We have all we need for everyone to live well.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Equinox, Harvest, and Well-Fed Coyotes

On Saturday, September 22 at about 9 o'clock in the morning local time, Old Sol crossed the celestial equator, marking the autumnal equinox ("equal night"), although not until Tuesday the 25th were day and night closest to equal length at our northerly latitude. Nevertheless, it being a matter only of minutes in difference, I chose the 22nd to set sunrise and sunset stakes on the perimeter of the observatory in the big terraced field. The stakes will be replaced by something when we eventually build our version of Stonehenge.

In this predawn image you can see the guywire-supported gnomon ("indicator", "that which discerns") in the center of the field that we use to line up the stakes with the rising and setting sun on significant dates.

Here it comes.

I set the stake and quickly walked down to the road, which runs east-west. At the equinox, the sun rises  precisely in the east and sets precisely in the west.

I am a gnomon.

In the evening I was back out with my sunset stake. The fall colors are coming on in the avenue of ornamental maples and Grandmother Cottonwood.

And there it goes. The observatory gnomon is barely discernable in this image.

As the earth rolled up in front of the solar disk, the clouds were illuminated from beneath.

When the drought broke in August, the garden responded with a burst of productivity in a race against time as the first frosts approached. Saturday and Sunday night there were spots of frost that knocked down the peppers, the tomatoes, and the sweet potatoes so the following days I hurried to harvest them.

Here are the last of the peppers.

Last night I made a first batch of pickled jalapenos – five-eighths of a peck of pickled peppers.

Sweet potatoes have to be cured for long-term storage, a week to ten days at about 85 degrees and 85 percent humidity. I'm doing this in the oven with a pan of water below and the oven light as the heat source.

In the garage I'm drying mustard and sunflowers for the seed.

I took my early morning walk today around the farm perimeter, hoping to observe a coyote, and I was not disappointed but still pleasantly surprised. Across the north fence where Kincaid Creek passes onto our place were three of these handsome creatures, about 50 yards distant. They noticed me but did not startle and I watched for about ten minutes until they trotted off into the woods. A most excellent beginning to the day.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Wildcat Den Heritage Day

Saturday morning we drove a few miles east of Muscatine along the river road to Wildcat Den State Park where the annual Heritage Day was underway, a celebration depicting 19th century life in this area. Hundreds of folk had turned out to see many others in period costume, and demonstrations of rope-making, basket weaving, looms, and other vital crafts from the bootstrapping years first following settlement by white pioneers in 1837.

Beneath a large shade tree were performances of old time music by an evolving all-comers band of guitar, fiddle, bass violin, autoharp, harmonica, and voices. Children nearby walked on stilts and played 19th century games with hoops and sticks. Troops of Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts wandered about. One of the local 4-H (head, heart, hands, health) chapters sold homemade ice cream and pies. It was a marvelously happy and wholesome occasion.

We enjoyed talking with this blacksmith and his daughter apprentice as they fashioned needful items from simple and elegant tools: converting coal to coke; making steel from iron; and the delicate control of heat at every step of the process.

Behind the smith is the Pine Creek grist mill, the first of many hundreds that were built in the Iowa Territory and the only one to survive the passage of time.

The mill was in commercial operation until the 1920s. The Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression began restoration work in the 1930s but it was not until the 1970s that the volunteer Friends of the Mill group got the structure and machinery back into operating condition. It's an extraordinary relic.

We entered the building and were flabbergasted by the complexity of the beams, shafts, wheels, belts, gears, bins, and elevators filling the entire volume of four levels. Unable to make sense of what all was going on, we asked at an information desk for a tour and were handed over to an excellent docent as our personal guide. This gentleman was the park ranger here and since retirement has been active in the Friends of the Mill.

Benjamin Nye first built a sawmill on Pine Creek about a mile upstream of the Mississippi River, furnishing lumber for the first homes and barns as the area was settled. As agriculture took hold, he then built the grist mill to process the first crops of corn, wheat, buckwheat, and rye. The millstones were imported from France in small pieces then cemented with plaster of Paris and bound with steel straps.

This sifting machine produces two grades of flour from a rotating, screened barrel into bins.

The first power source was an overshot waterwheel installed in a race between the mill building and the dam. It was eventually supplemented by construction of a penstock that dropped water into this 20-horsepower turbine.

During low water conditions, and of course during winter when the creek was frozen, the mill couldn't operate. So later yet, the owner bought a worn-out steam packet (a small craft used for trade goods, mail, and passenger transport on the Mississippi) and installed its steam engine so the mill could operate full time.

The restoration is a work-in-progress and these power sources aren't operational at present, but an electric motor drives all the machinery. When the shafts are turning and belts whirring and elevators rattling, it nearly overwhelms the senses.

It was a different breed of human that first displaced the Blackhawk nation, carved into the wilderness, designed and built and operated this machinery, and founded modern communities. It's nothing less than hubris to imagine that today we are smarter or more clever or resourceful.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Sun Dog at Dawn

Yesterday morning dawned with a sun dog near the horizon, and the early flights out of Chicago, St. Louis, Memphis, and Minneapolis leaving their condensation trails overhead.

Looking to the east at the sun dog:

A little later to the west:

And to the north:

On Monday afternoon, friend Tim repaired the mowing deck parts that connect to the little tractor, and beefed-up these welds with quite a bit more metal than was there previously. I used a bench grinding wheel, drill-powered cone grinder, and rattail hand file for about an hour and a half to shape these welds sufficiently for the connector to fit its receiver points, and then we were back in the mowing business. Everything is looking mighty nice now, and very green.

We've got some steep slopes that when I first attempted to cross them, in April when I arrived at the farm, produced terror. I felt certain the tractors, especially the big one upon which I felt I was sitting so high above the ground, were about to tip over. Now it feels quite routine, though I sometimes have to lean far to the side to maintain my balance and stay in the seat. They are amazingly powerful and versatile machines and a pleasure to operate.

A cold front moved through this morning in the predawn hours and I was out in the west garden nearly as soon as it was light to knock down more of the purslane with the tiller before things got wet. Now the rain falls in gentle showers and it's become an indoor day of study, correspondence, writing, and rest.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

It's in the Air

The growing season winds down as the equinox approaches; the gardens look tired and we're making the last of the summer harvests. August brought our little farm more than seven inches of rain, and these first days of September a little more. But still there has been almost no runoff. The pond water level continues to drop with daily evaporation and many of the rivers hereabouts are mostly sandbars. By these measures the drought persists, but the grass is verdant and lush and we're behind in the mowing.

The little tractor carries a mowing deck between the front and rear tires, and the weld on a connection has failed. We acquired a welding machine at an auction a few weeks ago, but the classes Alan and I took are now long ago and we have not attempted the repair. Tomorrow, however, a friend who much more recently worked as a commercial welder will come out to give us a lesson and connect the broken parts.

Autumn is not yet here but there are hints of it in the air, now cooler and drier with trace scents of mould and wet soil. The tree leaves rustle more crisply and the insect orchestra drones a different movement of its seasonal symphony. The milkweed pods are bursting open to cast their downy seeds upon the breeze. Almost all the rabbits have vanished, as have the red-winged blackbirds and goldfinches and bluejays. The cardinals had gone but have now reappeared, and the robins are flocking together.

In the woods, the grasses and forbs are senescing and it is much easier to leave the groomed trails and to see longer distances beneath the canopy. Now revealed is a rather amazing network of game trails, many of them suitable as walking paths, and I'm getting to know even more of this diverse property. I thought this ancient shagbark hickory was looking especially stately a couple days ago.

I've been revisiting the giant puffball mushrooms and they are growing to astonishing sizes, some now 18-24 inches in diameter. The one that I harvested had a beautiful texture when sliced, like tofu or mozzarella cheese, and fried up very nicely, but none of us cared for the rather strong, sharp flavor – it is an acquired taste, I suppose.

We harvested the popcorn and though the yield was not great, it certainly looks good! It will dry on the cob indoors and we'll test several kernels every few days until it's popping well, then shell the ears for storage.

The peppers are still coming on profusely, ripening nicely, and developing some good heat. The yellow individual is the only habanero to show any color than green so far. I hope there will be enough degree-days in the season remaining to finish them.

Another sign of approaching autumn is the occurrence of brilliant pure blue skies, here being sailed by a turkey vulture.

From our east fence, across the neighbor's soybean field, an aspect of infinity:

Almost every time I come this way, the duck is laying on the ground, and I replace it on its pedestal. I would like to install a motion-detecting camera to find out what's going on.

Alan built this beautiful meditation bench at one of the highest-elevation points on the property.

This morning as I paused at the bench I watched this coyote in the neighbor's alfalfa as it hunted some small item of game, pounced successfully, and made a meal.

Wild turkeys roost in the woods, high up in the old growth, and it produces quite a startle when from silence they suddenly fly off directly overhead, making all sorts of noise and leaving feathers behind. It seems some violation of natural law that such large things are up that high at all, let alone supporting themselves on wings.

Donna has become a worm rancher, raising red wrigglers in a plastic tub in the basement, where they convert newspaper and coffee grounds and kitchen scraps to castings that are an excellent soil amendment. The worms multiply rapidly, and she periodically divides the population for release into the compost pile and gardens.

The worms are also good fish food. Here are Bubbles, a smallmouth bass, and Delilah the sunfish, which Donna caught in the pond and now live in the aquarium. They are voracious eaters and are growing rapidly, encouraging my plans to raise fish in cages in the pond next year.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Diversion III

On Thursday we drove about seven hours up into the North Woods to Donna's family's cabin on Soo Lake near Philips, Wisconsin for the annual Labor Day celebration, joining others from Chicagoland and the Des Moines area. We played hard: 27 holes of golf, a couple games of bowling, boat rides on the Party Barge, and a 32-mile / 9-tavern (!) bicycle ride.

We deep-fried a turkey for dinner one night, and with a large fryer on hand...well, the imagination takes hold, in this case producing the Heart Attack Vendo Snack® coming soon to a State Fair near you. Bacon-wrapped marshmallows dipped in a tempura batter and cooked to a crispy golden brown. Humans were, after all, evolved to desire such food, or so we justified the excess to ourselves.

Our cucumber pickles were popular even for breakfast, and our pickled hot pepper garlic green beans were an excellent garnish for Bloody Marys. Eventually (drawing a line from the Bloody Marys) I was inspired to compose a poem, which I shall share with you now.
Bestish whenic
Wiggiloe barquart
Miscontro whatsit
Majan wansit
Epsilo Quan
Bersak mediloo
Perserman kicky
Xsty kwansty
Lonsterry bigaloo berony itsmith
We arrived home last night after dark and awoke this morning to find the lawn overgrown and the purslane again to have taken over the west garden. There are strawberries somewhere in this photograph, and this is not by any means the worst of it. I reckon I have about 20 hours of weeding and cultivating ahead of me in the next few days. The weather is now typical hot and humid Iowa August.

On my morning walk through the woods I came upon a strange sight, but quickly realized what it was: Calvatia gigantea, a giant puffball mushroom.

I found a second one nearby and brought it home. It weighs one and three-quarters pounds and, assuming the interior is still pure white, indicating the spores have not yet developed, I intend to cook it for dinner.