A Skink in a Log

When your alarm goes off at 435am so you can leave for the airport by 515, it’s very dark outside. It’s hard to get up. Your eyes resist opening. They slit open only enough to deactivate the alarm. You roll over and tuck in again. Just a few more minutes, you think, just a few.

No. Today is Travel Day. Time to get up. Now.

That’s just how the skink must have felt, the one we found inside a cut log this weekend. The one we woke up.

If you have ever wondered what the inside of a tree looks like, look on the outside for clues. If you see a lot of holes, especially large ones – fist-size or bigger – worry. If you see squirrels and birds disappearing inside those holes – worry more. You might have a tower filled with condominiums for your local wildlife. If that tree is anywhere near your house, call someone to come take it down.

The 80-foot (or so) tree that stood about an arm-spread from the back corner of my house, right next to my bedroom, was one such tower. Last winter a professional climber lopped off numerous branches while hanging from a rope tied to the jib of a 40-ton crane. Do you see him up there? He’s just under that heavy ball attached to the rope that’s attached to the jib.

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Then they felled the tree. Afterwards he said to me no fewer than four times, “You are so lucky that tree didn’t fall on your house. You are so lucky.”

The cut branches revealed all stages of disintegration: some entirely without a core, some with wood fluff that fell out like finely shredded Styrofoam, some with spongy innards, not yet dry enough to slough off and out. I was so lucky.

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Some of this wood we cut up right away for firewood. Some of it sat in a jumble near the garden, waiting, aging, drying some more. Fourteen months later it was time to split and stack the rest. I’m good for rolling cut sections toward the cutting area and for picking up and stacking the cut pieces. Samuel swings the ax.

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“Hey, look. Is it dead?” He brought over a split piece to where I was wrestling with nasty, thorny Virginia creeper. Do you see the little fella with the unmistakable blue tail ?

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The aptly named blue-tailed skink seemed to be sleeping. Do skinks hibernate? The impact of the ax, the sound and disturbance of the cracking, the force of the split log falling to the ground – none of this disturbed him. He snoozed soundly in his little crack, hoping perhaps that it isn’t spring just yet.

Awwwww – just a few more minutes??

No. Sorry. Today is Wood Splitting Day. Time to get up. Now.

The fresh air must have roused him. Off he scampered, easily disappearing among some dead leaves. Within minutes Samuel spotted his compatriot, a little brown lizard way better camouflaged and surely able to claim a better name than “little brown lizard” but sadly I don’t know my woodland wildlife well enough. See him just below the toe of Samuel’s left boot?

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Two lizardy creatures awakened to Spring 2019 before our eyes! That’s not a thing you can say every day.

Sliding Snow

As we left to go see Aquaman on Saturday, it was beginning to snow lightly. When we came out of the theater, there was a dusting on the ground and we were glad we had chosen the 3:45 p.m. showing instead of the 7:10. Sunday morning at not quite dawn (you can see the dusk-to-dawn, timed heat lamps still glowing red inside the coops), this scene greeted me.

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I didn’t think the chickens would be eager to put their feet in the cold, white stuff, so I took my time getting out there to open the door for the hens in the new coop. They did not rush out when I raised the door, practically tumbling over one another as usual. They didn’t even peek out. I opened the brooding box doors and found Whitey in her usual spot and Spot still in lala land. Hey, that’s cold air – d’ya mind?!

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I noticed the icicles forming and threw some feed inside for these Unwilling Chickens. If they chose to stay inside for a while, scratching around in the straw to find the grain would give them something to do.

The other group had come through the opening at the top of their little ramp and down into the covered area, but that’s as far as these Reluctant Chickens went. For once they were not clamoring at the door where I stood taking their photo. In order to do that, they would have to step into the cold fluff. For once they did not seem to be begging for food so much as Could you get rid of that foreign material??

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An hour or so later I found these Underneath Chickens that had managed to get as far as the area under their coop. This is not better! How do we get back up and inside??

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Not a fun day for any of them, but I was oddly unsympathetic. They have a heat lamp inside at night! (Not every chicken can boast the same.) They’ll live. Chickens have survived cold before.

What got my attention a little later in the day was the snow sliding off the metal porch roof of the cottage. Look how it’s heavier in the middle and drooping into a fan shape. How cool is that?!

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What I found Monday, after the temperature had risen slightly above freezing and the snow had melted some, was just as interesting. The weight of the snow had come slowly down the two front valleys of the cottage roof, buckling into waves.

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But the best part was the icicles tilting toward the front door.

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It hadn’t been all that windy, so I guessed that the weight of the descending snow had caused this effect. At first I wished I’d had a slow-motion camera going on it all day because surely those icicles were hanging straight down before they veered sideways. Then I thought I should have not only individual shots of the icicles on either side, but the same shot as above with the fan-shaped swath in the middle, only without the fan-shaped swath in the middle because it had already fallen to the porch by the time I took the icicle photos. I went back out not twenty minutes later to try to get this shot – boots, coat, scarf, the whole business – and the icicles on the right had already crashed down to their natural end. So much for that. Only the icicles on the left remained. How quickly things can change!

This made me think about two things:

The moments we capture and the moments we don’t. Our phones make incessant photography and videography possible but let us not get too lazy and make the camera do all the work. Some things we should capture, yes, especially for those who cannot be there. I love seeing a video of my two-year-old granddaughter Piper (in Seattle) telling her very obedient dog to roll over (and Zadie does it!). But no matter what we capture, no matter what we have a glimpse of – there’s always more to the scene, always more that we should/could imagine. Let’s not forget 1. There’s a fuller picture than the glimpses we get, and 2. The best images, the most powerful images – our memories — live almost exclusively in our minds and our hearts, and that’s where they belong. Some of them, to be sure, live only in our imaginations. Let us continually build up that bank, filling it with sweet and wonderful images that sustain us when it’s dark outside, when certain days of wonder are behind us, when the screen is blank.

The expected way and the sideway. Ordinary icicles go straight down on account of this thing called gravity. Not many seemingly have a mind of their own and veer in any non-downward direction — Nah, who wants to go straight down?! Let’s give ‘em something to marvel at! I keep thinking about the extraordinary things people do that they don’t have to, such as Lincoln and Julia building their pentagonal, straw bale insulated house in Vermont. Various well-meaning people said to them, essentially: You have two small children. You live in a cold place. Build something simple – four straight walls, four straight corners, roof, windows, door, water, power, heat – that you can live in temporarily while you then play with funky designs and materials. But Lincoln and Julia chose the unexpected way, the sideway, the harder way. They chose to make their own unique house from the get-go (unconventional yurt in the meantime notwithstanding!), thereby writing their own unique story. The sideway is not always the best option, granted, and we have to think it through and sometimes take our chances, but oh the dividends! Lincoln and Julia not only give us something to marvel at, they also are making lots of deposits in their memory bank!

Tuesday morning the mango peels I threw on the ground inside the chickens’ run on Monday are still there. None ventured into the snow to get them. I opened the door, out they came, still unsure … and they all stood on the platform. Now what? Huh? Now what are we supposed to do?

The others had made their way to the door and begged as usual. Food, remember?? Starving here! (As if!)

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But the icicles! Those on the left had not yet fallen off, but had inched ever slightly downward. Against the backdrop of dawn over the mountains, I felt like I was in a fairy land.

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And the blanket of snow that had formed on the side roof of the cottage, the blanket that yesterday looked like this…

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…now had shifted down and curved inward.

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Nature made a show for me. I’m so glad I was here to see it!

The Light of 2019

Last year during the week between Christmas and New Year, it was very, very cold here in Virginia, inordinately cold, exceptionally cold. We seldom get to single digits, let alone for a week straight. We took Katja, a visitor from Germany, to Washington, D.C. and walked from one end of the National Mall to the other. It was 4 degrees F (-15C) that day.

Just before Christmas we were in Vermont. I did not pay as much attention to the temperature because we were busy insulating Lincoln’s house and hauling household items up the snowy hill, but I do remember hearing it was 11F. That’s not as cold as 4F but it’s still mighty cold. Coco doesn’t like it. Poor baby. There’s not a lot of fur on her belly, and it’s very tough on her. She would much rather be tucked in.

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When we got home it was much warmer. It makes me smile to see her finding her spot outside on the front porch (that’s no closer to being finished than six weeks ago)…

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…or inside where the sun comes through my south-facing bedroom window.

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She finds and occupies the only bit of rug that also has sun in that room and has her trusty fox toy behind her. Now we’re talking! New Year’s Day in my neck of the woods is predicted to be sunny and 64F (17C). Ah, glorious sun!

If a patch of sun can make Coco so happy, imagine what it can do for you, what it does do for you without you hardly noticing it most of the time. Think about how you feel on a drab day vs. a sunny day. If you live in a place that’s sunny all the time, you may not be as aware of the effect that cloudy days have on your emotional well being. But winter is harder in places that get snow not only because it’s colder but also because there is less sun.

Imagine if we arranged our built spaces to take advantage of the sun whenever possible. One of my favorite books about the design of living spaces is A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander. In it he suggests some examples to encourage indoor sunlight: “(1) a porch that gets the evening sun late in the day; (2) a breakfast nook that looks directly into a garden which is sunny in the morning; (3) a bathing room arranged to get full morning sun; (4) a workshop that gets full southern exposure during the middle of the day; (5) an edge of a living room where the sun falls on an outside wall and warms a flowering plant.”

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In Lincoln’s pentagonal house, he has chosen to put an oculus (which will become a cupola with functioning windows) in the center of the second-floor ceiling. Light will stream into almost every room of the house through this amazing component of his design.

This (in my woobly red line) is the oculus I’m talking about. Only some of that flooring will remain.

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Most of us are stuck with the house we have, the orientation it came with, the sun we get. But on this first day of 2019, I am thinking about what the sun does for us and how we can and should take advantage of it. Find a sunny spot to sit in if you can, even for a little while. Let the sun do its work on you. See what happens.

Beyond that, I think about what we can do for others by being “sunny” in our interactions. The expressions that come to mind and go hand in hand with this concept include:

You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar – a favorite of mine because it’s true not only figuratively, it’s true literally. The image of a flypaper hanging from a ceiling in a cabin somehow resides in my mind. If the strip of paper were coated with honey, no way could a fly’s wings detach once they landed on it. What (very dumb) fly would land on a paper coated with vinegar? I translate as: You accomplish more by using grace and kindness than by being sour/vindictive/mean/angry/etc.

In honor of Mary Poppins, all the rage with Mary Poppins Returns being in theaters right now: A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down. In the Julie Andrews original, she applies this literally, though why the children need medicine when they are not sick is beyond me. Nevertheless, my translation: The world can be a tough place; anything we do to make it better makes it better! Add an element of good to something that is unpleasant or difficult and you will find everything easier.

Lastly: This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine! I was thinking today about how limited we are, how our sphere of influence is small, how many people there are in the world and how few of them we can in any way affect. So what? We don’t have to save the world (this has already been done), but we sure can make our own corners — and the corners of those we love and care about — less dark by our chosen actions.

Several years ago, I found the essay We Were Made For These Times by Clarissa Pinkola Estes (American poet, post-trauma specialist and Jungian psychoanalyst, author of Women Who Run With the Wolves). It made me think about why I do what I do, what I think is important, what the future might hold. Maybe it speaks to you and helps you make 2019 a wonderful year in new and important ways.

My friends, do not lose heart. We were made for these times. I have heard from so many recently who are deeply and properly bewildered. They are concerned about the state of affairs in our world now. Ours is a time of almost daily astonishment and often righteous rage over the latest degradations of what matters most to civilized, visionary people.

You are right in your assessments. The lustre and hubris some have aspired to while endorsing acts so heinous against children, elders, everyday people, the poor, the unguarded, the helpless, is breathtaking. Yet, I urge you, ask you, gentle you, to please not spend your spirit dry by bewailing these difficult times. Especially do not lose hope. Most particularly because, the fact is that we were made for these times. Yes. For years, we have been learning, practicing, been in training for and just waiting to meet on this exact plain of engagement.

I grew up on the Great Lakes and recognize a seaworthy vessel when I see one. Regarding awakened souls, there have never been more able vessels in the waters than there are right now across the world. And they are fully provisioned and able to signal one another as never before in the history of humankind.

Look out over the prow; there are millions of boats of righteous souls on the waters with you. Even though your veneers may shiver from every wave in this stormy roil, I assure you that the long timbers composing your prow and rudder come from a greater forest. That long-grained lumber is known to withstand storms, to hold together, to hold its own, and to advance, regardless.

In any dark time, there is a tendency to veer toward fainting over how much is wrong or unmended in the world. Do not focus on that. There is a tendency, too, to fall into being weakened by dwelling on what is outside your reach, by what cannot yet be. Do not focus there. That is spending the wind without raising the sails.

We are needed, that is all we can know. And though we meet resistance, we more so will meet great souls who will hail us, love us and guide us, and we will know them when they appear. Didn’t you say you were a believer? Didn’t you say you pledged to listen to a voice greater? Didn’t you ask for grace? Don’t you remember that to be in grace means to submit to the voice greater?

Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach. Any small, calm thing that one soul can do to help another soul, to assist some portion of this poor suffering world, will help immensely. It is not given to us to know which acts or by whom, will cause the critical mass to tip toward an enduring good.

What is needed for dramatic change is an accumulation of acts, adding, adding to, adding more, continuing. We know that it does not take everyone on Earth to bring justice and peace, but only a small, determined group who will not give up during the first, second, or hundredth gale.

One of the most calming and powerful actions you can do to intervene in a stormy world is to stand up and show your soul. Soul on deck shines like gold in dark times. The light of the soul throws sparks, can send up flares, builds signal fires, causes proper matters to catch fire. To display the lantern of soul in shadowy times like these – to be fierce and to show mercy toward others; both are acts of immense bravery and greatest necessity.

Struggling souls catch light from other souls who are fully lit and willing to show it. If you would help to calm the tumult, this is one of the strongest things you can do.

There will always be times when you feel discouraged. I too have felt despair many times in my life, but I do not keep a chair for it. I will not entertain it. It is not allowed to eat from my plate.

The reason is this: In my uttermost bones I know something, as do you. It is that there can be no despair when you remember why you came to Earth, who you serve, and who sent you here. The good words we say and the good deeds we do are not ours. They are the words and deeds of the One who brought us here. In that spirit, I hope you will write this on your wall: When a great ship is in harbor and moored, it is safe, there can be no doubt. But that is not what great ships are built for.

Christmas Trees Among Friends and Family

Sometimes I forget things. My first waking thought today, Christmas morning, was not (I am sorry to say) about the real meaning of Christmas, but instead Oh, right, I told Mom I would make scalloped potatoes to go with the dinner today – better get to that! Yesterday was pure relaxation after Samuel helped me finish up the chocolate lime pie, our traditional Christmas dessert. I got out a new (very hard!) jigsaw puzzle and got completely absorbed with that until we turned on It’s A Wonderful Life while enjoying Samuel’s excellent pizza.

Now I realize I also forgot all about the popcorn garland I was going to add to the Christmas tree. Could have done that yesterday too. Do you think it needs it?

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Speaking of trees, I almost didn’t put one up. I was so enchanted with the way my outdoor tree looked this year, especially when we got snow, I said to myself, It’s enough. I wished it had snowed before I made up my Christmas cards this year!

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But snow (in Virginia) melts and various people I know sent me photos of their Christmas trees. How could this not nudge me??

Louisa in North Carolina was the first. How amazing that her tree is not only so incredibly beautiful but that she got her precious pups to pose in front!

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My sister Lynn in Massachusetts was next. I love the way her star on top shines on the ceiling, so soft, and I bet it looks different from different angles and at different times of day.

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Fred in Kentucky, I venture to say, could tell you where every ornament came from. How precious a walk through memories…

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Marie’s (in Idaho) made me smile big. They went out with neighbors and cut one from the woods. I love it!

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Even more precious was the photo of Ellie, who is three, holding an ornament. Marie said, “Grandma gave me this one when I was three.” I hope Ellie’s child (someday) is smiling as she holds the ornament I sent Ellie this year…

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Claudia’s tree in Germany is full and jolly!

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I also loved her table decoration prepared in time for the first Sunday of Advent. How we take such simple elements and put them together to make something so pretty and meaningful!

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Kim’s in Vermont is not exactly a tree, but it is made from branches of trees! At their family camp where they traditionally get their trees there just … weren’t any. She said it’s growing on her and is much more manageable than a real tree! I love it!

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We make do and we make it wonderful! Lincoln and Julia in Vermont, in their straw bale house, decided to be even more unconventional. I love theirs too!

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Lincoln’s, Kim’s and Marie’s made me think – here I am with the unboring path and yet I have a rather conventional tree. They get the prize for Unconventional! How fun and wonderful to see such a lovely variety, to bear witness to the creativity of those I know, to see and hear about the joy and fun that surrounds this custom.  They all made me smile! What a funny custom it is – we buy a tree or go to the woods to cut one down (or cut some branches, if you are Kim and Dave), then install (assemble?) it indoors in a prominent place and decorate it with our favorite ornaments. Or if you are Lincoln and Julia, you put up some lights and hang ornaments and use your imagination! What a special way once a year to slow down, do something unnecessary but just fun,  share a tradition with countless others and revisit our Christmas memories as we make new ones.

Merry Christmas! God bless us every one!

The Best Life If You’re a Pig

Pigs don’t have many choices in life. They are at the mercy of their owners and keepers, and I’d guess many of them would wish for a trade if trades were possible.  I would also venture to say that the vast majority would do anything pigly possible to have the life that Tracy’s pigs have. Do these pigs look happy or what? Okay, maybe they just look curious. There’s something about those noses that’s hilarious and remarkable at the same time.

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I’m not sure pigs could have a better life than these. They have oak trees dropping acorns all through their spacious, wooded area and freedom to root around all day finding those acorns and whatever else pigs consider yummy among the fallen leaves of this time of year. They have a huge enclosure made with movable fencing so it is, yes, moved around, which is better for the land, better for the pigs, plus a change of scenery (maybe they notice!). Oh, hey, this spot has great dirt!

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Their summertime life along the tree line let them pick shade or sun, assuming pigs can pick. Compared to most pigs, this had to feel like they had the whole state of Virginia to roam around in.

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It’s pig paradise. Check out their big bathtub/pool, which is clean only until the moment one of them gets in it mainly on account of the adjacent mud hole for slopping around in.

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You can’t tell so much when they are muddy, but one of these pigs has a few spots and one is mostly plain. I noticed it when I drove by the other day and they had been moved to the woods near the road.

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The spotted one reminded me of Chester the Worldly Pig, a fictitious, determined, clever creature created by Bill Peet in 1965 and among my favorite children’s books. Chester resented his lot in life. “Of all things,” grumbled Chester, “why on earth did I have to be a pig?” Does his face look annoyed?

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“But before I end up as so much sausage and ham, I intend to try and amount to something.” But what? To solve his problem, he did what we all do (or should do) when we have a problem, he thought long and hard about it. He “turned this around and around in his head until one day it came to him: ‘I’ll be a star in the circus!’” Chester perfected his nose stand and waited for the circus train to go by and see him.

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His plan failed because the train passed by with its shades drawn, so he ran down the tracks until he came to the big top, jumped on a post, impressed them all and got himself a job.

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But as you might imagine it didn’t work out. Sometimes things don’t work out. First they put him in with the lions and terrified him, then they dressed him up like a baby so Roscoe the clown could wheel him around in a doll buggy.

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It was beyond humiliating, so he took off first chance he got. A bear thought he’d make a great lunch,

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but then so did a bunch of hobos. That’s Chester in the bag next to Red Beard.

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“I’m the one that caught this pig,” red beard roared above the noise of the train, “so I’m keepin’ him all to myself!”

“Oh, no, you don’t!” bellowed black beard. “It’s share and share alike! That’s the rule!”

“And rules is rules,” growled gray beard.

“I’m breakin’ the rules,” roared red, “so what can you do about it?”

Chester barely escaped with his life. He resigned himself to his fate, the “at the first barn lot he came to, he turned in the gate to give himself up, and the farmer greeted the stray pig with open arms.”

 “To the farmer’s delight, after a couple of years Chester ballooned into a huge blimp of a pig; and one morning the happy farmer said, “Today this little pig goes to market.”

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Now if you’re a child looking at this farmer, are you thinking What a nice farmer! or He got himself a lot of free pork! Or Poor pig! Is his face happy in a jovial kind of way or happy in a greedy way or happy in a didn’t-I-get-lucky way? That’s the thing about art, right? Even children’s art. Contrived as the representation is, you are still free to interpret it with your own experiences and biases weighing in. In fact, it’s practically impossible not to. From the beginning, Chester is painted as a survivor. And now we all know what the farmer is going to do.

Or we think we know.

It’s just like when you watch a movie the second or third time and you see things you didn’t see the first time. Once you know the outcome, you wonder how you missed the important clues. It was plain as day even in the first scene, but I missed it, and you probably missed it too.

On that very same morning a carnival van stopped at the farm, and out of the cab stepped a dignified white-whiskered man with a broad-brimmed hat and a fancy frock coat. He had stopped to buy fresh eggs, but when he saw the huge pig he forgot all about the eggs.

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“What will you take for your pig?” he asked. The farmer thought for a minute, then named his price, which was at least twice what he figured the pig was worth. And to the farmer’s surprise, the man didn’t so much as bat an eye; he counted out the money and the deal was closed.

After the pig was loaded aboard and the van drove away, the farmer had himself a good laugh. “So he thinks he’s bought the world’s biggest pig! Why I’ve seen at least a dozen bigger ones at the county fair.” But if the fellow had gone to school long enough to study geography, he’d have known that Chester was much more than just plain big.

Here’s author Bill Peet, who worked as a sketch artist at Disney Studio on such films as Pinocchio, Fantasia and Sleeping Beauty and authored of 35 books, plugging a good education. In the end, Chester’s grit – despite what we all know happens to pigs in this world – led to an ending where everyone wins. The farmer got a good price, the white-whiskered man got “The One and Only Worldly Pig” and Chester got the fame he hoped for.

“Now if you will please move in a little closer,” said the white-whiskered man [to the crowd in the carnival tent], “you will see the entire map of the world imprinted by nature on this remarkable creature’s enormous hide. On his left side, the continents of North and South America, including the land of Australia, which is down under, of course.”

The crowd gasped in amazement, while Chester oinked in surprise. He was as amazed as anyone.

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“But that’s only the half of it,” said the man, turning the pig around on his revolving platform. “On his right side we find Europe, Africa, and Asia, and for good measure, even that tiny island of Borneo. So you see, my friends, this amazing pig is truly one of nature’s wonders…”

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Last week as I passed Tracy’s property and saw her pigs in the woods – and one of them is spotted! – how could I not think of Chester and the good life that some pigs get? There’s a lot we can’t do anything about, but many people do what they do in highly admirable ways. Hats off to Tracy! What lucky pigs she has!

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Half a Piece of Pie

In the past few months, at least two new pie shops have opened in Charlottesville. There’s something about a good piece of pie, and everyone has their favorite. Or do they? Is cherry better than apple better than blueberry better than key lime? Oh, better than pumpkin?? I had to make a decision today at Quality Pie.

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This pie shop’s selection includes the basics. I looked in the glass case and asked the nice young man to tell me about the cherry pie. “Bing cherries,” he said, “that’s all I know.” Okay, fair enough. I like bing cherries. How about the crust? “All butter,” he said, “unless it’s for one of the savory pies. Then I think they use lard.” All butter works for me.

Their prices were decent too.

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I make pie myself. I love to make pie. But when cherries come into season, I do not think of making a pie with them because they are so good all by themselves. So, yes, the cherry pie called my name. It was wonderful. Hat’s off to the baker at Quality Pie.

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One bite into my very delicious piece of pie, I remembered another piece – half a piece – that made a great impression on me. This half piece came from a pie I made myself when I was still in college at Rutgers University (Douglass College back then, a part of Rutgers). I was living in a small apartment and invited a friend to come for dinner. I don’t remember what I made for the main part of the meal, but for dessert there was pie.

It was good pie. You’ll have to take my word. I served Penelope her piece and served myself as well, and we kept on talking, having a lovely time. Then something remarkable happened. When she was halfway done with her piece of pie, I mean when there was half a piece of pie still on her plate, she put her fork down.

She put her fork down and did not pick it back up again.

I was 20 years old and confronted with something new. Who doesn’t finish a piece of pie?

We kept talking and I tried to ignore this bizarre turn of events. Eventually I couldn’t stand it anymore. I turned into my mother and said, “Is something wrong with the pie?”

She looked me straight in the eye and said, “No, it’s good. I’m just full.”

If she had stood on her head or told me she would turn into an alien if she ate another bite, I could not have been more surprised. Full? I thought. Full? Sure… but… too full to finish a piece of pie?

“Oh, okay, just making sure,” was all I said about it.

Never before had I encountered anyone stopping because they were full. In my house, growing up, you finished what was on your plate regardless. You were grateful. You had vague notions of starving children somewhere. You especially finished pie!

This was a monumentally earth-shattering, life-changing concept for me, I can assure you. In front of me was Penelope, not an ounce of fat on her, politely putting her fork down because she was full. In my mind I saw my family, many of whom (including myself) either on a diet or about to be on one, always finishing what was on our plates. I understand this is a very small sample size and a very unscientific way to draw a conclusion, but I saw that the person who put down her fork when she was full even if she was eating pie was by all appearances healthier than the people I knew who put down their forks only when their plates were empty even if they were full.

I won’t lie. I had a hard time throwing away Penelope’s uneaten half. No chickens in my life then, nothing to do but throw it away. But another thought occurred to me. Penelope was listening to her body in a way I had never done, never thought to do. Her body was telling her to stop, and she listened. I had always listened to my mind, to the words that had been said to me so often: Finish what’s on your plate. Period. No conditions here. No if’s. Just finish. It’s wasteful if you don’t.

But (I now thought) if my body is telling me I don’t need it, if I’m full but I eat it anyway, isn’t that wasteful too, in its own way? Isn’t that asking my body to waste energy doing what it wouldn’t have to do if I didn’t burden it with food it doesn’t need?

Thus began a profound shift in my thinking about food. I still didn’t like having to throw away the half piece of pie, but what if I had given her a smaller portion to begin with? What if I had not assumed what her portion would be and had perhaps asked her how big a piece she wanted? (This too was a foreign concept – a piece of pie had a size, a set size. You didn’t mess with these things.)

What if I had asked her? She might have said Just a sliver please. And there would have been no pie in the trash.

What if I asked myself? What if I thought about my own portion instead of robotically taking what seemed a normal amount? What if I thought about, gave even a few seconds thought to, how hungry I actually was and adjusted my portion? What if I listened to my own body?

I had a full course load that semester in college and was working three different part-time jobs. It was a lot of juggling. And now one more thing to think about, one more thing on my plate! I can’t say this experience brought about an immediate change for me – old habits die hard – but Penelope taught me a great lesson that slowly worked its way into my own eating patterns. Sadly, I lost track of her after graduation and therefore can’t thank her for the part she played in helping me be more reasonable about food. But I wish I could.

A is for Applesauce

For as long as I can remember, I have made applesauce come fall. It’s a signal of the season change, when my best descriptor of the air is “crisp” and my thoughts turn – without intention – to hunkering down and getting ready for the colder, shorter days of winter. It’s fundamental to our primal instincts to get ready for scarcity of food, even if we don’t have to worry about that at all. Applesauce is one of those pure foods that’s good warm, cold or icy, all by itself or next to a slice of pork roast or a potato pancake.

It’s simple. You wash the apples, cut them up, put them in a pot with a little water, let it cook down, press it through a strainer, add some cinnamon if you want, and enjoy! I’ll take you through it step by step.

Amazing apples make amazing applesauce, so start with apples as fresh and crisp as possible and as local as your location allows. I am fortunate to live 20 minutes from a well-established and super impressive family farm that specializes in heirloom apples. https://www.albemarleciderworks.com/

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One day last week I happened to be going right by there, so I stopped in for 40 pounds, my usual portion when applesauce is the goal. (Forty pounds fills three canvas shopping bags a bit more than half full each, in case you wondered.) Normally Albemarle CiderWorks has five or six long folding tables set up along the outside wall of the barn with a box of each kind of apple, one after the next, in a long row on the tables. (There’s a good photo on their web site showing this.) They have small paring knives and paper plates and descriptions of each apple set out in front of the boxes, so that you can sample them and decide what you like best.

But last Thursday it was raining and all the apples were in cold storage. I was escorted into that living-room-sized refrigerator and chose fast! Cold storage is cold!

Different apples are picked at different times, and different apples are best for different purposes. Applesauce naturally comes out best when you use apples that are best for cooking. For me that means they are very firm and a bit tart, which is as technically descriptive as I can get. Last year I got one called Black Twig that was extraordinary, but it comes late in the season and was not available yet. Virginia Gold and Liberty looked good to me in the ten, very cold seconds inside the fridge that I allowed myself to contemplate this decision, and the woman helping me confirmed that they would make great applesauce. Pack ‘em up! Done! Homeward I drove.

Yesterday, following too much rain this past week, the ground was too wet for the final grading in front of the house, so we thought maybe it would be a good time to get the oak clapboards on the coop. That job has been sitting all summer on the back burner while we waited for the wood to be milled and got involved with other things. We had barely started measuring and cutting boards when raindrops came again, so we turned our attention to the basement, more specifically to making order in the basement. A lot of stuff got moved to clear the space in front of the interior wall of the foundation that needs repair, and that stuff had been put here, there and everywhere. It took a couple hours, but all is decently in place now. A bunch of stuff is in the trash.

Then it wasn’t raining anymore, and the coop siding beckoned still. But before heading out, I decided to get the applesauce going. Look how beautiful they are in my sink.

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I rinsed them off and stared at them a bit, admiring their gloss, their unique colorings – every Liberty with slightly different transitions from reddish to greenish, every Virginia Gold with different splotches and spots of brown. I have to admire them before I cut them up. It seems the respectful thing to do.

But once you start cutting, you just cut. The little ones you can quarter, the big ones in sixths or whatever is quickest. Seeds and skins stay; stems go in the compost or trash.

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I can’t be overly specific regarding quantities here because it’s entirely up to you how much applesauce you want to make. Take out a big pot (I used my five-gallon pot) and put about half an inch of water in the bottom of it. Put your cut-up apples in the pot until you can’t fit any more. Mine looked like this.

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Cover the pot, turn on medium and walk away. Go read a book or put siding on the coop. With the lid on top and the water in the bottom, those apples will just steam and get soft. After about an hour I took a break from the siding and checked on them; mine were doing what they are supposed to do: reducing in volume, steaming away, looking like this.

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Yours might take a little less time if it’s a lesser quantity. (What makes me think that not everyone is going to fill a five-gallon pot? You can make a smaller amount, but after you taste it, you’ll wish you made more!) The apples need to cook down slowly, and all they need is time and heat. Give it a stir at this point if you want, but it’s not the end of the world if you don’t.

After about two hours it reaches the point of mushiness where you can easily stir it with a wooden spoon and make mash by doing so. By this time the aroma of apples fills your home and you wonder why more people don’t cook.

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See the mash around my spoon? With a few more stirs, it all looks like that and you can spoon it into the strainer that you have set up in a bowl.

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Except for the skins and seeds, it’s applesauce now. Why not just peel and core them before cooking them? You can, but that process is tedious and time-consuming, and you lose more of the flesh of the apple that way. I do not have that kind of patience, much as my chickens would love the extra apple they’d get. And these apples are precious to me – I want as much of them as possible going into my applesauce.

Now all you have to do is press the applemash through the holes of the strainer with the back of a spoon. A Foley food mill works well for this too, if you have one of the older models. I found the newer ones problematic and more trouble than they are worth. My sister Lynn loves her Foley food mill; if I still had my old one, I’d probably love it too. But we get used to things one way or another. See what works for you.

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Note that the holes of my strainer are not super tiny. They are big enough for the sauce to go through pretty easily, but not so big as to allow the seeds through. Every now and then scrape the underside of the strainer.

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I discovered quickly that my bowl was going to fill up too fast, so I switched to using my Dutch oven as the bowl underneath. Then when the level of the applesauce reached the bottom of the strainer, I transferred the applesauce to the bowl.

Keep pressing applemash against the sides of the strainer until all you have left is skins and seeds. It will look like this.

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Scrape out the seeds and skins from the strainer into a separate bowl (this is great for your compost or your chickens!) and start again.

With the quantity I made, I added cinnamon each time the bowl became full (instead of waiting till it was all strained through and then adding cinnamon). Now that I think of it, I suppose you could put cinnamon sticks in the pot with the cooking apples, but oh well, maybe next time! I can’t tell you exactly how much cinnamon to use. It’s like salt and pepper: Add what seems right to you. I used about two teaspoons per three quarts of strained applesauce.

I love the swirl of the cinnamon getting stirred in.

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You can put your applesauce in a container and put it in the fridge to eat soon, or you can put it in mason jars and can it in a hot water bath, or you can freeze it. I think freezing is best. It’s easy and allows for icy applesauce at some point down the road.

Quart-size ziplock bags work great. If one person holds the bag open and another person spoons it in, that’s ideal. If you are by yourself, try putting the applesauce in a large measuring cup with a pour-spout or a small bowl with the same, and holding the bag with one hand and pouring with the other. A wide-mouth funnel can be good too. You can also freeze in jars as long as you allow a good inch or so of air space for expansion, otherwise the glass will break. (And you don’t want that!)

I had filled my five-gallon pot to overflowing with cut-up apples and ended up with about ten quarts of applesauce and three cups of seeds and skins which my chickens enjoyed tremendously. Always keep a little out for enjoying fresh.

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Oh, and if you think your applesauce is too watery, just cook it down a little more after you’ve removed the seeds and skins. That’s how you get apple butter – it’s just way-cooked-down applesauce. It might take another hour or so to cook down. Turn off the heat when it’s as thick as you like. In the meantime your house is blessed with apple aroma again! Some people add sugar too, at the end. That’s your call.

For those who are wondering how you get icy applesauce, just thaw one of your frozen bags or jars to the point where you can break the applesauce apart with a fork. Stir until desired smoothness. Oh yum!

And the coop — I love the siding! Claudia calls it a chicken castle! More on that soon 🙂

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Not-Your-Average Cultural Exchange

I know there are people in the world who would feel, as I do, a twinge of sadness the day after a storm splits the gigantic chrysanthemum.

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Or who wish they could wander out to the garden to pick fresh oregano and purple basil for the homemade pizza about to go into the oven (see the basil in the box behind the rosemary?). Or who would like to make applesauce together from freshly picked heirloom Virginia apples. I suspect there are people who have some time – a few weeks or a few months – to explore a corner of the world that is surely different in some ways than their own and who wonder about my corner of Virginia.

I’m thinking this is Not-Your-Average Cultural Exchange.

There’s always something going on around here: planting, harvesting, building, cooking, baking, (eating!), trying, creating, discovering, resting, marveling, playing, listening, digging, watching, learning, discussing, fixing, pondering.

There are my various gardens with herbs, vegetables and perennials. I’ve moved the azaleas in between the crape myrtles in front of the fenced garden. Turns out, the neglected bush that just got dug up in the front corner of my house was actually two bushes. This photo shows them moved, with their fresh dirt around them, but not yet trimmed, staked or mulched. I did that later in the day, after taking the photo. I had to take the photo when I did, and you see why. I did not ask little Coco to park herself there to enjoy the sunshine…

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We have got to do something about the blackberries that are going crazy inside the garden, and the tomatoes could be pulled and winter crops planted. The asparagus bed is none too tidy, begs for attention. One of the rudbeckia got smashed somehow and needs a little love. The front yard is a mess from the recent Big Dig, but soon we’ll be pouring footings and building a nice front porch.

My two custom-built chicken coops provide palatial accommodations for 29 interesting (some bordering on ridiculous) chickens. They need new mulch or straw when they’ve scratched through what we put down before, but they give lots of amazing eggs to make good food with! My lone araucana isn’t laying her greenish eggs any more though – could there be a reason? This black copper maran had a face-off with Coco yesterday. Both have curiosity, but the chicken less so. She just wants to get back to scratching in the straw. A white silkie came toward us to investigate.

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When the sun rises on a day with too much cloud cover, and it can’t quite get its rays to stream through the giant trees in my back woods, there’s always an otherworldly feeling and sometimes a glorious mist that sparkles on the leaves or in the air.

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When the wind kicks up such that those trees can’t help but engage in a wild dance, it’s a sight. The not-so-manicured trails through the woods are a pleasant walk leading to the beaver pond with its lodge and dam. The beavers keep making their pond a little bigger. I don’t get down there often enough.

When a fox trots in a wide circle around the coops, wishing (you know it!) that there was a way to get to those fat and surely delicious chickens, it doesn’t know how its red fur shines in the sun. When guests stay at my gorgeous Airbnb cottage, they just might see a mother bear and two cubs walk through the yard. A few weeks ago, someone did.

Recently I was in Seattle and met several enthusiastic, capable au pairs. I got to thinking that some people who would like to come to Virginia for a little while (but don’t necessarily have a friend here already) might prefer a household without small children, and might prefer a country setting. They might enjoy getting to know the plants that grow in this climate, or the way we lay decking boards, or the vibe of downtown Charlottesville, fifteen minutes away. It’s a vibrant university town with great restaurants and shops, exhibits and lectures, sports and music events. The Presidential homes of Jefferson, Madison and Monroe are all within half an hour’s drive.

Over the years I’ve had short- and long-term visitors many times and would love to share my little piece of the world with some new friends. If you are thinking it’s a good time to do such a thing and have a little interest, you can let me know.

Brilliant Sheepdogs, Clueless Sheep

The next time you think you are up against an impossible task, compare it to getting three sheep to move through a series of obstacles on a 25-acre hillside. Sheep are not the brightest animals (clueless is the word that comes to mind), but the border collies that guide them through this competitive course are brilliant, fast and oh so determined to be successful.

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It isn’t every day you get an “open” trial of the US Border Collie Handler’s Association practically in your backyard. When you do, you go see this amazing spectacle. Tracy and I drove about ten miles to Edgeworth Farm, knowing almost nothing about sheepdog trials except that it involves sheep, dogs, a person giving commands (whistle and voice), a great big open space and some sort of timed challenge.

It’s a challenge all right. We stood looking out on a huge field that is roughly triangular in shape, in the middle of one flat edge (at the bottom of this drawing)  looking toward the far point that was more than 400 yards away. That’s where the sheep start (the xxx at the top). I am not going to get a prize for drawing, and there are surely inaccuracies in this, but the obstacles and the route the dog has to take looks about like this.

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The dog starts with the handler at the dot near the bottom, opposite the three sheep (the three xxx’s at the far opposite end of the field), a spot called the outrun. The dog has to run around to the left toward the outrun, approach the sheep from behind, “lift” them (get them moving in the right direction), then make them go through the middle “fetch” panels that are seven yards apart, veer around and then up through the “drive” panels, go across the field through the “cross drive” panels, go toward and then through the “Maltese cross” from one specific entry point all the way through (they are not allowed to go out the sides of the cross), then into the pen. The dog does not have to close the door of the pen; the handler does that and also can help guide the sheep through the cross.

The sheep do not want to do any of this. Therefore please also note: My lines are relatively straight, but the sheep zig-zag all over the place, and the dog zig-zags behind and around them constantly. The sheep clearly have absolutely no idea what’s going on. They just want to go home, back to the barn, back to the food, back to the safety of their many other comrades who, unknown to them, are also three by three having to go through this same inane exercise.

Oh and by the way, this whole course is 12 minutes!

A very nice man named John stood next to us, also watching. His wife is a handler so he goes to these competitions all the time. The way he explained it, there are two main things to know about sheep. 1. Sheep assume safety in numbers so they stick together. But that doesn’t mean one of them might not “squirt” (his word) and separate from the rest randomly. 2. Whichever way the sheep’s head is facing, that’s the direction they are likely to move, so the dog has to get them facing the right way.

In this trial, the dog had to keep all three sheep together throughout the course. Sometimes, in other competitions, one or more sheep will be marked with a bandana or something, and the dog has to purposely separate that one or two from the rest and then get the unmarked group to go through the panels or into the pen.

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The photo above shows the dog and the sheep approaching the fetch (middle) panels and gives you an idea of how huge the field is. (I am not using a zoom lens.) You could barely see the sheep up near the trees when the dog was first released from the handler at the beginning of the trial. That black and white blob above the right-hand panel is the dog and the white blob in the middle is the three sheep, all clustered together, surely wondering what on earth they are doing running down this field and why this annoying creature is pestering them to do it!

John said the sheep are constantly deciding which is worse: the annoying dog always behind them that won’t leave them alone (so they continually try to get away from it) or the scary obstacle (gate, pen, etc) that the annoying creature is trying to make them approach and go through or into.

Next time you have to choose the lesser of two evils, remember these sheep! You can see them eyeing the “Maltese cross” with great skepticism (below), but that bothersome dog is still behind them. Why won’t it just go away??

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The dog has to sometimes coax, sometimes drive, sometimes wait. The handler whistles or shouts voice commands but can’t do that too much. Until the dog gets to the cross with the sheep, the handler stays at the starting post issuing commands from there. The whole thing is not only timed, but point-based. Each obstacle is worth a set number of points. Getting the sheep through the fetch panels – from the starting point (the outrun) through the first (middle) set of panels is worth 20, for example. It is not only getting them through that matters, it’s how the dog gets them through.

Didn’t your mother always say: It’s not what you do, it’s how you do it! or, It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it!

The rules are specific, though with a good bit of subjective judging required. Regarding that first part of the course, the USBCHA rules for international competition read as follows:

5.2.3 Lift

  1. At the end of the Outrun, the dog will either come to a full stop or merely slow down.
  2. The dog’s approach should be smooth, cautious and steady.
  3. The dog will take control in a firm and quiet manner.
  4. The dog should not rush in and startle the sheep nor should it lie back and require numerous commands before getting its sheep on the move.
  5. The lift should be smooth and balanced where the sheep move away in a direct line to the first obstacle.
  6. Judges should use their personal knowledge of sheep and sheep dogs to determine whether a lift has disturbed the sheep unduly and mark accordingly.
  7. Judges will deduct points for excessive commands, slowness, etc., at this point of the trial.

Several things strike me while reading through this. First, you try getting sheep to move in a direct line!! C’mon, sheep, you know you don’t want to just stand there. See that nice set of panels? God only knows what’s on the other side of them, but you know you want to go straight toward them and then right on through! Sheep have no idea whatsoever what a direct line is.

Second, “…whether a lift has disturbed the sheep unduly…“ – trust me, the sheep look very disturbed! Why is that infuriating dog behind us all the time??

Tracy and I watched eight or ten dogs try to do this course. Two or three got the sheep through the first (fetch) panels. One of those got the sheep through all three sets of panels (fetch plus drive plus cross drive). ONE! (This shows the “drive.”)

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One of them (a different one) got the sheep to go through the cross (in the right entry point and without squirting out the sides). One of them (yet another) got the sheep in the pen at the end. This is hard!!! The sheep don’t want to go in the pen! Damn dog! Make it go away!

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These dogs — and the people who train them — are remarkable. It struck me as its own world, a community of people and dogs who love this challenge, who work tirelessly to outwit and overcome the small-brained decisions of a bunch of sheep. It was highly entertaining and I’m sure is very hard work. The dog tries so hard! The sheep are so dumb! And when it works, when the smart, fast, skillful dog causes the dumb, jittery, unpredictable sheep to go where they are supposed to go, it’s so exciting, you cheer! Well, you quietly cheer because you are in such awe. You wouldn’t want to disturb the dog’s concentration or add any random noises that might add confusion. It’s hard enough!

Bobbe’s Granola, a.k.a. 5K Granola

For 22 years I lived in Vermont – made my own bread, homeschooled my kids, wore Birkenstocks year-round. I was a Granola Mom and proud of it. As you would doubtless expect, I also made my own granola. At some point my friend Bobbe gave me her recipe, and I made it and tweaked it and gave it away many times since. For a few years I even got to serve it to runners and walkers (along with little yogurts) at the annual 5K fundraising event our local hospice organization held at Keswick Golf Club.

Hospice of the Piedmont in Charlottesville, Virginia, has all my admiration for the outstanding job it does of ensuring that no one in this community dies alone or in pain, and that the families of those with terminal illnesses get the help they need too. I loved helping with the 5K every spring. Four or five years ago, thinking of my granola, I suggested that at a 5K, we should have food that the runners will remember. You want them to come back, to choose your race instead of some other race. Every event like this has banana halves and orange smiles, and lots of them have donated waters and bagels. But who has yogurt and homemade granola? It worked! The runners loved it!

Last year this amazing group of women, led by rock star Melba Campbell on the far right (who, for those of you who see the balloons, was also the birthday girl that day), raised more than $176,000 through this event that included just over 300 runners and walkers – a phenomenal ratio of dollars to runners. Every single volunteer contributed heart and soul, and I could not be prouder to have worked alongside them.

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But a funny thing happened this morning. I took out my cookbook to look at the original recipe, you know, just in case it was in Bobbe’s handwriting, which would have been very cool, but instead the handwriting was mine. She must have dictated it to me. Too bad, a missing piece of authenticity. Nonetheless, I laughed to see, right there in blue ink on an old index card, the very technique I thought I had “discovered” only a few years ago, the critical step, the “secret” to making the granola crunchy but not overcooked! Yes, it was a piece of humble pie for breakfast. How did that happen?!

It happens when you have made a thing many times, so many times that after a while you don’t look at the recipe because the ingredients and steps are all in your head. You begin to feel comfortable with eyeballing the quantity of, let’s say, the cinnamon, you use a different kind of wheat germ instead of the kind you always used, you decide you like it a little darker so you leave it in the oven longer – that sort of thing.

One time a few years ago, while working long days at the hotel, the glass, gallon-size jar that I keep my granola in was empty and I didn’t want to delay making a new batch any longer. Because of my schedule, I made it late that night. By the time it was done and I had turned the oven off, I was super tired. Eh, I’ll finish it in the morning (meaning I’d take it off the pans then and put it away). And off I went to bed. The next morning as I positioned the spatula at the edge of the pan to begin the process of breaking it up for transfer to said jar…

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… I heard a different sound, a sound like crunch.

Words are great and they come in very handy for a lot of communication. Pictures add tremendously to the understanding of anything. But sounds! Sounds have their own benefit. When something has sounded a certain way all along, and then suddenly it sounds different, you pay attention. I deduced, from the sound that morning that sounded like crunchy, that the overnight stay my granola had had in my oven had pulled more of the moisture out of it than if you take it out of the oven after it’s cooked and let it cool on the counter. It was drier, crispier, crunchier. I loved it! I was elated!

This was a breakthrough, and I had my crazy work schedule to thank for it. The granola was better in yogurt, better in milk, just plain better. When Lori Woods, one of the exceedingly competent and dedicated hospice workers, asked me for the recipe last year, I included in it:

Bake at 375 until the tops get brownish, which takes about 25 minutes. I happen to like mine a little on the darker side, but the shade of brown is up to you. When you have decided it’s right, turn off the oven but leave the pans in there. I found out by accident that leaving the pans in the oven overnight to cool slowly allows the residual heat to pull any excess moisture from the granola and gives it (and allows it to keep) a wonderful crunch if stored without fruit in it. 

See that part: I found out by accident…? I did! At least I think I did! But maybe I didn’t. Maybe the very clear instruction on the original recipe came out of deep storage in my brain, came right up to the front and presented itself anew. Here it is, see it? Plain as day: Turn oven off & leave in overnight.

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Now I know you think the moral of this story is: Every now and then you should look at the recipe! Yes, that’s part of it. But something else interesting happened this morning. When I took my pans out of the oven, having baked the granola last night and left it to dry overnight, as I pushed the edge of the spatula along the bottom of the pan to loosen it up, I did not hear the crunchy sound as usual. It sounded, well, softer. This story is NOT unfolding as it is supposed to!

Food is funny that way. It does not always cooperate the way you expect it to. Boxed cake mixes used to have alternate instructions for people who live at high altitudes (probably they still do, I haven’t bought one in a long time). This is because, for one thing, the air pressure is lower and foods take longer to cook. I never lived at a high altitude but if you did, it would make sense to pay attention to that.

I have never seen alternate instructions for hurricanes or other weird weather situations, but I think maybe, just maybe, the excessive humidity in the air right now because of Florence affected my granola, even inside the oven. Could it be? For several years now, I’ve done the overnight method. Why this time is it different? Lucky me: I have another batch to compare with mine.

Mom wanted to make some too because Jerry is a big fan of this granola and he was running low. (Poor man, must keep him well supplied.) She made it herself a few weeks ago and it didn’t come out right, so I made a batch together with her yesterday morning and then a batch of my own when I got home. This was great not only because I could spend some fun time with Mom, but also because I could see the process through the eyes of someone who was new at it.

Start with these ingredients.

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Specifically,

1 large round container old fashioned oats (42oz, 1.2kg, which is 15 8oz measuring cups full in case you buy your oats in bulk packaging)

1 ½ cups shredded coconut (this 7oz bag was a little more than that, I used the whole thing)

1 cup wheat germ

½ cup flax seed meal (optional)

1 cup brown sugar, light or dark

2 tablespoons cinnamon

1 teaspoon salt

Several points to note.

  1. Old fashioned oats are better than quick oats for this.
  2. You might like your granola sweeter or not as sweet. You can add some more brown sugar, or use less. You can use unsweetened coconut.
  3. Your wheat germ might be toasted or some other variety. Fine.
  4. I use flax seed only when I have it. Mom had it and wanted to use it.
  5. There are no nuts in this list. There are two reasons for this. One, I do not eat nuts. Two, if you eat nuts and want to add them, it is best to do them after the granola is baked and cooled.
  6. There is no dried fruit in this list. If you add the dried fruit before baking, you will end up with fruit that is hard as rocks and hard to chew. Put it in later.

My 8-quart, 14” dough bowl works well for this amount of ingredients. I brought mine to Mom’s because she doesn’t have that big a bowl. She said to add to these instructions that you might want to either use a big pot as a big bowl or cut the recipe in half so that you can use a smaller bowl.

Mix all of this together well in a very large bowl. Make sure you break down any brown sugar or coconut clumps at this time. Fingers or the back of the spoon work well.

Once the dry ingredients are mixed together, add 1 ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil (or whatever cooking oil you prefer) and then 1 cup honey (local is best, you know what they say about it being good for you). Measuring the oil first, then the honey in the same measuring cup, helps your honey not stick so much to the inside of the measuring cup. When you have added both, stir it up carefully.

I loved stirring it all up using this beautiful hardwood spoon that my son Bradley made for Mom years ago. The very tools we cook with evoke good emotions sometimes!

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Once the mixture looks well mixed, which is to say de-clumped, divide it between two 12×18” pans or the equivalent. These have a nice standing-up edge and that’s important against spillage. The silicone mats are underneath, but you can’t see them. Bradley made that fish cutting board too, by the way.

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We preheated Mom’s oven to 375 and left the pans in there for 25 minutes. The top pan got browner than the bottom pan.

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Both are acceptable. You make it however dark you like. The original recipe does say a 300 degree oven, oops, I also see today. Maybe I got impatient somewhere along the line and upped the temp. Either way, it bakes, and you decide how brown you want it.

Do note that brown corresponds directly to crunch. The browner, the crunchier, regardless of residual oven heat. Getting back to the humidity question, Mom’s granola turned out crunchier than mine despite the humidity and I think this is because hers stayed in the hot oven longer. She mixed up the darker and the lighter before putting it away and got a very acceptable result. SO… maybe it’s the combination of length of time in the oven (how much it cooks in the first place) plus length of time in the residual heat plus the (random, uncontrollable amount of) humidity in the air.

All right, so you mixed up the dry, stirred in the oil and honey, de-clumped, spread in pans, baked for 20-25 mins, turned the oven off and let it sit overnight in your oven. The next morning, use a spatula to loosen the granola from the pan and use your fingers to break up the larger pieces. Now either put it directly into jars or tins to store without dried fruit and/or nuts, OR combine with the fruit and/or nuts now and then put away for storage. I store mine without fruit. IF you store your homemade granola with the dried fruit mixed into it, the dried fruit will put some of the moisture back in it and your granola will be softer. Adding nuts before storing the granola should not affect the moisture the way fruit does, but I cannot be sure about this. The 5K race day fruit was dried cranberries, cherries, cut up apricots and golden raisins; use whatever you like and quantities you think are appropriate. Almonds, walnuts or pecans are good I’m told, but I cannot be sure about this either.

My favorite combo in a cereal bowl is equal parts granola and Grape-Nuts (which contains neither grapes nor nuts, but that’s another story) with some dried cranberries on top (dried cherries on special occasions or to treat myself). I use the Grape-Nuts because the flavors and textures combine well and it helps to stretch out the batch of granola, meaning I don’t need to make it as often (which was super important back when I was working ten or so hours a day at the hotel). Mixing some granola into plain yogurt with a little bit of strawberry jam is also very nice…

Granola makes a great gift because it keeps well and looks nice in a tin or a mason jar or a clear plastic bag tied up with a bow.