South of Penns Creek and east of Troxelville there is still leftover snow from last week’s storm. The former is a stretch just downstream of famous trout waters. The latter was home to Euell Gibbons, famous naturalist and author of Stalking the Wild Asparagus (great title). Here, in this leftover snow, I follow tracks around the yard and through the forest. The air is pleasantly cold. A nip in the air and no breeze make it comfortable to walk around in. Afterward, I carried firewood inside and started a fire. A fire is one of the joys of Winter.
Compost is cooking. I toss in strawberry tops, egg shells, pieces of celery, onion skins, leaves, and straw. There must be the right mix of nitrogens and carbons. when I turn it I find the dark rich color of soil and the smell that goes along with it. We should have 24 cubic feet of this stuff for spring planting. It is hard to believe that I will be planting in these snow-covered spaces just two months from now. Mom recently saw a gray cat sitting near the compost as if waiting for it to finish cooking (more likely hoping for some critter to come out of the bin).
Last week, before the snow, there was a turtle in the yard. This isn’t the way it is supposed to be. Turtles that come out to play in January do not live long. This is a juvenile with colorful markings on his underside. Around the bottom of the shell, underneath his chin, and the majority of his plastron are the color of a banana. He has a long tail and the kind of claws you might expect on a creature who digs into the ground. As much fun as it is to find this turtle, I would have rather found him in April.
Birds are all over the suet and sunflower seeds. Nuthatches, chickadees, juncos, woodpeckers, and a pair of cardinals fly back and forth from feeder to treeline. That is not the only action. The trail cameras have recently revealed deer, including a buck, a fox, and a fisher. A fisher is an interesting mammal. Stories about them include successfully hunting lynx. Other stories include flipping porcupines onto their back (probably exaggerated) to eat their belly. I am still waiting for some action at the owl house. It looks like the kind of a place where a screech owl would want to nest… here birdie.
It is a warm day for January (40 degrees as I write this) but I know it will get cold again. That makes this a good time to think about and get ready for soup making. All good soup is built by adding things together in order to create something amazing. Therefore, all good soup is built by starting with good stock. Here is a simple recipe for good chicken stock.
Of course, stock can be added to mashed potatoes, rice, pasta, veggies, or gravy. I know people who drink it as a hot beverage. Actually, stock probably has unlimited uses. Anyway, here is how to make it. Submerge a chicken in water in a stock pot. Bring to boil. Add four stalks of chopped celery, six chopped carrots, and two chopped onions. Add bay leaf and a sprig of parsley if you wish. Simmer for two hours covered. Strain, salt and pepper to taste, and start thinking about chicken noodle, chicken rice, chicken corn, chicken chili, chicken tortilla, or any soup that calls for chicken stock.
I don’t remember why but one day I became interested in soup making. Since then, I have collected or developed or adapted several soup recipes. This comes in handy this time of year. January seems to make soup taste better. The soupe de la semaine is a minestrone that we call “Italian Grandmother Soup.” Because I received this from my friend Lanie who received it from her mother who of course we refer to as an Italian grandmother.
This is a great soup because making it is a lesson on how soup is made. Like anything that is worthwhile, soup should be built.
A Dutch Oven is the perfect choice for this soup. It starts with one chopped Vidalia onion, minced garlic, crushed black pepper, and beef chunks. Add olive oil and put in the oven at 400 degrees for forty minutes. Stir twice (maybe at the 15 and the 30 minute marks).
Turn oven to 350 degrees. Add beef stock (I used 60 oz) and season with oregano and basil. Cover and bake 60 minutes.
Add crushed tomatoes (28 oz), cannelloni beans (15 oz), mirepoix (1 cup chopped carrots and celery), black olives (1/2 cup), and whole wheat penne (1 cup). Bake for 40 minutes. The result is a happy January day.
The original recipe called for zucchini and parmesan across the top before the final round of baking. You can always add salt if you like. I add a dash of tabasco. You can add more of one thing and less of another according to your preference. You can substitute kidney beans or macaroni pasta if you prefer – but it is important to keep the steps. Soup must be built. We can all thank an Italian Grandmother.
Somewhere between Jacks and Shade Mountain, there is a half mile shaded lane that is still covered in ice. Back there is a fire in the fireplace. There is a buck still walking around with antlers. Undoubtedly, he will be dropping them soon. There is a red fox who enjoys playing in the snow as evidenced by plenty of tracks, appearances on the trail cam, and the fact he is coming into the yard to leave his scat (as if cleaning up after the dog wasn’t enough). There is a Great Horned Owl who loves to sing before dark.
On this day, there is also venison cooking on the grill. That is good news on its own but when combined with smoky smells of meat over fire and the background sounds of Good Company by The Dead South it makes it even better.
I know how most of this will play out. The lane will eventually thaw and we will be navigating through a lot of mud to get to where we’re going. I will spend some time trying to find those antlers after they fall. I will hope the red fox stays to play when the snow is gone. (I do hope he leaves his scat somewhere else). I will gladly listen to that owl for as long as he continues to sing.
And I’ve already started to eat that venison. Mom claimed it tasted like pork. Sliced and added as a protein to a salad with Boston Lettuce, peppadew peppers, red onions, and feta cheese or some combination of that on a taco is a winner. Of course, so is placing it directly into my mouth. Maybe it should be eaten with Good Company.
Somewhere in between Jacks Mountain and Shade Mountain there is a plot of mesic-hydric forest. At this time of year, it tends to be crunchy underfoot. A recent snowfall reveals a fox has visited here. We are told more snow and ice and wind and sub-zero temps are on the way. It is a good time to hang a trail camera and fill the bird feeders.
The feeders have been pulling in a regular congregation of black-eyed juncos, chickadees, nuthatches, and titmice. Also, downy and red bellied woodpeckers. Trail cameras have recently spotted a red fox and a nice buck. One picture captured six deer in one shot.
Whether the projected storm comes or not, I project a full moon to occur just after midnight Sunday. Our first (and only) lunar eclipse of the year. I am aware that some prefer to call these “blood moons.” Whatever you like to call it, the moon’s proximity to earth makes it a “Super Moon.” Added to that, the traditional name give to January’s moon is the “Wolf Moon.” That makes this event a “Super Blood Wolf Moon.” That might make anyone want to howl. Even if some of us choose not to howl, I’ve heard that some are planning “glow in the dark pajama parties.” (I think I’d rather howl).
Yep, somewhere between Jacks Mountain and Shade Mountain (and wherever you might be) there will be a “Super Blood Wolf Moon.” I wonder how that will affect the local wildlife? Whatever they do – I hope they do it in front of the trail camera.
It is January and it is cold. The wind makes it feel even worse. Fortunately, I am a fan of layering. Base layer, fleece, and a down vest topped with an insulated barn coat is a good counter to January weather. Unfortunately, I have had a persistent itch that seems to crop up inside my right shoulder blade. Not only is it in one of the most inconvenient places imaginable (how can anyone reach that spot?), it seems to crop up at the most inconvenient times.
The Farm Show is a good way to get out of the cold. I walk through the indoor barns to see livestock and remember things that have happened here before. My daughter Karissa once hid from us and was found in the pig barn, snuggled up in a stall with a sow and piglets (perhaps a good way to stay warm in January). My daughter Keightley once fell asleep while on my shoulders and spilled her unfinished milk shake down the back of my neck (not a good way to stay warm in January). On this occasion I rode the mechanical bull and played tug of war with a Belgian. I ate rabbit, barbecued goat, and took home a quart of trout chowder. Some of that is more true than others, but I did stay warm.
In what might be another effort to stay warm, I have been reading books about cooking over fire. Weber’s Way to Grill and Around the Fire may not actually warm me up, but they do give me an urge to start a fire. Since an early age I have encountered the same problem. I couldn’t watch football on television without wanting to go out and play. I couldn’t read Old Man and the Sea without desiring to catch a Marlin. I watch The Revenant and want to fight a bear. I read Around the Fire and it makes me want to cook food over fire.
So I put on beef chunks to add to a minestrone soup. I put on potatoes with garlic and oil for mashing. I put on sausages and rib meats to add to a red sauce. I put on corn and black beans to add to a salsa. I put on venison backstrap to add straight into my mouth. As warm as the fire is, its warmth is only temporary.
So sometimes the best thing to do is start moving. To put on layers and get out for a hike. The energy of movement does its job and generates warmth that is trapped inside the layers. To make things even better, the chill on my face as I watch my breath go out into the sky reminds me that the rest of me is warm. This is my favorite way to stay warm in January. Everything is good, that is until I feel an unbearable itch inside my right shoulder blade. Four layers down and in the most difficult place to reach. At least I’m warm.
I really like March days that come with a hanging chill in the air. Not the same chill that came with the January air. Still, the kind of chill that reminds you it is not yet spring. The kind of day when the forecast calls for snow and you can feel it before you see it. The kind of day that makes you glad you added another layer before leaving the house. The kind of day that makes you glad for hats and gloves and insulated boots.
I really like March days where a brisk pace or a steep climb increase not only the heart rate but the body temperature. The kind of day when the cold against your face is countered by the comfort of wearing multiple layers. The kind of day when a deep breath of cold oxygen can be followed by watching warm carbon dioxide floating away into the sky. Today is one of those days and I really like it.
“Bright lights wrap around trees, indoors and out. On some houses, lights start at ground level and climb to the rooftops. On a clear night, it looks as if they are strung across the sky and come down on the other side of the street. The season is decorated with both strings of light from Wal-Mart and the likes of Betelgeuse and Polaris.”
(from Participant: Field Notes from Here and Now, p. 16)
Earlier this week I was walking toward the east as the sun was climbing higher in the clear sky. It is February but the air feels like spring. A red tailed hawk flies into my view. He comes nearly overhead and then circles back toward the east. As he gets closer to the sun the light shines brilliantly through his outer feathers. As if he is outlined with angelic pinstripes. It is like he flew into a Thomas Kinkade painting. I watch until he is out of sight before I move on. It is just good to be outside.
“I try to spend as much time as possible in the winter forest. It is a great place to sharpen the senses. Contrast, movement, and sound call attention to themselves in a hurry. Things are more visible in the bare deciduous woods, including evidence that something has already been there before you arrived. Then there is the winter forest at night. The senses sharpen more clearly. Temperature heightens the sense of cold on your nose and cheeks. Looking at the sky feels like a spectator sport. Noise and movement gain your attention quickly. It is not difficult to find yourself on the alert. If you are nothing else in the winter woods at night, you are aware. Sometimes you hear something, see something, discover something that makes this all feel like an adventure. But the fact is, in the forest it is always likely that you were discovered first. Some things are sure to grab attention, like the cold of a winter night. Other things are subtle and require sharpened senses. I hope to be attentive.”
– from Participant: Field Notes from Here and Now, p. 29