Along the river

This place. It speaks to me in a way that feels so real and visceral and that I don’t know how to translate into words at a keyboard. I had many visits to fit into my few days in North Dakota, and this river was one of them.

“The lake” was the singular feature of that landscape that captured my attention for most of my years, but in the last few its charm is lost to me. It just seems to be a lot of muffled quiet, too much water obscuring the real stories drowned by it.

Along the river, I can still see the hills carved by the centuries and the depressions left by the natives who lived in just that one village for twice as long as Europeans have dwelled in the area.  I can lean into the trunks of old cottonwoods and listen to the wind whisper through the stands of grass. I can walk through the bottomland, dense with plants that I now recognize as food and medicine and all the animals that thrive there. I can watch the water flowing and flowing and even though we’ve managed the flow of that water within an inch of its life, it still has life, and its fierce constancy inspires me.

Because water is life.

Views from a train

I rode the train to North Dakota and back this last week, my favorite way to make that trip. The ride is just over 24 hours, so I eagerly pack my bag in anticipation of a whole day to while away. Reading, knitting, and writing projects. The iPad loaded with podcasts and music. All the good snacks.

And everything that I packed was used, some a little, some a lot. But every time, I’m a little surprised how many hours of the day I find myself not doing anything, or thinking anything, just staring out the window at the clouds in the sky and the rolling ground, content to watch the world unfold as I’m gently rocked down the track.

Of course I can’t help but try to capture those moments, hopeless though it is. More hopeless when I’m holding a mediocre iPad camera up to a dirty window in the attempt. But the gap between the hope and the results doesn’t seem to dull my instinct to try, so I’ve got a whole pile of shots like these. A little wonky, but the view from a train nonetheless.

There are lots of reasons train travel suits me so well, but I think the biggest is just that the time it takes to get from one place to another on the train matches the time it takes me to mentally travel from one place to another. Flights so often feel like I’m hurtling across time and space and I land disoriented and trying in vain to catch up with my body. On the train, I have time to leave behind whatever I was holding from my departure, time to experience the transition, time to prepare myself for an arrival. That kind of space is necessary, which is a lesson that I should remember in more aspects of life.

Reassured that summer is on its way

A couple days of sunshine coaxed the lilacs open. And if you look again, you’ll see that the grass is actually taller than the lilacs. Which feels like a pretty good metaphor for the state of things. (They’re not especially small lilacs.)

This was the May weekend that I’ve been hoping for. Seventy degrees, sunshine, and no commitments beyond the homestead. I have a bit of sunburn on my arms, a few blisters on my hands, and stubborn dirt under my nails that even an extra-long shower didn’t dislodge. It is mildly uncomfortable to sit, walk, or stand and I hope not to kneel for several days.

I spent 5+ hours on the garden yesterday and another 4 today. Dean put in a couple-hour stint of hard labor each day as well. We still didn’t get everything done, but it’s a hell of a lot closer and for the first time in a few months, I feel good about the state of the garden.

Which mostly means that almost all the planting is done and the weeds aren’t too out of control yet. That feels like a pretty good definition of gardening to me… I almost finish one task before the next is overdue. Over and over all season.

We got out for a good bike ride this morning, which feels like another hallmark of the season. We just need a picnic on the bluff and I will be fully reassured that summer is on its way.

Also reassuring? The pigs are settling into being pigs…

Meet the campers

This homestead got approximately 400% more adorable yesterday. Somehow I completely forgot how tiny new pigs are and how endlessly entertaining it is to watch a tiny pig… well, do anything. Perhaps they also seem cuter because there wasn’t an intermediate step of cursing and chasing a remarkably agile tiny pig through the spring jungle. The whole transition was completely uneventful this year, and I’m only crossing my fingers and knocking on wood as I write that.

The most important part, of course, is that it is my turn to bestow names this year. I tried to convince Dean that since we couldn’t possibly top Kevin and Bacon, we should really just stick with them, but he was having none of it. Luckily there seems to be an endless supply of porky puns, so I think I’ve settled on Mia, Jon, Virginia, and Hamilton.

The top picture is minutes after they landed in their new digs, the second how when I greeted them first thing this morning.

And lest the pigs get all the attention, the chickens would like you to know that they are just fine, thanks for asking. They are ugly bird-brains, but I try not to hold that against them.

The bees also arrived last weekend, so we’re at full occupancy. The rest of the homestead report is more mixed, this endless cool and wet spring throwing wrenches in all sorts of plans. So let’s save that for next time, and go back to squealing at pictures of the Hams:

Rhubarb cake

I have an abundance of rhubarb from the garden these days, along with a distinct scarcity of compelling rhubarb recipes. Let me be clear: there is no scarcity of rhubarb recipes, just ones that satisfy all of my persnickety criteria.

I am a purist, so anything where the rhubarb is disguised by a pile of strawberries (or anything else, for that matter) is disqualified. Similarly, my goal is to eat delicious rhubarb so I can’t be bothered with anything that buries a cup of rhubarb chunks in a giant cake or loaf or the like. And I’m just not interested in anything requiring equal amounts of sugar and rhubarb, so that the finished result is cloyingly sweet with a hint of tang.

For years, I was content to make a good compote to spoon generously over some plain yogurt or a scoop of ice cream. And that still sounds delicious but I’m off all dairy (and pretty much all fake dairy) these days, and the dairy always seemed essential to that whole approach.

So this weekend I got desperate and resorted to the internet. And there on the front page of smitten kitchen, the second page I opened, like a clear message from the universe, was rhubarb upside-down spice cake.

I made this cake yesterday at a point in the late afternoon when I was too exhausted to use my arms or legs. It became apparent about three minutes in that I was in no state to be baking an unfamiliar recipe – pretty much every direction was following by the thought, “f*#& it, close enough”. But at that point, I was committed, so I half-assed and short-cut my way through. My only deliberate modification was to cut the sugar by about 1/3, because, ahem, me.

I think this is my all-time favorite rhubarb cake recipe. There’s a generous layer of rhubarb, mellowed as much by butter as sugar so that it’s neither cloying nor pucker-inducing. And the spice cake is the perfect complement, adding depth and flavor, neither austere nor rich. Don’t get me wrong, this is not my all-time best cake specimen. But given the deliciousness that came out of that wreck of a baking session, I am confident in the potential here.

Confident enough that I needed to tell you about it.

Now there’s still a pile of rhubarb in my fridge so if you have made it this far and still have any suggestions, please do share.


April and the tortoises

It’s the last day of April and I’ve sunk into the couch after a full day outside prepping soil and planting and weeding and tending and even harvesting. The dryer is full of lemon balm for future tea, and my attention span for writing is likely about as long as the bake time on my rhubarb muffins. It’s a relief to have finally filled a day with all the things I’ve been hoping to do for the last month, and at the same time it’s taking all my strength to resist the pull into complete overwhelm from all the things that need doing.

One thing our very rainy April was good for was sitting inside and knitting. I finally finished this little baby blanket

The simple pattern was the best kind of mindless knitting, so I really expected it to be a quick knit, but I failed to account for the cotton factor. After swearing off superwash wool, I opted to make this one out of 100% cotton yarn, and it was tough on my hands. I have had that experience with non-elastic fibers in the past, and I think the weight of this as it grew exacerbated the hand fatigue. So needless to say, it was more of a tortoise than a hare. That said, I washed and dried the finished blanket and it does have that lovely soft hand and comforting weight of cotton, so I’m satisfied with the end result.

Predictably, a couple of bigger (or longer, really) recent knitting projects had me hankering for something small and gratifying. To my complete surprise, it came in the form of a scrap blanket project. I’ve seen several versions of these around for years and have never been tempted, but a few weeks ago I fell down the rabbit hole and have been happily churning out mitered squares during any moments of social or desk or otherwise mindless knitting time.

I bought some new yarn that is a long color shift in the natural to gold spectrum and am holding it double with fingering weight (mostly sock yarn) scraps. This means both that I am using up my most abundant scraps pile, leftover sock yarn, and that I’m knitting with something approximately worsted weight, which is very good for the sanity when approaching something blanket-sized. I can already tell that the seaming is going to be hell, but in the meantime I’m mesmerized by seeing all my leftover scraps coming back to life. I haven’t calculated how many squares I need yet, I just know that it feels endless at this point.

And finally, the ultimate in tortoise projects, our braided wool rug continues on. I can see an end in sight on the braiding, I’m not sure if Dean feels the same about the lacing yet.

Five years

Dear Mom: Five years. It doesn’t seem possible that I’ve lived half a decade without you. By which, of course, I mean that I’ve lived half a decade without you able to answer when I (still) instinctively reach for the phone, despite your being very much present in my heart and my mind.

I think what most surprises me is how my experience of loss is still actively shifting, even after five years. Your death was a seismic shift that rearranged the landscape of my life. I’ve mostly found my way around this changed place but occasionally there’s another boulder that was loosened by the quake that tumbles into my path, another fall-out loss. Boulders that remind me that my world is smaller, because you connected me to your world, made me a part of those places and relationships and stories. And my world is less kind, because you influenced the people around you to be a little better versions of themselves.

Other shifts are a pleasant surprise. The weeks after your stroke were my first real experience of hospitals. For most of the last five years, remembering anything from those days has meant being right back in that room, flooded with all the helplessness, overwhelmed by my inadequacy and terrified that I was somehow making bad decisions, not doing enough, not doing the right thing… But this spring I found myself recalling the first time I took the overnight shift, and it was different. I was sleeping fitfully on the family bench/bed and noticed you were awake in the middle of the night. You seemed restless, and the nurse wasn’t around, and I didn’t know what to do, so I just sat next to your bed and held your hand until you fell back asleep. When I remember that night now, I’m no longer inside that scared and helpless self. Instead, I can see how hard it was, both of us scared I’m sure, and how sweet it was to just sit and hold your hand, together, through the dark hours of the night.

It gives me hope that more of those hard places can yet soften.

It also makes it more difficult to pretend that those hard places don’t exist. I’ve never been to visit your grave. I know that no plot of concrete and soil contains your essence, but places matter to me and I wish your grave could be one of my sacred places. Instead the thought of that cemetery fills me with rage and hurt. But I hope that someday I can forgive the burial you received, and I can visit.

I can also see how I thought grief was a process and at some point I would feel like there was an end. But right now, that doesn’t make any sense, I guess because I’ve come to see grief as indistinct from love. I think that grief just opens us up to greater love, which opens us up to more grief, and the cycle carries on. Love comes first, and in the end, it’s all just love.

So here I am, still learning from you what it means to love, how to love better. At least that part feels right.

I miss you.

Love, bethany

An incoherent jumble

Well, that’s a hell of a photo collection for one post. I’ve been meaning to write here for the last week or two, but every time I started to collect my thoughts, they would turn out to be an incoherent jumble of things I wasn’t quite sure what to do with. Since that seems to be the state of things, it’s a jumbled list sort of post…

  • Today was the most joyful mail day of the year, the day the chirping box of chicks arrives. It feels like the official start of another season of homesteading. I’ve been slow to find my rhythm this spring, but after dashing out between rain showers every couple hours today to make sure the new crew weren’t too cold or out of water or starving for attention, I feel like they are already pulling me into the season.
  • I finished the toddler hoodie nearly a month ago, but never showed you the final photos. It was my first time adding a zipper and ribbon to knitting, and both took time but were easier than I expected. The hand-sewing complemented the knitting well, and I would definitely like to add more ribbon to reinforce sweaters. I was a little concerned the green and white ribbon would look completely out of place, but I think it works, and I love the charm of the vintage French design.
  • We marched for Black Lives Matter in Seattle last weekend and almost felt guilty for how enjoyable it was – walking through the streets of downtown with several thousand friends soaking in the sunshine and standing in solidarity on one of our first truly springlike days. Get out there for Science this weekend if you can!
  • Dean spent a week in Maine so I spent a week here on my own and figuring out what I was going to eat next. I had all sorts of grand plans for how I would fill the expansive hours and space of being having the house all to myself, but then spent about 90% of that energy on feeding myself. So when he left again after less than a week at home (to visit some friends in Oregon for several days), I had a pretty good idea of what I was in for. He did leave me stocked with 3 1/2 bunches of kale raab, though, so I quickly settled in to a routine of kale and eggs three meals a day. Which seems like a decent option, if you’re going to be so repetitive. And just when the kale supply was waning, I went rummaging through the freezer and found a quart of leftover chicken curry from a few months ago. Victory!  So just in case you were worried, I think I’m going to make it through this week without resorting to popcorn or saltines (both of which I stand by as totally legitimate meal options, if employed sparingly).
  • “Make soap” has been on my to-do list approximately every weekend since mid-October, when I thought it would be nice to have a supply for holiday gifts. I am down to the final near-transparent shard of my last bar, so went to buy a bar when I was at the corner store yesterday. After picking up every single (local, handcrafted, beautiful) bar, I couldn’t bring myself to spend money on any of them so I came home and made my own. It took something like 30 minutes, dirtied a handful of dishes, and nothing about it was difficult or smelled bad or was in any way unpleasant, just like I knew all along. Of course there’s still the small fact that it should cure for a month before use, but I made a couple extra small bars that I think will get me through the gap. So there you go, I’ve managed to take care of feeding and bathing myself this week. I don’t know what more you could expect of me.

Direct sunlight

So far in April… I have made and eaten my first batch of nettle pesto. (I expect there to be many more.) I have crawled between my flannel sheets under a full pile of wool blankets without my trusty hot water bottle, twice. I have inhaled charcoal smoke while waiting for my dinner. And today, for approximately ten minutes while I was running, I stripped down to a short-sleeve shirt and my elbows saw direct sunlight for the first time in many months. It felt a little like exhaling a breath I didn’t know I had been holding since October.

Level Up

While I was out at a knitting class this morning, Dean took delivery of our new tractor, which I’m pretty sure means we have leveled up at this homestead thing.

If I’m honest, I have to admit that I can’t look at it yet without a swirl of feelings that I’m still sorting out about spending out for it. But I am also really excited to see what we can accomplish with a tractor to help. There are ideas, some might even venture to call them plans.

March time

March feels like a time warp many years, the light and the season changing so quickly it’s hard to keep up. This year, March feels more like the opposite, the trees seemingly in a state of suspended animation waiting for the spells of sunshine that will give them permission to release their pent-up energy.

Or maybe I’m just projecting, because I feel like I’ve stepped outside time for the past few weeks. I spent ten days at a meditation retreat, just sitting, walking, watching, listening, every day just full of countless moments. From retreat, it was right into five days at the home of friends with a brand new baby, which it turns out it also outside the normal rules of time. Toddler-sitting is all about the right now and right here. Later in the week I was the relief newborn cuddler, which is nothing but the sweetest kind of meditation.

By the time I returned home, it felt a little like I couldn’t remember when I had last been here and a little like nothing had changed while I was away. It’s good to be home, to settle in and notice what has shifted over the last few weeks, both in me and in the natural world around me. It feels like it is time to shift more of my attention outdoors, to dig in the soil, to start growing things. I have this sense that there’s some pent-up energy in me as well as the trees, and I’m hoping to find the rhythm of spring that coaxes it out of all of us at the right pace.

Rendering lard

I took these pictures when we rendered a batch of lard a month or so ago, and then completely forgot until I was transferring some other images the other day. So you get a random bit of homesteadiness today.

I am by no means an expert at rendering lard, but I’ve done a few batches now, and it is pretty simple. This is the bag of fat as it came back from the butcher, in whatever sizes and shapes they trimmed:

The vast majority of the work is just chopping it up. A well-sharpened knife is key, and some patience. We have aimed for about a half-inch cube based on what I read, but I think finer would be better. (I’ve also heard from one person that you can put the fat through a meat grinder to chop it for rendering, which would be a fantastic labor savings. I’m tempted to give that a shot next year.)

Once chopped, add about 1/2 cup of water to the pot and put it over low heat. Stir as needed to avoid sticking; otherwise just let the fat melt. It always feels like it’s going quick at the start, but it takes a good hour or so on the stove to fully render.

The hardest part of the whole process is deciding when to call it “done”. Too early, and you’ll miss collecting all the fat; too late and the finished lard will smell more “piggy”. When I’ve made the call, I just pour it through a cheesecloth-lined strainer into jars.

The remaining solids are your crackling:

And the clear fat will turn white and set as it cools:

That’s it!

I would have never considered stocking lard before we raised our first pigs, but I was quickly converted. It was the only part of the pig that we ran out of between our first and second pigs – and we were empty for a good six months. Our absolute favorite way to use it was making tamales, but it is also my go-to cooking fat for eggs, greens, popcorn… I swear it doesn’t have a taste, but it makes everything tastes better!

According to the butcher here, they nearly always have extra pork fat to sell for cheap if you’re willing to render it yourself. So if you’re the least bit curious or inspired, I encourage you to give it a go.

The making report, February 2017 edition

In rounding up the content for this post, I was rather surprised to find that I’ve made more in recent weeks than I would have guessed. Which makes sense, with this winter hanging on as tenaciously as it has, but it has all been a bit stealth, lots of bits here and there without a feeling of focus and progress on a singular project.

The closest thing I’ve had to that singular project is this hoodie for a certain friend aged 2 1/2 I started way back in November. It got set aside for December while I knit yulekuler, and then approximately every other week when my frustration with superwash wool overwhelmed my interest in getting it done. I still have to install a zipper and wrap up some other finishing details, but the knitting is complete and I’m feeling pretty relieved.

This is my very first garment for a small being, and I was pretty excited about the prospect of combining all the satisfactions of garment knitting with the speed of knitting them in mini. Of course I didn’t really get the “speed” part because I couldn’t help but choose this pattern that was full of details that I loved (and that would double the work). There are toddler-size pockets knit into the sides, that hood, and an i-cord edging around the entire front. But I had all sorts of time so I decided to go for it.

I’m not sure if I would do it again. Definitely not in superwash – somehow the process of making wool washable removes every property I like about wool and leaves you with this slippery, splitty substance that lacks any integrity. And there’s just no joy in knitting with it. I fully understand that parents don’t want to deal with a hand-washable garment for a toddler, but I might have to admit that my potential knitting audience is limited to those that love real wool enough to deal with its care requirements.

All that said, I think this is a pretty sweet little red hoodie. The color was surprising hard to capture, but it’s a classic bright red. (Honestly, this one got left out of previous reports just because the photos of it were always so crap.) Here’s one more attempt, included mostly because it was my first use of the blocking mats I received for Christmas and they made me very happy.

While I was taking breaks from the hoodie, I knit a few hats for my local knitting group’s charity hat drive. I used the opportunity to play with a hat pattern that had a lot of potential but had been a miss on my first attempt. After four goes, I think I’ve got the pattern modifications sorted to my liking. The colorwork still needs some help, but really I just need more contrast. I was knitting entirely from stash, and it turns out that I only ever choose mid-tone shades. So predictable, I am.

And here’s the start of my current project: a cotton baby blanket in a super-simple pattern. I had decided months ago that this baby would be welcomed with hand-knitting but not a blanket and then a few weeks ago I decided that it would maybe need just a little stroller blanket and then I cast on and knit a few inches and it is very much a full-on baby blanket size. I’m not sure how I feel about that, but given this little one is expected in just a few weeks, I should probably think about that while I keep on knitting.

And finally, a little evidence that the wool rug project continues on, ever so slowly, but onward nonetheless.

Glass beach

It is February, which means lots of gray and wet and mud and cold in these parts. My instinct is to avoid it all, which means that I need some good excuses to pull me out. Yesterday, an exploratory walk out to glass beach was a good excuse.

As you can see, it was overwhelmingly gray, but the rain mostly held off and the wind was calm so it was actually a good day for a beach walk. It was our first visit to “glass beach”, despite having heard about it since we moved here nearly a decade ago. I’m fuzzy on the details of the history, but at some point there was trash dump that involved the townspeople tipping their refuse over a large cliff onto the ocean beach below. As a result, today there is a remarkable concentration of glass and such in the beach gravel.

It was both underwhelming and fascinating. On the surface, it looks like any other beach. As you can see from our spoils, we mostly found small bits of clear or brown glass. But they aren’t hard to find – sweeping through the gravel with a hand or stick, more swipes than not uncovered something inorganic. And there was just enough variety to keep me curious about what the next sweep might uncover. My favorite finds were the bits of porcelain with some mark of colorful glaze remaining, the opaque glass, the unusual pink and yellow bits. We spent about 45 minutes treasure hunting and I think I could have continued happily for hours, just to see what else I might uncover.

A bit of beauty, and a few hours of walking next to the ocean. That’s enough to call it a good day.


February. The stars are fading quickly when I wake these days, and the afternoon light is stretching well past quitting time at the day job… We’ve also had snow on the ground more days than not so far this month.

Spring is imminent, as evidenced by the tree buds nearly busting out with fresh bright green leaves. But it’s disorienting to notice them while I’m walking the driveway because there is a layer of ice under the snow and it seems wise to park at the bottom of the hill rather than test my traction.

It’s still winter here, but I get the distinct feeling that I’m going to wake up one of these days and it will be gone, overcome by the galloping spring light and cold mud. Maybe I should be doing something to steel myself for that day, but I don’t know what it might be. So mostly, I’m trying to appreciate the spaciousness of these days of calm, watching the light in the grey skies, wrapping my legs up in a cozy wool blanket, and happily puttering on indoor projects before spring pulls all of my attention outside.

Now is the time

Now is the time to know
That all that you do is sacred.

Now, why not consider
A lasting truce with yourself and God?

Now is the time to understand
That all your ideas of right and wrong
Were just a child’s training wheels
To be laid aside
When you can finally live
with veracity and love.

Now is the time for the world to know
That every thought and action is sacred.
That this is the time
For you to compute the impossibility
That there is anything
But Grace.

Now is the season to know
That everything you do
Is Sacred.

-Hafiz, the 14th century Persian poet