When I planted our peas in March, I chased the crows out of the cherry tree before I started. I was thinking of all the crows I’d seen watching gray squirrels bury their peanuts. The squirrels are so busy-busy, patting down the soil over their treasure with those bad little paws. Then as soon as they leave, the crows swoop down, pluck the nuts up, and eat them with a stylish nonchalance. My beautiful snap pea seeds had been soaking overnight, and had begun to sprout–they looked alive and tasty.
As soon as I finished planting and was putting my tools away in the shed, a swirl of three crows flew into the cherry tree, cawing loudly. I laughed to myself, “They’re calling their friends to say, ‘She’s finished! Come eat!'” But I thought I was kidding. Later I found perfect crow-bill-sized holes in the pea-patch!
In his wonderful book, Living With Wildlife in the Pacific Northwest (which offers a great deal of insight no matter what your geographic region), Russell Link writes, “We love wild animals, or we hate them, depending on what they’re doing.” Our hearts lift at the robin’s spring song, then in the summer they eat our strawberries.
One morning there was a Cooper’s Hawk perched on the corner of our fence. So close! Such beautiful yellow legs, and deep orange eyes! I rushed to get my binoculars, my first impulse as a bird nerd. But in the next breath I realized, oh my lord, that bird was eying my six-week-old baby chickens! Cooper’s Hawks are bird-eaters. I ran out there like Ma Ingalls, barefoot in the wet grass, my pink flannel pajamas dragging around my feet, waving my arms and yelling “Shoo!” The hawk looked at me coolly before lifting over the garage roof, and I brought my feathered girls in the kitchen for the day. I’ve always been critical of farmers that bait “vermin” such as coyotes, wolves, and cougars because they are a perceived threat to livestock, and I still am. But my thoughts are more nuanced since the hawk incident. What if I really was Ma Ingalls? What if those chickens were not my hobby, but my family’s livelihood? My children’s sustenance? What if all that were true, and I had a shotgun hanging over the door?
I don’t have any brilliant how-tos for preventing crows from eating your peas. But I love the reminder that there is no clear line we can draw between our households, our lives, our habits, and the wider, natural world. Our homey thresholds are flimsy and marginal–they represent the point from which we cross into nature, and wild nature–distressingly sometimes–crosses back. Such a recognition of our constant, inevitable continuity with the more-than-human world is, I believe, exhilirating, enlivening, and beautiful.
Meanwhile, we protect our chickens, net our strawberries, and wave our arms at waiting crows. I tossed some new pea seeds into the holes the crows had made, and they’re beginning to fill in nicely.
Though The Tangled Nest is still quite new, and it may seem early to be going on a blog vacation, I will nevertheless be taking a short spring break from:
1. The List (you know the one)
2. The cold Seattle weather
3. Extremely edifying books
4. Things that plug in
I was going to add a 5, 6, and 7, but I realize that number one, “The List,” pretty well sums it up. Maybe you can find a way to set yours aside for a bit, too.
In that spirit: Though it was past bedtime the other night, and though she was in her fluffy pajamas, and though we had already started enough sunflowers to plant a field in Kansas, Claire somehow convinced me that we should start some more, right away, in the dark of night. “How can you have too many sunflowers?” Indeed. I had to turn some eggs out of their carton in order to have container-space for more seeds.
I love how gardening can happen in any unsuspecting moment. Neighbors beware–young sunflower deliveries coming soon. Meanwhile, I’ll see y’all in a week.
One day early on this school year, Claire came home and said, “Mommy, you bake the bread for my sandwich, and we use our homemade jam. We should mash up some peanuts with a rock or something instead of buying peanut butter, so the whole thing will be homemade!” Well, that’s a girl after my own heart! We haven’t bought peanut butter since (though we haven’t quite resorted to rock-mashing either). It’s super-easy to make peanut butter, costs a little less than buying good store-bought, and tastes miles better than the best gourmet peanut butter you’ve ever tasted. It’s fresher, nuttier, toastier, just better. It takes five minutes, and kids old enough to run the food processor can easily make it by themselves.
We don’t usually measure the ingredients, but we did this time so we could share some semblance of a recipe:
2 cups toasted Valencia peanuts (available in bulk at most food coops, Whole Foods, and many grocery stores–organic nuts will be around three bucks a pound). If you buy raw peanuts, toast them at 350 degrees for 20 minutes before making your PB.
4-7 tablespoons of peanut oil (canola works fine if you don’t have peanut oil on hand)
Kosher salt to taste
Put the nuts in the small bowl of the food processor, fitted with the metal blade (or the blender). Add 4 tablespoons of oil, and blend until rather smooth, though the butter will remain somewhat grainy. If dry, add more oil, a tablespoon at a time. You’ll probably use about 6.
Add salt to taste, but be careful–the kosher salt will make the PB taste divine, but a pinch goes a long way!
Decant into a jar, and refrigerate. SO yummy!
For a transformative PB & J experience, try it with the Best Sandwich Bread Recipe Ever, and your favorite homemade jam. It’s also great on apples, or straight out of the jar on a spoon (not that I would know…).
I love how pleased my daughter is to announce that her sandwich is entirely homemade. We’ve come such a long way from the days when it was a stigma to have lovely, homemade, brown bread, because all the middle-class kids had Wonderbread. Enjoy.
My biological clock started ticking in college. I was, after all, of child-bearing age in body, if not in mind, and I’d always had maternal tendencies. I didn’t want a child yet. I just wanted to give birth. Whenever this compulsion became overwhelming, I baked bread. It was the perfect psychological antidote, providing my hormone-ridden self with a life-giving activity and a rising, belly-like substance, without any need to bed down some hapless frat boy, or produce an actual baby. Instead, I produced unbearably warm and delicious loaves, and topped them with butter and jam. Heaven. (Now that I am a real mother, I think the birth/bread analogy breaks down quite quickly–nothing compares to giving birth. But I still think baking bread might be the next best thing.)
Like many neophyte breadbakers, my first manual was The Laurel’s Kitchen Bread Book–a beautiful and useful primer, with those homey woodcut illustrations that make you feel hippy, happy, and earth mother-ish, as if your own kitchen is the peaceful center of a gardeny earth. And again like many neophyte breadbakers, I made the ruinous decision to begin my career with Laurel’s “Basic Whole Wheat Bread.” It seemed like a good idea, being the starter recipe in a section that promised “tender, light, moist, and delicious loaves that speak eloquently of the goodness of the wheat itself.” I mixed, I kneaded, I tested, I watched the bread rise. I punched, shaped, and baked. I sat aflutter with excitement over the fragrant wafting goodness that filled my tiny apartment. And then I brought it forth. My bread brick. Utterly disheartened, I tried to salvage something of the experience by sending my leaden bread into the food chain. I hammered off bits to feed the ducks in “Lakum Duckum,” the Whitman College pond, but the bread morsels were so dense that they sunk to the bottom before the ducks could get them (try as they might), at which point I started to cry. It may seem silly to apply a moralistic label to something as innocuous as bread, but let us not mince words. Laurels Basic Whole Wheat Bread recipe is evil. It will break your teeth and, worse, your spirit. You will think you are a failure, but it’s not you. It’s this bad, bad recipe. (I still recommend the rest of the book, though!)
I might have given up on bread altogether, if not for my friend Susan’s mother, who produced beautiful, healthy loaves with the seeming effortlessness born of long experience. I told her about my bread. “Oh honey-baby, ” she crooned, as she wrapped her arms about my neck, “don’t ever make Laurel’s Basic Bread.” In the intervening decades (oh dear, is that plural?) I’ve grown as a baker. There have been loaves of agony and loaves of ecstasy. I want to share a bit of the ecstasy.
It’s a relatively simple, one-day, two-rise bread, with no starter. It’s textured, tasty, nourishing, loved by ten-year-old daughters and husbands, and is long-lasting (one loaf will stay fresh enough for the whole school week’s worth of sandwiches). It’s not a crusty, serve-with-soup-or-pasta artisan bread. It’s for slicing, and topping with peanut butter and jam, or cheese and tomatoes. As my long-suffering husband (a carnivore living with two vegetarians, and enduring a wife who makes him tofurkey-sprout sandwiches) puts it, “I’d eat anything on this bread.” My, is it good. With the publisher‘s blessing, here it is:
3/4 cup cracked wheat
1 cup boiling water
1 1/2 cups walnuts
1 1/4 cup apple cider (or apple juice seems to work just fine)
1 1/2 teaspoons dried yeast
2 tablespoons honey
1 cup course whole-wheat flour (plus a little more for sprinkling on top)
2 1/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1/2 cup canola oil
1. In a small bowl, cover the cracked wheat with the boiling water. Stir until moistened, and let sit for 10 minutes, allowing the water to be absorbed.
2. Spread the walnuts on a rimmed baking sheet, and toast for 10 minutes in a 350 F oven. Let them cool, then chop coarsely, and set aside.
3. Heat the apple cider until it’s just warm to the touch, and pour it into the bowl of a stand mixer. Add yeast and honey, and whisk until the yeast is dissolved. Let sit for five minutes. Add the plumped cracked wheat, flours, salt, and canola oil. Using the dough hook attachment, mix on low speed for about a minute to combine ingredients, then mix on medium speed for 10 minutes (don’t leave your mixer unattended–it could “walk” over the edge of the counter!). The dough will form a loose ball at the end of the hook. Add walnuts and mix for two more minutes. (If mixing by hand, stir with a wooden spoon until ingredients come together, then knead by hand for about ten minutes. Add walnuts, and knead until they are evenly distributed.)
4. Transfer dough to an oiled, medium bowl, and cover with plastic wrap. Let it proof in a warm room (it should be 70-75 degrees) for two hours. The dough will almost double in size.
5. Pull the dough onto a floured surface, and punch it down with your hands to release any air bubbles. Form the dough into rectangle, about 12 x 6 inches, with the long side facing you. Fold the short ends onto the top, meeting in the middle, then starting with the end closest to you, roll the dough away from you into a tight log.
6. Place the loaf into an oiled 9x 5 inch loaf pan (if you have one of the taller, 4 inch high pans, that works best. Mine is the usual 3 inches high, and that’s fine). Cover with plastic wrap, and let proof for an hour at room temperature. The loaf will rise a bit beyond the top of the pan. While it’s proofing, preheat the oven to 385 F.
7. Remove the plastic, and dust the top with course whole-wheat flour (I like to use a little sifter). Place the pan on the center rack and bake for about 50 minutes, until the loaf is medium brown on top. Cool in the pan on a wire rack for at least 30 minutes, then run a knife around the sides of the pan to release the loaf, and invert the pan to remove the bread!
This all might seem time consuming, but the mixing takes only about twenty minutes, and I find that the proofing and baking of bread lends a gentle rhythm to my day–breaking up the time into sensible segments that somehow allow me to accomplish more than I would otherwise. And there are few things I do that are so simple, yet make my beloved co-inhabitants (not to mention myself) so very happy. Enjoy.
When in Seattle, be sure to visit Macrina Bakery! The rest of the cookbook is completely wonderful, too.
(Don’t have time for a yeasted bread? Here’s my quick bread recipe, that also works great for sandwiches).
Fruiting trees offer such a wonderful way to reclaim and rebuild the fertility of our urban yards–if all goes well, one planting will provide sweet food for years to come. This weekend we planted our newest fruit tree, a little four-way Asian pear. Four varieties are grafted onto one tree. The varieties cross-pollinate one another, so you only need one tree to get a nice fruit crop, making it perfect for small urban yards!
Early spring is a great time to plant fruit trees. They are starting to bud, but not yet leafing out, and the transition is eased by mild spring days that are not too hot or dry. In the moist Pacific Northwest, though, we should resist the temptation to lop any wayward branchlets off of our new Asian pears until the weather is dryer–late spring or early summer–as open cuts in wet weather make them susceptible to a bacterial disease that can kill the tree.
As you may have noticed from the photo, there’s something mathematically interesting thing about my tree. The label says “four-way Asian pear,” and so did the nice hand-written sign at West Seattle Nursery. But when I got it home, I counted the labels and did some simple addition: Shinko+Kosui+Shinseiki+Nijisseiki+Kojuro= 5 varieties! I’m very much looking forward to the eventual taste test. I think Asian pears taste like they fell from heaven, and feel grateful that they thrive in our maritime climate (and in much of the rest of the country as well).
If your local nursery doesn’t have 3 or 4-way Asian pears, the amazing Raintree Nursery in Morton, Washington, carries beautiful, bare root trees, plenty of recommendations unique to your garden zone, and their delivery fees are entirely reasonable.
For a refresher on Spring tree planting, find Raintree’s comprehensive guide here.
Last summer the three of us traveled in Kenya and Tanzania for two months. Our first stop was a volunteer stint at Colobus Trust on the coast of Kenya, where we worked on Colobus monkey conservation, and lodged in the organization’s simple rooms. Our packs were light, with few extra clothes, and it was the cusp of the rainy season. When our freshly washed clothes were hung in the open-air windows, they sometimes took days to dry, even though they were under cover–the air was so thick and moist. Midway into our week there, I’d been wearing my only dry shirt for a few days, and was starting to feel quite funky. “Do you think they’ll ever dry?” I lightly asked one of the staff, who lives in a village nearby. “Oh sure,” he told me, “when the sun comes out, they’ll dry right away.” “Well, you know how impatient we Americans are,” I joked, “used to just popping things in the dryer!” “The what?” “Um, the clothes dryer,” I said meekly, suddenly remembering that I was speaking to a man who’d lived his whole life with several other family members in a one-room house the size of my daughter’s bedroom, made of simple earthen materials, and without power.
Many of the people we talked to in the villages of Kenya and Tanzania know that Americans’ houses are too big, and that we own cars, but the thought of clothes dryers was inconceivable. Using an expensive machine to do something that the air does naturally came across as profligate, idiotic, and I suppose even indecent. At the Colobus Trust, my Kenyan friend started to laugh, and I was about to laugh along, when I realized that this was a private laugh, tinged with bitterness–a laughter I was not invited to join. I resolved in that moment to sever my dryer dependency.
We’d had an outdoor clothesline for some time, but in rainy Seattle outdoor clothes-drying is a part time proposition in any season. So when we got home from Africa, we rigged up a retractable line that stretches across the length of our long basement, over the empty guinea pig cage (Nicholas and Clover, RIP), past the camping gear, and finally making a nice little curtain for Tom’s corner bike workshop. It works great, and now we can line-dry our laundry no matter what the weather is doing. The clothes dry in about half a day, and we almost never use our dryer anymore. If you need your line-dryed items de-wrinkled or softened, you can pop them in the dryer for a couple of minutes before you fold them (really–two minutes is enough!).
We now realize that since our basement ceiling is quite high, we don’t really need the retractable line–we never take it down, so we could have just strung a rope across the room. But for a basement with a lower ceiling, the retractable line would be nice. In any case, we recommend using coated clothesline line, even though it’s more expensive than cotton or nylon, as the latter quickly slackens.
Our friend MegaFlava is more of a tinkerer, Make-zine type. His basement isn’t long enough for a line such as ours, so he rigged up this amazing rack on a frame made of bent electrical conduit, and criss-crossed with clothesline.
It lowers and raises on a pulley system, so after you hang the clothes, you can pull it up to the ceiling and still use the room. Wet clothes are heavy, and MegaFlava had to work on balancing the pulleys so that the full clothesline could be hoisted without too much exertion.
Of course, hanging laundry on the subterranean line isn’t as delightful as time spent hanging clothes outside on a sunny day, but it is still meditative, and I find it pleasant. Occasionally I do a simple multi-task–my two faves: singing, or practicing recorded French lessons with headphones (yes, a clothesline Luddite with an iPod).
My dad grew up in Iowa, dryer-less of course. He tells me about how his mother would bring the clothes in from the winter line, the shirts frozen solid as a board. I like to think of her, My Grandma Carrie, as I hang my family’s clothes in our warm basement.
(As always, thanks to my sweet hubby for the beautiful photos! See more at his Flickr site.)
St. Placid Priory is a women’s Benedictine monastery in Lacey, about an hour south of Seattle. The hallmark of Benedictine communities is a radical hospitality that extends to all people, and even beyond–to the more-than-human world of nature, and wildness. St. Placid’s has a lovely, quiet guest house, where I sometimes spend a few days writing, or just finding some solitude (anyone can visit–no religious affiliation required!).
On a recent visit, Sister Monika Ellis told me about a market bag she’d crocheted. I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it. For “yarn,” she’d cut sixty (SIXTY!) plastic grocery bags into half-inch strips. She snipped them in loops, from seam to seam, so they could be strung together like rubber bands into a long, long line, then rolled into a ball. This she crocheted into a strong, beautiful, open-work bag using a free pattern she’d found on the internet. I love how different colored bags were used to create a striped pattern.
Many of the sisters at St. Placid spin and knit wool from the fleece of local sheep, and the resulting creations they offer for sale are often wondrous, but this bag is something new altogether! People want to buy Sister M’s bag, and she says, “You want me to make more of those? Are you kidding me?” But she has provided a demo roll of the plastic yarn, along with directions to inspire people. “If I need something, I always try to figure out if I can make do with what I have first,” Sr. Monika told me.
In Seattle, the city council recently passed a “bag tax”–twenty cents for every new plastic bag we take at the grocery checkout line. Good heavens, from the resulting outcry you’d think they’d told us we had to sacrifice our first born children. The detractors provided some astonishing math. It would cost $1 every time we shopped! In a year, we would spend the same amount on plastic bags that we would have spent on 77 gallons of milk! 200 loaves of bread! (Um, not if we bring our own bags…). It didn’t take long to gather the 20,000 signatures needed to get a “Repeal the Bag Tax” referendum on the ballot.
When I think of all this, and when I find myself feeling unmotivated to make the simplest life-giving steps in my own everyday life–out of laziness, or hurry, or cynicism, or lack of creativity, or even despair, I try to remember Sister Monika, patiently transforming our refuse into something practical, lasting, and beautiful. Thank you Sister!
Lately, I find it hard to shell out for boxed cereal. It’s so expensive, not particularly nutritious, and there isn’t even that much cereal in the box. The best boxed cereal–the organic, unsugary kind, is exorbitant! And no matter what kind of cereal we buy in a box, ounce for ounce, we are paying a disproportionately high amount for the wasteful packaging, compared to the fluffy contents.
As an alternative, we’ve been loving our homemade granola. This recipe evolved through trial and error, and meets Claire’s rigorous 10-year-old taste-testing standards. Since apple juice provides both sweetener and liquid, it uses less oil than some recipes, and is lower in fat. It’s both fun and super-easy to make. Of course you can play with the dry ingredients–add wheat germ, flax seeds, different nuts–to suit your taste. Just keep the ratio of dry and wet ingredients about the same. Most of this stuff is typically available in bulk. Enjoy more nutrition, more yumminess, and less waste.
Tangled Nest Granola
Mix on a high-rimmed baking sheet, and toast for at 300 degrees for about 25 minutes, stirring halfway through:
6 cups rolled oats
1/2 cup sunflower seeds
1 cup chopped walnuts, almonds, or mixture
1/2 cup sesame seeds
1 cup shaved coconut (OK–even though we get lovely fair trade, organic coconut at our local food coop, it still comes from Sri Lanka! Not a great use of our food miles, we admit–but it is a concession to Claire, who learned to love granola when we were traveling in Tanzania, where coconut is a much different thing–falling all around us from the trees. We are thinking about weaning coconut out of our granola slowly, without Claire noticing…Meanwhile, if you do use coconut, add it halfway through the toasting time, when you take the granola out to stir–otherwise it will overbrown.)
In a liquid measuring cup or small bowl, stir together:
1 cup frozen apple juice concentrate, thawed (we live in Washington state, where local AJ is plentiful–another sweet juice concentrate could be substituted)
1/2 cup brown sugar or honey
4 Tablespoons vegetable oil
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon, or to taste
Turn the oven up to 350. Tip the toasted ingredients into a large bowl, pour the apple juice mixture over the top, and mix thoroughly. Oil or spray the baking sheet, or line with parchment, and spread the granola into the pan. Bake for about 30 minutes, stirring halfway through. Let cool, and store in an airtight container. Add berries, raisins, dried fruit, and milk or yogurt. Enjoy!
More box-free breakfast recipes to come, but meanwhile try: quick-breads, scones, summer berry muffins, home-mixed hot cereals…
Full disclosure: we still have a box of Trader Joe’s Os in the cupboard…
The vernal equinox is finally here! After a long, dark Seattle winter full of freak snow storms, I am so ready. It’s easy to understand why this day has been celebrated across cultures for thousands of years. The literal translation of equinox is “equal night.” At 11:44 Universal Time on March 20, 2009, the sun passes directly over the equator, resulting in a 24 hour period during which the balance of day and night is about equal across the earth. As we welcome spring this day, it’s intriguing to remember that in the Southern hemisphere, people are getting ready for the cooler autumn season.
The promise of the Spring Equinox is fertility-in-waiting, and two of its primary symbols are the egg, and the seed. After a nice egg salad sandwich, consider celebrating by grabbing a kid (or a friend, or a lover, or a neighbor, or some much-needed alone-time), and planting some seeds. Here in the Pacific Northwest, it’s a great day to sow sweat peas (we are planting mainly vegetables in are garden beds, but who can resist fragrant spring sweet peas?) This year, flouting the conventional wisdom that sweet peas should be planted in north-south rows, we are making a sweet pea teepee (partly for spatial reasons, and partly because it’s so darn fun to say). A vining, climbing variety is planted close to the poles, while bush variety seeds are planted around the edge, where they can eventually lean on the taller, trellised plants for a little support.
If you live in an apartment, and have no bit of earth (or even if you do), the equinox is a perfect day to share the love with a little guerilla gardening–scatter some carefree flower seeds in a colorless corner of your neighborhood, or a forgotten city space. Cornflowers (also called bachelor buttons), can take care of themselves quite well, as can calendula, and nigella. If they survive, they’ll re-seed–and you can enjoy your secret super-hero identity as a sower of delight for years to come.
Can you really balance an egg vertically on the equinox? Well, yes–IF you have the right shaped egg, lots of patience, and a bit of luck. But not any better than you can any other day. Don’t let that keep you from trying!
This week I received two e-mails from friends who want to know what they can do about their “nemesis”–the woodpecker that is maniacally drumming their house at all hours. This is a frequent spring complaint about Northern Flickers, the most common urban-suburban woodpecker. They are beautiful fawn-colored birds with black spots, long-ish bills, and pretty, dolphin-like faces. Unlike many birds, woodpeckers don’t sing–instead, they drum to attract a mate in spring, and to proclaim a territory. They rap their bills repeatedly and rhythmically on the loudest surface they can find–they love metal drainpipes, electrical transformers, AND the most resonant parts of our houses. They drive many people completely nuts.
Remember that the flicker’s goal is not to destroy your house, and they usually don’t cause serious damage–they just have a hormone-driven need to make noise this time of year. To deter them, you can tack something simple, like a length of cloth, over the bird’s favored drumming place. Birds don’t like things that move randomly, so a windsock, or a trash bag cut into streamers and hung near the birds favorite spot will help discourage them. My own tack: run outside waving a broom, and yelling, “Bad woodpecker! Go away!”
We can also try a gentle attitude shift. I truly believe it is a privilege and a delight to live alongside native, wild animals, but allowing urban wildlife to thrive sometimes requires us to tolerate a little discomfort. Woodpecker drumming usually doesn’t hurt anything (besides our nerves–oh, and of course the small matter of the 1995 Space Shuttle mission that was delayed when flickers tapped six little holes into the Discovery’s external fuel tank!). These woodpecker rhythms are heralding the season of light and fertility, and the noise is temporary (once they get into nesting they stop drumming). We can try to relax, and celebrate the role that our households play in the cycles of nature. Think of the unseen cavity-nest full of fluffy little woodpecker babies that will be helped into existence by the resonant capacities of our very own dwellings!
p.s. If flickers are drilling holes into your house, they may be seeking food rather than noise. In this, they rarely err–check for termites or carpenter ants.