November 6, 2016
Dean Torges 1941-2016
On November 4, 2016, Dean Torges crossed the Great Divide. He was a loving husband, father, grandfather and friend and mentor to countless people around the globe. He was a gifted craftsman who would literally hand you the shirt off his back if you chanced to admire it. A number of years ago I shared a memorial written for an elderly friend of mine who had passed and Dean commented that it was the most eloquent valedictory as he had ever seen. I share this with you all below, in loving memory of my friend, Dean. — Admin.
To those I leave behind when I go:
Death is nothing at all. It does not really count. I have merely slipped away into the next room. Nothing has happened. Everything remains as it was. I am me, you are you, and the life we lived together is untouched and unchanged. Whatever we were to each other we still are.
Call me by my old familiar name. Speak of me in the easy way you always did. Put no difference in your tone. Wear no forced air of sorrow. Laugh as we always laughed at the jokes we enjoyed together. Play, smile, think of me, pray for me—a little.
Let my name be the household word it always was. Let it be spoken without effort, without the ghost of a shadow upon it. Life means all that it has ever meant, the same as it ever was. There is absolute and unbroken continuity. What is death but an unavoidable incident? Why should I be out of your mind because I am out of your sight?
I am but waiting for you—very near—just around he corner.
All is well.
All my love,
October 18, 2016
I'm in a hospital. Family and friends visit during the day. Steroid induced sleeplessness and the proximity of Death creep in for late night companions. When my eyes dim, we watch a cauldron of confusions and impurities bubbling on slow simmer—a potent, unsettling brew whose attraction I cannot escape.
The mixture moves in and out of focus. Sometimes I can see small craters where bubbles came and went. Sometimes it recedes into the ether. Gumbo, it seems to be, a lifetime's gather of indistinct animal and vegetable parts.
It's Monday now. Mary has been by my side since we arrived, Wednesday. My Una, she sleeps on a small, fold-out chair/bed at night. The light she brings is the disinfectant I pour over the ingredients, revealing what's safe for consumption. It's always been this way.
My daughters Beth and Cindy spend hours at a time visiting with me in the hospital, drinking the brew. I have some for my two elder daughters, but there are obstacles. One lives too far from here, and grieves for the lost opportunity, while the great sadness for the other is a heart and mind pursued and too often subdued by Fear, Anger, and Lost Faith.
I have hope for her without knowing how to guide her toward understanding, to recognize that deceptions propped against the brewing cauldron are not armored supports that protect the gumbo. Their pose does not earn them grateful partner status with the truth and the beauty of the brew. They incinerate. They are meant for gumbo fuel.
To exercise I limp around the hospital hallway with a cane, massaging my right-side cancer-weakened femur into absorbing a titanium support rod shoved down it two months ago. I also wear an eyepatch to mitigate the double vision effects of a palsied left eye. My voice is gone to a whisper, metered by COPD pauses, the residue of radiation and chemo treatments to an inoperable lung 18 months prior. I have not eaten since Tuesday. My throat constricted and the flap which directs food, water, and air to the esophagus or lungs does not distinguish among them. "Aspiration", it's termed, as though it's desirable.
Most of the time, I see a path out of here. Maybe it's only the shadow of a suspicion that there ought to be one. Or that willful craftsman I am, I could fashion one. I have the desire, the physical strength, and the support to follow it. Some quality of life for a couple of years still lies ahead on it. If I've miscalculated, I'm still humbled by those who insist on keeping me around long enough for an end zone dance.
Daylight approaches. Mary stretches her legs from under pale blankets, and like Homer's "Rosy Fingered Dawn up from the bed of her sleeping lover Tithonus, goes out to greet the new day". I remember translating these recurrent lines from the Odyssey as a college student. An animate world of rocks, leaves, squirrels, birds and sky—stardust, infused with conscious life. We are such gumbo, no?
Time now to decant the brew. I have daughters advancing. And they seem to be ushering a generation of children ahead of them.
november 6, 2015
A heartfelt and humble Thank You from the Torges family to all of you who’ve uplifted us with thoughts and prayers in cards, handwritten letters, emails, and phone calls. And a special acknowledgment to my daughters, who looked after us, and to my loving wife Mary, who insisted on sleeping on the couch beside me for weeks on end, and couldn’t be chased to the comfort of her bed. Such an ordeal as this has to be harder on the caregivers. My role was to lie still and have the people I love take care of me.
I needed it all—the thoughts, the prayers and the family support. Chemo and radiation knocked me flat on my ass beginning the 7th and final week of treatment. They crashed me into my lay-back chair where I was unable for weeks on end to do much beyond sleep, drink volumes of water to flush chemicals, and piss. I lay there with shallow and rapid breaths, like a sparrow that slammed into a plate glass window.
But I'm through the worst and on the mend now. Based upon recent ct scan results, the oncologist informed us that the tumor has shrunken appreciably, that there's no evidence of any new cancer spread anywhere, and that blood analysis reveals near normal levels in all important categories. Scar tissue from the radiation obscures much of the affected lung area, so it's difficult to determine exactly how reduced the tumor is, but another scan before Thanksgiving will determine whether or not I’ll require further chemo treatments. The oncologist thinks maybe may not. To date, we couldn’t have much better news.
My strength is slowly returning, spurred on by my favorite month of the year, October. It contains everything crammed tight, and this year its moderate, breezy days carried seamlessly into November. We still have a few garden tomatoes, but the world is tilting toward bare, hang-on-for-your-life times for all God’s creatures living brave. It’s the month between farewell and hello. “Thank you for the bounty” meets “Shit the bed! Finish up with the firewood and get the tarps in place.”
Sunday I walked to the deer stands I have behind the house. Took all my energy, but I did it. After I rested, I poked around a little in deer sign and saw that a doe family was regularly feeding on red oak acorns nearby, and that rutting bucks had rubbed half a dozen saplings raw.
I can haul myself up into the tree with my safety equipment a little at a time. In fact, I planned to go today. It’s time to be there. Two nights ago, around 10 pm, when I went outside to whiz off the back porch, I stepped into the world of a rutting whitetail buck’s distinct and unmistakeable musk. Completely enveloped and startled me. In that moment of recognition, my head turned slowly, my eyes widened wanting to see through the dark, and I think my fangs stirred. This brazen so-and-so is calling me out, I thought. He’s come to my door step to taunt me, to count coup. “Here I am. Where have you been?”
So yesterday, after I’d gathered a few items in preparation, I found the courage to grab a hunting bow, step outside, and pull back. My fears came true. I couldn’t draw it. I couldn’t even draw it half way. The lightest bow I had, and it may as well have belonged to Odysseus.
But Diminished Dean has plans. Plans to get stronger, yes, but short-term plans to make meat yet this winter. I’ll find my way back there when the circumstance is right. My schemes include how I’ll drag a field-dressed deer carcase to the barn. I’ve figured it all out, including the butchering and the processing. Even though I’m short-breathed and weakened, my resolve is great. So you can turn up the volume on the Frenchman with the piano. You know, the one we’re all variously aware of this time of year, the one playing “Autumn Leaves” in the background of our lives. It won’t affect me. I’m more than a sentimental old man, and much more than a scofflaw.
To round off, I’ll mention a phone call I received last week in the hopes that it makes you laugh as much as it did me. It pointed in another direction from the encouragements I mentioned earlier. Fella calls in a halting, grim voice and asks, "Is this Dean?" "Yes," I reply. "Goodbye," he says, and hangs up.
I still chuckle thinking about it. No doubt he’d be disappointed to learn I'm on the mend. I hope he holds on long enough for the news to reach him.
AUGUST 29, 2015
THROUGH THE TOES DARKLY
“And when at last, with tiny blasts on tinny trumpets, we finally meet the enemy, not only will he be ours, he will be us.” —Walt Kelly, Pogo
I’m not railing, shaking a fist skyward. What am I fighting here? Some invader? Some foreign malevolence? No. Torges has turned on Torges. I’ve met the enemy. So the answer is not all-out war, but peace. I recognize the conflict in me and I’m fixing the problem in my heart, making amends. When I’ve integrated the solution, when I’ve made it part of me, there will be no further need for the cancer because the problem it came to signal won’t exist.
The oncologist told me only 30% of the people with my cancer survive it. I’ve hit smaller targets with consistency. Sometimes even the hair over the heart. I have a keen desire to continue living. After 6 weeks of chemo and radiation, there’s still sparkle in my eye and a skip to my step. Today I mowed grass for several hours and then launched my boat and fished the rest of the afternoon.
I intend to come through this. That’s not a statement of faith. Religion and faith are “can or can’t” propositions, not “will or won’t.” I can’t will myself a belief in magic or will a suspension of natural law. Unlike the supplicant in Psalm 23, I’m not telling you with inspiring rhetoric how I will walk through that Valley, made fearless by an unshakeable faith in The Lord, the Oversoul, The Beneficent Force, the Great Spirit. I’m basing a modest optimism on my understanding. I’m fixing this ailment in the same way one fixes a flat tire, a dull hand saw, a creaky door hinge—by addressing the problem. My bet against the odds is that it can be done.
I remember reading these lines from Moby Dick during my sophomore year in college. Starbuck, first mate, spoke them early in the novel, looking down over the side of the Pequod while sailing on a peaceful ocean. Beautiful, moving, lyrical lines. They popped into mind recently. I remember them exactly: “Loveliness unfathomable, as ever lover saw in his young bride’s eye. Tell me not of thy teeth-tiered sharks and thy kidnapping, cannibal ways. Let faith oust fact. Let fancy oust memory. I look deep down and do believe.”
That’s Starbuck’s version of the 23rd Psalm. But until you stare through toes curled over the abyss, you can only hope what you are going to think or believe, or how you will act.
When Starbuck realized the extent of Ahab’s madness, he had a thought and a chance to murder him. He didn’t. Why, I do not know. If it was for some reason beyond believing that his faith would sustain him through that Dark Valley, then I wasn’t perceptive enough as a callow student to divine it. The time came, though, inevitably, when the sea was not so calm, when he was sucked into the vortex of a smashed and sinking Pequod while the harpoonist Fedallah’s dead body, lashed to the white whale, waved him goodbye. I wonder then what he thought about “loveliness unfathomable" and the averted eye which plunged him into it.
So here I stand at the edge, wanting to sort things out, looking deep, wanting to know where the sharks and the cannibals reside. This morning at dawn, while I lay in bed (a time always of clarity and honesty for me), I composed this simple prayer to my cancer:
Thank you and bless you.
You’ve done your job, accomplished your mission.
You can go now.
AUGUST 16, 2015
I’m doing ok, really. Better than I expected. Beginning the 5th week of chemo and radiation tomorrow, the noticeable effects so far have been less annoying than a summer cold. I still have hair on my head, still weigh in at 180, suffer no nausea, and notice little beyond some indigestion, a difficulty swallowing, and a fall-flat weariness after fishing eight hours. We are fighting a good fight here, and Mary, my stalwart friend and help-mate for 54 years, has never shined more beautifully than now, taking care of me by every consideration.
Our daughters Beth and Cindy funnel attention and organic foodstuffs my way, too, and Beth and Mary burn up the web searching out supplemental healing means and resources. Their difficulty lies in sorting through the woo-woo to find information with credentialed research behind it. Mary has me on a regimen of spirulina, wheat grass, and flax seed oil to increase blood oxygenation, juicing of various anti-carcinogenic vegetables, and Epsom Salt body soaks to decrease overall acidity, all this overlaid by a keen awareness of sugar’s effect upon cancer cell growth. Beth recently sent an email cataloging several scientific sources supporting each of these paths. We regard them not as alternative remedies or approaches, but as complements to the regimen of radiation and chemotherapy.
Something must be working. My white blood cell count is up over last week’s, and in all important categories, blood work analysis places me well within the normal range of a healthy adult.
Still, it must be frustrating poring over and sorting through claims and counter claims, the urgency of it all wearisome to my family, though I have no clues suggesting anything but a loving eagerness to go far and search deep. Concern that the toll is greater on Mary than it is on me led me recently to hit upon a diversion. I thought to replace a cat that she loved dearly and lost several years ago with a kitten. Mary sat calmed and relaxed with Pandora on her lap for hours in the evening while she read. Sometimes they fell asleep together there with the book fallen open. And when she played the piano, Pandora would often come walk on the keys. But Mary won’t hear of it, claiming she has no time now, and vows not to care for it. I bluster and threaten a bull rush to the shelter on my own hook to fetch one, protesting that I want one, but she pins me with sharp eyes, reminding me that with my vulnerable immune system, the last place I need to be is stirring around a litter box. I may call her bluff anyway.
Yes, there’s a downside to all this, but the disease also provides its perks. For example, I don’t especially like visitors or even phone calls. I’m a solitary person living a secluded life in the woods, hunting and fishing by myself, with just a tiny love for humanity. But my friends and relatives want to come see me before I die. They’re kind and loving and tell me nice things. I like that enough that I haven’t told them I’m putting off the funeral. In fact, it makes all visits, all conversations, all contacts with people I love more poignant, more honest, less taken for granted. That’s a very good thing indeed.
Also, I’m freer with self-indulgences now. Without second thoughts or so much as a raised eyebrow from Mary, I’ve spent a ton of money on fishing tackle recently, counting a $300 fuel pump repair to my boat’s 9.9 kicker motor, to include two very nice 7 1/2’ rods, a Shimano spinning reel, three hundred dollars worth of lures, and some miscellaneous etcetera stuff such as epoxy powder paints, lines, hooks, snaps and beads.
Within several days of the diagnosis, I purchased a Woods three-point hitch grader blade for the driveway. I’ve wanted one since I got the old Ford 800 tractor, but I’ve continued tending our long gravel driveway by hand, hauling my own stone, and with a mattock, rake, and shovel, making adjustments to grade and pothole. So, just as I rationalized purchasing a log splitter 10-15 years ago, I decided the addition of a heavy duty tractor blade from Craig’s List would make life a little less strenuous these final 20-some years.
The effects of illness have been most noticeable around the property. Nothing much more than preliminary work shows at the new henhouse site. The foundation, laid out with two 7’ by 7’ concrete slabs, lies guarded now by huge growths of elephant ears and pigweed, like some miniature Aztec ruin. That’s ok. The old one still keeps the eggs dry and the hens safe. It’s ok that the garden is a bit of a disaster, too. Besides tilling a trailer load of rotted manure into the tomato patch this spring, I didn’t tend it much. It won’t yield enough from two dozen vines for canning the 50 some quarts we usually require each year. Not much more survived the weeds and neglect than the four kinds of heirloom winter squash I sowed and mulched. Next year I’ll pick up the beat again.
An order of lures should be here tomorrow. I’d like to wait for them, but I’m going fishing before they arrive. We live differently threatened by impending death or lost love. But that’s our actual condition, isn’t it?
CONTINUING THE JOURNEY
All is well here. A pet scan and another ct scan Monday removed much uncertainty and revealed the cancer seems largely confined to my left lung and nearby lymph nodes, so even though it’s at stage III, it’s not bad news. I began radiation and chemotherapy the next day, to last for seven weeks. Then, reappraisal.
I’ve been on some miserable trips before and gutted them out. Will again this time. I have a new hen house to build and garden tomato virus blights to overcome. Friends and family yet to cook for. Say nothing of the squirrels, fish, deer, rabbits and rainbows to chase. The other miserable trips I pretty much endured by my own resolve. With the love of my family and the support and good wishes of my friends, this won’t be as bad as it’s cracked up to be.
I couldn’t have a more supportive wife than Mary, dedicated and determined to usher me to health. Ours is a working kitchen, and we eat healthy meals. Mary is quite food conscious. We pretty much avoid industrial stuff. I think you might even characterize her as a health food nut, with me somewhat reluctantly in tow. In fact, now that I’m more or less at her mercy, and now that she’s ramped up her consumption of nutritional and spiritual reading material, I’m beginning to fear that the worse of this ordeal may be surviving the food plans she has in store for me.
So chin up. Wish me well as I wish you well. We’ll have time yet ahead of us for more trips, more adventures, and more memories.
July 12, 2015
Hello, friends and acquaintances. I found out recently I have inoperable lung cancer. Will begin radiation and chemotherapy sometime next week. Was stunned and thought I’d had the death sentence read to me the evening the dr. reviewed the ct scan, but by morning I decided I’d stay around a while longer. Let’s hope I’ve made a wise and effective decision.
We host the Torges and Ramser family reunions here, and I’d been looking forward to refining my pig-roasting skills, but we’ve canceled plans for this year. Later on, we’ll all get together for one helluva bash.
I have a confident, positive attitude about this. It’s not bravado. Like dealing with a lawnmower engine that should but won’t start, or a garden pest in the green beans, these are not the kinds of aggravations you shake your fist at; instead, they are part of the daily business of dealing with life.
And so in that spirit, I want to fwd to you a mail that I sent to our families after I’d canceled the reunions. I hope they found it some comfort. I hope you do, too.
We have a huge white oak comprised of 5 trunks just to the west of the house. It’s the signature tree on our property and was well-established when we moved here with our young family 45 years ago. Lightning hit it hard early this spring, tearing a gash down the lead leaning furthest from the house. It also traveled across to the lead leaning over the house via a steel cable tying the two together, peeling bark off it all the way to the ground. Mary and I were watching a movie at the time. It seemed to lift the house off the foundation, filling it with a blinding white light. Fried the flat screen, our telephones, the computer modem, the satellite dish, and some other stuff.
The whole upper story of the tree had been bolted and cabled together in a mutual support system as a precaution against calamity. But now the lead leaning away was fractured and the bolt blown loose. Its mate, previously held in equilibrium by the cable, shared the blow and was left leaning dangerously over the house.
The first arborist I called tried cabling them back together, but there wasn’t sufficient good wood left for a bolt to hold on the outside lead. He suggested pruning them back significantly. A second arborist suggested placing a newly-developed sling system around them and re-tying them with cable, then waiting to see if the leads budded out. If either died, it and the one tied to it could then be reconsidered.
We did the latter. And a good thing. Oak family survived, leafing out on schedule. The five trunks, sharing a common root system, were able to absorb the blow. They’ll last a while longer. I like to think about it.
December 22, 2013
A word from my altar ego, Rev. Roy Gracklin
I support Phil Robertson 100%, although I would have preferred that he just said he was against homosexuality because the third book of the Bible, Leviticus, Chapter 20, verse 13, condemns it. He shouldn't have said that a woman's vagina has more to offer a man than another man's anus does, because really we're not talking preferences here, we're talking about God's law. That kinda turned some folks off who might otherwise have been ok with him simply stating homosexuality was against his scripture-based beliefs.
There are other equally important prohibitions in Leviticus. I hate it because I was a fan, but it looks like the Beatles are hell bound, too. Leviticus 19:27 reads "Ye shall not round the corners of your heads, neither shalt thou mar the corners of thy beard." Mop haircut is a no-no. And notice how completely Phil and his sons obey this stricture. No mop haircuts, no trimming of the beard. Excellent.
I'm thinking he might have had a little trouble with Leviticus 11:8, though. It prohibits eating pigmeat or touching anything porcine as an abomination, so bbq, bacon, and a fistful of cracklins are out. Perhaps Phil insisted on rubber footballs for the pigskin as a college quarterback to get around this, I don't know.
Chapter 11, verses 9-12, state that anything in the rivers or seas that doesn't have fins and scales is an abomination to the Lord, and it's flesh must be avoided. I can't speak for Phil, but I've been sinful and need to turn away from clams, shrimp and lobster, among other things, and do without crawfish in my gumbo, boils or etouffee. Oysters, too.
I have an easier time not eating camels, owls, hawks, cormorants, buzzards, osprey and eagles (illegal, too), grasshoppers, locusts, bats, storks and pelicans, among other things (such as snails, moles, lizards and chameleons). These are all listed as abominations just as certainly as homosexuality is. I only wish Leviticus had included more critters like these and sorta given a pass on the crawfish and the shrimp. It wouldn't be so hard to obey God.
But it's not supposed to be easy. Maybe that's why Leviticus proclaims that eating the flesh of rabbits is also an abomination to God. I guess we're all sinners, aren't we? It's tough being God's servant. None of us is perfect.
Now one thing I don't have trouble with is tatoos. Leviticus 19:28 prohibits tatoos. I don't have 'em and I'll bet none of the Robertsons have 'em, either.
It's also a good thing they are not farmers, because the Bible prohibits the crossing of cattle, such as Angus and Hereford, and it also expressly forbids planting two kinds of seed in an agricultural field. That's Leviticus 19:19. It must be easier to be holy if you aren't a farmer.
I'm not second-guessing the Good Book, by no means, but I think God would give us a pass nowadays on the prohibition against wearing garments made of two different kinds of fabric. I don't think Leviticus knew about the virtues of rayon and cotton blends, and I'm betting wicking away body moisture would get polyester and nylon in the duck blind a dispensation, too. But I could be wrong because God according to Leviticus works in mysterious ways.
Or at least our interpretations of his Word and Will sometimes seem mysterious. I have a gay nephew. He's a dear boy. Absolutely harmless and decent. Treats everyone with respect. Doesn't know how to lie, cheat or steal. Been with the same partner for maybe 10 years or more. Wouldn't ever commit adultery, not because according to Leviticus 20:10, he and the adulteress should be put to death if they did, but because, ah, well, just because. I'm hoping he gets credit for that.
"You can tell you've created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do." -- Anne Lamott
February 7, 2012
All You need to know
Men, I'd like to take you aside for a tête-à-tête. Let's leave the women behind for the moment. This is not for them. It's about them, ok?
After fifty years of marriage, I have wisdom to offer about living peacefully with the opposite sex. Actually, my experience with women runs even longer and deeper than that. I was reared by my widowed mother and three sisters 15 years and more my senior. And I fathered four daughters. They in turn birthed four granddaughters before Varmint was born 8 years ago to our youngest daughter. In fact, before Varmint broke through, our cat and dog were female, too.
Some may consider mine a lonely experience, or me a survivor under lifelong siege, while others might envy my station, wishing they had lived attended by nourishing women from every direction softening their path through life. Regardless, everyone should agree that I qualify as a spokesman for partnering with the gentle people on the other side of the sexual barrier.
I accept the responsibility, but with qualification. I should know more about everything, not just women. This attitude is shaped by my impatience to learn and tempered by the realization that this long into the run, it's likely I won't get much further. I'm resigned, but unsurrendered.
I've always puzzled over women, recently with renewed effort both because of our 50th wedding anniversary and also because we just completed purchase of a new living room outfit—chairs, couch, console, end tables, mirror, pillows and various accoutrements.
You may not consider these events equally powerful to stimulate reflection. They aren't. Our anniversary was spent as a quiet day at home, while the living room purchase required on my part no less than five separate trips to Columbus furniture stores followed by four separate four-hour round-trip drives to Sugar Creek, Ohio, once Mary's selections had narrowed. That's one day of peaceful relaxation weighed against at least ten days spent wandering through furniture store mazes during 'coon, squirrel and deer season.
But what I've learned I'll share. Don't dismiss the lesson because of its simplicity. It may well be all you need to know, too. After all, I've got myself this far by it. And don't be disappointed because I don't offer you insights like women have. I'm offering instead codes for behavior. I learned them early in life, and though I should probably know more, I've found neither reason nor capacity to expand upon them. Indeed, their simplicity increases their value during the duress of crunch time.
1. Make a decision.
2. Live with your mistake.
3. Don't complain.
Upon examination, the more perceptive among you will conclude them redundant, that any one of the three is just another way of rephrasing the other two. You would be correct—they are indeed different ways of saying the same thing in that one implies the other two. Not complaining means you've made a mistake and are reconciled to it. Or, looking through a different knothole, living with your mistake means accepting it, not complaining. And so forth.
The value in seeing this dynamic from three perspectives lies in the likelihood that at least one of them will resonate, and the truth of three iterations is that on matters of behavior, men often need reminding more than twice.
These are codes for behavior, not insights into behavior. Men require codes. Women desire insight. These two diverse needs explain why we're constantly puzzling over each other. "What does she want me to do?" meets "Why is he doing that?"
I see shapes. Mary sees colors. I see proportions. Mary sees thirty shades of beige. Because her nuances don't exist for me hardly means they don't affect my world. If she wants to ferry colored fabric swatches back and forth between Ostrander, Columbus and Sugar Creek, to arrange them against drapes, carpet, bricks and walls, in daylight, low light and under artificial light, should I do less than marvel at her tenacity and determination? Aren't those qualities I admire? Should I tell her to make a decision and live with her mistake? No, dummy. These rules are for you and me, and they nowhere suggest we should avoid what is inconvenient to us. Instead, they tell us how to deal with the inevitability of inconvenience. You made your decision. Don't complain. It would be a mistake.
It follows, then, that full disclosure in a marriage is much overrated. There are things you can tell yourself and your God, but no one else. That's not deception. It's politics. Besides, unspoken truth always affects your behavior, and your behavior always reveals you to your spouse.
For example, while driving to Sugar Creek yesterday along winding country roads, I turned my head slightly to notice a solitary woman walking the berm in the middle of nowhere. Moments passed before Mary inquired, looking straight ahead all the while, "Was she pretty?" Should I have confessed sometime early in our marriage that I like to look at pretty women, or that I like to look at all women, and probably always will? Or should I have said, "Sorry. I was trying to sneak a look." Or should I have lied? "I dunno 'bout pretty. I was wondering what she could be doing out here."
I answered, "Not really." Why? Because the rules rescued me. I thought a discreet glance would go unnoticed. Bad decision. #2 directed me to answer her question directly, to focus exclusively on the situation, own it, and get on with life. Getting on with life after you make a mistake is the first corollary of Rule #3, Don't complain. In other words, don't defend yourself, don't try to explain, don't dwell on the past, don't get complex or metaphysical. No one wants to hear it, and you risk confusing yourself. Besides, she already knows the truth.
That was the end of it. Mary was satisfied. I understood by her question and demeanor that she anticipated my behavior, that she knew I was bound to look. She also knew my answer acknowledged the subtext of her question. Result? Harmony. Politics as it should be practiced.
Women see and know, and therein lies their power. Of course, I'm not talking about which end of a bolt the lock washer belongs on. I'm referring to relationships. If they don't know, they soon will. This is their truth. In fact, it is The Truth, of such overreaching magnitude, that it is The Truth whether it is or not. And if you think about this, you'll understand why it's very important that you live by numbers 1, 2, and 3.
January 6-12, 2012
Fill 'Er Up
It's a joy hunting with Digger and Tricks. Digger courses the woods at a steady lope, fanning back and forth, inquiring. He's a young man's dog in that he'll find game somewhere and do it post-haste. I admire his energy and enthusiasm while I groan to keep up. Tricks has matured into a strong tree dog with an independent mind. She takes life at a slower pace, but she can hold her own with Digger for treeing game. Both show in abundance the gritty determination, brains and the desire to please characteristic of the Mountain Cur breed.
The three of us took another bag limit this Thursday, two days ago. Counting these six, I've dressed and stockpiled enough in the freezer to make about 24 pints when I get around to pressure canning them. I've given away many more than that, but 24 pints is plenty for us.
The day before, on the spur of a good walleye report, Young Jamie and I planned to head for Lake Erie. Mike Justice and Kevin Toms told us that fish were off the Huron River, about two miles out. But night-before second thoughts over a hastily planned 4 a.m. drive made a local inland lake an attractive alternative.
The O'Shaughnessy Dam holds a good population of saugeye, and a stretch of open water circling my honey hole promised a bonanza. It was framed by frozen water in both directions over the remainder of the reservoir, so we sorta went ice fishing, breaking through 3/4 to 1 inch of ice at low speed for about two miles from the launch site to get there.
The water temp along this shallow shelf, with deeper water surrounding it, was four degrees warmer than the rest of the iced-over lake. Schools of shad, attracted to the warmth, dimpled its surface. Saugeye favor this forage fish, and on some mysterious cue will move into these schools from all directions. It's like a set table for them.
Everything seemed in our favor except for the water clarity itself, which was heavily stained from previous rains. We gave it a long and thorough effort, thinking to counter the water condition by trying this and that, jigging vibrating blade baits, casting lures with rattle chambers on a slow retrieve, varying retrieves, even trolling. Maybe we got there before the saugeye arrived, maybe we got there too late. We should have caught fish, but none came on board. Still, it's comfort and incentive to know that on the next try, we won't do worse.
The day before that, Tuesday, Young Jamie and I squirrel hunted. The dogs were on fire and game was moving. Our first ten squirrels came fast, but two squirrels short of our Ohio bag limit, a steady drizzling rain set in, scattering game. We got ourselves thoroughly wet before Digger and Tricks found numbers 11 and 12.
Monday evening, Jason Fairchild brought his young female Mt. Cur over for her 3rd coon hunt. Tilly is out of a littermate sister to Digger. She lacks his motor, but otherwise shows great promise. The coon were moving well and Digger and Tricks performed at their usual high level.
Saturday morning my nephew George came down from Stow to keep me company deer hunting for the weekend at the Mouse Palace, the little cabin/camp in the game-rich hills south of Athens. We killed a doe each day. What with the squirrels, the fish and the chickens, there'll be meat to share until next winter.
Friday marked our 50th wedding anniversary. Mary and I stayed home and enjoyed each other's company, reminiscing over one of our favoirite activities—preparing a meal together in our kitchen.
Several days before, while searching through a document containing website usernames and passwords, I saw that Mary had answered "Dean" to the prompt question "Name of childhood friend?" We met when we were 20, but some truths transcend facts. This one made me laugh.
Cold winds and snow blew in yesterday providing time to stoke the fire, crouch on a low stool beside the stove with hot, fresh coffee, and draw upon time spent these past seven days making memories.
September 23, 2011
Farewell to the Ash Tree
The Emerald Ash Borer is upon us, and soon the landscape will be as barren of ash as it is of American Chestnut. Probably one third of the mature trees on our property are white ash. Twenty-one large ash trees rim the yard: along the driveway, by the house, behind the woodshed, beside the henhouse and in back of the pole barn, and more struggle deeper in the woods. They leaved out at about 25 percent this spring, their vital fluids drained by the borer. I look toward them often, to their spare branches thrust up through a lush green sea of oak, walnut, maple and hickory tops. They look like the outstretched fingers of a drowning victim going down.
Their departure here and nationwide would break my heart if I didn't view it in the context of a life that's seen dramatic changes headline its many chapters. As such, there's just sadness sufficient to mourn yet another irretrievable loss. I'll be cutting them down these next two winters. The butt logs will saw into boards that I'll stockpile, and the top logs and the bigger slash will become firewood. Brushpiles for the balance, sanctuary for birds and small animals.
In anticipation of filling the woodshed and crowding out the tools I store there, I built an add-on toolshed during the various intervals of pole barn construction. The log splitter, the chain saws, mauls, chains, ropes, cables, cant hook, carts, and misc. other tools required their own nearby storage shelter, and though the roof height of the woodshed did not lend itself to a build-on, I didn't have much choice but to lower my head and do it.
This is pole barn construction again, with random width vertical board on board siding. Since the boards run narrow, I nailed them as I would batten and board construction, lapping them one over another by about an inch to each edge, and then putting a galvanized nail through the middle of each board into the stringer behind it. No two boards are nailed together; each is free to expand and contract from its center, independently, without splitting at the nail.
September 10, 2011
If I had no other interests, it'd please me to construct buildings all over the property. Tool sheds, hen houses, smoke houses, playhouses, dog kennels, machine sheds, butchering sheds, hot houses, tree houses, and more tool sheds. Stone buildings, brick buildings, pole buildings, and log buildings. I'd go to the back of the woods and build a cottage just for writing novels and poetry, and then maybe nail up a shed-roof addition for carving fishing lures, making tackle and wrapping rods. If I never intended to write or fish again, or put any of these other buildings to their purpose, I'd still build them.
Regardless of type, their parts assemble to the sound of the hammer at work. Drive 20d galvanized ring shanks and bury them. Position another spike. Bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, BANG! down the scale until with a final wallop the hammer face stamps a neat seal around the countersunk head, notarizing the marriage of iron and wood. Done in rhythm, again, and again, the framing hammer rings like a tom-tom to my generation, reaching across neighborhoods, suburbs, and farmlands.
I've built 6 structures on our property that qualify as pole buildings, ranging in size from an 8x10 garden shed on the other side of the pond to a 24x32 hip roof around an existing tool shed, and I have two more planned for next year. Dig postholes, drop in the poles, plumb them as you back-fill, throw trusses atop them, and skin them over with your choice of siding and roofing material. Simple, elementary.
None has been so large that it required the help of others. This pole building changed that, and I couldn't have hired a better local framer than Mike Grandominico to carry the load. Goat footed, barrel chested, and sharp as a 9 point ripsaw fresh from the filing vise, he can heave it, swing it, and nail it. We've teamed to do the bulk of the work, but the job of hoisting the attic trusses onto the girders required additional help.
We discussed several approaches. Mike voted to save money by using the skid loader, but I opted to play it safe. At the rate of $350 dollars for the first two hours, beginning when Willie's Crane Service left the yard, and 100 each additional thereafter, Willie agreed to hire out on a Sunday morning. Yeah, a bunch of money, but then the attic trusses came to almost $3,000.
The day before, Mike framed up 2x6 stations on the girders to register truss position so we could work quickly and efficiently. Figuring to keep under the two-hour cap, we rounded up a few friends, and at daylight everything came together. From the time Willie positioned and fired up the boom crane to when he lifted the gable peaks onto the upright trusses, barely an hour passed. Even considering travel time from nearby Radnor, it went so well that Willie only charged me $250, plus a package of walleye fillets and a frozen broiler.
After the trusses are up and the purlins on, it's wham-bam with the tin skin. Mike is a workhorse, competent at every facet of building. There's a time for rough work and a time for finesse. Some folks can't distinguish between the two. Some can't do both. Mike can, and at warp speed, too.
Much of pole barn building is two-fisted, five pound hammer stuff. Mike and I teamed well. When the work required us to go separate ways, I claimed the small hammer and Mike grabbed the one that went with the anvil. While he was nailing on purlins and cutting tin or dancing on steep ledges, I stick-framed the gable walls (one for a large window, and the other for a "hay-loft" door) and built the stair case.
Most folks climb stairs with no understanding of their rhythmic grace. Finish carpenters are charged with keeping them safe while they sleep. The dynamics of stair travel have us calculate step height from the first few steps, and we do this so reflexively that we're off thinking other thoughts while we climb. If there's a deviation after we get rolling, the risk of tripping or falling is great. Therefore, laying out the stair stringers correctly is a great responsibility.
With this responsibility come algebra calculations to anesthetize the brain. It's as though a unique staircase to fit each situation exists in the ideal world, and the finish carpenter is charged with finding it and making it real.
The bottom riser must be shorter than all the others by the thickness of the tread, and the top riser must be the height of all the others, including the tread, but minus the thickness of the finished floor and subfloor. For comfort, all of them should rise around 7 inches. The runs should be close to 11". These restrictions are constrained even further by the height between floors and the length of the total run, which vary with each circumstance, and which in combination determine the total number of risers and runs. Once these legs of this right-angle triangle are established, the total rise and the total run factor into the equation to yield the precise and uniform dimension of the individual riser and its run. It may be simpler than this, but not as I understand it.
Whether you're building a bare-bones, dimensional-lumber, straight-up-and-down staircase like mine, or a winding, elegant one of hardwoods, tapered in tread width from top to bottom, with fanciful newels and spindles, the only room for variation or artistic expression in this process lies within the borders of these formulae, which are as unbending as the rhyme and meter patterns of a Petrarchan sonnet, and just as satisfying when beautifully met.
My humble variation on this utilitarian staircase consisted of accommodating the concrete floor. Since it sloped at the rate of 1 inch every 12 feet, and since the stairs ran against the slope, I accounted for the difference across a 3.5' span of stringers by making the second or middle stringer 3/16" higher on the first riser alone, and the third or outside stringer an additional 3/16" higher, for a total of 3/8" difference. The consequence was a level tread left to right as well as front to back. Not something you would know or appreciate while climbing the stairs, but by my estimation something still worth doing.
. . . . .
Mike had to leave for a wedding in North Carolina yesterday before we could screw the last piece of tin in place. I occupied myself cleaning up the site and sweeping. Just as I finished the south bay, Mary drove up, home from the grocery store. I waved her in and we both laughed 3rd grade over our very first garaged vehicle. I finished cleaning the middle bay, and then pulled my boat out of the shop and into its new digs, in the process reclaiming the shop for furniture and bow-building. Glorioso.
The overhead doors come next week. I'm paying to have them installed. There are a few more storage shelves to build, some shovel-grading around the foundation, and a few small projects to finish, such as doors for the tool-shed addition to the woodshed. Otherwise it's a wrap on the summer. Time now to hunt and fish carefree.
August 18, 2011
Memo to Alfie
"The caterpillar on the leaf
Reminds thee of thy mother's grief." —William Blake
We have central heating, but we've burnt wood for heat almost since we moved here 44 years ago, when fossil fuel was cheap and the house was uninsulated.
We started modestly, supplementing the oil furnace with a fireplace that probably sucked out as much heat when the coals died down as otherwise radiated into the living room. From there to an ancient potbelly, through several used Ashleys in succession, and then on to airtights. Though we investigated installing an outdoor wood furnace with a catalytic converter and a hot water system several years ago, we stopped short of it.
I traded the potbelly for a fox terrier pup, and probably just in time, too. A neighbor gave us the stove, a beautiful, ornate relic with detachable chromed skirts for use as bed warmers. I carried it in sections to the basement because it was too tall to vent into the fireplace, troweled asbestos cement into the ill-fitting parts of the firebox while reassembling it, teed it into the furnace pipe, and cut a hole above it in the living room floor which I fit with an old cold air return register so the heat could rise upstairs. I didn't expect much, and I didn't get much, either. If the stove had heated the upstairs a noticeable amount, if fires had lasted longer in it, if it weren't such a burden to carry firewood down to it and ashes back out—if there had been fewer objections to its regular use through a cobbled and inadequate vent—the story likely would have ended with the house burnt down.
We rebuilt the fireplace with old brick when we added a two-room addition 20 years ago. Well before that, a creosote fire raged through it one night while I was away hunting, and Mary took the children outside for fear the house would go with it. I'd fabricated a steel insert to fit into the face of the fireplace, cut a 6" dia. hole in it, and vented an Ashley through it, stubbing it off just inside the insert. Same sort of thinking that sawed a hole in the living room.
The smoke cooled behind the insert and condensed into creosote, accumulating until it caught fire. Mary said the inferno roared through the chimney like a jet engine exhaust, and she could hear what proved to be the flue liner explode and crash down in chunks. It sent a spectrum of sparks and glowing fireballs arcing into the night like tracers from a sputtering cannon. For some reason they failed to catch the roof afire. The repair consisted of steel stove pipe run up through the flue until years later we rebuilt the chimney with handmade brick that I gathered from a tumbled-down 19th century farmhouse.
According to his descendants, who gave me permission to salvage the site, a pig farmer made the brick in a crude cooperative neighborhood oven during the intermissions afforded by a 5 to 9 workday. The clay was of uneven quality and of several hues, and the oven must have been hit and miss as well. Some bricks came soft and weathered quickly while others still remain rock solid. Colored mineral stripes run through some, all vary in size and shape, and you can see handprints of fingers and thumbs in many of them, further evidence that they were cut roughly and handled hurriedly before they were fired. Their story reflects through them.
I dug them out from a layer of snow, brought what I needed home in the middle of winter, chipped off any mortar that clung to them, and set them to dry on the floor of the room addition. From there with the help of two friends we layed them up around and over an archway that joins two sections of the house and affords heat to both.
. . . . .
The act of cutting a season's worth of firewood a year or two ahead of need anticipates hard times. An urgency therefore attends it, but since the woodpile becomes a fortification, it's calming, too—a stick at a time becomes one night's warmth per arm-load stacked. Eight cords of firewood, a winter's burn ricked up under roof to cure, will make the man who toiled after it stand back and smile. You don't know the same winter by writing checks for fuel and hurrying past an electric meter bolted to the side of your house. You can't feel the same about life, either.
Until 2003 and the purchase of a gasoline powered hydraulic wedge, I split rounds by hand with mauls, axes, wedges and sledges. There were crotches and other burly woods that beat me down, and bucked rounds I turned my back to in the woods because I knew I couldn't split them. Hydraulics leave nothing behind. Now, everything goes to the woodpile. In 2006 I built a 14x20 woodshed near the house, and we've had the luxury of burning easily accessed, dry wood since. I could have made both moves much earlier, but I didn't.
For most of these years laying up and burning wood made no economic sense, but that was never a reason not to do it. We've dried clothes beside our stoves, cooked on them, humidified the house with them, and huddled near them to thaw out fingers and toes. We've piled on the blankets in chilly bedrooms, too, where their warmth couldn't reach, and on the coldest mornings we crowded around a radiant heat source once the banked coals kindled into new fire. Just as there's more to the geometry of laying logs in a stove before bedtime than a careless or inexperienced man might think, there's more satisfaction to be found in the firewood process than what shows on balance sheets.
Money has never influenced an important decision for me. By that I mean I never chose a less alluring path over another because of the dollar bills at the end of it. Instead, my energies have gone to following curiosities and passions. I realized early on that if money is used to buy lavish passage through the world, or to compensate drudgery with toys and a family vacation each summer, then money costs too much.
My father-in-law was a practical man. He left the family farm as a youngster and became a coal miner. His was a generation hired to make bricks for other people while it dreamed of a better life for its children. To that end, he pushed his sons toward the Dream. One became an orthopedic surgeon of some renown. Another a Harvard grad, a lawyer and Vice President at Wheeling Steel. A third an engineer and a Vice President of Alcoa, with many credited patents from NASA's space program. The fourth an engineer/entrepreneur who founded the Ohio Cumberland Gas Company. He left Mary and me to our path, and we chased a different dream. Now and then he suggested we'd be money ahead buying beef rather than raising Holstein steer calves, or that store cheese was cheaper and less bother than homemade goat cheese. I couldn't argue.
But the question for me was never the time-and-money cost of a venison backstrap, or a pound of fish fillets, or a grass-fed broiler. My goal has been their pursuit, and money exists to facilitate their pursuit, not to circumvent it.
I'm no survivalist or doomer preparing for economic catastrophe, political chaos, or famine, pestilence and biblical horror, at least no more so than for international peace and prosperity. I'm an entry-level participant in life, here to experience the excitement and the satisfaction these simple, elemental pursuits provide.
In the pursuits lie the rewards, and behind them the passion that fuels the heart. In their wake and from the fire of that oven come soil to nourish cukes and zucchinis, tapered wooden shingles on a hen house roof, osage bows nocked with straight arrows, egg yolks that stand up proud, jars of canned squirrel, and ricks of cord wood, tall and stable. Their story reflects through them.
July 17, 2011
Hen with Rock-Cornish Chicks
I cut short my fishing trip with Mike to Lake Erie to stop by Eagle's Nest Poultry on the way home and pick up 20 newly hatched broiler chicks. Hated doing it because we'd just an hour before lifting anchor found were the perch were schooled, and though the fish ran small, from 8 to 10 inches, the action was non-stop. But I had to get to Eagle's Nest in Oceola before closing time.
The easiest way to raise chicks is to put them under a broody hen and let her do the work—usher them about, find food for them and keep them warm and away from harm. I've done it with three hens so far this year.
When a hen goes broody, I'll place two eggs under her and isolate her from the flock. After three weeks, just at dark, I'll push about 20 day-old chicks under her. She thinks she hatched them, and they imprint on her. The next morning she's off the nest with her new brood, full of mother-hen business. WHile she can only hatch 12 to 14 eggs, covering them sufficiently to brood them, she can care for many more, especially in the summer when the nights are warm.
We still have 75 red broilers ordered for August, and will raise them up in the Coop de'Ville with brooder lamps.
July 13-15, 2011
Pouring the Floor
After the posts were set, Brad sent over Josh and Jarrod to prepare a base for the concrete floor.
Despite the clay that Chaz packed in, in order to bring the base up to grade for a 4" concrete floor, we still required two tandem-axle truckloads of 1's and 2's, (Ohio Dept. of Transportation language for washed, fist-sized limestone rocks), one load of 304's to cap them, and two loads of 57's, half of which we spread in the parking lot ahead of the pole barn.
Josh would put down a thin layer of each kind of rock, spreading it with the front end loader, and Jarrod would come behind, rake it out and then settle it into place with a plate compactor. The "three-oh-fours" had limestone dust in them to form a crust over the fist-sized "ones-and-twos." Josh wet them down good with a hose so they would settle in.
After a lunch of deep fried perch and walleye fillets with French fries and cole slaw, the men laid down a thick plastic vapor barrier, cut and put down the wire mesh over that, graded the slope around the outside of the building and helped re-plumb and re-brace the posts that required it.
The next morning, Brad's crew was on site at 6:30 a.m. and the first of two concrete trucks arrived shortly thereafter. This crew has been together for a bunch of years now. They form a solid team and they're very good at what they do.
July 11, 2011
Mary Won't Go
Mary won't go into the basement anymore. But what if she needs a jar of tomatoes? It's my job to go after them. Lettuce or bacon or something from the extra fridge down there? She sends me. Fish or chicken from one of the freezers? My job. If I'm not here and she needs basement goods, I'll get here eventually.
Oh, she's quite capable of climbing stairs up and down, of carrying three or four packages or jars at once, but she won't do it, won't go after them. It's my fault, too. I should have known better.
I forget now what reason took us there several weeks ago. She saw a snake on the floor near some boxes and pointed it out, a harmless five or six inch baby garter snake. It didn't seem to bother her. She's seen snakes in the yard without reacting emotionally. I acknowledged it and went about my business, leaving her to hers and it to its.
I happened upon the snake again days later while fetching a jar of canned goods. I brought it up and showed it to her. She watched as I pitched it into the woods. She heard the epithets and warnings I sent after it. She heard me declare the basement a snake free zone, and if I threw in a fist pump for the visuals, she saw that, too.
But it all made no difference. Mary won't go into the basement anymore, it's my fault, and I think she likes it that way.
July 9-10, 2011
After Chaz compacted the clay, Mike Grandominico came by of a morning and we laid out the pole positions. Mike is fully occupied at the moment cutting wheat and baling straw, and is only available for a few hours in the morning before the dew comes off.
But when Mike Justus was able to bring his Bobcat over several days later and help out, Mike G. took time off the baler to set posts.
We used an 18" auger to drill holes. Hindsight says when Mike J. asked, I should have requested his 24" auger. We wouldn't have had to chisel off the corners of the solid cement blocks we dropped into the holes for the posts to rest upon, and their alignment would have been easier.
July 8, 2011
Been fishing in Lake Erie these past several days. Went to bed past midnight last night, and jumped up at 5:00 this Friday morning to try a local inland lake. Unfortunately, a thunderstorm started up at twilight just as I began sliding the boat from under roof. I should have checked the weather radar before going to bed last night. That's ok, I thought to myself, I had other things to do, likely requiring a full day, in preparation for Mike Justus and Mike Grandominico coming early tomorrow for us to begin drilling holes and setting the 30 some posts required for the pole barn.
We're nearing our 50th anniversary, Mary and I, and all the preceding is to say that despite an awareness of diminished physical capabilities, I feel ok at 70, don't take pills or meds, and still keep up a pace.
So when Mary expressed concern over what she perceived as an increased level of forgetfulness on my part, and told me that problems addressed in their early stages can be slowed significantly, I agreed without too much resistance to visit our family doctor, more to put her mind at ease than to quiet any anxieties of my own.
It didn't help my argument against going when the doctor questioned why we were there and I answered that Mary thought I had sleep apnea. She does, but she was quick to remind me that memory loss was the real reason for the visit. Apnea came to mind, I explained, because I remembered hearing her express concern over that, too.
This is small town America. We know our family doctor almost as well as we know Brad and both Mikes, and Chaz, who packed in the clay for the barn foundation. We all go way back. We know and trust one another, and we help one another. I even pay tribute to the notion of the small town family practitioner who gets paid off in barter goods by dropping off a dressed chicken now and then at Doctor Hickman's office. The nurses get a kick out of it, I ham it up, and Doc does appreciate a farm-raised broiler.
After some chicken talk and a few miscellaneous yucks, Doc got down to the business of forgetfulness. Mary cited instances to back up her concerns. But I countered that I'd always had a reputation for being absent-minded, and the same sort of examples she mentioned only annoyed rather than alarmed others when I was younger. My explanation for their increased frequency rested on two other developments, which I spun into a theory as we sat talking: A. My hearing had diminished considerably over the years; and, B. I tended to consider it a blessing.
Most of the talk that people engage in does not require a response beyond a smile and a nod, which I'd rather gladly give than ask people to repeat themselves. I shared that insight with the doctor, and he nodded and smiled. But, I added, occasionally someone slips in important instructions or information, and an ignorant response can be costly. That sort of situation has increased with hearing loss. I try to concentrate, but the times I don't hear (normal for my condition) have combined with the times I quit paying attention (normal for most men).
Moreover, the hearing loss is aggravated by tinnitus, which I discovered with Mary's help and which I've also come to consider a blessing. We were lying in bed at night prior to sleep; it was still, and the windows were open. She commented on the bullfrogs from the pond, and how she loved hearing their music. I strained but could not hear them. Instead, I countered to her how musical and active the crickets were. She lay quiet for a while and then said, "I don't hear any crickets." So now I carry background cricket music with me everywhere I go, even through winter, and it helps me screed off the human hum. Yes, B., a blessing.
Doc agreed with me that hearing loss could be the culprit. Nevertheless, he had a standard, simple, base-line test of 20-some questions. He'd ask them again in 6 mos. or so. They were easy questions, no tricks, and he'd write down my answers. "What is today's date?" Ordinarily I wouldn't know the answer to that question, even if it were asked of me 40 years ago, but since the day before had been the 4th of July, the answer came easily. "What county is this?" Etc.
When he asked me to spell "world" backwards, and when I spelled it "l-a-r-u-r," I failed the hearing part of the test and unwittingly added credibility to my own theory.
The "Tempest" is probably Shakespeare's last complete play. In its final act, after Prospero has solved all his problems, forgiven those who wronged him, and set everything in order, he plans henceforth to "… retire me to my Milan, where, Every third thought shall be my grave." I understood as a young man the piquancy that would attach to the smallest activity filtered through such a resolve even though I was not yet able to experience it myself, especially since forgiving my enemies seemed a requirement to the equation. Now I can. Now I do.
But I don't turn every third thought into making peace with the grave, with reconciling, in Prospero's words, to the understanding that:
We are such stuff
as dreams are made on, and our little life
is rounded with a sleep. (IV,i,156)
True enough, but my primary concern is to hunt out this little life, grab it up and squeeze from it all the juice it wants to give. The third thought provides background music, cricket chatter, to this more urgent business. I'm always aware of the music at some level, and it chides me to quicken the pace, to learn what I need to know about the nuts and bolts, and the dirt, blood and guts of life; to build buildings, split firewood, catch fish, hunt rabbits and squirrels, pigs and deer and mushrooms; to work on engines, grow garden, wire circuits, cook dinner, make fishing tackle, shoot arrows, tiller bows, cut dovetails by hand tighter than they can be measured, dig holes, build rifles, and curse when my thumb turns blue. To eat a lot of peaches, and with Mary watch grandchildren grow. To learn where everything lives without middlemen doing my work or talking to God for me. To dream a better dream.
So, projecting 6 months ahead, how shall I spell "world" backwards? If I spell it as though I hear "rural," then nothing will have changed. I won't have deteriorated, correct? But if I spell it as "world," I'll have improved to some degree, don't you think? Right now, if I can remember the plan, just to mess with them a little, I think I'll put on a thoughtful face and spell it as "blackbird."
July 6, 2011
Mike Justus and I fished walleye today. We landed on top of them, twenty some miles north of our launch, in Canadian water, and had three in the boat before we had all our rods deployed. They were good fish, too, and the twelve that we kept weighed between four and eight lbs. We returned five to the water weighing four pounds or less, and lost one good one at the net, guesstimated at seven lbs.
It's been a strange Spring, what with all the rainfall, muddy water, and the various weather fronts moving through. Fishing inland lakes has been disapointing, and Lake Erie fishing never found high gear after the stained water cleared up. The walleye vacated the Western Basin early, and it's hit and miss to the East. The only quality fishing available to us is North in the vicinity of Pelee Island, where the water runs 4 to 6 degrees cooler. That's where we were, and there wasn't another boat in sight.
June 27-30, 2011
Pole barn construction switched to the fast track after the hickory came down. Brad Kelley, a long-time friend with a construction company, was able to free up Josh Lowe for some Bobcat work. You may remember Josh's dad Glenn Lowe, the maple syrup man. We staked out the structure and I got a good eyeball on the actual situation in relation to the shop and standing trees. I decided to move things north a few more feet and turn the barn slightly on its axis, thereby providing space to drive the truck or tractor between the barn and shop corners, if need be.
This meant dropping a tall walnut and a big honey locust that interfered with the change, and also grinding the stumps before Josh left with the Bobcat. To further add to the urgency, Chaz Kaiser was digging ponds nearby, and this meant he had fill available for a sub-base. He informed me he was just now getting below the blue clay, and would likely be on schedule to deliver the good stuff the day after Josh left, and then grade and pack it between jobs when he moved machinery.
It was head down and ass up making preparations to accomodate their schedules. Josh worked one morning clearing brush and top soil, and finished up the next afternoon after the trees were down and the stumps ground. Les dropped off clay the third morning while I was fishing locally, and by the fourth morning, Chaz graded and compacted the site. At the end of it, we were ready to lay out the postholes, and I was ready for Lake Erie.
June 24, 2011
"Adventure is a sign of incompetence" --Ernest Shackleton
Wax a car and 30 unforeseen events can jump between you and your intentions. Plan the first crossing of the Antartic continent sea to sea and pack ice can crush your ship before you land your party. When plans don't go according to plans, adventure begins.
Great care must be taken making the two cuts that notch the tree, the face cuts. They determine the direction of the fell (the lay), and they must mate up perfectly where they meet. They're comprised of a horizontal cut at 90° to the intended lay, 1/3rd of the way into the tree, and a 45° cut above it that completes the notch and ends exactly to the back of the horizontal cut. The hazard is a sloppy cut termed a Dutchman's notch, where either face cut extends beyond the other. It can cause lost control of the fell, resulting in barber-chairing (vertical splitting up the middle of the trunk), kick back (when the tree comes back over the stump) or a swinging Dutchman (when the tree pirouettes on its stump and away from its lay).
Keep in mind that loggers rank second in occupational deaths, ahead of Alaskan bush pilots, and behind only those who fish in high seas on icy boats during winter. So, when plans do go according to plans, when an amateur fells a tall tree against its lean near buildings, and the event unfolds step by step according to rehearsal, it may not rank with Ernest Shackleton's adventures at the Southern Cap by magnitudes to several powers, but at the end of the day, when the tools are put away, it still needs celebrated with feet up and a cold milk stout.
June 21, 2011
About 25 years ago, Mike Grandominico gave me an estimate to build a pole barn back by the henhouse. He's still around and I still need the barn, so I called him back this spring and told him I was ready to start, but that I'd changed the site. Turns out he's changed his price, too.
A basic 24 by 24 structure with two enclosed 12 by 24 shed roof wings to either side, it will feature a spacious loft and a concrete floor. Built primarily to house my boats, tractor, lawnmower, Mary's car, misc. tools and equipment, and lumber, it will also provide an insulated room under one of the shed roofs, something I can heat and maintain as my hunting and fishing room, thereby liberating the one I use in the house to spare bedroom duty.
The site is off the Northwest corner of the shop, a tangle of briars, grapevines and small trees. A huge pignut hickory once dominated the plot, but five years earlier exactly to the day it came crashing down during a frightful windstorm, taking out the northern end of the shop, flattening my boat, and doing appreciable damage to both vehicles parked nearby.
A many-limbed shagbark hickory stands in the way of construction. It's leaning a bit toward the shop, too. Since the limbs prevented me from shooting a string over the top crotch and then roping the tree in the direction of the fell, I had no choice but to climb up 50 feet and tie it off. This entailed sawing away the limbs impeding my progress, and clearing the scaly bark as I proceeded.
My plan is to put the rope under tension from a come-along strapped to a tree in the direction of the fell, face cut the tree, plunge cut behind it, wedge it up good, and then cut the back strap. The wedges and the rope in combination should keep it away from the shop.
February 11, 2011
Of Rugs and Things
Mary argued against buying our first automatic washer and dryer some 25 years ago because she didn't want to abandon the control she had over a washload in her Maytag wringer washer. It's still in the basement, but she doesn't use it now. Next to it is a stained cardboard box of homemade lye soap that her mother made for it. Cotton clothesline rope still stretches across the ceiling floor joists where the clothes dried when the sun and warm wind wouldn't work. They're a backup plan now, and a box of memories.
She's somewhat a sentimental romantic, but much more a practical person, someone who values what's tested and true over what's currently fashionable. In this devotion she's unwavering. It's part of her strength and much of her beauty.
I was reminded of it this winter when I saw her in the back yard cleaning our braided rugs and snuck up to photograph her. She does it as her mother before her did. On a cold winter day, when the snow is a dry powder, toss the rugs out, cover them, broom the snow in, then sweep them clean. Do it several times, until the swept snow no longer turns grey. Hell with a vacuum cleaner. This does a much better job. Besides, my mother braided one of our rugs and hers made the other two. They deserve such respect.
January 29, 2011
Josh Fairchild and his son Javan took their first squirrel dog hunt on the last Saturday of the season. It was a hoot. They did all the shooting, and they did it with iron sights on their Ruger 10/22's.
I lost count of how many times Digger and Tricks treed, but it was a good day for squirrel activity. Warming temperatures and gentle breezes brought the critters out to bask in the sun on den tree limbs, and the thermals were right for the dogs to locate them through airborne scent.
At the first tree, just as he was bracing against a sapling for a 40 yard poke, I told Javan that if he didn't hit the squirrel square in the head, the shot wouldn't count and the squirrel would escape. I knew he didn't have much chance, but damned if he didn't roll the squirrel, and with a good shot, too.
Artemis, Greek goddess of the hunt and apparent witness, figured we no longer required her assistance, so she left us. Hers was a hasty appraisal. The next squirrel we bagged didn't have a bullet hole. Digger ran it down, caught and retrieved it after it figured its chances were better bailing and fleeing on the ground than dodging bullets and bark in the air.
At hunt's end, Josh and Javan decided that next year, one would carry a rifle and the other would back up with a shotgun. This resembles rebel boy squirrel hunting strategy as I've experienced it. Leaves stay on pretty much year-round in the South, so it's difficult spotting a squirrel that wants to stay hid. The preferred method of getting such a squirrel to reveal itself is to empty a clip or two into forks and likely hidey places, prompting flight. That's when the shotgunner steps forward. It suits rebel boys. They like to smell the powder burning.
Watching a father and son offer encouragements to each other, seeing them enjoy the hunt, hearing how much they were impressed by the dog work, and knowing they were looking forward to fried squirrel, biscuits and gravy, made for a memorable day and brought a joy that went beyond the fundamental satisfactions of the hunt. They'll be back next year. Meantime, should one become available, I'll be looking for an opportunity to shuttle a pup in Javan's direction.
January 8, 2011
Years ago I had a prescient dream that Leon Spinks knocked out Muhammad Ali, this when Ali was in his prime. No chance of it, according to the pundits. Outcome was almost as shocking as Buster Douglas' victory over Mike Tyson, except to me.
I wasn't a fight fan, and the contest wasn't on my radar. Why would I have such a dream except that God wanted me to make money? I tried to find a bookie. Back in college I knew a woman who placed telephone bets, but she was no longer available since divorcing her husband, and she never liked me anyway. I watched as Ali went down and my chance for an easy fortune evaporated. I didn't even bet 5 dollars with a friend.
Lesson learned. Years later I joined an online betting service in anticipation of someday having a similar dream. Maybe 5 or 6 years ago. Maybe longer, I dunno. Time's a blur now.
Anyway, I deposited $100 into the account and waited for inspiration. It's been this long and the bedside Post-it pad remains untouched, so long that the login details of my account were three computers ago, so long that I wasn't even sure of the service itself. But I did a little sleuthing yesterday, as the Oregon/Auburn game approaches, and reestablished contact with The Greek Sporting Service. Googled it. Found it because I remembered a Greek was raking vigorish from it. So I resurrected my account info with an email to the support link, and I'm poised to jump on the game Monday night, to increase my $100 by whatever the gamble provides.
Onliest problem is that I have no inspiration. There's not much money to be made here because the odds are not as great as when Spinks fought Ali. It's mostly money to be lost. But I want to bet anyway because I'm almost certain an Auburn blowout is coming, and the line is Oregon plus 2. It's a stone-cold, lead-pipe lock, seems to me. Meanwhile, my initial $100 continues to evaporate as the Guvmint prints new stuff for its needs. I'm losing ground. Help. Anyone out there had recent dreams about Auburn or Oregon? I want to push all in.
December 23, 2010
Less is sometimes less
After Chuck Ward from Arkansas, who could also skin a squirrel faster than any other man I've seen, Young Jamie Miller was the next-best off-hand shooter with a .22. He had a natural-born advantage over Chuck, though. He had three legs. Actually, it was two legs and three feet.
Except when purchasing shoes or requiring custom-sewn pants or dealing with the stares of passersby, he found advantages in it. Nobody could get around the side of a hill without slip-sliding better than Young Jamie. And nobody, except for Chuck Ward, who otherwise appeared normal in every way, could more consistently knock out a squirrel's eye without bracing up. He'd simply stand wherever he found the clearest shot, shoulder his .22, and ker-pow.
Young Jamie was also a philosopher of sorts. Not on a par with Epimenides the Cretan, or men like that. More like Dr. Norman Vincent Peale. Before he changed his mind about his extra left foot, or, more precisely, the right foot on his left leg, his outlook was always sunny. "It's only a handicap if you let it be." "Doesn't matter how you look on the outside, it's what's inside that counts." "Every dark cloud has a silver lining." "Everything has its purpose."
After undergoing "corrective " surgery this past summer, Young Jamie became normal in looks at the expense of his shooting ability. Although sometimes at night in bed, passing between the worlds of sleep and awake, he felt his missing foot itch, that was as nothing compared to the pain caused by its absence in the squirrel woods. Who could have foreseen the impact to his shooting, and, in turn, its metaphysical consequences? The tripod effect had steadied more than his hand. Even when he braced against a tree, using its platform for a third member, there was no denying he'd lost a foot, that his eye went with it, and so too his positive outlook.
We took our limit of 12 squirrels today over Digger and Tricks. Jamie was the shooter. He braced up in a wide stance on all of them, but could manage only head shots.
I'm guessing tonight a poignant gloom penetrates those unguarded moments before sleep. I'm guessing Young Jamie tosses a few times and drifts off thinking, "You never know what you've got until it's gone."
November 7-13, 2010
'Tis In The Season
"Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run." --Andrew Marvell
The weather kept us off Lake Erie, Sunday, the 14th of November, ending my fishing season there. Swells from a blow on this shallow lake come high and hard upon one another, pounding against a boat and its crew. They turn dangerous in a moment. But the glorious week of Indian Summer before that, the brief warm, calm interlude we had? Oh, my!
On the 7th, we stopped off near the Bass Islands for some early-morning walleye fishing on the way to our Canadian jumbo perch honey hole, staying long enough to pull up four nice walleye. I reeled in the biggest one of my life at 10 lbs 10 oz, caught on an old Bomber 25A, running in 34 foot of water at a depth of about 22 feet.
Back the 12th after a few days in S. Ohio chasing deer, and up to the honey hole again for jumbos, once more in the company of Tim and Mike. We loaded the cooler with the biggest yellow perch I have ever seen. Tim caught one that taped a legitimate 15", and there was no need to pinch its tail to achieve that measurement.
The next day we fished near the Bass Islands. At this time of year, Northeasterly winds and cooling waters help move walleye from their summer home in deep Eastern Basin waters along ancient migration routes to their spring spawning grounds around the islands, reefs and rivers in the Western Basin. They feed heavily along the way, preparing for the ordeal ahead. We found them up high in the water column feeding on shad, and pulled a three-man limit of 18 fish so large (27-29 inches, 7 to 9 lbs), that the cooler only held 15 of them.
The basement freezer has its complement of fish for the winter, and my thanks to friends who kept me company and shared the experiences: John, Mike, Tim, Eric, Young Jamie and Kevin. Time now to turn attention to the squirrel woods, and to some night-time coon hunting when the weather permits, for these are the hurry-up seasons—of matings, migrations and preparations—and this is Time measured not by calendar, but by pursuing it astride the urgent promptings of fish and game.
October 30, 2010
"Someday you and I will take the Great Hart by our own skill alone, and with an arrow. And then the Little Gods of the Woods will chuckle and rub their hands and say, 'Look, Brothers. An Archer! The Old Times are not altogether gone!'" --Adrian Eliot Hodgkin
Five years ago, during a visit to Bavaria as the guest of The Traditional Hunting Archers of Germany, Winfried Lauber handed me an old Puma hunting knife. "This was my grandfather's," he said. The black leather sheath, carefully re-sewn along the belt loop, was polished with wear. A narrow black strap crossed the handle near the knife guard, secured by a brass stud of similar patina.
I unfastened the strap and carefully slid the knife from its sheath. It was hefty, solid and beautiful, a hunter's knife, with stag-horn scales riveted and peened to the tang, solid, heavy bolsters, and fine, unset teeth cut into the blade near the guard, which I imagined were sufficient to work through briskets. The point resolved into the perfect balance of sweep—bold enough for skinning, yet pointy enough for dressing large game. Everything about it spoke of pride, skill and understanding in the no-nonsense tradition of Old World German Solingen steel knives.
I turned it over, admiring it while imagining its use through the various stages of field dressing an animal, and then handed it back to Winfried with compliments. "It's yours," he said.
I wasn't sure I heard him correctly. No one would be giving me his grandfather's knife. I think I replied, "Huh?"
"It's yours," he repeated. "I want you to have it."
"Winfried, I can't take this knife. Your Grandfather's? And such a knife as this? Listen, if I had so much as a toothpick from my grandfather, I would cherish it." Never having known any of my own family beyond my father (briefly) and mother, it seemed incomprehensible to me that he should offer a gift of this magnitude.
"No, it's yours. You should have it. You are a hunter. We are no longer hunters in Germany."
Plain, simple, and sincere. I couldn't keep my eyes from moistening. I've carried this knife in my day pack since I brought it home. When I dress a deer or a feral hog, I send a photograph to Bavaria.
I shot this most recent deer at 15 paces with Penelope, an Osage selfbow weighing 60 lbs. at 27", beautiful in her spare grace and simplicity, with not a sliver of wood working out of place. The silent arrow passed completely through the deer and buried in the ground beyond it. The deer flinched and jumped once, walked off twenty yards, then stood looking over its backtrail until its legs weakened and it crumpled to the earth.
We've seen the whooping, fist-pumping television personality who approaches a slain animal like he stuffed his school's football rival. He's as estranged from the natural world as the self-righteous, antagonistic animal rights activist who considers hunting a barbarism that separates man from his better angels. They're feuding brothers, these two, living blind of their mutual origins.
Approaching and field dressing a game animal is highly ritualized in Germany, with tributes and gestures of respect that follow time-honored steps. It's a personal matter in this country. I wouldn't be surprised to find out that every archer of my close acquaintance gives reverent thanks by gesture and thought. I have my way in the animal's company, with my bow, my arrow, and now also with a grandfather's knife from Bavaria.
October 17, 2010
I've been winding down the business end of The Bowyer's Edge website for a while. Though I've maintained credit card capabilities, Shawn removed the secure server two years ago. Some items, like the bow blanks and kits, haven't been for sale for three years or more. I ran out of the Bowyer's Edge tool itself months ago, although I still intend to make more. But only a limited number of UBR10's remain, and when the last one is sold, they are gone. At the end of this year, I will no longer take Visa or MC by phone.
I found a cache of journals from my 20's about 20 years ago and spent an enjoyable afternoon poring through them. During one span of 365 days, I discovered I'd hunted or fished a total of 240 days or nights. Never thought much of it in the doing. I can recollect other feats of prowess in other fields, too, tended by the acknowledgment that they are only memories.
I still hunt and fish as often as unmowed grass, unmailed orders, and neglected miscellaneous house and barn repairs and chores will allow, but not in South Africa, no longer in Australia, not even in the Bitteroot Mountains deep into the Selway or over by the Salmon.
My interests now lie more with rabbits and squirrels and local fish, as when I was a boy. But with this major difference: As a boy, I longed to top a mountain peak in search of some huge animal. I had dreams of large fish. Though I carved the days remaining until rabbit season into my wooden desktop at school, I dreamed also of whitetail deer in faraway places. And now, as a man, with sufficient vigor and health remaining, when I could still in some modest measure revisit those distant places, I prefer not to. I prefer to catch bluegills, to hunt squirrels. And sometimes just to sit in my boat or under a tree.
So I'm offering you both an apology and an explanation. I'm sorry for neglecting orders, but I find myself bound to not much more than to do what I want to do and to say what is on my mind. It's a wonderful freedom, and I mean to exercise the hell out of it.
October 11, 2010
Launching out of Marblehead for Lake Erie perch, Tim Harmsen, Mike Justus and I in Tim's 23' Hydra Sports boat headed for Canadian waters Monday morning, 22 miles to the North. The action was slow by perch-fishing standards, so we set an 8" limit on keepers, but the rewards were still great. We filled a three-man limit of 90 perch that weighed 44 lbs. Most of these fish were ten inches and over, and 6 or 7 of the jumbos approached 14 inches in length.
The day before that, in these same waters, Tim and Mike set a ten inch limit, and took 60 fish that weighed a whopping 43 lbs, with only one perch under 10 inches.
I began fishing Lake Erie in the early 80's, before there were Zebra mussels and round gobies, when the possession limit was 10 for walleye and unlimited for perch. Much has changed in fishing techniques, water clarity, and sport fish numbers, but there's been no more visible impact on this lake than Zebra mussels and round gobies.
We probably caught half as many gobies as we did perch, and would have caught more except that I'd tied on #2 hooks. My reasoning was that I could lift a bait from their reach as soon as I felt their rat-a-tat-tat bite without removing it from any nearby perch. Mike and Tim accounted for the majority of the gobies because their #6 hooks fit neatly into the goby's small mouth.
September 7, 2010
Questions and Answers
“All I know is that I know nothing.” —Socrates, from Plato’s Republic
Imagine being Socrates’ grandson, and with your friends assembled at his feet in the Lyceum. Imagine asking him, “Papou, what do you know now that you wish you had known at my age?” Imagine cozying up for an answer from the man whose wisdom reached through ages to clarify government and define our relationship with it, who directed our spirit of inquiry while pursuing and illuminating such concepts as truth, justice, beauty, virtue and art, the man who more than all others came to represent the philosophical achievements of the Golden Age of Philosophy. Imagine that, and then imagine getting told Papou has nothing to say.
As a college student, I never thought Socrates was faking modesty. I assumed he knew something, and that something was what made him Socrates. I also assumed he meant what he said, but that it meant something different than it appeared. I wished I could ask him for clarification. Steve Jobs wished for something similar, because he once said, “I would trade all of my technology for an afternoon with Socrates.”
I don’t see it happening. Not because of the difficulties of time travel, but because of the worth of the barter items on the balance scale. Steve’s trade goods—his considerable lifetime achievements and contributions—not only wouldn’t have mattered to Socrates, who, like Diogenes, valued an ascetic’s simple life, but would have been viewed as shackles and chains.
Steve’s proposition calls to mind the story of Diogenes and Alexander the Great, conqueror of the known world, who requested and received a meeting with Diogenes one afternoon near a fountain in Corinth. Alexander, tutored in his youth by Aristotle, presumably in grateful acknowledgment of that visit’s value to him, rose from his fountain seat and asked Diogenes to request anything of him his heart desired, and that if it were in his power—the power of the most powerful of all men—it would be granted. Diogenes reached a hand up to Alexander’s shoulder to move him aside, and replied, “Stand from between me and the sun.”
I never thought Diogenes was being falsely modest either. Could all that stood between him and the realization of his hopes and dreams be the unblocked warmth of the sun? How could a trouble-making malcontent such as he be that close to bliss? Yet I suspect he, too, meant what he said. It’s just that it meant something different to our ears than to his. I wish I could ask him for clarification as well.
Different ears often hear the same message differently. Witness Diogenes’ trip to Delphi where the Oracle told him to deface the government’s currency. He made it his life’s work, but he didn’t go about scribbling mustaches on the coins of the realm. Rather, it became his mission to challenge the authority of government, to question conventional assumptions, and to expose vanities and self-deceptions everywhere. In fact, he spared himself least of all. In his uncompromising zeal to simplify his life, it’s reported that he smashed his only possession, a wooden bowl, when he saw a slave drink from cupped hands.
Neither man left a personally written record behind. Plato recorded Socrates’ dialogues, and the stories about Diogenes are also third person, recounted from various sources.
They include such famous anecdotes as Diogenes carrying a lighted lantern around Athens during the day, poking it in folks’ faces, explaining he was searching for a virtuous man, pausing for a look before hurrying off to continue his search, so much as saying “Nope, not here.” Or pitching a plucked chicken over the Lyceum walls while Aristotle held class after Aristotle defined man as a hairless biped. He searched out a life as simple as a dog’s, eating when the opportunity presented itself, performing bodily functions when the urge occurred, and sleeping wherever night overtook him, often curling up in an amphora in Athens to shield himself from the elements.
His life and ideas provided philosophical inspiration for the school of Stoicism. And he argued constantly with Plato over Plato’s interpretation of Socrates’ teachings.
I mention these stories about Diogenes and not Socrates because we are familiar with Socrates more than Diogenes. They were alike in their zealous love of virtue and their pursuit of truth. The government regarded both as insufferable gadflies and worked to silence them. Socrates, condemned by the state as a seditious influence on the youth, was given a cup of hemlock to drink. Diogenes, after a life spent barking at the government and biting his friends and adversaries, is said, tongue in cheek, to have ended his life in exile by holding his breath—a heroic accomplishment of will for even the most stoic of self-disciplined Stoics.
It’s a loss that we have no record of their written words. If Jesus didn’t actually write the Sermon on the Mount, he exemplified it with his life, by all accounts. So, too, with Socrates and Diogenes—how they conducted themselves likely reveals the substance of what they believed, because our actions can’t for long conceal the truths in our hearts.
Socrates’ oft-quoted signature statement, “The unexamined life is not worth living” causes no one a turn of the head. We assume we know its meaning without further examination or question. That’s a shame, because I doubt we understand. But I’d rather look at the “know nothing” and the “stand aside” statements of each man because they baffle us somewhat, and because I think we settle into an incorrect interpretation of them just as well. Let’s view them within the context of how these two philosophers lived.
Considering their divergent courses, I think Alexander and Diogenes were butting heads, engaged in one-upmanship. Besides, didn’t Alexander already bring a history to this meeting through his relationship to his tutor Aristotle, whom Diogenes had attempted to humiliate with the chicken toss? Their meeting also was brief by all accounts. Had Alexander sought out Diogenes to learn the lessons Diogenes could teach? If so, did a brief encounter provide sufficient time to learn self-abnegation? More to the point, wouldn’t Alexander’s ambition and appetite for dominion hold such lessons in contempt, however long it took in their teaching? Could two willful men take paths through life in more opposite directions?
Alexander came to the fountain as the king of all material things, the proud conqueror and lord of the known world. Look on his works and despair. When he rose up with his commanding presence to blot out the sun, he meant to display that presence in all its intimidating glory. How else could it be? And how could Diogenes consider the offer anything less than an insult to the life he lived, and to the faith he invested in exploring the unknown world? Alexander made his offer with the force that no one else on the planet could. Did Diogenes flinch? Did he ask for a modest villa in Crete? Maybe a few servants and toss in some dancing girls? Did he submit to shackles and chains? No. Diogenes trumped him. “Stand from between me and the sun.”
It’s reported that Diogenes often thereafter ridiculed Alexander in public, and that he was the only man who ever did and lived to tell. Perhaps what made Alexander Great is that he knew what he could conquer and what he couldn’t.
Could two men, Diogenes and Socrates, be more distant from us? Socrates asked questions. When their answers generated more questions, he pulled up his robe and followed the stream toward its source. Questioning, with that kind of conviction and commitment, is the Socratic Method in a nutshell. The alternative—camping beside an answer, failing to examine the questions attending it, presuming to know—meant giving up finding the source of the stream. Abandoning hope.
The Socratic Method has become the subject matter of classroom lessons taught by professors in universities, or a courtroom technique used by lawyers to unsettle testimonies, or a tool for psychoanalysts to turn confused eyes toward illumination, inward. But for Socrates and Diogenes, philosophy—the love of wisdom—was a way of life, a commitment. In Athens, in the Cradle of Democracy, loving wisdom meant living in pursuit.
August 20, 2010
Mike Justus and I started out fishing for walleye early Thursday morning, but several hours of trolling confirmed the reports that the daytime bite had at last moved out of the Western Basin of Lake Erie to deeper, colder water. What to do but head back to shore for a bucket of shiner minnies and fish the perch bite.
Mike lives near Ostrander, but spends much of his time fishing Lake Erie from his single-wide base in Catawba. He’s a dedicated walleye fisherman. I am, too, insofar as I’m willing to jump out of bed at 4:00 a.m. and drive up to fish with him. As if I needed extra incentive, three big parties in a row meant our supply of walleye filets needed replenished, too.
Joe Wedding, my squirrel hunting buddy, also owns a trailer home on the lake. He’s been fishing perch from his base pretty much since the bite began. After Mike and I got our shiner minnows, we rendezvoused with Joe, who was anchored on the north side of Kelley’s Island where he and two marina park neighbors were “jerkin’ perch.”
Right now, most of the near shore fish measure 7 to 10 inches, and the bite is active with the fish traveling in large schools. The perch fishing only gets more frenetic from now into the fall, and the jumbos in the 12 inch neighborhood wait in the wings.
Perch grow a small, hard, pointy scale that won’t scrape off readily with a spoon like a bluegill’s will. Since the skin adds a dimension of flavor, most everyone prefers them scaled. Joe employs a tumble-drum scaler in the fish-cleaning station at the marina where his boat is docked and then filets his own. Being without those resources, Mike and I paid a fish-cleaning business to do ours.
If I perch fished Lake Erie more than I do, or if they were available from nearby inland lakes, I’d have some kind of barrel-tumbler cobbled up for scaling them. Paying to have 33 lbs of perch processed commercially makes me grimace, but nobody who has eaten these delectable filets will begrudge the cost.
For supper the first evening of my trip, Mike fried some of our catch, and introduced me to this tartar sauce:
1 large egg*
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lime juice
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
1/4 cup minced yellow onions
1/2 cup olive oil
1/2 cup canola or vegetable oil
3/4 teaspoon hot red pepper sauce, or to taste
1 teaspoon salt
Combine egg, lemon juice, lime juice, mustard, and onions in the bowl of a food processor or blender. Process on high speed until smooth. With the machine running, slowly add the oil in a steady steam, and continue to process until an emulsion has formed. Add the pepper sauce, salt, and cayenne and pulse for 10 seconds.
Chill for 1 hour before serving.
*Raw yardbird eggs, Yes. Raw industrial eggs, No. This recipe is good enough that it should provide you the incentive to search out real eggs if you don't already have them. Double win.
Freeing the Freedom Rangers
In between the Torges Family reunion the 31st of July, and the Ramser Family reunion the 7th of August, both held here, I finished the Coop D'Ville, rolled it and its 2-week-old inhabitants to pasture, and opened the door.
Yes, the nest boxes still need finished, but that’s a day’s work, perhaps two at my speed. For that, I plan framing a door to hinge down, one per three stalls. Each stall will feature a removable carpet nest bottom for easy cleaning, sloping toward the hinged door to roll the eggs there. But it’s all about broilers now, not layers.
I’m impressed early on with the strength, energy, curiosity and all-around vitality of these French broilers, or French Freedom Rangers as they’re called at the hatchery. Unmistakably a meat chicken, they show it even at two weeks, with their compact, blocky build and substantial bone to the leg. I have two New Hampshire chicks mixed in with them, and they’ve already outstripped these two by a third in body size. That’s impressive.
Unlike the Rock Cornish crosses, they are quite active, so it’s doubtful that the feed conversion rate will rival the Cornish broilers’. But then raising Cornish isn’t too far removed from growing protein on a Petri dish. Watching these chicks go, I’m willing to bet that the meat will be less flaccid and more flavorful. We’ll see. Cornish take 7 to 8 weeks. I’m scheduling these for slaughter in 10 weeks.
JuLY 13, 2010
Not much luck fishing with Kevin yesterday, from 3 pm until dark. 5 walleye and lost one at the boat. Fish were there, on the fish finder, suspended at a depth that indicated they were feeding actively, but neither night crawler harnesses nor crank baits could entice them.
JuLY 9, 2010
After gathering and positioning the cement blocks, I jacked the structure up from mid-frame, enough to get some weight off the wheels, and was relieved that air pressure reestablished the beads on the rims. With 45 lbs of pressure, both tires held the building weight. That simplified the “fix” options.
The next morning, Jim and I removed the nuts bolting the structure to the trailer frame, and then jacked the building up from its four corners. More good news: the frame fell away and no part of the building creaked, groaned or wracked from the torture—a testament to the strength of plywood siding and flooring glued with construction adhesive to framing members.
Since the Meals on Wheels was swinging back in my direction, I decided to remove the axle to its original position rather than pull the whole trailer out from under the building. Why not? I wouldn’t be trailering it on the open road, and more pressing matters required attention. Next year, if need be, we could reposition the axle. It would be an easy fix, as this dry run proved. So we lowered the structure back onto the frame, and today I hitched up and moved everything to the front of the shop, where I could more easily wire the inside and shingle the gable end with the door.
In hindsight, I can see a few things I would have done differently on the trailer. I’m not sure that includes the roof of great labor. It provided great fun and new learning experiences. But as a sensible choice to reduce building weight? Only if buckets of rain never fall from the heavens to swell and saturate wooden shingles.
The axle is another matter. I left the trailer with the boys at KLM instructing them only to move it forward. I didn’t tell them where to move it. A few minutes of online research after the tipover uncovered this link for positioning trailer axles.
The one constant that a lifetime of designing and building original furniture teaches is that second-guesses don’t result from compromise, of giving less than your best effort, but rather from a failure to be curious, to question in the spirit of humility. This has nothing to do with a lack of trust in yourself or in those whom you accept as knowledgeable and determined to do the right thing, and everything to do with the truth that you don’t know as much as you’d like to, but that you want to find out. On the cusp of 70 years here, it’s a lesson I’m still learning.
JuLY 8, 2010
Little Ian Henry, our grandson, discovers a ripe peach.
JuLY 7, 2010
The Inevitable Setback
Yesterday the leveling jacks came out from under the chicken tractor. For a moment I was full of hope, but then she lost the bead on one wheel rim, lurched to the side like she’d been torpedoed, lost the other rim, and then started tipping backwards. The tongue rode up slowly like the bow of a lost ship slipping beneath the waves.
Broiler chicks are scheduled to arrive here the 16th, and preparations need made for the three weekends of parties that begin the 24th. I spent today sorting through options and timetables while wiring the interior for brooder lamps and lighting.
It’s simple. Either the structure needs pulled forward on the trailer frame, or the axle needs moved back. The best fix involves repositioning the axle, but I can’t simply weld on new brackets because the old fender wells are in the way. And I can’t cut the fender wells off without running a constant hose of water under the frame to keep the torch from setting everything afire. So, in consultation with Les Slagle, and with the help of my neighbor Jim Burwell, I’ve decided to jack the structure up, set it on cement blocks, roll the trailer out from underneath, cut off the axle and move it back a sufficient amount, then reposition the trailer underneath again.
This evening before dark, I rounded up 18 cement blocks and an old cast-iron railroad jack that belonged to my father-in-law. Tomorrow, work in earnest begins.
JuLY 3, 2010: Morning
Not coincidentally, my three favorite fish to catch—walleye, yellow perch and bluegill—are also the fish Mary and I prefer above all others for the table. I like tight-lining cut bait at night for catfish, and would do more of it if there weren’t local fish advisories restricting consumption (mercury and PCB’s). But that’s another matter.
Walleye, perch and bluegill are sweet, mild fish, white, flakey and firm of flesh. Bluegill and perch are our favorites, but walleye is not far behind.
“Zippering” greatly improves the quality of a walleye filet by removing a strip of flesh containing a string of tiny bones that embed along the lateral line. In addition to leaving behind a truly boneless filet, zippering also rids the fish of 90% of the red meat, wherein reside a fish’s strong flavors. You can pare away any remainder with a sharp knife.
The lower or belly portion of the filet is thin and fries up crispy. The loin portion is great for grilling or broiling.
JuLY 3, 2010: Evening
Lemon-Crusted Walleye Loins with Brown Butter Sauce
2 lbs Walleye fileted loins
1 cup panko bread crumbs
3 TB butter, melted
1 lemon, zested
2 TB Italian parsley, chopped
1 tsp kosher salt
½ tsp pepper
3 TB butter
2 TB lemon juice
1 TB Italian parsley, chopped
Season loin filets. Mix together panko, melted butter, lemon zest, parsley, salt and pepper in a small mixing bowl. Beat egg. Lightly flour fish on one side only, dip that side into the egg and then press it into the bread crumb mixture.
Spray alum foil with PAM and place on cookie sheet. Lay on filets, clean side down, and pat on any remaining panko mix.
Bake in oven 8 to ten minutes at 400º. When fish looks almost done, turn on broiler to low or medium setting with rack in middle of oven until panko browns nicely, 2 to 4 minutes. Be careful. Broiling can burn the panko quickly.
Don’t forget the sauce. Melt the butter in a small saucepan until the milk solids turn brown. Remove from heat, add lemon juice and parsley, and drizzle over fish.
JuLY 2, 2010
Fishing with Kevin
As summer waxes and inland lakes warm, the fishing slows and the recreational boaters and jet skiers turn out to churn the water. Boat launching ramps resemble Comedy Central, and inconsideration rules the waves. So I’ve been keeping an eye toward Lake Erie, waiting for a break in the winds and the rains of the past two weeks to coordinate a trip with Kevin Toms. The weather break came over this Fourth of July weekend.
“Bad timing,” I wrote to Kevin. “Everyone will be on the water for the long holiday weekend.”
“It’s a big lake,” Kevin replied.
Kevin lives in Castalia, Ohio, near Lake Erie. We began our friendship almost 30 years ago when as a recently married college graduate he managed a private upland game preserve outside Ostrander. We still get together now and then for a deer hunt or a squirrel hunt or a fishing trip or two. Against our history and stockpile of memories, it’s always a good time.
We launched Friday afternoon at the mouth of the Huron River and headed straight north, about 8 miles. We fished the same area Saturday morning, and both times, when we were into fish, there was hardly a boat to be seen on the horizon in any direction.
I brought home four gallon Ziplocs crammed full of trimmed filets. We are hosting a party for our eldest daughter Rebekah and her friends, and then two family reunions, mine and Mary's, on three successive weekends near the end of July, so let the food gathering begin.
June 5, 2010
Chris Cancienne and Joe Territa drove up from Gonzales, LA, for another crawfish boil/fish fry. It’s promising to become an annual event. They brought two sacks of crawfish, several dozen soft-shell crabs, a gallon of fresh Gulf shrimp, speckled trout caught two weeks earlier, fresh wild frog legs, and Lake Veret wild catfish filets (in other words, nothing farm raised), all the correspondent fixin’s, and beans of several sorts, long grain rice, and schemes for jambalaya. We also fried up walleye, bluegill, and Lake Erie yellow perch just in case.
Twenty-five guests came Saturday afternoon and we fixed, ate, drank, sang and laughed ‘til after dark. In spite of that, enough food remained that we had another boil and fry of similar dimension for as many people as we could round up impromptu Sunday afternoon.
Abundant food, good food, all of it prepared outdoors. Food you eat with your hands, much of which you caught with your hands, enjoyed in the company of family and friends.
Jay Hostetler took photos and posted them to his website: http://www.jayhostetler.com/Jays_Blog/Photos.html
May 20, 2010
Sealing Caulking Tubes
I remember the introduction of tube caulking about 60 years ago while I was painting houses during the summers of my youth. The range of quality in kind and color has increased markedly since then, and has come to include construction adhesives as well. But beyond adding a blister to the rear of the tube to prevent continuous flow once the tube comes under pressure from the ratcheting, there’ve been no advances in the delivery system itself in all this time. You still seal up a partial tube by plugging the nozzle with combinations of nails, screws and tape, and you still return in time to an unusable product.
The solution may be simple. During construction of the Meals on Wheels, it occurred to me to turn the cut off end and wedge it back into the nozzle when I was done with the tube. It works. Excess adhesive surrounds the union and dries like a scab, sealing off the seam and securing the plug. There have been intervals of a month when I didn’t reopen the tube, and when I did, there was no noticeable hardening of the caulk immediately beneath the plug.
I won’t be reluctant to enter a new tube for a small repair job in the future. Don't know how long an opened tube will store this way, but I'm encouraged by these early returns.
May 13, 2010
A cupola would have moved large quantities of cooling air through the Chook Mahal, but part way through the shingling I decided to go with a ridge vent instead. The ridge is framed for a cupola should I someday decide to build one. Not now, however. Garden needs tended. Grass needs mowed. Broilers need ordered. Fish need caught.
The soffit vents, made of ½” galvanized mesh, are 6 inches wide for the length of the shed. What with them, the ridge vent, and the wire floor, a good flow of air should result.
May 4, 2010
The roof ate all the shingles in the six cants Eric brought, so we went to the Sequoia National Forest and brought back two more logs.
Yup, that’s Old School Hay Wire holding the driver’s side fender in place.
May 2, 2010
Two weeks ago I called Eric Young, looking for poplar. Eric, you may remember, is the logger I squirrel hunted with and wrote about in “Amanda, December 30, 2008.” My intention was to saw a batch of roof purlings. From such simple beginnings come runaway trains. I don’t remember which of us suggested riving poplar cants into roof shingles, but it came to that and then sped past.
Since the log Eric found for us was down a steep hollow, he suggested bucking it to length and splitting out shingles on site. So, I headed to Amanda with a complement of wedges, mauls, sledges, hammers, saws and a froe I bought and handled long ago, for what reason I never knew until then.
It all went well at first. Eric dropped the tree not where it wanted to go, but exactly where he wanted it. It measured 18 inches in diameter at 21 feet up the trunk—in logger parlance, an 18-21 log, or, in sawmill parlance, a 19-10 and an 18-10. From these numbers (length and smallest diameter off the top log), the Doyle Log Scale can determine the board feet in a log. The largest diameter on the butt end catches my attention, and in Torges parlance, this was one bfl.
We bucked a 38-inch cant off it, and our troubles began. We pounded and beat on it with wedges and mauls, alternating rhythmic sledge blows like coolies pounding railroad spikes, until we halved it and then quartered it, and then sat beside it to rest, with a clear view of its considerable length. Soon thereafter, we gave up splitting out shingles across the quarter grain with the froe. The wood’s interlocking threads held it fast.
I headed back home not with a trailer load of shingles, as I’d hoped, but with a load of smaller poplar logs that Eric got from a sawmill in MacArthur. These I took to Danny Hamilton, a gentleman who lives near Joe Wedding, and who had a Woodmizer parked under a shed roof. We went about the business of sawing purlings and thin shingles for the gable ends while I considered the purchase of Eastern White Cedar roof shingles. Riving poplar shingles was a futile ambition, and I could accept that, but shelling out 800 dollars or more for ready-made wasn’t an alternative I looked forward to.
One thing and another, enter Josh Fairchild, an arborist who lives nearby. Josh offered to bring his Woodmizer over and saw a walnut that needed felled because of its proximity to the garden in exchange for bow-building lessons. When I told him I’d like to add some poplar logs to the equation for sawing into purlings, he suggested bringing the Woodmizer over and dropping it off so I could do it myself. Somewhere in the press of events I got the idea for a shim jig for sawing the bfl into tapered shingles. Josh and I tried it on a lesser log the evening he trailered the mill here, and the results were encouraging.
So, Eric bucked the remainder of the big log into 38-inch cants and hauled them here in the bed of his pickup. We had a fish fry that night, and the next morning I set upon the roof.
That’s where I’ve been since, taper-sawing shingles for a roof that eats them as fast as I can make them. I have a call out to Eric for another load of cants. I hope it goes well. This structure needs put under roof so I can mow grass and plant garden.
Meanwhile, I’ve set a second broody hen with a dozen Muscovy eggs, and a third with 13 Heritage Delaware chicken eggs. Have also researched French Freedom Ranger red broilers enough to know that we’re turning in that direction after 40 years with the Rock Cornish. Am anxious to get the Chook Mahal populated. And my fishing boats in the water.
April 16, 2010
Little Biddy Chicken Tractor
We started out with 15 eggs under our hen. She hatched out 9 on schedule. I set her in makeshift circumstances, so while turning her clutch during incubation, she rolled out five that chilled off before I found them. I replaced those lost eggs with 6 incubator biddies from a local feed mill, introducing them to her at night. They took right to her, burrowing into the fluff of her warmth, and they follow her and understand her language as though they were her hatchlings.
I built a Little Biddy Chicken Tractor to house them until they were old enough to mingle safely with the grown hens at the feed trough. It features wheels on strap hinges that naturally swing under the frame rails when I lift the tractor. Facilitates driving it from the handle end. They swing back out by themselves when I lift and set the tractor down for the night. During the day, I leave the wheels down in the drive position and block up the handle end. Thataway the biddies can come and go under the rails. Mom keeps them anchored close by, since she’s penned under the tractor with the feed and water.
The hen remained under wire for the first ten days, but now I let her out for the day. She escorts her biddies about and clucks them to morsels she scratches up, then returns them to the Little Biddy Tractor for the night, where I close them up when I collect eggs.
Best thing about this tractor is that, except for the wheels, I built it with scraps of this and that, including used tin, used 2x4’s, an old, weathered, walnut board for the top rail, and 1 by 2 wire my father-in-law gave me years ago.
Next poultry undertaking is setting a borrowed game hen with duck eggs and raising them under the same tractor. We intend to fold some delectable duck into the diet. Mmmmm, roast duck. I’ll bet they’ll fit into the Weber kettle rotisserie just fine, too.
April 14, 2010
Pointing Toward Heliopolis
I don’t know when the chicken tractor, known now as the Chook Mahal, got out of hand. Perhaps when I decided on cedar shingles for the gable ends (left over from wood shed construction). Or when I wondered if I shouldn’t have Josh Fairchild bring his bandsaw mill over to saw siding for it. Or when I first considered how a louvered cupola might look perched atop the roof. Certainly well before Adkins sent a drawing of a wind vane he designed for the cupola. Maybe even before I decided to build it on wheels.
It’s moot. I try to keep the lid on, but from some unseen direction an undercover force grows in appetite and strength, urging me to align the corners of most everything I do with Heliopolis—every chair I build, every sausage I make, every bow I urge to bend just so—until, well, until I have another miniature step pyramid under way and become spectator to my own coming and going. I get dissolved in magnetic urgings that point the course. I go to bed with options and wake up with directions, wearing a nail apron.
A fundamental question asks not why this force sweeps me away, nor what mysterious logic lies behind it, but why it catches me by surprise each time. So what? So it shortens the nights and lengthens the days. But more to the point, Chook Mahal sits perched next to the shop, leveled up on jacks and stands, its floor square to a 1/16th of an inch on the diagonals, its walls plumb and flat, its rafters in place, and right now the press of reality requires a roof to cover it.
Therein lies the problem of the moment. I’ve wondered from the outset if two tires would hold up under the weight. I built the Chook with options, not because I thought it might fall short, but because I knew it would not always serve chickens. So if the tires blow, I can pull it on rims to a nearby site, remove 6 nuts, and set it down on a prepared foundation. Stationary Mahal. I built it with headroom and broad doors to become a storage shed once the service of chickens no longer required it; the chickens could remain in their old tumble home for another year if necessary. First Class Tool Shed. I also built it thinking someday someone might decide to insulate it, fill in the wire floor and lay up inside walls. Foreseeing that event, I framed the corner studs and floor joists for it, and I built it sturdy. Woodland Studio. I still have a house with a good roof on it, but I may find refuge in the Chook Mahal if costs continue to climb. Temporary Woodland Doghouse.
I can pencil-whip plans and dimensions on a legal pad, or I can sit at my drafting table and do detailed drawings. Either way the final results never faithfully follow the plans no matter how thoughtful the beginnings, especially on first-time constructions. The doing always reveals a better way, even when you’re forced to it through a job-site mistake. This I learned to expect from thirty years of designing and building furniture for a livelihood. If plans don’t become adventures, where would adventure come from? This I came to appreciate during those thirty years.
I see more clearly at this stage the unlikelihood of a single axle trailer built for an 18 foot boat and a 40 horse Johnson holding up under 3 squares of architectural shingles at 400 lbs per square, plus the decking to nail them to, over the frame and structure already in place. So I’m scampering for options.
Should I have built a 25-year structure on two-foot centers with 2 by 4 rafters and short collar ties? Maybe even employed 2 by 2 wall studs and crowded the height? After all, it’s a chicken shed that I’ll likely not outlast. Given a choice, would I rather carry a shopping list of sale items and a fistful of Sunday supplement coupons to the grocery store with fears of deviating from the item count, or would I rather, in Wendell Berry’s words, invest in the millennium, plant sequoias?
A friend suggested removing every other rafter and screwing down corrugated metal lengthwise across 32-inch centers. That may solve the weight problem, but I can’t put a tin roof on it now. Beyond the practical complications, you don’t wrap pearls in waxed butcher paper.
I’m thinking wooden shakes on purlings for a lightweight, maintenance-free, 100-year roof, while keeping open the possibility that a set of broad cast iron wheels might magically appear. We’ll see.
Tempus Fugit Memento Mori – Every Third Thought
Squirrel season ended the first of March during my annual squirrel/pig/fish pilgrimage to the low country swamp at Milston Plantation in South Carolina. The Ohio season closed a month earlier. In between, I took a squirrel hunt to Alabama, rendezvousing there with friends. In sum, I hunted deer, squirrel or coon almost every chance the weather would allow for the length of the hunting season.
Hunting’s hard on a man. Really. And it’s been head down and ass up since, tending to the obligations of the new season. The days are so full that both boats remain under tarp even though ice went out three weeks ago. I’d wish for two of me if we could get along.
A total mast crop failure in red and white oaks through much of Southern Ohio and into West Viginia kept me from hunting much at the cabin this fall. Squirrels evacuated the blighted area. The squirrel famine got so dreadful through the no-mast zone around Parkersburg, WV, east and west, that Joe Wedding told me he counted almost 80 dead squirrels along a short stretch of Interstate 77. Gary Belcher, who lives near there, raised three pups out of Digger to train this fall, but with no squirrels to work them on beyond the few that stayed behind to live off his corn feeder, he sold two pups.
I went down to the cabin for several early October deer hunts. The results were discouraging. It’s a challenge to pattern deer off the sign they leave feeding on acorns, but the lack of mast moved most of them to corn feeders and food plots on an adjacent property.
As a result, I delayed returning until late into peak rut. Those hunts provided spectacular sightings, but the good bucks proved uncooperative. One hunt in particular with Young Jamie Miller in November stands out from the rest. Bucks were on parade. Lucky for them we were both at our clumsiest. So it goes with the bow and arrow, where every variable must align.
The squirrel season in Ohio provided immense joy, not only because Digger O’Dell, the Friendly Undertaker, matured into a complete squirrel dog at four years of age, and because his pup Tricks showed that she had the right stuff, but also because I got to hunt with some solid, long-time friends for days at a time. In addition to hunts with my friends in Alabama and visits from my nephew George, my old-time fishing buddy Kevin Toms came down from Castalia for a few weekends, and even Young Jamie put his bow aside long enough to fill his game pouch several times. Our freezer is supplied with squirrels just from the hunts I took by myself, the balance of the bounty going to hunting companions.
It was a full season, so full that too many stories won’t get told here. For example, I wanted to provide an account of a fish fry for 40 squirrel hunters one hungry evening in Town Creek, Alabama, when the fillets were frozen solid and the unburnt fry oil amounted to barely a gallon, but that event, the squirrel hunt in 5 degree weather with novice squirrel hunters, an account of the food, the pig hunts and the fellowship at Milston Plantation, how Slash got his name, and several more stories are filed to memory alone.
Right now the Scioto River headwaters at O’Shaughnessy dam are ideal for floating the jon boat for catfish, but the garden needs tended before the rains come, grass seed needs planted, firewood split and stored, and after that the garden shed and the pole building roofs require major repair. Meanwhile, the boat trailer chicken tractor occupies my time and crowds out other duties and obligations.
My friend Tom Mussatto told me that life’s all about making memories. Perhaps so. When you come to the end of it, it’s not the gold and the silver you sift through, is it? I stacked them up this fall and winter, and did my best to make sure they were good ones.
March 21, 2010
Blini in the Sky
This Spring includes schemes for a new henhouse, a mobile one. The bigger chicken tractors usually get built on skids, but I’ve been thinking wheels.
I purchased an old boat trailer Monday to serve as the platform for a 10’ by 16’ broiler/henhouse. Idle moments went toward planning features to stock it with—self-waterers, self-cleaning roosts, externally accessible egg nests, abundant ventilation, easily cleaned floor, automatic door, convertible to broilers or laying hens. It’s nails and hammer after Les Slagle welds up a few modifications.
Scavenged materials will comprise as much of it as possible. Repurposing is the new purr word for the process. Today’s recyclers differ from the generations who scavenged of necessity. Their efforts go toward saving the planet, so they deserve a term as dignified as “repurposing.” Previous generations scavenged to keep their ass together.
In his response to the trailer plans, my old friend Jan Adkins cuts through the labels.
Rats, I just reread your original e-mail and discover that I skimmed too quickly. You got a boat trailer. Humph. Big deal. I thought you were making a wonderful chicken house out of a houseboat, one of those 12' X 24' fiberglass monstrosities, with a flying bridge, upper deck, and sliding glass doors to the spacious, dumb cabins.
Whatinhell got into my head? It seemed like such a logical idea at the time, a pre-built structure to be pillaged, pierced and repurposed. I figured you had some clever way of dragging it about, perhaps just skidding it (which would work, of course). You'd saber-saw through the bulkheads to make nesting boxes and create a chicken yacht.
Well, Dean, this is a little like being as deaf as I am: I hear far more interesting things than people actually say. They're talking about "Ford mini-vans" and I'm hearing "Nordic blini fans." I take off on a stirring fantasy of turbines from Denmark or Norway hurling potato and applesauce blini into vast solar-powered ovens by the hundredweight. Then I'm curtly corrected, brought back to pedestrian reality, and I'm always disappointed. I'll think about those mighty pancake mills for days, and I'll be almost able to smell the richness of the blini and hear the chunka-chunka-wheet sound of wholesome food a-making. Rats.
Good luck with the trailer and all. I'm sorry to have expected so much more. Wow. That would have been sweet, though.
Scavengers are dreamers, optimists of good humor. They not only cultivate their garden, they repurpose it. They save more than their ass.
March 16, 2010
I regret not asking a question of old men when I was a boy. When they told me, “I wish I knew at your age what I know now,” I regret not prompting them. Several times it happened, always in the company of assembled friends, but not once did I or anyone else ask, “What is it that you know now, Mister? Is it about opportunity? Does it concern confidence or nerve? Something about Standard Oil stock certificates? What? I want to know.”
They understood that we hung on their next words, yet not one of them ever volunteered further information. Instead, they smiled and went silent, outlasting our attention.
These old men were not talking about future events played to an advantage, but about perspective and understanding, something profound, some pearl of wisdom. This much I was sure of and no more. Since I was new to life compared to them, I reasoned that perhaps I was not ready for such wisdom. After all, life lessons worth knowing can’t be told or taught, right?
They found out through experience, and so would I. It would come to me as it had come to them—eventually, as the residue of living life. I went forth untroubled.
It’s come my time to reflect upon life lived. So, where’s the residue? I not only don’t know what those old men came to know, I haven’t figured out what I wish I had known. Sure, there were truths hidden from my callow eyes, truths about the heart and human conduct. Surveying them reveals none I wouldn’t postpone for adulthood. And there were mistakes I made that I would change, but that’s a different, more complex subject.
I have company. Many friends my age share this boyhood experience and are as baffled as I am regarding the unspoken insight. I know this because I bring the subject up and ask them. I do it because I’m running out of time and want to know. I’m ready to accept help.
My brother Nick, an ordained Greek Orthodox priest 18 years my senior, was like a father to me. Not in the way he treated me so much as in the way I regarded him. I called him Father Nick. He was strong and ruggedly handsome, in appearance a robust Anthony Bourdain, in action a passionate Zorba, a swashbuckling, magnetic Errol Flynn. I clung to every bit of advice he gave me, sorted through every observation, but there was nothing extraordinary in any of it, nothing that I couldn’t have intuited or deduced.
Except for two items. In a private moment, through his signature broad and toothy grin, he told me he had been a pirate in a previous life. I tended to believe him, because notwithstanding the priesthood he hadn’t progressed far on the karma ladder. But this was a personal truth, not something that would profit others, or that one would wish to know early in life.
The other matter concerned his hair. Up to his death, he had the same abundant crop of wavy hair he sported in his prime. “I never wash my hair,” he once remarked offhanded. He wasn’t telling me to avoid washing mine. He simply said he didn’t wash his, that hair required only a thorough rinse in hot water to stay vital, that shampoo was its enemy. I figured shiny hair enhanced his pirate persona, so I kept right on shampooing my thick thatch.
Years have passed and I’ve thinned out on top. I won’t at this date quit shampooing in the hope of preserving the wisps remaining. I’m too proud to be that vain. Yet I’ve come to suspect there may be substance to his belief. Everyone my age is balding. I’ll bet we all shampoo.
The day must be near when grandson Varmint is lying about with his neighborhood buddies after a good rousing, and I’m sitting in their midst, basking in their energy and the beauty of their youth. They’ll look at me and I’ll be tempted to tell them something to smooth their way, something I wish I knew at their age. I’m afraid I’ll be unable to resist. So I’ll start down that path, sort through my inventory of appropriate insights, and find nothing beyond an anecdotal caution about shampooing hair. When that happens, I’ll smile and go silent.
February 23, 2010
The Squirrel Chronicles: Letters to the City
Shawn Orbanic, my friend and webmaster, has been reformatting the Bowyer’s Edge website. We apologize to those who wanted access to some of the archery "how-to" articles, and we prioritized their return during reconstruction. With today's reposting of the balance of the Gallery and all of the previously posted “Squirrel Chronicles,” most everything is now restored and intact.
"The Squirrel Chronicles; Letters To the City" are a collection of 22 vignettes I put in letter form to my friend Jan Adkins during the ’02 season. Some did appear in various archery magazines as well as the website, but the bulk languish unseen. I still plan someday to publish all of them. Here is one from October of 2002, offered to reintroduce you to "The Chronicles," and as an invitation to new visitors to explore the "Articles" page.
The Squirrel Chronicles;
Letters to the City
Nate and I cooked up a stew pot of squirrels Momma Torges style to carry with us to Southern Ohio for a few days of squirrel hunting. What a superb cook my mother was. Not a recipe written down anywhere, she never measured an ingredient and never owned a cookbook. She emigrated at 15 with a sister, was married off by her father in this country at 16, became a mother of four by 20 and a widow by 40, with two small boys 16 years separate from her first three daughters and son. What she learned came through trial and error against the template of a young girl's memories of her mother’s distant home.
With only a second grade education from a tiny backwater village on the island of Crete, reading and writing were labors in Greek and impossible in English. She spoke broken English framed in a heavy Mediterranean accent. Still, she ran the kitchen of our small-town restaurant by herself, cooked American dishes and desserts, and worked her way toward frugal self-sufficiency with no one to shepherd her after my father died. It's a remarkable story, with hundreds of variations played out by thousands of immigrant families along the length of our nation.
Her two favorite English words were "Eat! Eat!" She'd smile broadly and flourish both arms from behind her white restaurant apron in the direction of a lavish table. "Eat! Eat!" Blunt and plain spoken, often embarrassing in her straightforward honesty with other people, she was fond of telling me after a good meal or a special pastry, "You gonna miss my food when I'm dead."
A roundabout reminder of her importance to my life and that I shouldn’t take her for granted, I thought then, but I see it differently now. There was no room for sentimentality in her world, and no patience for indirection in thought or word. She meant what she said and likely nothing more. The fruits of her hard won skills—her cooking, her garden and the canned goods stockpiled in her fruit cellar—signaled her triumph in a foreign, sometimes hostile country. As testaments to her survival, she likely did consider these achievements, this bounty, the measure of her worth.
I have no idea how she cleaned the game I brought home, or the fish. Except for the furs I tanned, my interest ended when I laid them in the kitchen sink. I marvel now that she could worry the skin off a groundhog or a squirrel with the dull old kitchen knives she kept loose in a drawer.
There are lots of ways to skin squirrels, Adkins, but even with sharp knives there are no good ways. A squirrel clings to its hide like it clings to its life. At the other extreme, cottontail rabbits, like Al Capp's Shmoos, give up the ghost if you look at them just right. I once scared the life from a running rabbit with an arrow under it's belly. Honest. Not a mark on it, but when the arrow whisked by so close to its ribs that the fletching must have touched, it somersaulted to a stop as though a high-brass load of #6’s clobbered its life. It gives up its skin as easily. Simply hold its back legs, grab a pinch of fur and tear the skin off. You'd sooner set up and use a system of winches and hydraulics as attempt hand-pulling the skin off a squirrel without fleshing some part of it first.
Some folks like to cut a circle through the hide around the squirrel, mid-body, and pull in two directions by gripping the loose skin over the back. That works somewhat for grays, but with an old fox squirrel it's like pulling on both bumpers of an army jeep.
The method I employ begins with a cut under the tail at its base and just through the tail joint itself, continuing the cut across the outside of the back legs for an inch or more. The technique requires that you hold onto the back legs while you step on the tail and pull. Works fine with the help of catfish skinning pliers, especially on young squirrels, but sometimes tears older fox squirrels in half if you don't stop to ask your skinning knife for help.
This method better than any other keeps hair off the meat. Every time you grab fur and hide, hair attaches to your hand, and every time you touch meat, hair transfers to that meat. You cannot wash it off or wipe it off once the meat has been rinsed, except with great difficulty. You have to pick it off, singe it off, or cook it on. So I try to be mindful while skinning squirrels: handle the meat as seldom as possible, keep one hand for hide and fur and the other for knife and meat, and wipe hair off the meat before rinsing it clean.
I've explored other skinning methods, but with more curiosity than success. For example, I once read the speculations of a paleontologist on primitive butchering techniques. He surmised that our ancestors entered large animals by slitting the hide down the back, skinning it over the carcase and laying the boned meat on the fleshed side to keep it clean. Sounded reasonable to him, but I was skeptical. Since the more perishable contents within the body cavity were likely the first consumed, and since the prized thicker skin and heavier fur along the back would remain intact through a belly approach, I concluded that the paleontologist never field-dressed an elk or a moose, or valued its warm fur or hide, or was really, really hungry.
One morning, while leaning against a tree, I got to thinking through his approach, and how it might apply to an old boar fox squirrel hanging at my side. Judging its toughness and age by the size of its testicles, it offered skinning challenges similar to those our ancestors encountered wrestling with the first behemoths. Curiosity and tedious knife work once took me down the belly and across the legs of several squirrels, fleshing as I went, with the intention of turning their tough, whole hides into rawhide for bow strings. Curiosity took this opportunity to explore another approach.
I ran a small drop point knife along the back, just under the skin, from head to tail, fleshed it away from both sides for a grip, impaled one flap on a strand of taut barbed wire fencing up close to a post so it couldn’t twist, and pulled as hard as my grip permitted on the other, fleshing where I had to.
The method shows promise but requires refinements. I plan next time to tie off one flap to an oak stump and the other flap to the top of a tall hickory sapling, bent down and snugged up close like a spring snare.
All the components haven't yet come together (immovable stump, old squirrel, irresistible sapling and idle morning), but someday when I do trip the trigger on such an alignment, I figure either to pop a squirrel from his pocket like so much toaster bread, or to hurl a root-ball across the woods in a recreation of the first launch by primitive catapult.
Insofar as my mother enjoyed life and food, I'm one fruit that didn't fall too far from the tree. She was a wizard with small game, and I enjoyed contributing to our welfare with hunts for rabbits, squirrels and groundhogs. None of her dishes reminds me of her more than her simple small-game stew, a classic Greek stifatho, made with garden onions and home-canned tomatoes from her fruit cellar.
Last night I sent Nate to the basement for a quart Mason jar of tomatoes while I rinsed and dried squirrel parts. I had him peel and French six winter onions, two per squirrel, just as my mother did. I sweated them in olive oil in a Dutch oven, set them aside, added more oil and browned the lightly floured squirrel parts, several at a time. I stirred a little dry red wine into the pot bottom, put the onions back in with two bay leaves, and poured a jar of tomatoes over them, then topped off this bed with the squirrel parts and some salt, lidded it and braised it for several hours. These were old squirrels, requiring low, moist heat to make them tender. Young of the year hardly need more than a crisp browning on the stove top to make them fork tender.
Adkins, do you like Mediterranean pilafs? In a sauce pan, sauté one part long-grain rice in enough butter and olive oil to lightly coat, and stir until the grains change color and aroma. Add minced garlic, stir briefly to blend flavors, and then pour in two parts chicken broth. Cook covered until the rice is done and the liquid absorbed. Squeeze in plenty of lemon juice, add salt and fresh black pepper, plenty of it, and a little more butter, too, if you can stand it. Pile the pilaf on your plate, spoon the tomatoes and onions and squirrel over it, and "Eat! Eat!"
January 25, 2010
Chupacabra or Macabre?
Grading it for scale against the grass beside it, and by the large handful it would have made had I picked it up, this chicken scaled about two pounds live weight, more or less. Despite its outsized comb, common to a rooster, the lack of leg spurs indicates a hen. It spent close company with other birds during its early life, as evidenced by its clipped beak. Its long, curled talons (some of them broken) suggest it never touched the ground during its adult life.
Two more like it huddled near the edge of a road in a woods I squirrel hunted last Friday. They were alive, but not looking healthy or happy. The woods was across the road from an egg farm near Croton, Ohio.
This is a spent hen, of such a breed and description as I have never seen in poultry catalogues, nor ever imagined. Apparently she and her cell mates were being rotated out, loaded onto transportation for their ride to some Noodle Soup/Potpie/Dogfood Company when a few of them got mishandled and broke jail. That's the story as evidence suggests it happened.
Evidence also reveals she lived in a cage so small that it wore the ends of her feathers off. Along with thousands of others rowed up in identical conditions, she was fed a high-protein diet while the lights burned 24-7, spurring her to maximum egg production.
How to explain feathers that resemble tree limbs without leaves? Bottom line economics suggest she would have been dusted or fogged before feather mites almost ate her bald and reduced production. Since she wouldn’t require feathering for warmth in a temperature-controlled environment, it’s more likely they became absorbed in an energy script that said eggs, USDA Grade A Large.
Imagine eggs pushed through a body this size almost daily. Could she be other than close to laying herself to death when she was ushered out the door? And there the very same circumstances that my chickens prosper under--grass, scratch and the freedom to wander and choose a diet--proved toxic to her.
Buy your meat and vegetables from a local farmer if you can’t do for yourself. Stop where you see chickens running loose and inquire after them. Find eggs whose yolk remnants require you to scrape them off your plate with a putty knife and 00 steel wool. Refuse to eat Industrial Poison no matter how cheap they make it. Food, real food, was never meant to be cheap. Nor make you fat. Nor kill you early.
It’s not chupacabras, Bigfoots, Shadow People, alien abductors, werewolves, or vampires that should give us the heebie jeebies. Phantasy horrors only divert us from the assorted grotesques, deviants and aberrations we’ve created in our midst that go cloaked in human, plant and animal form.
January 2, 2010
The vacuum coffee maker that came up from the basement with me last week, where it’s collected dust for some 40 years, has changed the way I talk to coffee. It must be 70 years old, and was likely used in the restaurant my parents owned and ran. It required a cloth filter wrapped around a coiled spring that is lost to it. I thought the unit was incomplete and non-functioning without it, and that’s why I never resurrected it before now. It stirred old memories while I carried it up to the kitchen.
Coffee is large in my life, and has been almost since I can remember. Thoreau wished for nothing more intoxicating in the morning than a glass of water. I’ve come to prefer mine brown, of a certain temperature, and of a pleasant flavor and aroma, at any time of the day—even moments before plopping my head down for a deep night’s sleep.
I grew up in a small town twelve miles from the Greek immigrant community in Wheeling, West Viriginia. Greek social and spiritual life centered upon the Greek Orthodox Church located there. When I was a small boy, a particular spinster parishioner sat in the front pew of the church, always. She was buxom, tall, wore bright prints and had long, thick, black-rooted hair which she dyed a reddish orange color. She moved with calm authority, and her features—an angular chin, a sharp nose and proud cheekbones—seemed to cut and clear her path.
She laid enough powder on her face and rouge on her cheeks that I almost couldn’t avoid staring at her. She inhabited the edges of assembled Greek women, many of whom, including my mother, wore the widow's traditional black mourning weeds. And she looked past them as to some distant distraction, even when she offered something to their conversation.
But once, in my aunt Voula’s parlor, the women gathered around the spinster as she finished her demitasse of Greek coffee and turned it upside down on its saucer. They crowded in close, waiting, until she returned it, peered into it at the slurry of grounds running down its sides, and spoke of things that made them nod, or smile, or clutch tightly at their black scarves.
After the women rose from the silver tray with the empty painted cups, I examined the magical cup, trying to divine what she saw that my eyes couldn't see. I only saw questions, and they flooded me.
My mother loved coffee, and I can still picture her sitting with a cup at our breakfast nook table, surveying her garden through the window. She brewed it in a saucepan, Greek briki style, and strained it into her cup through a sieve.
As a boy, I had kouloura toast and coffee for breakfast almost every morning of the school year. I insisted on it despite the rumors that caffeine stunted growth, and against my mother’s wishes to feed me substance. I did it because coffee was a grown-up’s drink, and with my father gone, coffee conferred stature. But I also did it because I loved the aroma, the taste, and the mystery of coffee.
Our coffee came in vacuum-sealed quart jars. My mother brought it home from our family restaurant, which my father named The Hudson Restaurant in tribute to the river that welcomed him to America’s shores. It came in a twelve-count cardboard box, and it featured a mountain on the label, with the word PARAMOUNT arced across its snowy peak. Occasionally, for old time’s sake, when I want only one cup of coffee late in the evening, I forego the marimba or the enameled briki, and brew coffee in a saucepan, straining it through an old, battered sieve not too different from hers.
My lifelong affair with coffee has led me to brew it every available way, and to even pioneer a few techniques of my own, which included custom-made infusion chambers of hand-thrown pottery. I’ve never roasted beans, never sought out exotic or expensive blends, but I love the aura of coffee, from sampling roasts and grinds to exploring brewing methods. I even judge a restaurant experience by the quality of the after-dinner cup they serve, finding it an accurate indicator of the preceding meal. Yes, I love the spectrum of coffee, from cowboy to latte, and I can down a perfunctory cup as indiscriminately as I can savor a chocolate cappuccino.
When I went to the basement after the vacuum pot, I went determined to rig some approximation of the cloth filter as I remembered it in order to put the unit back in service. I don't know where the glass filter rod came from that I found stored with it, but I’m glad it was there. When I saw the rod, I understood its purpose immediately, and could barely contain my excitement.
Pressure from expanding air in the heated glass bowl forces hot water up the stainless stem into the upper chamber where it steeps the coffee grounds at 190-195º F. When the bottom chamber cools, the resulting vacuum sucks the brew back past the filter rod. Paper filters remove the flavorful oils that give coffee dimension, but the rod permits passage of the full coffee infusion while effectively detaining the grounds. Moreover, the vacuum water temperature never gets hot enough to release bitter oils from the grounds. The consequence is the most robust, complex, aromatic, and flavorful coffee I've ever sipped.
As much as the coffee it brews, I love the old technology evident in this pot. Like the cast aluminum pressure canners and the cast iron nut crackers of the same era, you can understand the mind that conceived it and admire the hand that built it. From the pliable rubber gasket to the seamless weld on the stainless steel stem, the resolve to endure and excel shines through. And what of these modern coffee appliances, built upon the premise of convenience and short-term profit, pieced out and snapped together by digital code, detouring briefly through our kitchens on their way to the scrap heap? Are you drinking that?
December 29, 2009
I happened to have camera in hand, so I was quick to record a rare occurrence. During today’s squirrel hunt, Jay Overholt stopped walking for a moment. Not only that, but his son Nate, who strides as purposefully through the woods, stopped alongside him. I caught them both. It was almost like a lens shot of two ivory-billed woodpeckers.
I’m no slouch for an old man keeping up a pace, but when I start loading down my game bag with squirrels and coon, and then set off across snow-covered, chisel-plowed cornfields on a day fit best for pulling fence posts, it gets rough keeping up with a robust twenty-something encumbered only by a hoody, and a father who hasn’t lost a step.
But what’s to do when Digger retrieves the squirrels to me, even the squirrels that Jay’s dog trees, and I’m too proud to pitch them toward Jay, who’s casting dogs ahead as soon as the meat hits the ground? And what's to do when Digger trees a daytime coon, Nate shoots it out, crawls into the briar patch where it fell to retrieve it, and then has to wrestle for the coon because Digger doesn’t want to give it up but can’t carry it out? That was a courtesy, and thoughtful as well to help me stuff the coon into my pouch, past the rifle slung across my shoulders and the squirrels already stretching the pouch taut, before hurrying off after his father and the cornfield in our destiny.
On the drive home, I amused myself thinking Jay would be skinning critters long after I was kenneled, debooted and caffeinated. I also fantasized training Tricks to carry dead game to companions.
December 28, 2009
Last night I ate lentils so delicious that sometime around the noon lunch hour today, as the remaining spoonsful disappear, salt tears will season the soup bowl.
When I wrote about Ostrander Lights here several months ago, folks sent envelopes containing money to bargain for insights into the recipe, money that went a long way toward resolving the ambivalence I felt divulging their secrets. I’ve anticipated similar interest in my lentil soup recipe, so I’ve supplied an ingredients list and detailed the cooking process, but with some stipulations.
If the gesture overwhelms you with gratitude and you must send money again, please send it to someone else somewhere else. I made quite enough changing the way America considers pancakes.
Also, since every man should require of himself a sober appraisal of choices before starting down paths that will shape his life (insofar as that’s possible), I’m asking you to reflect upon these words scratched into a weathered board pinned with a bent nail to a beech tree at the end of our driveway:
The lands of TORGES.
Harkee, stranger, you tread upon dark and dangerous ground.
Return to your home.
Seek no further.
Two cups lentils
6 cups chicken broth
2 cups consommé
1 TB EVOO
1 med onion
½ bell pepper
3 cloves garlic
6 rashers hickory-smoked bacon or bacon ends
Lay a film of olive oil in a saucepan, add the bacon and begin sautéing. Add the carrots, onion, and bell pepper as you chop them. Add salt and a pinch of cayenne. Lid and sweat the mixture.
Rinse the lentils and sort for stones or off-colored seeds.
When the vegetables look good, add the broth, the consommé and the lentils. Simmer. Before the lentils become tender, add the garlic.
Adjust seasoning. Grate some Parmigiano Reggiano over individual servings. Buckle up.
December 21-22, 2009
The Squirrel Rut
A blanket of snow came three days ago. Squirrels feel exposed during the first snow or two. Yesterday Joe Wedding and I walked to 20 some den trees for three squirrels. They weren't comfortable treeing on the outside. Tracks revealed that most of them moved early or late.
An hour into yesterday’s hunt, Digger burned a ‘yote out of the squirrel woods and took it a mile across country. He never said a word, and he wasn’t gone an abnormal length of time before checking back in. I would have never suspected off game except that the Garmin gps on his dog collar transmitted the race to my hand-held receiver, and the snow recorded the event.
I knew he was either after a coyote or a deer. Fox don’t run straight-away across open fields like that. I doubted it was a deer because I’ve seen him ignore them when they’ve jumped up from their beds while he coursed through the woods. But you never say never with a hunting dog.
My moment of fright came as I monitored him back-tracking himself. He’d crossed a fairly busy highway in a hurry on the way out, and I hoped for the best as I watched his icon approach it on the return trip. It stopped moving at the highway. I watched and waited for movement. Fifteen, twenty seconds, maybe more. Nothing. I called out to Joe, “Digger got flattened on 41. I’m driving around to pick him up.” I thought he’d been hit for certain.
But the next time I looked down at the receiver, he was only 400 yds out and closing the gap fast. With great relief I loaded him into the truck and drove to a new woods.
On the way, we traveled Hwy 41 to the location where the gps tracking system indicated he’d crossed the road. Sure enough, ‘yote tracks belonging to a large male laced in with his where they raced across a stubble bean field. And in the berm, Joe found scratched up grass and urination, explaining why Digger tarried on the way back—he wanted to leave dominant sign behind warning the ‘yote to stay clear of his squirrel woods. It made me laugh the way a father laughs when his boy does something foolish, but does it well—I didn’t let him see me.
We hunted Digger and his son Copper, Joe’s 11 month old dog, yesterday and today. Tricks is far enough into a heat cycle that I had to leave her kenneled.
Today was a productive day. The squirrels made their peace with the snow, gave in to the urgency of the first stages of the rut, and moved all day long. Hunting from 9:30 to 2, Joe and I got our limit. We only shot one squirrel from each tree, and we left another dozen up for the next time.
Copper shows improvement every time out. He’s a young dog with a great foundation and all the tools—sense, nose, tracking ability, desire to please and a strong treeing instinct. Today was a good day for him to build on experience.
Digger was on fire. Tracks and evidence showed he was retrieving a squirrel he caught on the ground when he dropped it to tree two more in a nearby tree. After I shot one of them out, he retrieved it, went over to the squirrel he caught, and retrieved it, too. It was that kind of day.
Hunting With George
My nephew, George Cozzarin, spent his boyhood summers in Ostrander, hunting, fishing, milking goats, hanging with his Uncle Dean, and making memories. A glorious time for him and me, too, and we relive them when he comes for a hunting visit, as he did last week.
We hunted with Joe Wedding the first day and checked out the turnip patch next to his house during an afternoon break. The turnips looked good and felt firm to the touch, raising hopes that we could still gather more for the root cellar, but several sub-freezing nights, one of them measuring 18º F., left them fibrous and tasteless.
The dogs put on a show. After a summer lay-up and a slow start this season, Tricks has been making rapid improvement. She hunts out on a steady trot, and as far as she needs to if the squirrels aren’t moving. She’s always been independent, intent on doing her own work and finding her own squirrels rather than following the lead of an older dog, and experience has strengthened her self-confidence.
Near the end of the second day, Tricks treed deep into a second woods. We were a long time getting to her, but she held her tree and showed great enthusiasm. Often a pat on the head and a voice expressing encouragement sufficiently reward a dog for a job well done, but at times when a dog improves its performance beyond its history, reinforcement rewards are in order. Such was the occasion.
George had been shooting lights out with the CZ American—single shot head shots at every opportunity. In fact, he’d been shooting so well I left the tricked-out Ruger 10/22 in the truck. Those had been routine squirrels. This was a special squirrel for Tricks.
It was in a small tree and it was nervous, so I yelled to George, “Make sure the first shot counts. I don’t want this squirrel timbering and getting away.” Fox squirrels that timber (flee through the tree tops) almost never stop until they reach the sanctuary of a den tree, and this one was a candidate for such flight.
Five shots later, the squirrel, untouched, had sought the upper reaches of an adjoining tree rather than bail. I tried my hand with the rifle and missed two shots as well before I opted for a body slammer and he toppled out. All’s well that ends well, and Tricks got the bonus of watching the squirrel move about in the tree, further stimulating her treeing instinct.
Trick’s treeing style is completely different from Digger’s. He’ll stand up on the tree, chew bark, tug at nearby saplings, and sometimes yo-yo up and down the trunk, barking and carrying on. Tricks chops steadily until you come into the tree, and then she shuts up and stares, looking for any sign of the squirrel. Frankly, I like her style just fine. It suits the modern woods where houses are never far from a woodlot, too many of them occupied by refugees from the big city who resent hunters, want to command all they survey, and think dogs howling, especially at night, were loosed upon them by the Baskervilles.
I haven’t done much coon hunting this winter because the price of furs has plummeted, and only extra-large, prime pelts have any value, but George and I managed a hunt after dark for old time’s sake. It was Trick’s first coon hunt. She acquitted herself well. We shot a few, left a few for another time, and quit at 3 in the morning so we could squirrel hunt after daybreak with Joe.
We ate some memorable meals during George’s stay, one of them a linguine carbonara featuring yardbird eggs and home-smoked bacon. It was a great time. George went home with a pile of squirrel parts, and I slept 14 of the next 24 hours. As I’ve explained to Mary many times, hunting’s hard on a man.
Yogurt in a Thermos
John Millard wrote to suggest using a Thermos bottle to incubate yogurt culture. He preheats his for the job with a rinse of warm water. It seemed smart, so I ran a batch through a large 1.8 L (1/2 gal) Nissan, and made good yogurt.
On the downside, retrieving the contents means shaking them loose through a small portal and destroying the texture, almost obligating you to make strained Greek-style yogurt with the results. However, the simplicity and the economy of what seems to be a fail-safe method makes strained yogurt very attractive.
November 14, 2009
You can take the results further and make Greek style yogurt by straining the curd through cloth to remove the whey.
I grew up with yogurt. My mother made it regularly. Each time she mixed a batch she’d warn my brother John and me that all running and carousing was over for the night while the yogurt incubated.
Her process was simple. First she’d scald the milk. No thermometer. Just watch the pot. Then she’d cool it to the correct temperature, determined by placing the little finger of her left hand in the milk and counting to twelve. She’d explain that if she couldn’t stand to leave her finger in longer than that, the temperature was right. She insisted on her left pinky because it was more sensitive than her right. When the temp felt right, she stirred in a spoonful of starter yogurt from her old batch, placed the brew on the porcelain burner cover of her gas Tappan range to keep it warm, and draped a dishcloth over it to tent the warmth.
The pilot light to the burners kept the brew at just the right temperature. By morning she had yogurt. Sometimes she strained it and sometimes she didn’t.
I don’t care what Dannon says in its advertisements, theirs ain’t 100% yogurt. It’s got gelatin or something similar in it, and it has a grainy, coarse feel in the mouth. The tartness is wrong, too. Small wonder Dannon adds sweetened fruits. But no need for me to explain. You’ll find out for yourself when you taste your first homemade yogurt. No need for me to disparage Dannon, or Yoplait or any of the commercial brands, either. You’ll do that yourself soon enough.
Step 1. Heat milk to 180º F. You can do this any one of several ways. In a heatproof glass Corning or Pyrex bowl in the microwave, with a temp probe in it. On a stovetop kettle with a thermometer in it. In the oven with a temp probe in it.
Step 2. Uncover and cool to 110º.
Step 3. Scoop a tablespoon of yogurt starter from a previous batch, or from a small container of Stoneybrook or Dannon, plain, and mix it with some of the heated 110º milk in a clean cup. Don't use more than a TB of starter or it could sour the final result. After you’ve dissolved the starter, stir it thoroughly into the warm milk.
Step 4. Find a place where you can keep the milk warm through the night. Our oven has a proofing function. I can set the temp for 110º, put the cultured yogurt into the oven, and forget it. Before that, I would heat our old oven to 175º (that's as low as it would go), turn it off when the yogurt was mixed into the milk, lid the container, put it into the oven, and then drape about three thick bath towels over it to help it retain its heat. Then I'd close the oven door and wait 'til morning. Residual oven heat kept it warm, but before going to bed, I’d turn the oven back on for a few minutes, just long enough to replenish the oven’s heat, but not long enough to kill the starter.
You can find what works for you. You might try replacing the ovenproof lightbulb with a 75 or 100 watt bulb and leaving it on for the duration. Something, anything, to keep the culture bathed in modest heat. Near a wood-burning stove, perhaps.
Remember, yogurt forming cannot stand jostling or other kind of movement. Don't run through the house and don't bang around on the stove top if you are incubating in the oven.
Come morning or the passage of 12 hours, you will uncover the bowl to arrive at a delightful, sweet aroma. Move the bowl to the fridge. You can begin eating it immediately if you wish. The whey will leach out while the yogurt chills, so you can spoon it off as you spoon out helpings. Or you can make Greek yogurt out of the whole batch.
To make Greek yogurt, chill the yogurt for 8 hours. With a smooth dish towel or a piece of light-weight cotton cloth, line the inside of a colander, place the colander in the sink and spoon in all the curd and whey. Set the colander back in the kettle and refrigerate for 8 hrs. Pour off the whey as it seeps through the colander and scrape the curd down the side of the cloth as it reduces in size.
You will end up in 12 to 24 hrs with yogurt the consistency of very thick sour cream, the longer the thicker. Delicious. Better than anything you can purchase, and cheaper, too.
Before government regulations ran the small dairy farmer out of business, we made our yogurt from the raw milk dipped from our neighbor Bobby Crago’s bulk tank, and before that from our own goats. The flavor of Bobby’s milk, forgotten, was reawakened during our trip to Bavaria 6 years ago when we had milk and cheeses made from cows that lived not too differently from Bobby’s. The falling off happened unnoticed. If you are lucky enough to have access to raw milk, don’t fail to use it.
Since the Bavarian reawakening, we’ve been buying only organic milk, for taste as much as health, but you can make yogurt with any milk, at any butterfat content. We use 1% for yogurt. Homemade yogurt is thick and creamy and works just as well with skim milk. I even remember making yogurt with Carnation powdered milk back in college. Maybe I used it only as a thickener, hoping it would sop up and utilize the whey. That’s likely, but I'm foggy. I can’t remember more than that powdered milk went into my yogurt several times and it was very cheap.
Sometimes we’ll stir in a little honey after the yogurt has been in the fridge for a while and begins turning tart. My first encounter with flavored yogurt happened in 1955. I was a high school freshman on summer vacation visiting my older brother Nick in Jamaica, New York, and saw it for sale in a deli. I shook my head and thought to myself that they’d spoiled a good thing, that it would never sell.
You will like this yogurt. If you want to fold flavorings in after it's done, that's the time to do it. Jams, jellies, or honey. Or maybe after your first taste of homemade you’ll shake your head, wondering why anyone would do such a thing.
October 29, 2009
A cold snap, heavy rains and strong winds have brought the nut crop and the leaves down in a hurry. It’s squirrel and deer season now. Spent Wednesday evening in a tree stand and watched a young buck running a doe. The whitetail rut is ready to burst forth, and the best squirrel hunting lies straight ahead.
Squirrel hunted with Joe Wedding most of the day today. We took Digger and two of his pups, Tricks and Copper. Copper is Joe’s young dog. He’s just now putting things together in the squirrel woods, hunting out and treeing on his own. He’s a beautiful copper brindle, and put up as nicely as you’d want a cur—strong and athletic with a deep chest, good running legs, bright, intelligent eyes, and a head broad enough to contain good sense.
The squirrel woods were good to us, but the highlight of the day took place in the turnip patch. We grabbed several hands full to take hunting with us, and after the hunt, I hauled out a burlap feed sack to take home.
Joe and his brother have three plantings of turnips totaling maybe 8 acres. That’s a lot of turnips, and his neighbors and friends are happy for it. This year’s crop is mild, meaty, sweet and delicious. I’ve been snacking on them raw in the evenings, pan frying a few for lunch, and cooking them in stews. In fact, I’ve taken Joe’s lead and consider them a healthful, starch-free substitute for potatoes.
October 17, 2009
Dendrologists distinguish among some 20 species of hickory trees in the genus Carya, or so I once read. Maybe, maybe not. Torges taxonomy can identify four (shagbark, mockernut, pignut, shellbark) and assumes, probably incorrectly, that a fifth, bitternut, is the same as pignut. But I’m like a squirrel in that my real interest lies in the differences within the species rather than in the different species.
Have you noticed that squirrels often target one shagbark within a woodlot containing 20 Carya Ovata, pound it more than all the others, scatter chewed nut shells under it, and carry nuts from it until there’s hardly a morsel left? If a squirrel can make such fine distinctions based upon the nut alone, then squirrel taxonomy must begin where scientific taxonomy ends.
I’ve worked hickory extensively during my 30 years as a self-employed cabinetmaker, designing and building a great variety of chairs and dining room tables from the wood. It’s a plentiful and undervalued hardwood. Strong, stable and versatile, I used it to explore and refine chair design, to see how much I could build with how little. Following grain direction, and employing locked joints and flowing, steamed bends, I pared full-sized chairs to their elements. They came in weighing 8 pounds and should see my great grandchildren grow old using them.
I also built tool handles of hickory and wooden bows of hickory. I’ve backed osage bows with hickory, and dowelled arrows from hickory, both pignut and shagbark, and when I was shooting bows drawing in excess of 80 lbs, I preferred hickory arrows above all others for hunting. I use hickory for smoking meat, and have large quantities of hickory split and dried in the woodshed for winter burning. And when the kids were living at home, they even gathered hickory pignuts to help feed out the occasional hog that we slopped. Hickory and I are longtime, familiar friends, but like my totem animal the squirrel, hickory delights me most for its edible nut.
Tom Smith, one of my squirrel hunting buddies, brings a handful of acorns out of the woods when we go hunting and plants them when he gets home. A cancer survivor, he does it to memorialize the hunt. I usually bring out hickory nut samples from at least one tree and crack them when I get home. I do it because there isn’t a finer nutmeat on God’s Green Earth, and I’m looking for the perfect hickory nut.
It’s been a longtime diversion of mine finding one that has a pecan’s thin shell, a large nutmeat, and that still tastes exactly like a hickory nut. Horticulturalists took a different path to the same goal, hybridizing pecan and hickory to give us the hican. I considered planting some here until I sampled the results. They are not Nature’s offerings, like black walnut or paw-paw cultivars, results of her own experiments that remain true to the species. They result from human shortcuts, and, as such, prove an unsatisfactory compromise. Horticulturalists can continue toiling in the direction of this curiosity, but they can’t get where we both want to go. I’ll continue looking for the hickory nut worthy of becoming a cultivar.
Which brings me to yesterday’s find. Based upon the six-nut sample I brought home from a squirrel hunt with Joe Wedding, I went back to the squirrel woods and gathered up four gallons under one tree, doing a hands and knees search from the base of the tree in a widening spiral, as greedy as a sourdough miner picking nuggets off a sand bar.
I may not be there yet, but I haven’t been this excited over a hickory nut since I found mockernuts many years ago in the woods immediately north of our home. Mistaking them for giant shagbark hickories, twice the size of any I’d ever seen, the excitement died as soon as I set one to a hammer. Its shell was thicker than a walnut’s, and its meat the size of a shagbark half its size. Perfect name, that—mockernut.
Lacking the gastronomical sophistication of a squirrel, I take my cues from him. One shagbark hickory nut tastes like another to me, so I’m looking for size when I pick up a few nuts, and consider it a squirrel’s endorsement when I find cuttings under the same tree. The shagbark bordering Leroy Moore’s woodlot satisfied these two conditions, and as a bonus, the tree grew in an area that Leroy mowed, so I didn’t have to fight weeds and leaves to find nuts.
While I was crawling and picking, halfway through filling the second basket, a nearby squirrel barked briefly. He didn’t scold. He acknowledged.
Time will tell more. The nuts need a month or longer to dry and reach full flavor. I have them hung to air in the shop, in a large mesh sack beside another such sack gathered from favorite trees on our own property. Later this winter, with a CE Potter cradled in my lap, a nutpick in one hand, a bowl of hickory nuts to the side, a fire in the woodstove and a good football game on TV, I’ll find out just how close I’ve come.
October 13, 2009
A month ago I watched the first yellow walnut leaves flutter to the ground. They signaled the start of the fall rush. Animal and fish activity has increased so much since then that I barely have time to reflect on events, let alone log them to the website, and the pace only gets more frenetic for the next month.
Except for a bothersome, leaking skylight, all of my urgent duties and chores are out of the way. So, some days I fish, some days I hunt. The days I can’t do either are likely spent preparing tackle and gear—fletching arrows, tying night-crawler harnesses, pouring lead-headed jigs, re-sighting squirrel rifle scopes, and so forth.
I put off roof repair all summer, but now with the rainy season, the skylight leak needs to be fixed. Since rain seems probable for the next three days, and since a roof can’t be opened under such conditions, I’ll likely be forced to fish, or hunt, or "and so forth."
Today I fished Indian Lake for saugeye (a sauger/walleye hybrid) from daybreak until early afternoon with John Stalling. After cleaning fish and a short nap, I squirrel hunted the balance of the day. Found a promising acorn set-up for deer while knocking a few squirrels out to Tricks and Digger. It was a full day.
Saugeye are delicious. Mild, sweet, flaky meat, more resembling yellow perch than walleye. Good pan-fried or deep-fried, they are also excellent gilled, gutted, blotted dry, sprayed with Pam or rubbed with olive oil, and then roasted under the oven’s broiler element or over charcoal on the Weber until the skin browns uniformly and the dorsal fin pulls easily.
The skin peels off and the top filet comes loose by working a fork or butter knife along the skeleton. All bones remain with the skeleton, which in turn lifts free of the bottom filet.
I monitored the fish while Mary steamed Swiss chard and pan-fried sliced zucchini that she’d picked from the garden that afternoon.
October 8, 2009
Horse radish is more easily made with a food processor or a blender than it is with an old-fashioned washboard style grater. Wendell Calhoun gave us a start for our garden patch long before we had electrified means for processing the root, and that’s why we didn’t make it too often then.
Horseradish isn’t as popular as it once was, perhaps because Mexican peppers of one sort and another have found their way into American kitchens. I like the peppers, (we planted several dozen jalapeno plants this spring), but what’s life like without horseradish sauce for roasted meat, or cocktail sauce for shrimp and fish, especially sauces made to your own tastes with fresh horseradish?
Horseradish root, unwashed, keeps for a long time in the refrigerator in a vacuum bag, but it deteriorates quickly once you pulverize or grate it, lasting only a month or two lidded and refrigerated. So I dig some when the ground is soft enough in the fall, vacuum-package enough roots to last the winter in small packets, and then process it when the need arises.
We’ve been eating a lot of fish recently, and I ran out of dug root before the rains had softened the ground enough for deep spade work. I thought a bulb planter might circle the root and extract it. However, the root does not grow like a carrot, vertically. It takes off in unpredictable directions. The bulb planter buried deep and sheared off too much of the lower root. That’s not a long-term problem since the plant regenerates from its tuberous root. Nevertheless, the bulb planter proved a good idea with less than desirable results. It’s better to wait for soft ground, dig deep, and then toss the smaller roots and the trimmed tops back into the ground.
Here’s what’s important to know about processing horseradish:
- Pulverizing or shredding it sets off the enzyme action that gives the root its unique flavor and heat.
- After you’ve washed and peeled the root (or scrubbed it white with a stiff vegetable brush), shred it in sufficient water for the job in either a food processor or blender. It’s important to use water rather than vinegar as a vehicle.
- After you’ve shredded it, lift the lid away from you and stand back. The release of fumes will knock you over if your eyes and nose are investigating the results. But rather than believe me, try it.
- Let the pulverized root sit for a few minutes to breathe and develop. Drain the water if it is excessive, then add vinegar to cover by several inches, stir, and leave sit to saturate the root. This will stabilize the horseradish, keeping it from deteriorating rapidly. If you process the root with any combination of vinegar and water, it will not achieve full flavor and aroma.
- Drain and keep the horseradish in a lidded glass jar, refrigerated, until it’s time to make sauce. It’s good as long as it stays white.
Horse radish, much like asparagus, keeps on giving. Our patch is at least 30 years growing. A patch requires no care and minimal nourishment.
August 24, 2009
Hail to the Chief
During the week that was, the week of hyperactivity, two days after the Torges Family Reunion, Chief came down from Michigan to work on selfbows. He brings curiosity, intensity, desire, humor and a sense of wonder to everything we do, whether we're coon hunting, chasing pigs, gigging frogs, hunting deer, shooting bows, driving to a hunt, working in the kitchen, shaving bowwood, or simply hanging out. A humble man of accomplishment is a rare man indeed.
Tuesday evening, Chief fixed a prize-winning salmon entrée that was so fine, it left Mary stultified, suffering acute Stendhal Syndrome. To cap the meal, I went for the espresso coffee maker, but wedged it between shelves trying to remove it from the cabinet. When I called to Mary for help, she remained seated, gazing in my direction with a flushed, beatific smile. Her resemblance to the Mona Lisa at that moment astonished me. Having once read of the Stendhal symptoms as reactions to works of great art and beauty, I recognized them in her condition and worked to extricate the machine myself. My quick appraisal and reaction would have allowed her to go unnoticed, to recover without embarrassment, had I not called attention to her condition.
The name of the dish is Salmon Prudhoe Bay, conceived by Mr. Tim Ryan, current President of The Culinary Institute of America, Hyde Park and Napa Valley schools, but at the time of its creation Chief's colleague as a member of the USA's five-man culinary competition team. Created and refined while the team was flexing muscle, warming up to the Culinary Olympics (the common name for the Olympiade der Köche, a quadrennial culinary competition held in Germany), it won first place in a Luxemburg contest as a prelude to the German contest. They came to the Culinary Olympics, the most prestigious of all culinary competitions, kicked butt, earned international respect, and defended their title four years later with another victory.
The team served its first iteration at the Waldorf in NY, where Chief made for it a caviar sauce with beluga and salmon roe, similar to the beurre blanc sauce he served with it here where, described briefly, it consisted of marinated salmon encased in a shrimp forcemeat and wrapped in buttered filo leaves, dusted with panko, convection baked, and served with a classic butter sauce.
My nephew Dr. John Pappas just days before brought to our reunion a bottle of natural white, sulfite free, organic California wine. What luck. It proved the salmon's perfect companion. That and a cup of espresso to finish off the evening.
I'm no gastronome. I pursue simple pleasures and am a little put off by pretentious talk about wine and food, but let me tell you as plainly as I can that the first few bites of that salmon filled up my palate, surprising me with an awareness of places within it I didn't know existed. How else to describe the richness of the experience, and of the wine beside it, which spread Salmon Prudhoe Bay throughout the universe, like a glowing sunburst? It was almost ethereal, an awareness of myself experiencing myself, a delight of the senses that for a moment transcended the senses.
I've never been able to shake my first impression of the Mona Lisa—a positive life force acquainted with the dinner table. Linking her expression to another beautiful woman's leads me to wonder if I haven't stumbled onto a corroborative insight into her famous smile.
August 22, 2009
Kitchen cooks don't confuse braising with broiling, frying with poaching, or baking with roasting. Each term carries precise meaning. But outdoor cooks are quite casual with labels for their methods, speaking of bbqing when they mean grilling, or of smoking when they are bbqing. Slurring labels likely results from the natural tendency to imbibe during the outdoor cooking experience, but that still doesn't make it right.
Smoking almost always involves cured meat because it happens in oxygen-deprived temperature ranges conducive to the growth of bacteria. Common ranges are from 110° to 165° F., the high end marking the temperature at which fat begins to melt. Internal temps reach a minimum of 142° F., except for bacon, which finishes out around 128° internal and requires additional cooking. Sausages, poultry and most hams are done within this range, and the meat takes on its distinctive pink color from the food-blend sodium nitrite used to protect it. Cold Smoking is an older and slower method, occurring in temps up to 110°. Fish, cheeses, jerky and some specialty hams happen in this range. True Barbecue occurs around 250°, give or take. Ribs, briskets and butts—those cuts full of collagen and connective tissue—are best done at these temps. Some barbecue can climb past 300°, but when you are approaching and surpassing 350°, you are Grilling. Tender or tenderized meat, such as raw sausages, burgers, chickens and steaks, require hot temperatures.
I like smoked chicken. Or grilled or rotisseried. Barbecued chicken skin resembles vulcanized rubber, and bbq does not improve the flesh. To my mind, only the convenience of cooking in quantity recommends it. Chicken needs cooked hot, or low and slow, not in between. There's no better time to slow cook (i.e., smoke) chickens than when they're fresh. Fresh ones accept a cure and smokewood flavor better than frozen ones, and since the slow smoking process by its nature tends to dry out meat, smoking fresh chickens yields a moister product.
I may be out on a hickory limb here, but I've come to conclude that quality smoking comes not from the smoke itself, but from the flavor the wood imparts as it burns without flame, and then only when the "condition" of the meat is right. The term "smoked meat" is therefore misleading. Contrary to common perception, even among those who smoke their own meat, the best results do not emerge from meats immersed in smoke.
Put another way, the smoke itself is not what's desirable about smoking meat, and volumes of smoke poured through the smokehouse can overpower the product and even turn it bitter. Smoke is a residue of smoldering wood, of wood deprived of sufficient oxygen to flame. Since it is the visible component in chacuterie, it gets the credit.
All hardwood smoke is pretty much the same in smell, and all condensed smoke tastes equally bitter. So what's to recommend smoke? Very little. What magical transformation does it undergo that makes it desirable? None. Seriously now, is there a nose so discriminating that it can smell two campfire T-shirts and determine the one worn while tending an applewood fire? What palate can mouth a flake of creosote, or taste a piece of meat that had smokehouse condensation (creosote) drip on it and not shudder?
Smoke is an unavoidable residue of smoldering wood, and it disappears altogether once the smokewood has turned to cooking embers. A light smoking on meat pleases the nose, but it is the embers or coals in their smokeless state that provide smoked meat complexity and depth, printing its taste with the identity of the smokewood of choice. The embers are the invisible workhorse cooks that bring smoked meat to its highest accomplishment, quiet in the kitchen through the night, toiling on tirelessly for the duration, through the smoke and long after it is gone for however long it takes. Though the amount of smoke aroma is a matter of preference, you can get too much smoke, so that it becomes overpowering to any palate. You can't get too much wood flavor.
Herein lie the differences between home-smoked meats and commercial stuff, which merely resemble honest smoking. Commercial smokehouses don't have the time to form a pellicle right, so they inject steam into the smokehouse to prevent the meat shriveling, shrinking and drying. They can't mess around with embers, so to approximate the taste, they meter liquid smoke into the brine, which is often pressured or injected into the meat to save time and assure uniformity. The only process resembling honest work is the least important one of the equation, the matter of smoke itself. Commercial operations introduce smoke via smoldering sawdust, either in commercially available biscuits fed by machine, or with the loose stuff itself. Even here, at the bottom of the effort to produce smoked meat, shortcuts. It's all done with smoke and mirror appearances.
I've corresponded with smokehouse guys and read chacuterie literature enough to know that the ideas I've set forth here differ from orthodox teaching. They represent the opinions in progress of this solitary hunter, derived from trusting my own experiences, from following learned lessons, and they fairly represent what I currently think and do. As such, they are subject to change after reflection upon the methods and the results of the next smoke.
But this I can say with certainty. Build you a smokehouse, son. Learn to tend it. Nourish your family with the smoked chicken and the bacon it produces. Go catch fish for it. You can't buy your way into this world and this life.
August 20, 2009
Since we butcher once a year, we don't take fresh chicken for granted. Frozen chicken loses natural juices during thawing. That alone warrants giving a fresh one our best attention. Also, freezing breaks down muscle cells, preventing a thawed chicken from absorbing a brine as well as a fresh one. I soak ours overnight in a sugar/salt solution infused with a few aromatics. Indeed, a fresh bird, brined, from an honest background, with its natural juices intact, justifies doing things the hard way when it’s the right way.
In the week following butchering, we cooked two for home use, smoked six, and turned five on rotisserie spits for our annual Torges family reunion, which this year followed the butchering date by two days. We gave several dozen to lucky friends and relatives and froze the balance.
It's been a busy week, what with the reunion, butchering and the garden coming flush. In the span of seven days, Mary and I processed 24 pints of chicken gizzards and hearts, 54 pints of pole beans, 50 qts of tomatoes, and four qts of cased fresh bratwurst left over from the reunion. Along with the brats, I canned a qt of venison stew chunks and a qt of chicken livers, thawed from '08 packages and intended for use as catfish bait, but more than I needed for the moment.
The week also included the birth of a new grandson several nights ago, so let me pause long enough to welcome newborn baby Henry to what I hope proves a glorious, long and healthful life, governed by curiosity, fueled by passion, and directed by generosity. Henry, I saw your grandmother onto a plane for Fargo this morning with a dozen 3-ply cloth diapers in her carry-on, bound to welcome you in person. Time passes swiftly, and soon you'll be spending part of your summers here, hunting, fishing and shooting a bow. I look forward to your education. Until then, step with confidence, love the sunshine, and delight in every surprise. Now please pardon your Papou as he turns his attention once more to chickens.
A whole chicken, and especially a rotisserie chicken, requires trussing to keep its body parts in close so it cooks as a unit. Chief (Chef Dan Hugelier) once showed me a quick and effective trussing method. I took sequence photos of the process, but a computer meltdown and corresponding memory loss forced me to find my own way. Before Chief, I tied chickens to the spit with a zeal that sometimes required multiple swipes of Alexander's own sword to remove one to the dinner table. My current method, developed after a morning spent wrestling with a length of cotton string and a well-massaged chicken, tucks thighs, legs, wings and neck tight to the body. I can do it quickly, the bird stays on the spit without wobbling, and it thereby cooks uniformly.
August 14, 2009
Life and Death Among the Chickens
Our first box of chicks arrived USPS from Sears and Roebuck forty years ago. Since then, we've raised ducks, geese, goats, guineas, banties, beef and milk calves, pigs, and rabbits. Except for an interregnum following the year we raised 350 broilers, chickens have been a barnyard constant here. That summer we butchered them one by one down the family line, Mary and each daughter tending to a task after I bled and scalded them. 350 seemed like a good idea when they were peeps because they were free, the extras from a chick give-away promotion at the Ostrander feed mill. Time passed before anyone mentioned raising chickens again.
We've raised a hundred broilers every year since then. Family and friends cart them off in plastic bags and Mary and I still end up with more than we can eat, but I enjoy having them here. We mix in some dual-purpose chicks as required, which we keep for egg laying. Next year I think we'll fold some White Pekin ducks in with the broiler chicks. Roast duckling is delicious, and I'd like to try smoking a few, too. Then again, we had 30 chickens in the locker from last year, until I played Santa Claus through Ostrander with a feed sack of frozen chickens to make room for the new batch. Maybe it's time to cut back a little.
Chickens (broilers in particular) that range on grass and eat supplemental grain are altogether different from chickens raised in confinement and fed grain exclusively. The bones of commercial chickens are grayish in color, soft in texture, and the meat is flaccid, often characterized by dark blood reservoirs around the thigh and leg joints of the cooked bird, the result of joint disorders peculiar to the modern strain of fast-growing Cornish crosses and a circulatory system powerless to completely drain the slaughtered chicken.
Free-range, grass-fed chickens grow livers and gizzards twice the size of their captive brothers. Their bones cook up yellowish-white and brittle, the cartilage glistens and the flesh combines texture and flavor. The fat is a deep, shiny yellow, prized by cooks and chefs when rendered (my mother-in-law preferred it in cookies), and the heart is three times the size of a captive bird's. These nurtured differences between birds of similar genetic stock take dramatic shape within their seven-week lifespan.
I have various grains mixed at a local feed mill, the last survivor in a locality where there were recently five. The mill follows a custom formula that contains no hormones or antibiotics. I'm forced to buy it in 500 pound mixes, though, because it's come to that now that most small-farm animal feed is trucked to retail stores in labeled sacks where it's sold by merchants.
Nevertheless, I limit-feed the grain, supplying only what's consumed by early afternoon. The chickens are forced to forage thereafter. They feed on grass that has never seen chemical fertilizers, herbicides or insecticides. To encourage them to leave their grain, I place their waterers outside the henhouse.
Dual-purpose chickens need no such encouragements. They like to wander, to scratch, chase bugs and forage after a variety of leaves and grasses. The Cornish cross broilers, on the other hand, often eat sitting down. Only with effort do they go to their water. They require a high-protein diet, too. Left to their own appetites, these genetically developed meat strains can put on weight so fast that their leg joints fail to support them.
A word of acknowledgment. It wouldn't be possible, living in a small clearing in the woods, to raise chickens after this method if we did not have a good dog patrolling the property, keeping predators at bay. We've had a succession of them preceding Digger, including Dixie, and before her Radar and Tripper, going clear back to Inch. Digger is the only one that helped herd stragglers into the henhouse to roost in the evening, and he doubles as a companion and the best coon and squirrel dog I ever had.
July 24, 2009
St. Clairsville, Ohio, 50 Year Class Reunion
My classmates and I celebrated our 50th high school graduation anniversary with a reunion and formal dinner at the St. Clairsville Country Club this summer. We laughed, renewed acquaintances, and reminisced about our time. I gave the following address.
When Alice Sue asked me to speak tonight, I wondered what I could do to amuse and entertain everyone. I didn't go searching for something zany or off the wall, and I didn't way back when, either, even though some of the things I did turned out that way. I just couldn't help myself. Do you remember? "Did you hear what Deno did with his homework in Mr. Hill's class?" "Did you hear what Deno said to Mrs. Harris?" "Did you hear what Mr. Moore did to Deno?" Apparently, he couldn't help himself either.
Nevertheless, while sifting through some ideas the other night, my imagination wandered, and I fantasized waving a magic wand and turning us all back into teenagers. Here I'd be, with thick, black hair and skinny as a rail. And all of you would turn around big-eyed, look at each other and say, "Damn. Look what Deno did this time!"
That'd be a good one, but it ain't gonna happen. I can do something else though, something similar. I can remind us of a regenerative truth, one that's fundamental to our lives, yet often overlooked.
Ours was a special generation, unlike any other in America before or since. Unique. By every standard and in every matter of importance, we grew up innocent.
We were sexual innocents. Most of us graduated high school as virgins. I blame the girls in our class for that. But look, we invented rock and roll so we could talk to each other about sex in code. Some of us got it, and some of us took longer. When Fats Domino found his thrill on Blueberry Hill, I wondered if he kissed her, or if he just held her hand. Our parents got it.
We were political innocents as well. America was the land of the free and the home of the brave. The communists were the bad guys. They lived in poverty and meant to kill us. They were godless. America loved God and God loved America. The two were twined together, so we did what America told us to do, and we punished doubters and Pinkos. If we had a political thought, we borrowed it. It was that simple.
We were social innocents, too. What did we know of racial injustice? Little Rock, Birmingham, Montgomery, Rosa Parks, and Emmitt Till's battered body, displayed in an open-casket funeral, after he'd been bound up with barbed wire, shot in the head and thrown into the Tallahatchie River—that was all very distant from St. Clairsville. Because our own racism was subtle, it didn't exist.
We were intellectually naïve. We accepted the information our teachers gave us. Most of them were dedicated in their duties. I can still diagram a sentence. But learning meant memorizing. We were socialized more than we were educated. Which of them challenged us to think, to question, to doubt, to wonder why, to ask What if? Two of the teachers we remember most fondly, Elizabeth Craft and Tiger Flowers, demanded absolute, unquestioning obedience. And our principal and the boss of everything and everyone, Mr. Moore? His mission in life was to usher us all toward the unexamined life, single file, no talking.
And we were spiritual innocents. When we went to church and prayed, God was in His Heaven, and all was right with St. Clairsville and the world. It was nice of Jesus to die for our sins even if we weren't quite sure what they were. We had dominion over everything, just like God intended. Our streams ran orange with sulphur, and the Ohio River was an open sewer, but the God we prayed to didn't mind. We were making progress.
We trusted our elders, we followed directions and we colored within the lines. There were a few rebels, but we watched them from a distance, and we remained spectators. It was an idyllic time in an idyllic setting here in St. Clairsville. We were a small community like many others across small-town America, and we all knew each other, grew up together, and from this background, from this peace and prosperity, from our shared faith in the American Way as we knew it, we graduated and went our various ways.
And what did we do? What happened? All hell broke loose. The Viet Nam War and a government that lied to us. The assassinations of John Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., and later Bobby Kennedy. Campus riots, Woodstock, marijuana, don't trust anyone over 30. Watts, Kent State and Watergate. Yes, all hell broke loose, and our generation was at the frontline with pickets and protests, boycotts and sit-ins. And lives lost.
I left St. Clairsville and became Dean Torges. Alice Sue stayed near home and became Alice. Some of us changed our names, some of us changed our lives, but all of us changed America and the world.
It's been a helluva ride, from Ozzie and Harriet to Ozzy Osborne, and it all happened during our watch, right in the middle of our power years. Regardless of whether we inhaled or didn't, whether we became conservatives or liberals, whether we starched our shirts or tie-dyed them, this truth remains constant—we changed our world profoundly and forever.
Though I can't restore our youth with a magic wand, tonight old memories will come alive. And tonight those memories will remind us that beneath the name changes, the career decisions, the ambitions, the misadventures and accidents that shaped our lives, beyond the superficial appearances, past the years flashing by and all the changes they brought, that way down deep inside we all just stay the same.
Tonight, I'm Deno again.
God bless us, one and all.
June 15, 2009
Day Old Chicks
102 Rock x Cornish straight run (mixed pullets and cockerels) for meat, 3 New Hampshire, 3 Welsummer, 9 Gold and Silver Laced Wyandotte pullets for eggs, and 2 Welsummer cockerels for their beautiful plumage.
June 7, 2009
I have no secrets. I had one until recently—the recipe for Ostrander Lights. Everything from building furniture to making archery equipment, to smoking meat, everything I have ever struggled to learn on my own that helped me find my way through the world, I have shared with anyone who wanted to know.
It goes beyond that. I'm incapable of keeping secrets. That's why Mary won't tell me anything that requires discretion. Sometimes she'll want to share a private thought. "If I tell you something, would you promise not to say anything to….". She usually doesn't get very far into that proposition before I express annoyance with her for putting me in an impossible situation, or she remembers she's talking to me and we both start laughing.
In the face of this shortcoming, I needed to show the world and myself that I could exercise restraint in the face of temptation. So when I stumbled upon the secret ingredients for Ostrander Lights, the recipe grew to fill that need. Lash me to the mast, I would keep it for myself. That may seem like a token gesture in the direction of self-respect, but let me tell you, everyone who has ever eaten at a Torges breakfast featuring Ostrander Lights surrounded by homemade bacon, local Maple syrup, and yardbird eggs would have changed his religion on the spot for a glimpse at that secret recipe.
As guests from our table traveled through the world, they went as emissaries with the word and the news, and the reputation of Ostrander Lights grew. There is no record of anyone ever referring to them as pancakes or griddle cakes or anything else that mundane, and in all their reverent writings and correspondences on the subject, only one person ever referred to them as Ostrander Lites. The cognoscenti immediately shunned him, and within two winters he was dropped from all party lists. Christmas cards quit coming, and classmates no longer mentioned his name at high school reunions.
Let me say that I came to enjoy the attention, that I encouraged the fawning and the superlatives that people employed as tactics to separate me from my recipe. I remained intractable and sometimes in a show of resolve bragged that people would mourn my death long after I had gone. I'd even mock supplicants by speculating on the form of their lament. "I can't believe he took the recipe with him. It would have meant much to my family if we could have gathered around Ostrander Lights at family weddings, or 50th anniversaries, or memorial services for our departed parents. It was like being surprised by a brief glimpse of God and then longing ever after for a fuller view. Our lives were never again the same. We hoped that somewhere he'd written it down, but it's gone now and there's no record beyond the memories. Torges was otherwise a very good man, the sumbitch."
All that's buttermilk under the bridge now, cake flour in the wind. I gave the recipe to two Cajuns because they pleaded for it during their visit here. I thought about it long and hard before swearing them to secrecy, as I owed them nothing more than kindness. I caved to entreaties no more passionate than I'd heard a thousand times before and mailed them the specifications a week after they returned home.
It's not the same now as when I was the only guardian. It's out. They're cooking them in Louisiana today. Pretty soon Arkansas, Connecticut and Texas. I won't be surprised before I die to see a copycat version appear on www.topsecretrecipes.com. Nobody can keep a secret. Not even me when I needed to.
June 2, 2009
I couldn't Pen Henny
Much of our hens' flightiness resulted from the maulings they took from young dogs and pups that I brought onto the property. Seems they'd no sooner settle down near the henhouse after a feather pruning from one menace than another came along to prune the flock itself. And in this manner, over the course of two summers, eight hens and a rooster dwindled to three wary birds inclined to shun even the hand that fed them.
Turning our yard birds into jail birds was a solution that protected both garden and bird, but not the ideal one, and the regrets began soon after I scooped out their first trough of laying mash—their dinner destiny for the next 4 months.
I had a partial roll of 2' wide poultry netting that I'd used to surround my mother's garden a dozen years ago to keep the groundhogs and rabbits at bay. So I purchased a 150' roll to add to it and ran a perimeter fence around the electric fence. Of course, this brought on complications.
On their first day of liberty, the hens hopped the fence for a good dusting between the potato rows just as I hoped they wouldn't. I pinioned them that night. However, pinioning means that when a dog or wild critter gets after one of them, the clipped right-wing primary feathers will turn her dodge clockwise as she flaps to escape and make her easy pickings.
The poultry mesh also means that I've made the garden vulnerable to deer. They'll likely walk up to it and hop over it, missing the nearby electric altogether. I had no room to run the netting inside the electric fence and still push a cultivator through the rows. Besides, would I really want a deer landing on an electric fence inside my garden? I wasn't about to take everything down and start over, especially since I figured I'd have to move the electric fence well outside the netting so deer would contact it before they gathered themselves to jump the netting.
The resident deer are familiar with the electric fence guarding the garden, and like cattle, they stay clear of it even when it's turned off. That will buy me time. Maybe a month or more. I've already ordered replacement layers with the new batch of broilers, due here the 15th, so at the first hint of a deer problem, the poultry netting comes down and the hens are gone.
Last night I brought in a new rooster (and his hen) to govern the flock, one that's old and lazy, on the chance that he can influence the hens to stay near the henhouse. If that doesn't work, I'll get rid of all five soon enough and wait for their replacements to begin laying. There are no pups on the horizon and Tricks now understands without question that chickens are off limits, so as they grow they'll never have reason to cross the pond and thereby find the garden.
Life doesn't get simpler; it gets shorter and turns in smaller circles.