Saturday, April 21, 2012

Shearing Day

Yesterday was shearing day. Not for us - we don't have sheep. It was shearing day for Robin's Aunt Beany. Her real name is Lavenia, but when her little sister started to talk she couldn't pronounce Lavenia clearly. It came out "Veny" and somehow morphed into Beany. It's been Beany ever since, just a mere 96 years or so. Yep, Aunt Beany is 98, 98 and a half to be exact. She's an independent woman, if there ever was one. She's still living in her home, the one she moved into as a young bride in the 1930s. She and Uncle Frank raised sheep and cattle throughout their marriage and Aunt Beany kept on with the livestock after her husband died in 1981. A widow now for over 30 years, she no longer has cattle (she sold the last of those just a year or two ago), but she still has 14 sheep, plus the buck. She still drives her pickup truck around our small town for necessities. She's like the Energizer Bunny: she just keeps going and going.

Aunt Beany is one of several women I know who keep sheep. I guess shepherdess is the correct term. They love the woolly creatures that are so idyllic in stories and art, yet a little on the dim side in real life. From what I can tell, being a shepherdess is nothing like the Little Bo Beep persona. These ladies wear coveralls and boots, get just as dirty as any male counterpart, and don't hesitate to recount their flock's lack of common sense. In fact, words like dumb and stupid are sprinkled liberally throughout their conversations about sheep. Still, they love their sheep. And they'll do just about anything to protect them from the weather, worms, sickness, coyotes, and anything else that threatens their flocks.

Lambing season is just about over for most farmers in these parts. It's a pretty intense month or two when babies are popping out all over the place. Many ewes give birth to twins, triplets are not uncommon, and once in a while quadruplets show up. Robin had to give Aunt Beany a hand a few weeks ago with a ewe that was having trouble. When he saw hind feet showing he knew the lamb was coming backwards. In the process of turning it around, he felt what he thought was an awful lot of legs. In the end, there were 16 legs, belonging to four lambs.  With some help, all four were born alive. That's just one scenario among dozens when my shepherdess friends get together this time of year. You'll hear tales of baby monitors to listen for trouble, trips to the barn in the wee hours of the night, lambs that don't know who their mama is, mamas that don't seem to want to be mamas, lambs that won't nurse, mamas that don't have enough milk.

You'd think all that would be more trouble than it's worth, that these ladies would give up their sheep in favor of calmer days and nights with just the normal stuff like jobs, housework, kids, and such. But no, these women are firm in their commitment to their flocks, fierce in their protection of them, and tender with them at all the right times. Along with all the hardships of keeping sheep, you'll also hear about how cute and funny the lambs are and how attached they get to ewes that have been good mamas for years. You'll also detect a note of satisfaction in their voices as they describe bringing a sickly lamb through to health. Many of the sheep in a shepherdess's flock are named and recognized on sight. Mixing up milk replacer for lambs that need an extra boost goes right along with fixing supper for the family. Many a lamb has spent a few hours or days in the warmth of their kitchens or laundry rooms when they weren't strong enough for the outdoor weather. And although I haven't witnessed it, I know there are more than a few tears when lambs don't make it for one reason or another, when coyotes kill mercilessly, when a favorite old ewe finally dies.

Yesterday, Robin asked Aunt Beany if she was going to keep sheep another year. She hesitated a moment before answering. Standing in the pen with her ewes, she reached out her hand toward them and said, "I don't know. Seems like I ought to get rid of them, but you've just got to have something around. I don't know." I think what she meant was that her sheep need her. But the truth is Aunt Beany needs the sheep more than the sheep need her. Being needed is something all creatures crave at one level or another. Being needed makes us get up and go when we'd rather not. When you're 98, going on 99, I imagine being needed is a pretty sweet feeling.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Field Trip

On my, I'm tired. Through and through tired. I haven't done much today - didn't even paint at the farmhouse - and I'm still tired. It feels like I might be tired the rest of my life. You see, I went on a field trip. On a school bus. With children. Overnight. Oh, my.

Every spring, the fourth grade at Highland Elementary, where I'm the librarian, goes on an overnight field trip to Jamestown, Yorktown, and Colonial Williamsburg. Fourth graders spend their entire school year studying Virginia history, so a trip to Virginia's Historic Triangle is a given. For years now I've helped prepare the kids for this great trip by doing a book unit with a delightful little ghost story set in Williamsbug. We study a map of the Historic Area, learn about some of the important buildings, and look at lots of photographs of this amazingly restored colonial city. This year I was invited to go along on the trip. I love history and, although I've been to Willliamsburg and Jamestown before, it had been a long time and I was delighted to get to go. And it was a great trip. But my goodness, I'm tired!

We left Highland County on Thursday morning well before sunrise. Robin took me to meet the bus at 5:30 a.m., which meant I got up at 4:30. Ugh! One might think that ten little fourth graders would be on the quiet side at that early hour, but oh, no. They were all bright eyes and chipper, talking and laughing like they'd been up for hours. The first leg of any trip out of Highland County heading east is always crossing the mountains. If you've never done that on a school bus, consider yourself blessed. Then it was four hours of humming down Interstate 64 with the vibration of the bus such that taking anything but blurry photos was impossible. We did get to see a pretty sunrise though, and the rest stops were timed just about right for me. That's always a plus.

Once we arrived in Jamestown, there was no stopping and not a minute to spare. We gobbled our packed lunches and headed off with our tour guide to visit the Jamestown Settlement. This included a super museum, called The Gallery, a reconstructed Powhatan Indian village, the three ships (Susan Constant, Godspeed, and Discovery) that brought the first colonists across the ocean, and the reconstructed Jamestown Fort. It really was amazing to see just what these people were up against in their effort to establish the first permanent English settlement in the New World. Call me a wimp if you like, but I don't think I would have fared very well, had I been among them. After seeing the reconstructed Jamestown, we headed to Historic Jamestown and toured the actual fort site, including the archaeological digs currently in progress and the Archearium, a museum that houses over a million artifacts recovered at this incredible site. Archaeologists have discovered the footprint of the first church built in the fort, including the chancel area. Believe it or not, they think they have pinpointed the exact spot in which Pocahontas and John Rolffe stood to exchange their marriage vows! How cool is that!!

By the time we finished our tour, the kids had absorbed about all the history they could handle for one day, so it was off to a nice park in the woods for some play time. There we had the usual kid events: a scrape or two, some tattling, and the constant herding that children away from home require. And tell me why the thing that excited them most during the whole two days was something they see on a regular basis here at home: squirrels! Go figure. Pizza was delivered for supper, after which we checked in to the hotel and the kids headed for the indoor pool. I accompanied the bus driver on a run to gas up the bus and buy some sandwich fixins' for Friday's lunch. I also had to buy a new SD card for my camera since I took so many photos that I filled up the card I've used ever since I bought my camera five years ago. I don't think I've ever taken that many pictures in one day: probably about 300! I couldn't help it! There were so many marvelous things to photograph. Thank goodness for digital photography. If I still had to use 35mm film, I'd have to take out a loan just to get them all developed and printed!

Friday morning came all too soon, even though the girls in our room went to sleep easily. We lumbered into Colonial Williamsburg, where we met our guide for the morning. Mr. Andy was a wonderful host, and took us to many of the buildings mentioned in the book I read to the kids. The Historic Areas is a magical place, where past and present mingle together easily. Spring is a lovely time to be there. Vegetables and herbs are growing well (we can't even plant here for another month), grass and shrubs are a brilliant green, and flowers bloom all over the place. I even found a hedge of wisteria that, even though not quite open yet, smelled heavenly. It was humbling to sit in rooms where the likes of George Washington, Patrick Henry, and other founding fathers lived and worked. I'm still marveling at the sophistication of colonial life (particularly the architecture) without our modern conveniences. I like to think I would have fared better in Williamsburg than Jamestown. And I took another ton of photos, by the way.

Friday afternoon was spent at Yorktown Victory Center, where the kids enjoyed touring the soldiers' encampment. As for me, I was running out of steam. I wish I'd worn a pedometer. I bet I walked ten miles in two days. Thank goodness the weather was just about perfect. The breeze was a bit chilly at times, but for the most part temperatures were quite comfortable, requiring only a light jacket. The sunshine, beautiful blue sky, and bright white clouds couldn't have been prettier. After a trip to the gift shop (another kid favorite), we boarded the bus for the five-hour ride home. Traveling this direction, the twists and turns of Route 250 across the mountains were the last leg of our journey, and when the bus pulled in to McDowell, Robin was waiting for me.

I slept in til almost 7:30 this morning. The first two hours I was up felt pretty good, like a normal Saturday. And then the fatigue hit like a ton of bricks. I took a nap, and haven't done much in the way of work. Still, I'm tired. But I'll get over it. And what a cache of memories I have to ponder! Despite the bus ride and all the walking, herding and disciplining that a field trip involves, it was a fun and fascinating two days. It will be a sweet nugget to think about for a long time.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Crazy Weather and Creamed Asparagus

The crazy weather continues. We're going back and forth between winter and spring or summer, with extremes being the norm. We did something we've never done before in March: slept all night with the windows open and the ceiling fan on! Less than 48 hours later, we were back to heat and extra blankets. The daffodils bloomed in March, making many of us search carefully for some still-intact blooms to adorn our Easter tables. The fruit trees have been through the wringer, with delicate blooms assailed by frosty nights and winds strong enough to strip our pretty pink peach blossoms right off the branches and plaster them onto the driveway. One rite of spring around here is the hunt for asparagus. It grows wild - or volunteer - along roadsides and fences and around the edges of gardens and yards. Folks look forward to the few weeks that it can be picked and eaten at will, all you want for free.

I didn't grow up with asparagus like my husband did. I'm not sure why Dad never planted any in our garden, but I'm thinking neither he nor Mom especially liked it. I can't recall the first time I tried it, but I wasn't particularly impressed. I can take it or leave it, and for me, a little bit goes a long way. For Robin, it's a different story. He loves asparagus. He picks it by the bagful, and would eat it every night for supper if I'd fix it. The first time I ate it with his family, the huge bowl filled with asparagus, a pile sliced bread, and the butter dish were the only things on the table. And I must admit, his mother's recipe was quite good. Thankfully, it's pretty easy. Robin rescued a small mess from imminent frost the other day. Here's how he likes it.

Wash asparagus spears and cut off the tough part at the bottom. Make sure to get rid of any grass or other yuk your husband manages to pick along with the asparagus. Since any stalks he left behind were doomed to freezing, Robin picked all sizes. Normally he would leave the smaller ones to grow a bit.

Chop the stalks into small discs. I suppose many folks would consider it a crime to cut up nice asparagus, but it's worth it in the end.

Place in a sauce pan and cover with water. Don't drown it. Add water just until the discs are covered. Sprinkle in salt to taste.

Bring to a boil and simmer about 10 minutes, until fork tender. If you put a lid on it, stay close by. It boils over quickly! Meanwhile, put some milk in whatever you use to mix milk and flour. My mother always used a metal shaker similar to this one. I think I used about 2/3 cup. I suppose if you wanted to dress it up a little you could use half-and-half.

Add a heaping tablespoon of flour.

Put the lid on and shake until well blended. There shouldn't be any lumps.

When the asparagus is tender, lower the heat and stir in the flour/milk mixture. Keep stirring, as it will thicken quickly. Add a tablespoon or two of butter.

Then add some freshly-ground black pepper. Stir until the butter melts.

Toast your favorite bread (homemade is especially good) and spread with butter while it's hot.

Spoon the creamed asparagus over the toast. Add some more pepper if you like, and dig in!

If you like it as well as Robin does, there won't be any leftovers!

If you can get some fresh, tender asparagus, consider eating it creamed over toast. It's an easy one-pot meal if you follow Robin's mother's menu. But whether it's the only dish on the table or one of several, it will definitely sweeten your supper with the taste of spring.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Behold, The Egg

Eggs are just about perfect things. I like gathering them. I like looking at a bowl or basket filled with them. I like cracking them open. I like cooking with them. And I like eating them.

We have chickens now. Robin's family had chickens when I met him almost thirty years ago, and I remember when my grandmother had chickens. But for me, well, it's the first time I've ever been a "chicken owner." Robin takes care of them and gathers the eggs most of the time since I have a lot to learn about chickens. I don't speak chicken yet, as I don't have a clue what all their sounds mean. Last summer, while I painted at the farmhouse with the windows open, I heard some really weird sounds coming from the hen house and chicken yard, sounds that could have easily come from some scary monster movie. I'm OK with gathering eggs as long as they are in plain sight, but I haven't yet gotten up the courage to reach in under a stubborn hen whose eyes are clearly telling me to leave her eggs alone.

But I love having eggs! They're smooth (mostly) and creamy white or brown (mostly) and they are just lovely in a pretty bowl or in the clear plastic bin in our frig. Every evening after supper, I clean the day's crop. If Robin has recently cleaned the nests and put in new straw or shavings, the eggs are basically clean and just need a quick wipe with a damp paper towel. Sometimes, though, the chickens break an egg in a nest, and it always seems to happen in the most popular one. Then I have several eggs coated with dried egg yolk. It takes a good bit of rubbing to get those clean. And then there are those with chicken poop. I know it's not too appetizing, but the poop almost always wipes off completely. Once the eggs are clean, I pack them away in cartons in the basement refrigerator. For a couple of months now we've been getting 6-12 eggs a day. When we have several dozen on hand, we sell share some and sell some.

We have some Bantam chickens ("banties" as Robin calls them), which are extra-little chickens with an extra lot of spunk.

They lay the cutest little eggs! When compared to some of the whoppers the other hens lay, they are really tiny. That's a nickel in the photo below, and an ordinary egg beside a banty egg.

  I saved some of these "baby eggs" just for dying this Easter. It's been a long, long time since I dyed eggs. I thoroughly enjoyed the whole process. It brought back memories of spooning vinegary bright-colored liquid over snow-white eggs in Mom's Blue Willow coffee cups.

Now these pretty little eggs are in the Easter basket that my other grandmother made for me when I was little. With Easter Sunday almost here, I'll be thinking about how perfectly eggs represent the Trinity: yolk, white, and shell, Father, Son, Holy Spirit. Three distinct entities of one whole. It's a simple yet lovely picture of the God who loved us enough to die for us. I hope your Easter morning is sweet with His great love, and I hope you have eggs!