Monday, June 30, 2008

A Big Year For Cherries

Our cherry trees are having a big year. In the nine summers we've lived here, this has only happened once before, in 2006. That year was notable for the very large bear who dropped by daily to satisfy his sweet tooth. We may have managed to scare him off with loud noises, or perhaps he only switched to the night shift and left when the cherries ran out.

If you're wondering where I am, I'm probably pitting cherries. These are small, sour, white-fleshed cherries, ideal for pies and jelly, too small for the cherry pitter, too delicious to leave entirely to the varmints. I'll be on the porch, watching the birds (cedar waxwings and scarlet tanagers as well as the usual robins and woodpeckers) consume the unreachable cherries. Perhaps this year's sunflower seed aficionado will come back for some desert.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Tater Blossom

Potatoes bloom often enough, but this year's planting of Kennebecs is sending up large, handsome flower stalks. If only more of them had come up....

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Why We Need a New Bird Feeder

Many people have trouble with squirrels emptying their bird feeders. We would like to offer our uninvited guest in trade.

Friday, June 20, 2008

An Act of Agriculture

Here's another event that demonstrates there are no easy solutions to environmental problems. The American demand for corn for ethanol has driven up the price of corn, which would have been good news for me if I had stayed on the farm. However, the rising price food is bad news for everyone living close to the edge. Those same potential ethanol profits have also encouraged landscape changes that make my home state, Iowa, less resilient in rough weather conditions. The Washington Post ran an article yesterday on unintended consequences: Iowa Flooding Could Be An Act of Man, Experts Say by Joel Achenbach, Thursday, June 19, 2008.

As the Cedar River rose higher and higher, and as he stacked sandbags along the levee protecting downtown Cedar Falls, Kamyar Enshayan, a college professor and City Council member, kept asking himself the same question: "What is going on?"

....Enshayan, director of an environmental center at the University of Northern Iowa, suspects that this natural disaster wasn't really all that natural. He points out that the heavy rains fell on a landscape radically reengineered by humans. Plowed fields have replaced tallgrass prairies. Fields have been meticulously drained with underground pipes. Streams and creeks have been straightened. Most of the wetlands are gone. Flood plains have been filled and developed.

....But some Iowans who study the environment suspect that changes in the land, both recently and over the past century or so, have made Iowa's terrain not only highly profitable but also highly vulnerable to flooding. They know it's a hard case to prove, but they hope to get Iowans thinking about how to reduce the chances of a repeat calamity....

"I sense that the flooding is not the result of a 500-year event," said Jerry DeWitt, director of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University. "We're farming closer to creeks, farming closer to rivers. Without adequate buffer strips, the water moves rapidly from the field directly to the surface water."

Jerry DeWitt was a young professor at ISU, and led entomology field trips when I went to 4H Conservation Camp in 1971. I was so thrilled that an actual entomologist would talk to me! It was probably a career-defining moment for me. I don't know if that's a good or a bad thing anymore.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Heavy In June, Light In August

Last week I read Faulkner's Light in August for the first time. Although I was an English major in college, I missed all the American authors. My faculty advisor was quite willing to let me sign up for all the century-by-century review classes on British lit, along with Chaucer, Milton, Donne, and Spenser, perhaps because he was a medievalist. I skipped modern writers, including the Americans, reasoning that I could read those by myself, any time, but where else would I get a chance to have someone lead me by the hand through all of Milton's English poems? How else was I going to get through "Paradise Regained?"

It wasn't a bad plan, and I have been enjoying Faulkner's novels as I am able to track down library books. However, I've been wondering what other people thought about Light in August. Once accustomed to literary criticism, I seem to be reluctant to give it up. That's why I've been poking around the Web looking for commentary on Faulkner in general, and this book in particular.

I've been surprised at how little "good stuff" is available. Last summer I gathered a collection of Faulkner links with helpful and interesting biographical information, bibliographies, and other assemblages of information. Beyond these, and the home pages of University of Michigan's Faulkner collection, all I find with straightforward search engines are plot summaries and simple-minded analyses of the most obvious literary devices: everything you need to cheat on your homework. I turned up a few links to scholarly articles, but these are all on for-pay academic journal Web pages, well beyond my budget.

What I was hoping for was some sort of feminist critique, because the women in Light in August are so varied and interesting, and Faulkner's attitude toward them seems so ambiguous to me. I reckon I'll just have to work it out for myself.

I did find this interesting experiment in exploiting the possibilities of presenting Faulkner's literature on the Web:The Sound and the Fury: a Hypertext Edition. Ed. Stoicheff, Muri, Deshaye, et al. Updated Mar. 2003. U of Saskatchewan. Here's how the editors describe their project:

William Faulkner's 1929 novel The Sound and the Fury is a complex text....[I]ts frequent use of stream of consciousness creates great narrative density; it is highly allusive and intertextual throughout...

It was this complexity that initially attracted the editors of this edition to the idea of placing The Sound and the Fury within a digital environment. The possibilities for visually displaying a text's information and structures in a hypertext format are rich and productive, and the first goal of this edition was to exploit those possibilities to display the novel's first, chronologically most difficult, section.

The presentation is quite fascinating--there are marginal links to literary references, critical essays, explanatory charts and graphs, as well as usual the collection of links.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Belated "Details" Project For Take It Further Challenge

Back in March, I posted about my plan for SharonB's March "Take It Further" Challenge. I am learning or trying a new skill or technique for each month's TIF challenge--that's my interpretation of "taking it further."

March's topic was "noticing the details. I started several things, but eventually, I settled on adding lace insert details to some underwear I'd planned to sew.

It's taken me a while to get them finished, but here are some of the details I attended to in replenishing my lingerie drawer. Sometimes details are quite simple--a pretty print matched with some plush picot-edged elastic looks sweet.

The stretch lace, spandex fabric, and picot-edged elastic look as though they were bought for each other, but lace and elastic both came from "grab-bag" mail order supply bargains, and the fabric is what's left of a ready-to-wear knit top that didn't fit well.

This blue lace seemed too sheer for a cut-away effect, so I left the white fabric behind to emphasize the delicate pattern.

White stretch lace on blue tee-shirt jersey calls more attention to these details.

OK, now I've got some clothes I needed and one very late project completed. It's on to the April, May, and June "Take It Further" challenges. I've got big ideas, and a little time to catch up. Thanks SharonB, for the inspiration!

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Dyeing My Couch

Last weekend I made a new futon cover. It's hard to find fabric of any kind in these parts, so I ordered a length of cotton duck from Dharma Trading Company (along with a bunch of other cotton and silk fabrics for future projects). After I washed and preshrank the duck cloth (from the Dutch word doek, not the waterfowl,according to Wikipedia), I dyed it shades of green. You can see in this photograph the fabric (in the early morning mist) alongside the color inspiration.

I used what Paula Burch calls the low water immersion technique, with Procion dyes. Duck cloth is too coarsely woven to show the delicate color gradations this approach to dye application can produce on silk and fine cotton, but the pleat patterning did give pleasing results. Here's my step-by-step procedure.

  1. Washed the 10-yard length of duck, and dried it on high heat for maximum shrinkage.
  2. Cut fabric to length of couch. Luckily, the fabric was wide enough to allow me to use only two futon-lengths.
  3. Weighed the cut yardage to determine how much dye to use. The Dharma Trading catalog has charts that tell how much of each Procion dye color to use per pound of fabric. The 4.25 pounds of duck cloth required 1 ounce of "Golden Yellow" dye and 2.125 ounces of a mixture of "Midnight Blue" and "Electric Blue." I didn't have enough of either dye to make the full amount needed.
  4. Folded the fabric lengths in half, then accordion pleated them, coiled them, and placed each in the bottom of a plastic bucket. (I divided the dye and fixative solutions between the buckets.)
  5. Poured just enough hot water on each piece of fabric to completely wet it.
  6. Dissolved the yellow and blue dyes in separate containers. I know from experience that the yellow and blue Procion dyes migrate through fabric and "strike" at similar rates. Since I wanted different color intensities in different areas, I poured the yellow dye on the fabric, with just enough water to cover the fabric. I waited 30 minutes, then added the blue dyes the same way.
  7. After 60 minutes, I added a solution of soda ash (washing soda) to each bucket. I used 1.5 cups of soda ash for 4.25 pounds of cotton (calculated from the Dharma Trading Company table). I used about a gallon of water to dissolve the soda ash, and I poured the fixing solution on slowly, down the side of the bucket.
  8. After the fabric mixture stood overnight (about 14 hours total) I rinsed out the dye, washed the fabric again, and hung it on the clothesline to dry.
  9. Ironed the fabric and sewed the two pieces together in a big pillow case. I pulled this over the mattress, and hand-sewed the open ends together. I used to put zippers in these futon covers because the ready-made ones had them, but zipping and unzipping was not much faster than stitching and unstitching, and it was a nuisance to put in those long, long zippers.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Fun With Sourdough Starter

I've tried making sourdough bread starter several times, following several different recipes, with limited success. A few weeks ago, I sent a self-addressed stamped envelope to the address given at Not long after that, I got my envelope back, with a small plastic bag of dried 1847 Oregon Trail Sourdough Starter: The Wild Yeast Born When the West Was Young! It seems that the late Carl T. Griffith used to give some of his family's sourdough starter to anyone who asked, and a group of Carl's friends carry on this tradition.

The starter, although dried, was quick to revive and start growing, and I've used it in several recipes so far. The flavor's great, and the starter is hardy and quick-growing. Following are Carl Griffith's own sourdough biscuit recipe (my first try at biscuits without baking powder) and a nice, easy bread recipe from John Ross.

When you want to bake something, bring the starter up to room temperature, mix in 1 cup flour, 1 c warm water or skim milk and let sit overnight to ferment. The next morning, remove one cup to keep in a covered jar as a starter for use next time, feed it, then do your baking.

Sourdough BISCUITS
1 tb ActiveDryYeast
1 c Sourdough starter
1 1/4 c Water-Lukewarm
5 c Bread flour
1/3 c Sugar
Melted butter or Margarine
3/4 ts Salt

If you desire dissolve the yeast in warm water with a little sugar till bubbly. Sourdough is a yeast but rises faster with added commercial yeast. In a large mixing bowl add sugar, salt, sourdough starter, yeast and flour. Cover; set in warm spot and let rise until double. Punch down and turn out onto floured work surface. Roll out to 3/4 inch thickness. Cut with biscuit cutter. Dip both sides in butter or oil, and place on well-greased baking sheet. Let rise 15 min. Bake at 425 - 20 min. or until golden brown.

Sourdough Baking: The Basics by S. John Ross
  • 2 Cups of sponge (proofed starter)
  • 3 Cups of unbleached flour
  • 2 tablespoons of olive oil or softened margarine
  • 4 teaspoons of sugar
  • 2 teaspoons of salt

...To the sponge, add the sugar, salt, and oil (the oil is optional - you can use softened butter instead, or no oil at all). Mix well, then knead in the flour a half-cup at a time. Knead in enough flour to make a good, flexible bread dough. You can do this with an electric mixer, a bread machine on dough cycle, or a food processor....treat it like ordinary white or French bread dough.

Let the dough rise in a warm place....Note that sourdough rises more slowly than yeast bread....Let the dough double in bulk, just like yeast-bread dough. When a finger poked into the top of the dough creates a pit that doesn't heal (spring back), you've got a risen dough.

Punch the dough down and knead it a little more. Make a loaf and place it on a baking sheet (lightly greased or sprinkled with cornmeal). Slit the top if you like, and cover the loaf with a paper towel and place it in a warm place to rise again, until doubled in bulk.

Place the pan with the loaf in your oven, and then turn your oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit and bake the bread for 30-45 minutes. Do not preheat the oven. The loaf is done when the crust is brown and the bottom sounds hollow when thumped with a wooden spoon. Turn the loaf out onto a cooling rack or a towel and let it cool for an hour before slicing.

Some more interesting sourdough resources:

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Creepy Mansion Sales Decline At Snowshoe?

I confess to following the RSS feed for The Onion. It keeps me posted on important trends like this one: Realtors Blame Housing Market For Slump In Creepy-Mansion Sales.

....Overall sales of cursed and bedamned residences have fallen 45 percent in the past 14 months--more than twice that of non-evil houses. In response, many agents have begun offering incentives, such as waiving half their fee or including the price of an exorcism with the closing costs.

Perhaps most alarming to realtors is the inability to attract first-time buyers.

"Even if you do get that young family who's willing to share the two-car garage with the spectral figure hanging from its rafters, there's no guarantee they can get a mortgage," Morgan Stanley analyst Ben Hodges says. "A first-time buyer with no equity can't even get a severed foot in the door."

Though Congress is debating several bills that would offer tax breaks to wealthy urban couples with no children and an overall lack of humility who purchase creepy mansions in the countryside, industry specialists say the outlook remains dire....

Given Pocahontas County's extensive collection of haints, I wonder if this will influence the local vacation home market?

Friday, June 13, 2008

Short Sewing Project

The last week of school overlapped with the first heat wave of the summer, and me with no short pants in the closet. Fortunately, I had bought a Summer Shorts 4-pack "grab bag" from Wazoodle, a terrific Canadian Web retail fabric store which says of itself:

We specialize in better quality textiles and notions used for casual clothing, outerwear, sports wear. We also have a large inventory of athletic and technical knits, diaper making supplies, and camouflage products. We occasionally dabble in finer ladies wear and home decor.

The pink and navy blue shorts are poly-cotton blends from my "Four-Pack," while the light turquoise pair is made from a heavy-weight cotton twill I tie-dyed several years ago. I also made cotton duck print shorts (with fabric from the Wazoodle grab bag) as a "trial run" for my home-made pattern. I like to test drive a pattern in real life before I make multiple versions, which is why that pair is currently in the wash. The print is "little-girl cute," and although it amuses me, it will probably not be photographed or worn off the confines of our ridge on Droop Mountain.

The final length of "Four-Pack" fabrics (priced about $3 each) is a pale violet cotton twill. I am considering dying it a darker, more practical color when I get my fabric dyes out later this summer.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

New, Improved Hole In the Ground

One sad disadvantage of my school engagement was that I missed many exciting developments here at home. I missed the delivery of the blocks, and the visit of this nifty little machine.

I also missed the concrete floor's pouring.

I got to see a little of the block-laying. I should be at home, camera in hand, for further interesting developments.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Box Elder Blossoms

The box elder tree is busy making its little winged seeds now, but about a month ago, this is what the pistilate flowers looked like. I'd never noticed their striking color before.