Monday, February 20, 2012


IN BIRDLAND THE LACK OF A REAL WINTER IS BEGINNING TO BE A DISAPPOINTMENT. The warm, clear days are beautiful, sure, but I can't seem to dress for the weather, and I think we only had a fire in the wood stove once. I'm not sure it will be cold enough again to fire it up, and now it seems like a big waste of iron and space. I've been mulling over the difference between “putting things up for winter,” and hoarding. In the fall I collected baskets full of walnuts that fell from the tree in my yard, and bit by bit, have been shelling them. It's a lot of work—husking off the hulls (and dying my fingers a deep brown) and then cracking off the hard wooden shells. The outer husks come in various degrees of freshness, from a bright green (which still dyes my fingers dark) with a sharp, crisp scent—to a damp deep brown smelling of soil and rotting off the inner shell, leaving brown-black, sandy, wet crumbs all over my hands. Sometimes the hulls have dried to a firm, papery texture, and many of these I can slice with my nut-picker and open the halves with my thumbs, but often I have to just put them in the nutcracker, dried husk and all.
It's slow work, but I enjoy it. I generally watch a movie, or, better yet, listen to the radio while I'm picking the nuts—you have to keep a close watch, because even a small shard of shell in a bite of walnut is hard on the teeth. I freeze the nut meats, because they go rancid so quickly. Right now I have a half gallon in a jar in the deep freeze, and a smaller plastic container in the fridge freezer. I'm proud of my work, but over the holidays I got busy with other projects and put the nuts aside for awhile. When I finally returned to them, I brought up a half bushel up from the basement, where I had stored them. These were now dried, grey pods, and I set to work.

Imagine my dismay when the first one, then ten, then all but a few opened to nuts. The shells cracked easily, but the meats had dried out to thin mahogany colored bits of paper. The essence of the nut—the oil, the flesh, the flavor—was gone, leaving only a paper cut out to remind us that the nut was there. All my hoarding was wasted.  

 I'd been using the nutshells to mulch my path up to the front door. Walnut trees give off toxins that kill other plants, and I'm not sure whether the toxins are in the shells and husks. I didn't want to add these to my regular compost for the garden, so I decided to use them where I don't want plants to grow. The walnut gravel makes a nice, brown texture on my path, but you can't walk on it barefoot. Nutshells are sharp! I sadly took my bowl of shells out and spilled them on the path, thinking how the nuts I have in the freezer will have to last me until fall, and, oh, how I love to bake with walnuts.

In the yard I still had a small pile of nuts left over after I had filled my two bushel baskets, but they had been outside all winter, such as the winter was this year. I didn't have much hope, but a few days later went out and collected them. These had mostly lost their hulls, and appeared damp. I thought I'd give it a try, and pulled out my heavy-duty nutcracker. Remember my dismay at the ruined nuts? Reverse it! These were fine. Fresh and plump and aromatic and sweet. I have learned that sharing with the squirrels in my yard is better than hoarding, at least when it comes to walnuts.

Store in Beauty; Share in Peace; Blessed Be.

Sunday, February 5, 2012



The hedge
A NEW SEMESTER BEGINS A NEW PLAN, and an 8 o'clock class means I'm up before the sun. Yesterday on the way to town I turned the corner toward the east and found myself headed full into a rosy glow reflecting off of some dappled clouds. As I approached the hill, the hedge on the edge of the field rose up, creating a stark silhouette tangled in the dawn. The sun was still below the horizon, and I could only drive forward, wishing I had time to stop and stare, or at least take a picture.

I've been thinking a lot about hedgerows lately. We have so few left now, but my grandmother once told me that they used to edge all the fields. This was when farms were diversified and after the harvest, you let your cows and probably pigs out into the field to graze and glean. A few farms nearby still do this, and we drive past cattle, heads lowered to munch in the stubble of the fields, but these fields are fenced with mostly invisible electric wire. Time was, these fields were fenced with hedgerows that were “horse high, bull strong, and hog tight.” I always wondered about that. The remaining hedges around here might define the border of a field, and filter a sunrise in a lovely way, but a hog could certainly mosey right through a hedge row. I'm sure a horse and a bull could too.

I'm up before the sun.

I don't remember when or how I learned that historically, these hedges were trimmed to keep the growth down at the ground level, the rambling, thorny, curving branches tangling into an impenetrable thicket. I've been thinking for awhile about planting a living fence, hoping that “hog tight” might also be “goat tight” for my future goats (Remember Hester Pryne and Dewey Dell? Hester and Dewey are probably not even born yet, but someday I'll bring them home to a nice little goat shed and a pasture fenced in Osage Orange.) The autumn before last I walked out to the back hedge of our field with a basket and brought it back full of hedge apples. Have you seen hedge apples? They are like big, green oranges which may be the root of the name, “Osage Orange.” They have a sharp, fresh scent and a sticky, milky sap that is supposed to repel cockroaches and other bugs, though I haven't had much luck with that. I read that a good way to get the seeds out of the dense fruits for planting is to leave them in a bucket of water over the winter. The freeze-thaw cycle is supposed to turn the whole thing into a mush, and then I'm not sure what you do—plant the mush or pick the seeds out. At any rate, the squirrels in my yard devoured them all, and this fall I never did get out to gather more. I wonder, though, if I were to walk out now, whether I'd find that the squirrels left me a few that I could gather for seeds to plant in the spring.

I found the full text of a historic pamphlet on “Growing Bois d'Arc Fences” by Robert C. McMurtrie. It gave precise directions for everything from collecting seeds and cultivating them, what to do when the shoots come up (he lays them down flat to the ground and weaves them into a fence “as one would osiers in wicker work,”) to pruning and maintaining the living fence. I couldn't find the date on the pamphlet, but found another source, published in 1914, which quoted Mr. McMurtrie's instructions in full. After three years of careful work, McMurtrie tells us, “..there was a good hedge, sufficient to turn ordinary cattle, as it seemed. Certainly in all subsequent years it was impervious to man or beast. And it has a foundation as firm as a fence.”
My life goes in fits and starts.

My life goes in fits and starts. I lay out plans, and squirrels come to chew on them. Tomorrow, the sun will come up a little bit sooner, and I will try to get going a little earlier, to leave time to linger at the hedge, maybe snap a picture or two. In the afternoon, if it's not too cold or wet, I'll take the dog and walk all the way back to the hedgerow, just to see if the squirrels left me anything for my living fence. Either way, it will be a nice walk.

Weave Beauty; Cultivate Peace; Blessed Be