Solstice Celebration & Christmas Preparation

In the early hours, a couple of Great Horned Owls were hooting across the grove as I headed down to the chicken coop to turn the lights on for the ladies. At -8 degrees, I won’t be opening the trapdoor for them today; they won’t walk out in the snow anyhow, so I might as well keep what heat they make inside and hopefully keep their eggs from freezing before I collect them.

A number of them have started laying now–little pullet eggs from the Silkies in a bed on the floor, and a deep brown “big girl” egg in a nesting box from who-knows-which hen. A couple of weeks ago I bought two dozen eggs from our food co-op, so we wouldn’t run out, but my girls keep filling up one side of that first carton so that we haven’t got to the second carton yet. Time for some holiday baking!

DSC06174It takes awhile for the coop light to warm up, and for it to be light enough in there for me to see (and not step on) the eggs–while it seems like the Silkies have decided on one particular corner to lay in, I’ve found eggs near the door and by the water fountain, too. I haven’t stepped on one yet, but I do have a horrible habit of sticking the eggs in my coat pockets and forgetting them by the time I’ve got inside the house. I haven’t broken one in my pocket yet, but it’s only a matter of time.

Turns out I have two friends who’ve killed cell phones this way (and one with a long-forgotten rotten egg–blech!), and come to find out, their phones were killed by eggs from the same flock–the one friend having bequeathed his chickens to the other during a move. This makes me wonder if, during subsequent chicken adoptions, one should inquire into whether their eggs have killed [phones] before, and might be likely to kill again.

It’s solstice-time–the longest nights of the year–which means it’s also officially winter, though we’ve been suffering from the season’s bitter cold temperatures for a couple of weeks now. Monday was a heady reprieve–up above freezing and water trickling from the eaves. This morning, we took the below-zero temps with a modicum of good cheer because of the lovely hoarfrost.

DSC06159Not so cheery is the feral cat-who-thinks-she’s-a-chicken: A longer-term resident of this farm than us, she was raised around a previous flock, and if she had her druthers, I’m sure she’d be “cooped” up with her current batch of feathered friends. I don’t mind her milling about with them in the summer and scavenging in the compost for whatever they leave behind, but I don’t want to chance her stealing eggs or pooping in the coop.

She has found a warm place to stay (when she’s not patrolling the barn or piles of buckthorn in the grove) between the basement windows we haven’t yet replaced–the outer one has a pane missing, and I’m sure we’re losing heat through there or she wouldn’t be hanging out. It’s driving the dog crazy to have a “foreign animal” so close to the house [practically IN it!–growls our vexed guardian], but Vega is smart enough not to stick her nose too close to a critter she knows is sharp.

John and I broke down on our no-feeding-feral-cats resolve, and I gave her a little dish of food this morning, which she gobbled like a champ once I moved a safe (by her reckoning) distance away. I am hoping so long as we put it out when she’s there and limit it to what she can eat in one gobbling, we’ll have less chance of attracting other, less desirable hangers-on about the place. Once the bitter cold has broken, she can find enough calories to keep warm through her own devices.

DSC06164Meanwhile, we’re wrapping presents, anticipating the arrival of our boys, and doing some cookie-baking and chili-making (OK, mostly John is). The long nights make us sleepy early, but we staved off the early-hour doldrums last night by attending the annual solstice fire at the farm of some friends, leaving the string of white lights on the porch railing plugged in to brighten our arrival home.

The coincidence of the long nights, fullness of the moon, clear skies, and snow cover have also brightened our mood and provided plenty of opportunities for “mooning” about with our cameras both morning and night. John sets up his little bird blind in the yard some days to shoot images of the abundant visitors to the feeders, as well as tromping off to the various patches of prairie to catch the subtle light gleaming ’round clumps of Bluestem and Indian grass.

Me, I mostly stick close to home, freezing my fingers off for a few amateur shots around the farm.

DSC06156Happy Solstice, dear readers! May your winter nights be warm and full of love, and your coming year gentle and kind.


The last couple of months have been a blur of activity–traveling and working between my home and that of my fiance ninety minutes away. But the Christmas cheer is no less because of it–I haven’t had a “family” Christmas in years, and I’m thoroughly enjoying this one.

Our menu is a bit international, with John and I and our two exchange students all participating in food preparation. Last night, I assisted our Spanish student making paella (his first!), and tonight, our student from Hong Kong is prepping a soup from his home country. I feel honored that he’s asked me to make the rice, as he’s determined I’m the most capable in the household of doing it right.

This morning, I prepped my own contribution: a sort-of New England style fish chowder. It has smoked salmon, plus potatoes and onions from my gardens. But that chowder will be for Christmas Day–as non-traditional as the thing turned out to be, two cardinal rules of fish chowder-making will be observed: it will ripen overnight, and it won’t contain corn.

Our sons Martin and Jacob haven’t been participating in the cooking, but they certainly have been eating–especially John’s pecan-mint-chocolate chip cookies! They also helped finish off decorating the tree this afternoon.

After tomorrow’s lunch, we’ll be packing up and heading off to Norway for a week to visit more family (nope, neither of us are Scandinavian, that’s just where the family is congregating). I’m excited in that, not-really-sure-what-I’m-in-for kind of way. Just going with the flow and making sure I don’t forget my passport, a couple of good books, and a half dozen little clementines to munch on during the long flight.

Have a great holiday, holidays, or just wonderful days whatever you celebrate or don’t!

Friends Indeed

A couple of months ago, a couple of our local celebrities, E & M–musicians and gatherers of lost children and all-around wonderful people–experienced a tragedy. E had a stroke and was in the hospital for over a month.  He is home now–but in a wheelchair and without the use of his left arm.

Many, many people have made the trek out to their place to help with day-to-day tasks, and a big collective effort ensued to build a ramp allowing wheelchair access to the dome house E & M built themselves.  This isn’t any run-of-the-mill ramp–the main level of the dome is high off the ground–it’s a feat of engineering and love.

The night E returned from the hospital, a windstorm came through that knocked an old tree right through the roof–ripping a big hole and spewing blown-in insulation everywhere.  H and I went out yesterday to find the fix-it team at work–replacing the insulation in the repaired ceiling.

We brought out a wheelchair that H had from when his dad was alive–one that promised to be more comfortable than the one E was currently using.  The morning before we went out, I ran into a good friend of theirs and asked what I might bring.

She said that M has been working hard to take care of E and to feed all the helpers they’ve had coming through, and maybe some food would be a good idea.  So, I loaded up a cooler with a couple of chickens and roasts, and a box of canned goods and produce.

Though M was thankful for the food, I could see it wasn’t nearly enough.  When pressed, she admitted that they had run out of food stamps and wouldn’t get another round for ten days.  They are running low on a lot of staples.  She confided that she’d spent the utility money on supplies to level the kitchen floor so E could get around more easily.

Making it harder is the timing of this tragedy–they usually have a huge, productive garden, but they weren’t able to get it in this year.  E has been the marathon canner in the family–preserving all that produce for the winter months.  M hasn’t even been able to get out to pick their strawberries or raspberries.

They are keeping their chins up–E says his “cup runneth over” and that it’s hard to feel sorry for himself and his inability to form chords on his guitar when he sees how everyone has pulled together to help.  He’s hoping to learn the keyboard–something he’s always wanted to do.

M is holding together–hosting and feeding all the folks who’ve come out to help, taking care of E, trying to make ends meet and scrimp where she can.  It’s hard to believe a heart as big as hers can fit inside that tiny but wiry and determined frame.  But it has been difficult, and the stress is peeking through the cracks of her brave demeanor.

So, as she was fixing breakfast for E, I found a pen and paper started quizzing her on what they needed–coffee? Flour? Sugar? Fruit? Everything.

This is the real good of social networking–putting the call out on Facebook, we are getting together a good delivery of basics and some treats besides.  I went to the store and picked up everything on the list and then there were donations of home-canned goodness and frozen soup and a dozen ears of corn.

And a keyboard and stand for E–and some books to go along with it.  Right now we are looking for a 12v power supply for it, but I have faith there’s one out there somewhere that will come to us.

I’m heading out this afternoon with the load (and maybe a little cash to help with the bills and other necessities) and to see if I can’t get M to let me harvest and freeze the strawberries and help fix dinner.

It should be made clear that what H and I are giving is little compared to what others have been doing over the last couple of months–it’s a small contribution beside all of the love and care and support and sheer sweat equity that has been given by friends and family since E had his stroke.


It has been a wild week, but a joyous one.

At the Dakota Rural Action Small Farms Committee meeting last Thursday night, I made a commitment to attend this year’s MOSES organic farming conference in Lacrosse, WI in late February.

I hemmed and hawed a bit during that discussion of who was going and how we might carpool before realizing I’ve been planning on attending that conference for over a decade and have never yet made it.  It’s time.  I filled out my scholarship application this morning and sent it off (fingers crossed).

The weekend was fairly quiet, but on the Solstice it occurred to me that a feast was in order.  I do not know how I managed to start a roast turkey-mashed potato-stuffing-gravy-cranberry sauce feast at two in the afternoon and get it on the table before midnight, but I did, and we actually ate at a pretty reasonable hour.

My son was with me all weekend, and our plans to reconnect him with his dad changed twice during that time.  The first time they changed was due to the dangerously cold weather on Sunday (our original meeting date).  On Monday, having planned to meet his dad that late afternoon or evening in either Sioux Falls or Brookings, and knowing my dearest friend Matt was visiting from Seattle, we headed up to Sioux Falls in the early afternoon to visit said friend and wait to hear on the dad meeting time and place.

As I pulled off 229 and onto 26th Street, heading to my friend’s parents’ house, I got a call from M’s dad saying he wanted to pick him up in Vermillion the next day instead.  OK.  So we continued to Matt’s folks’ house and spent the afternoon there, having been invited to dinner by his mother.

Sometime during that afternoon, it became clear that the plan on Matt’s side had been for me to whisk him away down to Vermillion that night, so he could spend the day with us down in Vermillion on Tuesday!  So, after supper, we all three piled into the cab of my little S-10 and set off south in a driving blizzard, me gripping the wheel and hoping very fervently not to get my child and my dearest friend (and myself) killed on the highway.

Obviously, we survived the trip, and on hearing the news we were all coming back, H had popped a bottle of pear wine into the fridge that I’d been saving to share with Matt.  We polished off that bottle plus a bit more from the box, and nibbled on the homemade marshmallows and candied orange peel Matt had brought with him.

Yesterday was a lovely day–we spent a lot of time chatting and playing with M. and visiting at the Coffee Shop, where we ran into a few friends from here and from away, who were visiting for the holidays.  I kept my promise to make at least one meal for Matt–turkey sandwiches with cranberry-orange relish, blue cheese crumbles, and arugula.

M’s dad refused to actually come pick him up at my house where we were in the middle of cooking and entertaining and getting M ready for the car trip they were taking to Texas, and I refused, after all that renegotiating of meeting times and places, to bundle M up and trundle him and all his stuff down to the gas station at the end of the block.   So in the end, M’s dad sent his girlfriend, who seems like a very sweet and reasonable person, to act like a civilized adult.

After packing up M’s stuff and the kisses and hugs and wishes of safe travels, we had more company in the form of a mutual friend of Matt’s and mine, who showed up with some more holiday treats and gifts.  On her departure, we set out for a couple of errands and stopped by H’s daughter’s place to visit her and the baby.  She made us some tea and we talked art and city living, and shortly thereafter it was back to Sioux Falls to give Matt back to his family.

But first, we did have to drop by Barnes and Noble to hunt for Brian Bedard’s new book, Grieving on the Run (Matt and I took one of our most memorable grad classes from Brian–Form & Technique in 20th Century Fiction), and then we managed to squeeze into Touch of Europe downtown for a couple glasses of wine and their great stuffed cabbage rolls.

Finally, it was time to deliver him back to his folk’s place, but we had a cup of coffee on the steps before I left.  Driving back, I thought about my friend and how his art has transformed and progressed, and how very blessed it was to have had my three favorite people under my roof at the same time.

Christmas itself has little weight or importance to me, but this Solstice time–when for me the new year really begins with the light returning little-by-little and people out visiting and exchanging good feelings and little treats–this Solstice time is when the energy and optimism start to re-emerge.

Raymond A. Terk 1912-2008

I had gotten back from Sioux Falls with M., made pie crusts for the pumpkin and apple pies and had them chilling in the fridge, then made dinner for me, M, and H. when the phone rang.

It was my dad calling to tell me that his father, my last surviving grandparent, died in his sleep this afternoon.  He had congestive heart failure from pneumonia, and had been in a hospice room in Troy, New York, for a couple of days.  I hadn’t seen him for almost four years, after having tried to bring M. to see him last winter and been turned back by the weather.

My grandpa always seemed like a force of nature to me, even when his shock of red hair went white.  It never did seem to want to lie down–half the time I remember it sticking almost straight up like a fringe of flame around his head.

His boisterous voice and bouncing knee startled me a little when I was young and shy, but his stories and songs always made me laugh.  He made up all kinds of raucous lyrics that would trail off just as he got to the good parts–the parts where my grandma’s stern look would cut him off, and he’d stand there grinning a rascal’s grin.

He was married and had kids by his first wife before meeting my grandmother–but no one in the family ever knew about them (even my dad and his three brothers) until after my grandma died.  She wouldn’t allow him to see them, and after her death he tried to reconnect with them, and to introduce his later children to their step-siblings.

I didn’t know until a couple years ago that he’d started out a dairy farmer, and then went on to become a mechanic–I always remember him working on some old car or truck or tractor.  He’d always drive Cadillacs that he fixed up, and one of the memories I have of my childhood time with my grandparents was riding in those plush big cars to some supper club.  Most of the time they ate at home though, and the feasts we ate at their house remain some of the biggest meals I’ve ever seen in my life.

The last visit I had with my grandpa was at the old house where he and my grandma had lived for decades.  After that, he moved into an apartment.  M was two years old, and I’d brought him to my parents’ for Christmas, and then my dad took M., my husband, and I down to Troy to see him.

I have a picture my ex-husband took of us there in the house I’ll always remember him in: me and M., my grandpa, my dad, and my Uncle Gary, all posing together, with a portrait of my grandpa’s mother also in the shot, unplanned but clearly visible in the background.