Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Real Work, Fun Times

"The child becomes a person through work." --Maria Montessori, physician and educator

A few weeks ago, my twin sister and her daughter came to spend a weekend with us. For my girls, having their Auntie Jules come to visit is a little like getting a trip to the amusement park without having to leave home. She is one of those rare adults who actually remembers what it was like to be a kid. She tells goofy jokes; she tickles; she teases; she plays hide and seek; she gets everyone (including herself) in trouble with the other adults; and--most incredibly to me--she seems to thoroughly enjoy all of it. For her, hanging out with kids is not exhausting but invigorating. And they know it. They LOVE it.

Jules is also pretty good with hammers, drills, screwdrivers, and power saws. My academic husband and I are--well, let's just say we are not. (He may beg to differ, as he often insists that he is actually quite skilled with all such tools. I'm remaining skeptical until I see him actually do something with them.) When Jules comes to visit, then, she tends to get strapped into putting things together, hanging things on walls, and fixing things we have broken. Among the tasks I had lined up for her that weekend was helping me hang some heavy tool racks in the garden shed and the barn. It was a surprisingly time-consuming job and one that took us the better part of an afternoon. But we got finally got them up straight and secure. And it felt great.

While we were working, the three girls (her 4-year-old and my 5- and 7-year-olds) came to ask Jules if she could help them build a secret hideout out of some of the planks and boards left over from the barn construction. My girls had been "building" things with these pieces for a couple of weeks--cobbling together houses, a playground, paddocks, and so forth. But now that they had seen us at work, they wanted to do some real building--the kind with hammers, screwdrivers, and saws. So of course, Jules followed them down to their work site in the pasture and stayed there for more than an hour helping them to put together their hideout. I have rarely seen such serious, concentrated labor. They hammered, measured, screwed, sawed, checked the level, made adjustments, and then stood back to admire their work. They were elated.

Later, after their aunt and cousin had gone back home, I asked the girls, "What was your favorite part of the weekend?" You can probably guess their answer. Even though they had played endless games, marched in a parade, seen a video, put on a super-silly play, been read to numerous times, and been taken to get ice cream--with sprinkles--they immediately responded that their favorite part of the weekend was building the hideout with Auntie Jules.

Why is this? Because kids love to do real work. Not all the time, of course (as any parent who has begged his child AGAIN to clean up her bedroom will attest). But in general, kids get a great deal of satisfaction out of doing meaningful labor. Unfortunately, this is one of those things that most of us adults have forgotten about childhood. We assume that kids want to play. And to some extent we are right: they do want to play. They need to play and ought to play. But for kids, doing real work can be the best kind of play. My girls, for example, enjoy playing chef. So occasionally I let them drag my mixing bowls, measuring cups and spoons, and cutting boards out of the kitchen cabinets and set up a pretend kitchen in the den. They pour, stir and chat, chat, chat as they concoct elaborate dishes for their dad and me to "taste". This is fun. Yet most days both of them would choose instead to help me mix up a real cookie batter, or chop vegetable sticks for their own lunch, or knead dough that they will later smell baking in the oven.

Maria Montessori, Rudolf Steiner and Charlotte Mason (along with other 20th century pioneers of alternative education) recognized children's enthusiasm for worthwhile labor. Building upon that enthusiasm, in fact, formed a key component of their educational philosophies. Today, though, our society generally ignores and sometimes even actively discourages children's interest in doing real work. Perhaps this is because many of us big people assume that little people are much less capable of constructive tasks than they actually are. Why on earth do we assume that a 4-year-old who can master a new video game in a matter of minutes is unable to break an egg into a bowl? Or that a kindergartener who can glide effortlessly around the park on her new scooter is incapable of making up her own bed?

Of course, farming families around the world have known for centuries that kids can play a variety of essential roles in maintaining the wellbeing of a family and a community. But we are--most of us--no longer farmers. And our kids more often than not "get in the way" when they try to help. We occasionally humor them and allow them to make a couple of strokes with the paint brush or move the broom around the floor a few while, but when it's time to get serious work done, it's our turn.

I believe we ought to try handing back the brush and the broom and giving them a chance. We may just find that doing so will leave us all better off--and happier--in the long run.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

New Kids on the Farm

Our girls welcome home Carolina, Tennessee Spot & Tutu
Last Saturday my husband and I took our daughters to a small town just east of Charlotte, NC to pick up the newest members of our farm family: three four-week-old Nigerian Dwarf goats. Little did we know just how thoroughly they would fill the next few days with their needs and antics. What we did know was that we were all smitten with these adorably fuzzy little bundles of spunk. Perhaps if we'd known a little more, we would have thought twice about bringing them back home with us when we did. Our experiences the past few days have illustrated in comic proportion  the truth of Alexander Pope's assertion that "a little learning is a dangerous thing." Let me confess at this point that a good deal of the farming I "know" so far comes from . . . well, from books. As a former professor, I'm pretty comfortable with that sort of knowledge. But I imagine most any farmer you ask would doubt just how thorough such knowledge could possibly be.

As always, I had dutifully done my research. I knew that Nigerian Dwarfs are a small breed of dairy goats originally from West Africa, and that they were first brought to the United States in the early 20th century (some say on ships transporting large cats in order to serves as lion kibble--seriously).  I knew that they have a reputation for being gentle and easily trainable; that they are capable of giving a surprising quantity of milk given their size; and that the high butterfat content of that milk makes it ideal for making cheeses and soaps. I knew, in sum, that they are a perfect fit for a small farm with small children--and thus, just right for us. BUT . . .

Those of you who are parents might remember bringing your little one home from the hospital (or taking her/him from the arms of the midwife) and thinking, "This doesn't seem like it's going to be as tough as everyone's been telling me!" After all, what could possibly be so difficult about clothing and feeding a thing so tiny and lovely? That was, of course, before you tried to slip a cotton onesie over four flailing limbs and a screaming head. Or endeavored to get a stiff synthetic diaper wrapped straight and snug around a bouncing bottom. Or attempted to fill a twisting, spitting mouth with gooey glumps of rice cereal. If you know what I'm talking about, you'll believe me when I say that trying to bottle feed three baby goats who've spent four weeks growing accustomed to nursing with their mamas is not a task for the faint of heart.

We had not signed up originally for bottle feeding duty. On our first trip to visit the farm where they were born, we put down a deposit on them and agreed with the breeder** that we would return to fetch them when they were weaned (around 8 weeks of age). However, once we returned home from that trip, our well laid plans rapidly fell by the wayside. We found that now that we had seen them, held them, and downloaded photos of them to "ooh and ahh" over, it was going to be nearly unbearable to wait another 4 weeks to bring them home. My research had also indicated that kids who are bottle fed by humans are generally easier to milk and to train than those exclusively fed by their dams (that's goat language for mamas).

So off we went to get them 4 weeks early. The drive was no less full of delighted anticipation than Christmas Eve. Our daughters had each been allowed to pick a goat of her own, so they chatted away about the names they had chosen and the many ways they were going to love them and care for them. I, meanwhile, looked over the the questions I wanted the to ask the breeder and lengthened my formidable list of supplies we would need from the feed store. My husband, in an attempt to temper the plans and shorten the feed store list, gave us all another couple of his "Our goats back in Nigeria never had [fill in the blank] and they were fine" lectures.

Once we arrived, the breeder kindly offered us (along with a very helpful--if somewhat intimidating--handout of information and tips) a couple of containers of their dams' milk. She reminded us that it might be difficult to get them to take it from the bottle. Yes, yes, I know, I thought. I had read about that. But I had also read that if you just keep at it, they'll learn. I therefore was not as worried as I probably should have been when she offered to let us return them to her farm for a while "if things don't go well and you get worried about them."

The 50-minute ride back home was remarkably peaceful. I had expected them to bleat and yell and cry for the mothers from whose bosoms we had just snatched them. (Have you ever heard a goat kid cry? If not, you've missed some real drama.) But for the most part, they settled placidly into the pet cage and snuggled up with each other, only sporadically letting out little bleeps of distress or alarm. Neither did they seem particularly upset or disoriented when they were released into the freshly prepared stall that would be their new home. They looked around, hopped right up into the manger (guess it's going to be a playground instead of a manger for a while), and then called for us to come back when we left them to go grab some lunch.

I really think this is going to go just fine, I thought, as I warmed the milk for them a couple of hours later and snipped the new goat and lamb nipples just as the instructions said. Of course, you can guess the rest. For the past few days, we have dutifully walked out to the barn morning, noon, and night, armed with bottles of warmed milk, and fought tooth and nail with these little critters to take it. They have bawled, they have screamed, they have kicked, they have jumped. They have spit and pooped and peed. All while we've tried to hold them as gently as humanly possible and coax them to get a few drops down their throats. Morning, noon, and night I walk back to the house with milk all over my shirt, drool on my neck, mud on my pants, and bits of hair missing from my head (they evidently find human hair delectable--go figure). Yesterday evening, finally, we found more than a fraction of milk missing from each bottle when we finished the feeding. Today has not been as successful so far. Luckily they are eating their concentrate, drinking water, and nibbling at the hay. And they're full of energy--already chasing after the chickens, bouncing gleefully across the pasture, and climbing all over the rock pile in the barnyard. So I'm not lying in bed all night long wondering if they are okay. In fact, I have to admit that they seem just fine. But we'll keep trying to get that milk down them. After all, I learned that we're supposed to in my books.

Tennessee Spot offers a typical reaction to our efforts
My big sister lends us a much-needed hand
Tutu starts to catch on!

** We would highly recommend the breeder we worked with to others interested in raising Nigerian Dwarf Goats. You can find information about her farm and her herd at 

Friday, November 18, 2011

Heirloom Apple Cake

A few weeks ago I went to the cupboard, pulled out the battered notebook of recipes my mom gave me some years ago, and hungrily flipped right to the one recipe I have to make every fall: my Great Aunt Tootie's Apple Cake. Aunt Tootie used to bring it to our family gatherings this time of year, and now that she has passed away and can't share it with us anymore, my mom and I seem to have taken it upon ourselves to make sharing it with others an essential part of the autumn season. (Of course, you'll be luckiest if you get a piece from one of my mom's cakes, but I like to think mine are getting a little closer to real good each year.) So far this season I've made four apple cakes--to share with the folks working on our barn, with my husband and his coworkers, with my stepson who came for a visit, and with various others who have dropped by our house at the right moment. My mom has probably made at least half a dozen apple cakes by this time.

This cake seems to taste extra sweet when it is baked with apples we've picked ourselves at a local apple orchard. Having moved from Ohio earlier this year, we almost missed the 2011 North Carolina apple season: by the time I started thinking the harvest might be ready, the picking was almost done! But we did make it in time to an orchard about an hour north of Charlotte, where (as always) we went right past the trees near the front of the field and headed straight for the last apple trees in the rows. The Granny Smiths (my favorite) were already "done," but there were still come Golden Russets and several lovely varieties of red. We ended up (again, as always) leaving the field with much more fruit than we could comfortably carry. But that's one of the joys of harvest time, isn't it? Being loaded down so heavily that your muscles ache even as your mouth waters.

I've since made apple turnovers, fried apples, apple sundaes, and apple crisp. But nothing compares to Aunt Tootie's Apple Cake. As you can see from the recipe below, it is a not a complicated concoction--no spices, no fancy baking techniques. Just one big bowl, a sturdy spoon, and simple ingredients. Maybe it is that simplicity that allows it to so deliciously showcase our sweetest fruit of the fall season. Enjoy!

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Blend together:
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 1/4 cup oil (I sometimes use up to 1/2 cup applesauce, and you could use more or less.)
  • 2 cups sugar.
Add and mix in well:
  • 2 1/2 cups self-rising flour.
Stir in:
  • 2-4 medium apples, chopped (I always err on the side of more apples; use your own judgment.)
  • 1 cup coconut
  • 1 cup chopped nuts (My mom uses walnuts; I use pecans.)
Pour into a greased and floured bundt pan (or, if you don't have one, a tube pan). Bake for 1 hour. Cool for 10 minutes in the pan and then invert onto a cooling rack.
After the cake has cooled completely, drizzle over it the following Caramel Topping.

Caramel Topping
Heat in a medium saucepan, stirring constantly:
  • 1/2 stick butter
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar
  • 1/3 cup evaporated milk. 
Bring this mixture to a boil and (still stirring constantly) let boil for 3-5 minutes. How long you boil it will depend on how thick you like the topping to be. I think Aunt Tootie boiled hers to the soft ball stage (test by dropping a bit from the spoon into ice water and check to see if it forms a easily pliable ball). My mom makes hers thicker and spreads it on the cake instead of drizzling it. I shoot for somewhere in between.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Party in Da Coop!

"Oh, NO!" I exclaimed, suddenly wide awake. I looked at the clock. It was 1:03 a.m. "I've gotta go out to the coop!" I practically yelled, startling my husband out of a deep sleep. "Wha. . . ?" he tried to mumble. "I think I left the light on in the coop when we put the chickens in this evening." "No, no" he protested, "I'm sure you turned it off. At any rate, you are NOT going out there in the middle of the night." But I was already up and heading downstairs. I went to the mud room and slipped on my boots, grabbed a flashlight and trekked across the yard and through the gate into the barnyard. And there it was: a beacon shining in the night. "Oh, NO," I repeated to myself. Our poor chickens won't have gotten a wink of sleep.

Unlike the members of our own species, chickens are religiously devoted to getting up with the sunrise and going to bed with the sunset. If it's dark, they'll sleep. If it's light, they won't. Generally, then, when we put the chickens in the for evening, we don't turn the coop light on at all, but my twin sister and her four-year-old daughter had just arrived from Asheville that afternoon for a visit, and I thought they would enjoy getting to see our little ones come in and peck around at their food and water for a while. I meant to come back and turn off the light after closing up the rest of the barn, but of course it completely slipped my mind. Until 1:03 a.m.

Most of our 9 chickens are still only 8-10 weeks old, and--being the mother that I am--I have been fretting a bit as they've transitioned from life at the hatchery. Are they eating enough? Does Zebra Zuzu (the Delaware pullet) have a cold? Is Captain Haddock (the Dominique cockerel) getting hen pecked? Are they warm enough at night? And now, I thought, I've traumatized the poor things by depriving them of a good night's sleep on the coldest night we've had this season.

Sure enough, when I opened the coop door, not a single chicken was on its perch. All nine of them were on the ground, dancing around the feeder, happily dazed with lack of sleep, drunk on an overdose of chicken feed, and noisily clucking their "Party Time!" tunes. I apologized profusely, cut off the light, and headed back to the house, chastising myself for my l forgetfulness.

I was soon back home settling into bed, and telling my long-suffering husband "I knew I'd left the light on" (i.e., "I'm so glad I didn't listen to your nay-saying"). He didn't answer, so I assumed he was irritated and just wanted me to shut up and sleep. But after a few minutes it began to dawn on me that he wasn't in the bed at all. I called softly into the bathroom. No answer. I peeked in. He wasn't there. I went down the hall to check the girls' bathroom. No one there either. A few minutes later I found him standing outside the front door, shivering with cold and much less happy than the chickens. He had come to make sure I was fine, and while he'd gone around the back of the house, I'd come back around the front and locked him out in the cold!

Not surprisingly, neither of us got much more sleep that night than the chickens did. Fortunately, young chickens seemed to handle sleep deprivation much better than middle-aged humans.

Last Night I Dreamed of Chickens
(by Jack Prelutsky)
Last night I dreamed of chickens,
there were chickens everywhere,
they were standing on my stomach,
they were nesting in my hair,
they were pecking at my pillow,
they were hopping on my head,
they were ruffling up their feathers
as they raced about my bed.

They were on the chairs and tables,
they were on the chandeliers,
they were roosting in the corners,
they were clucking in my ears,
there were chickens, chickens, chickens
for as far as I could see . . .
when I woke today, I noticed
there were eggs on top of me.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Scattering Hope

My daughters (ages 5 and 7) and I have been planting spring bulbs this week: grape hyacinth, daffodils and paperwhites. My mom suggested that as good a way as any to go about this is to stand with your back to the general area where you want flowers to bloom, toss a couple handfuls of bulbs over your shoulder, and then plant them wherever they land. That's probably what we should have done. But the girls insisted that they knew several "perfect spots" for planting, so we each took charge of a bunch of bulbs and proceeded to strategically scatter ourselves throughout the yard and the woods around the house, tenaciously digging and then dropping our dormant treasures into winter resting places. The result is that I have absolutely no idea what our landscape may look like in the spring. That's probably good for my perfectionistic self. It definitely seemed good for my girls, who are feeling so much ownership in the process that they've spent several hours "babysitting" the bulbs they planted in some of the MOST perfect perfect-spots--singing to them, telling them stories, and bringing compost to scatter on them.

To place in the ground the potential for new life even as the air chills and the leaves fall all around is a spiritual experience. It reminds us, I believe, to hope and to dream. And to nourish our hopes and dreams with labors of love.

To get to do such labor alongside people we love makes the experience all the richer.

For some helpful tips on planting spring bulbs, see this article on Bulb Planting from Organic Gardening Magazine.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Morning Gift

As I opened the back door on the way to the barn this morning, I received an unexpected greeting from the brilliant red leaves of the little Japanese Maple next to our deck. To have the chance to see those leaves shimmering in the rays of the early morning sun was a gift. It reminded me of this quotation by John Muir: "Nature's peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you . . . while cares will drop off like autumn leaves." I doubt there are many things in this world that can be simultaneously as stunning and comforting as beautiful autumn leaves. 

Monday, November 7, 2011

First Days of (Mini-)Homesteading

The chickens are in huddled near the door of the newly constructed coop, happily pecking the ground for bugs and fussing noisily at anyone who threatens to come between them and their afternoon snack. The stalls of the not-quite-finished barn are ready to hold the 3 Nigerian dwarf kids who will come to us after they're weaned next month. A good portion of our yard is now lying under cardboard, compost and winter rye, waiting for the magic of decomposition to turn it into a garden plot. It's beginning to feel like a farm around here.

After years of dreaming of living a more self-sufficient life, our family finally has the opportunity to turn that dream into a reality. In July we bought a  4 1/2-acre  property just outside the city limits of Davidson, a small college town in central North Carolina. In this blog I will record and ruminate on our journey as we seek to turn this little bit of earth into a haven for living beings that will nurture and delight us as we seek to care for and protect them.