fuji apple
  • juice of 1/2 a lime
  • 1/4 bunch of cilantro
  • 1 jalapeño
  • salt

Quarter the tomatoes and take out the seeds and the juicy pulp around them. Slice the tomatoes into little tiny chunks. Chop the onion into little tiny bits. Slice the apple and chop the slices into little tiny bits. Cut open the pepper and remove the seeds, then slice it up into little tiny bits. Cut the cilantro into little tiny bits. Combine all these ingredients in a bowl and juice the lime over the whole thing. Sprinkle with salt, maybe 1/2 teaspoon. Stir it all together with a fork until it’s all mixed up. This is sweet and spicy and crunchy and not too soupy. It would be great on a tostada or in a burrito but it usually just gets eaten on chips while dinner prep is going on and then, whoops!, there’s no salsa.

Continuing Our Dogs’ Education

When we first got our rat terriers, we got them to attack the rats that were gobbling up our chickens’ feed (and eggs). It took them a couple of years to figure out that they were supposed to chase the rats and that if they weren’t fast enough, the rats would get away. Eventually, they figured it out and they are now very accomplished ratters. They’re still hopeless at tunneling, despite what various sources say about terriers being digging dogs, and despite my attempts to get them to go after the rats in their burrows.

It’s warming up and Junglemonkey has cleaned out all the bird feeders. The birds are returning and, as birds do, they’re billing out seed onto the ground. This, of course, is attracting the attention of the squirrels. I just noticed a squirrel sitting out on the back deck, chowing down on a bunch of spilled seed. I got Dagmar’s attention and, stealthily as we might, we went out the back door to the deck. I had to work to get Dagmar to pay attention where I wanted, and this gave the squirrel a two second head start. That was plenty of time, and it streaked off into the forest before Dagmar ever got within 10 feet. Still, it was obvious to me that this year, Dagmar has finally noticed that a squirrel is very much like a rat with a bushy tail, and clearly she enjoys chasing squirrels as much as she enjoyed chasing rats. I suspect she’s going to be spending this summer figuring out how to catch a squirrel.

Or trying, anyway. The cats haven’t yet figured that out, and they’re death on rats, moles, and birds. I reckon it’ll keep the dogs busy, though, and that’s got to be worth something.

Angry Birds

I love birds. I don’t keep any in the house, because I also like cleanliness, quiet and the ability to travel. The more pets you have, the harder all those things become. But birds are also carriers of pests, they’re filthy and they die easily. So, the best solution to the problem of how to keep birds without the hassle of keeping birds is to have a ton of bird feeders on the front porch.

a baltimore oriole

For the longest time I thought these were goldfinches, but they’re too big and too orange. And they all have tiny little baseball bats.

I had run out of my usual bird feed – that mixture of millet, that thing that looks like millet but is a little larger and a little darker (and the birds hate it – they won’t touch it in one of the feeders) and black sunflower seeds that I usually stock the feeders with. It attracts orioles, juncos, jays, chickadees,  sparrows and all the other birds we have around here by the sackful.

This time, I decided to do something different. I bought a suet cake to put into the holder we already had. Normally, if  the feeders have stood idle for a while before I fill them again, it can take the birds a day or two to discover that the cafeteria has opened up again. The feeders weren’t empty, though. The birds, especially the orioles (which are my favorites because, in addition to being lovely, they have a very pleasing song). In fact, as my husband and I sat out enjoying the afternoon, the birds kept landing on the porch railing, then immediately retreating to the trees that surround the house and screeching at us to get out of their restaurant, couldn’t we see it was lunchtime? 

By evening, the suet cake had attracted two battling bird herds (I know that’s not the collective term for birds, but get your own blog if you want to be fussy about it). Steller’s Jays on the one side, orioles on the other. Sadly, the orioles have no advantages whatsoever. There aren’t quite as many of them, they’re smaller, quieter, and more polite. The jays come in like Anthony Michael Hall in everything he’s done since 1990, squawking and throwing their weight around and making pests of themselves. I’m sitting in my office facing the window that looks out on the feeders, and the suet holder hasn’t stopped swinging. No sooner does one bird leave than another one jumps on. What is it about kidney fat that drives birds into a raging, furious feeding frenzy?


Let Sleeping Creatures Lie

I’m here getting ready for the trip up to San Francisco, and the little doggies are bored, so I took them for a little perambulation down the driveway. It’s a fabulous day out, the sun dappling the driveway through the beautiful trees, the creek burbling a few yards away, and as the doggies walked up and down the driveway sniffing and peeing on things, I examined the work done by the landscaping guys. They had cut out enormous amount of periwinkle starting to overgrow the walkway on the high side of the driveway. There are tons of rat holes along the hill between our house and the neighbor’s. Normally obscured by the ground cover, the rats live their little ratty lives and do their little ratty thing.

The sudden denuding of the landscape must have confused the rats. Behind the hay bales that keep the mud from washing into our driveway, there was an enormous rat. It was curled up in the humus, sleeping peacefully. Now, I’m normally not a violent person, but when you’ve lived with wood rats for a while, you realize that any means are justified by the end of eradicating the rat population. Rats harbor all sorts of illnesses, including rabies and bubonic plague. Left unchecked, they’ll eat your insulation, your electrical wiring and set your house on fire. I have reason to believe that rats are capable of stealing your online passwords, taking your identity, and using it to establish large offshore accounts for which you will bear the responsibility of paying taxes. They’re horrible.

This particular specimen was 8 inches long, not counting the foot-long naked pink tail, and had a lot of fur. It had a teddy bear look about it, but I couldn’t let that influence me. I’m not a violent person, as I say, but I’m also not the teddy bear type. I pointed to it and got that high-pitched excited voice people use with animals and said “Hey, Dagmar! Come and get it!”

Dagmar came up looking carefully through the brush. I know that dogs are supposed to have a keen sense of smell, but it seems to me that when they are sniffing something out, they sort of shut off their eyes, because I could see the rat clear as daylight, but the dogs snuffled all around it before they finally sniffed right at it.

You would think that a rat might freak out at realizing that it was at the mercy of a bloodthirsty homeowner and two dogs whose favorite game is snap-back (where they pick up something, shake it, and hear its backbone snap). Except for one thing. These dogs are motivated by tiny furry things that run, squeak in terror and generally look frightened. This particular rat was curled up asleep, and my shouting and the dogs’ sniffing didn’t seem to give it any reason to interrupt its nap. Dagmar lost interest and wandered off, but Esme wanted in on the game now. She went right up to the rat and picked it up, giving it a few shakes and a chomp on the spine. That sort of treatment normally works on mice and smaller rats, but this one just looked up at her with a hurt expression on its face.

When the dogs were puppies and we were trying to get them interested in the dog sport of rat killing, they approached the rats cautiously. They would snap in a rat’s direction, then jump back. Since they’ve hit adulthood, though, rat killing has become efficient. I’ve never seen a second of hesitancy or fear in those dogs. Until they came to this enormous sleeping rat.

Bite. Jump. Sniff. Bite. Jump. Sniff. Sniff. Jump. Bite. Sniff. Sniff. Jump. Sniff.

Esme got bored and wandered off because I still had the treats in my hand and cut up hot dogs are far more interesting than a rat that doesn’t squeak or run. Dagmar, on the other hand, finally decided that the now-sodden and bloody teddy bear was worth her time. By the time I persuaded her to lay off, the poor thing was going stiff.

There are lots of interesting things about living out in the woods. The smell of horses drifting down the hill from the ranch across the way, the little roads that crawdads make along the creek bottom, the way you can turn a corner and be confronted with the kind of views most people only know from movies like Lord of the Rings – all those are reasons why we live here. I guess we take the disgusting with the majestic.

I Hate Compact Fluorescent Light Bulbs

When I first moved in with Junglemonkey I was surprised at how frequently I had to change lightbulbs. It seemed as though at least once a month and frequently more often than that there’d be a burned-out lamp that needed replacing. Living on my own, I’d go for maybe a year before having to replace a light bulb. Part of this difference, of course, is that a family of four turns lights off and on more times per day than a single person; maybe not four times as many, but still more. Another difference is that a three bedroom house has more light fixtures than a one bedroom apartment. Even so, it seems my family burns out bulbs more frequently than we did when I was a kid, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a lightbulb actually work as long as the packaging claims it will, before or after I became a family man.

Now there’s this big push to move everyone to using compact fluorescent bulbs. In San Francisco, the main lighting in a given room may not be incandescent! But what the heck is this in aid of? The bulbs do not last any longer than the incandescents they replace, and they’re more expensive to purchase. They’re toxic (the fluorescent tube has mercury in it) and can’t be thrown away. The light is nasty. So what if they use a little less electricity? My new fridge, water heater, furnace, washer, and dryer – these all use way more energy than my lightbulbs.

Frankly, I’d rather use candles and oil lamps.

This is what Luff looked like this morning, with happy little blue flowers among the larger plants whose blooms are yet to open. It’s a good thing that the bottom leaks; it means the plants won’t drown should we be so lucky as to get any rain.

Spring Planting

It’s that time of year. Time to plant those bare root fruit trees, get those spring bulbs into the ground. You can tell that it’s that time of year, because it’s criminally cold out. 

Me, in most of the clothes I own

And under this, I'm wearing long underwear.

This is what’s necessary to go out into the front yard. Long sleeves, thermal vest, a hat. I gathered all the potting soil I own, my shovels, my bucket that contains my trowels, pruning shears and gloves, and headed out front.

We’ve got two kinds of bulbs. One are the big, double-blooming tulips, the other are the bulbs from the little tiny blue tulips we planted last year. Last year was my first year planting bulbs, and I didn’t realize it, but bulbs sprout other tiny little bulbs in the course of their bulb lives. By the time I dug them up some time in May or June, we had about twice as many as we had originally planted, and a lot of them were teeny little green-onion looking things.

Here are the bulbs we've kept in a bucket since last year

The hairy parts are the roots, and some have already started to sprout.

When the landscapers were creating the flagstone walkway, they asked us what we were going to do with an old rowboat we got from the Pirate’s mother. I said we were going to throw it out, but the horrified look he gave me let me know that if we didn’t do something with it, he would take it off our hands. He finally persuaded me to plant flowers in it.

It’s a tiny little rowboat, built by the Pirate’s uncle to paddle around the canals of Venice, California. It was only ever meant to carry one person, and was small enough for a single man to carry on his back the block or two from his house to the canals, paddle through the canals toward Ballona Creek, carry from the canal to the creek, and then paddle out into Marina del Rey. He called the boat “Luff,” and now, over 40 years later, it’s sitting in our side yard, filled with potting soil, compost, loose dirt and flower bulbs.

Luff on the banks of Bear Creek

Luff, filled with tulip bulbs, permanently beached on the banks of Bear Creek

One last thing. You may think to yourself: That’s a lovely sentiment, but how are you going to keep that watered? Aren’t the San Lorenzo valley communities constantly in the middle of some kind of water crisis? Well, that’s where another reminder of the Pirate’s past comes in.

1100-gallon cistern used to capture rainwater

This is Cistern Joseph Ann, and she will never whack your knuckles with a ruler.

Our 1,100-gallon cistern captures rainwater, which comes from the roof and flows into two 75-gallon rain barrels that then feed into Cistern Joseph Ann, which gives us a total capacity of 1,250 gallons. It takes about 3-4 days of steady rain to fill the entire 1,250-gallon system, which then lasts us about two and a half months of garden watering. Now that the landscaping is done, we’re going to be putting in a vegetable patch on one side of the walkway – a kitchen garden. But first, we’re thinking that we might add another 1,100-gallon cistern, nearly doubling our storage capacity. Maybe it can be my turn to immortalize someone important to me, and we can name it after my aunt: Cistern Rosie.

Whoa. What Just Happened?

We lost power at our house on Wednesday afternoon.

We felt pretty smug about it. After all, we’ve been doing Day Without Electricity for years now, and we know how to get along without. When the power hadn’t been restored by Thursday morning, the little kid was allowed to skip a shower before she was whisked off to school. Thursday morning we were still having an adventure for which we were totally prepared. We felt alternately sorry for everyone around us whose generators were running full-blast (using expensive propane), because they were so pathetically dependent on their electricity to maintain their lifestyles, and smug about our own ability to maintain our comfort. We went about our Thursday business with the confidence of those who know that they are superior to their fellow-humans, but are magnanimous enough not to rub it in.

Thursday night, we heated huge vats of hot water on the stove and put them into the shower, everyone in the family took turns doing the sponge bath dance. Not optimal, but better than nothing. The kid did her homework by the strong, warm light of the kerosene lamps, and we had a hot, home-cooked meal that involved vegetables. We had no internet, and by Thursday night, I could feel myself getting testy. A little bit grumpy. Sorta put-out.

Even though the power was still out on Friday, the kid had to go to school. The Pirate and I ended up driving into San Jose because we had work to do that required internet access and it just couldn’t wait any longer. As we drove back home after lunch, the Pirate and I both said out loud that we were sure that the power would still be out when we got home, although I know that I personally was hoping with every cell in my body that it would be back. I almost cried when we got home and it was still down.We took the little kid over the hill to spend the weekend at her dad’s house, and did the same thing driving back home – saying out loud that we knew the power would still be out, pointing out to each other the fact that there were no lights visible for most of our drive, by still secretly wishing wholeheartedly that we were wrong, and that our power was back on. It wasn’t.

Saturday morning, still no power. At this point, the Pirate and I have decided to do that thing that we almost never do – start up the generator. We do have one. It’s in a box about the size of a loveseat, and sits on a concrete pad out back. It’s the biggest generator we know of, and could easily power our house and those of our neighbors for as long as our 1,000-gallon propane tank held out. The Pirate started it up while I was inside doing other things, and the sight of the ceiling fans whirring to life was momentarily heartening.

And then the generator died.

When I realized that not only did we have no power, but we had no power, my smug abandoned me, and I just felt depressed. I briefly considered just going to bed and burrowing in and waiting out the outage. After all, I have a nice down comforter on my bed, and after a while, it’s comfy-cozy in there, right? Except that the room is dark (it’s been gloomy out) and I can’t do anything like read the stuff I have to cover for grad school or anything. Not only that, but there were plenty of outside chores that needed doing, like digging our driveway out of knee-high leaves.

We went out to a party Saturday evening, and as we left our house, we were gratified to see that the power had been restored to downtown Boulder Creek. Power was creeping closer to our house! It would only be a matter of hours now! On our way home, I noticed just how much power our neighborhood uses – lights on in businesses that were closed – no one needed that power! Why did they have it and just waste it? It felt so unfair! We drove home slowly, noting that now, the houses on our street had power. Every house we could see from the street with lights on was a reason for our hearts to lift just a little more.

The lights stopped half a mile from our house. As I walked into the freezing-cold house (it was in the 30s outside, and maybe 50 inside), I wondered how long without electricity it would take before we made the mental shift from “we can live without” to “we do live without.” When we got home, I decided that I was tired of going to bed all bundled up, trying to read my textbooks by candlelight – I’m no Abraham Lincoln. Instead, we watched videos on my laptop, sitting in the blue glow of its tiny screen, feeling desperately normal.

This morning, at 1:23 by my clock, we were awakened by the lights coming on, and after switching them back off, I slept more soundly than I have in days. We’ve now done an entire month’s worth of days without electricity, and I personally am looking forward to living the modern lifestyle for a while.