An Update on Junior

Remember Junior, the newest member of our farm family?  Sherlock, Jr. to be exact.  A couple of months ago, I described in a blog how two of my granddaughters selected our newest barn cat at our local Humane Society. 

Junior was an instant hit with every adult and child who met him.  He was super-playful, super-friendly, and super-cute.  I had a really good feeling about this cat.  However, at the time, I wrote that “the jury is still out” on how he did his job – namely, keeping our barn clean of unwanted pests.  More on that later.

During the past two months, I have gotten to know Junior pretty well and I can honestly say that his personality is different from that of every other cat we have ever owned.  For one thing, he is quite vocal and talks to me constantly.  As if he were carrying on a conversation.  And if I respond to his mews in “human-speak” he continues conversing indefinitely.

His meows have very different intonations. For example, his “meowwww” sounds rather whiny when waiting to be fed, his “meow?” sounds very curious as he follows me while doing chores, and his “meow, meow, meow!” sounds very excited as I call him to the barn for a treat.

Another difference is that he is the first cat that we have ever owned who licks my hand incessantly.  As I walk past him, he will grab at my hand just so that he can lick it.  When I pet him, he will quickly twist his body around so he can lick my finger.  I haven’t quite decided whether this is a complement or an insult.  Is he licking me because he loves me or because he thinks I’m too filthy to pet him?

In spite of Junior being a full-grown cat, possibly as old as two according to our vet, he is kittenishly playful.  He will leap high into the air to knock down a flitting butterfly, then race through the corral at top speed, only to end up high in the branches of the elm tree next to the barn.  All because he can.

Incidentally, I have removed the bird feeder I had hanging from that tree in my pre-Junior days.  Come winter, I will hang it in a different tree out of Junior’s territory.  I don’t want my beautiful songbirds to succumb to the same fate as the low-flying butterfly.

I held my breath the first time Junior leaped into the rabbit pen.  But it turned out, Junior was not aggressive, and the rabbits were not afraid.  Instead, they were both very curious.

Junior loves our dogs, but the feeling is not equally reciprocated.  One day, I saw Junior playfully bat at Russell’s face in order to get his attention.  Russell flinched, eyed Junior for a second, then turned and walked away.  Evidently, Junior’s bold attempt at friendship was a bit too forward for our meek, aging lab.  Russell now simply avoids Junior whenever possible.

The only times I have needed to scold Junior is when he has gotten into mischief in my garden.  He leaps onto my garden plants, pursuing a buzzing beetle, or – gasp! – one of my garden toads.  In doing so, he crushes the leaves of my cucumber plants, flattens my schwartzbeeren plants (described in my last blog – What the Heck is Schwartzbeeren?) and tears my garden netting.  I have found that the most effective deterrent is a quick spray from my garden hose.

He is slowly getting the message.

In another one of my earlier blogs I likened our cats’ personalities to male actors that we all know and love.  Badass Jack was our Clint Eastwood cat.  Likeable Sherlock, Sr. was our Tom Hanks cat.  And unpredictable Simba is our Al Pacino cat. 

Without a doubt, Junior is our Jim Carrey cat.

As for Junior’s job performance, a verdict has now been reached.  Junior is a keeper.  Since his arrival in our barn, I have found one dead lizard and one dead snake, but absolutely no evidence of a single mouse.  Not one mouse turd.  Not one nest.

Evidently, the mice just aren’t into comedy.

(Autographed copies of all three of my books are now available on my website through Kansas Originals.

Next Week:  Bracing Up

What the Heck is Schwartzbeeren?

That literally means ‘blackberries’ in German.  But unless you live in Ellis County, Kansas, I’m pretty sure the blackberry you are thinking of right now is not schwartzbeeren.  You’re thinking of a bumpy dark purple berry that looks similar to a raspberry, right?  That berry is well-known to most Germans also, who call it brombeeren.  So, what the heck is schwartzbeeren, you ask?  Before I can explain this berry and its bewitching hold on the locals, I need to give you a brief history lesson.

In the latter half of the eighteenth century, Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia, but born a German princess, enticed German immigrants to settle the untamed Volga River region with promises of freedom of religion, no taxation for thirty years, and perpetual freedom from military service.  The hard-working Germans who accepted her offer maintained closed communities, retaining their German language and customs.  A century later, long after Catherine had died, the Russian government reneged on Catherine’s promises and began to draft the young men into military service.  Disgruntled, many of the Germans immigrated again, this time to America, where quite a few of them made their way to Ellis County, Kansas.

They brought with them the seeds of a plant they had discovered growing wild along the banks of the Volga River.  For want of a better name, they called the smooth, round, blackish berry schwartzbeeren.

It is a tart berry, delicious in baked goods such as pies and kuchen, a German coffeecake.  It grows on annual plants that can reach four feet in height in a single season.  The plants grow naturally along creek and river banks with the seeds spread by birds who eat the berries.  If grown in a garden, the plants require regular watering in order to produce an abundance of large, plump berries.

Each berry is filled with tiny seeds.  Berries naturally fall off each plant and re-seed themselves annually.  The climate of Western Kansas is very similar to the climate of the Volga River region, which is one of the reasons why the Volga Germans chose to re-settle here.  It is also why schwartzbeeren thrive here.

Every year, I reserve fully half of my garden space for schwartzbeeren.  We love them that much.  I freeze the excess berries I pick each summer for use during the winter.  The first year I planted my garden after our move to the farm, I sprinkled seeds from berries I had saved and dried the previous year.  Since then, the plants have re-seeded themselves.  Abundantly.  In fact, most of the “weeds” around my cucumbers, beets, etc. are actually schwartzbeeren plants growing where they are not wanted.

Schwartzbeeren are not easy to pick.  The plants are home to chiggers, minuscule blood-sucking bugs that crawl inside your clothes and give you a bite that itches like the dickens for several days.  And the berries grow low to the ground so it is also slow, dirty, backbreaking work.  And the berry itself is fragile so it requires a firm, yet gentle plucking technique.  If you squeeze the tender berry too hard, you end up with a handful of seeds for next year’s schwartzbeeren crop instead of berries for this year’s pie.  It can take an hour or more of picking to get enough berries for just one kuchen.

So, you ask, why on earth would I put myself through all that for a few berries?  Simple. Because my family loves them.  And this particular berry will never be found in any supermarket.

We, Ellis Countians, are not alone in our obsession over local berries.  In August, 2002, Danny and I took our family on vacation to Whitefish, Montana.  It happened to be peak picking season for the wild huckleberries that grow along the mountain ridges of northwestern Montana.  While we were there, we purchased huckleberry cookies, huckleberry-flavored candy, huckleberry-flavored tea, even huckleberry-scented soap.  One afternoon, Danny and I stepped into a small, locally-owned café for a little refreshment after a morning of sight-seeing.  The friendly woman behind the counter obviously knew every person who lived in the town and did not recognize us, so she asked us where we were from.  After a pleasant chat, she asked what we would like to order.  We pointed to the chalkboard advertising homemade huckleberry pie, and we each ordered a piece.  The previously-smiling waitress now paused and looked at us warily.  She then proceeded to explain how difficult the wild berries were to find and pick.  And that not everyone liked and appreciated the berries the way the locals did.  It was an acquired taste, she explained.  I sensed a bit of a warning when she asked us, were we certain that we still wanted huckleberry pie?  Two pieces of huckleberry pie?

We were certain.

We were quite convinced that we were the only non-locals in the café, because every eye in the place was watching us critically as we each took our first bite.  Thank goodness, we loved it!  It was delicious!  To the approval of all the observing locals, we cleaned our plates of every last crumb.

I totally got it.  I, too, feel almost obsessively protective of my schwartzbeeren.  You don’t work that hard just to see someone throw it in the trash.  So, if I offer someone a piece of schwartzbeeren pie, and that someone graciously declines saying, “No thanks, I don’t really care for schwartzbeeren,” I am never offended.  In fact, just the opposite.

Mmmmm. More for me.

(My mother, descended from Volga Germans, made entire meals out of schwartzbeeren and dumplingsIt was a simple, summer staple loved by our entire family and I still make it for my family to this day.)

Next Week:  An Update on Junior

Aw, Shucks

Have you ever picked corn in the morning, shucked it that afternoon, and eaten it for supper that evening?  If you were born after 1920, the answer is probably “no”.  That’s the date of the first U.S. census that indicated over 50% of Americans were “urban” versus “rural”.

Aw, shucks.  You don’t know what you’re missing.  We rural folk may not have easy access to 5-star restaurants with world-renowned chefs, but trust me, that doesn’t mean we don’t eat well.

Imagine this: It’s early spring, and the sun is barely visible above the horizon as I step out my back door on my way to the barn for morning chores.  I happen to glance at my asparagus patch as I pass by and Lo, and Behold!  Three shoots have sprung up overnight, the first of the season.  Now, that is not nearly enough for a meal for Danny and me.  I could pick them and store them in the refrigerator until the crop produces enough shoots for a meal, but that might still be several days away and these three spears would lose some of their just-picked yumminess. 

So, I make an executive decision.  I snap the spears, shake off the dew, and eat them raw right then and there.  You know that eyes-closed look on the face of a chocoholic taking the first bite of a designer-made truffle?  That’s the look on my face as I take my first bite of my first spear of the season.

I do feel a twinge of guilt for not saving them and sharing with Danny, but that quickly disappears with my second bite.

That “just-picked yumminess” is the reason why I no longer purchase asparagus from a supermarket.  Or cucumbers.  Or beets.  Or basil.  Or dill. 

Or corn.  I have been spoiled.  Now, don’t get me wrong.  “Fresh” corn from a supermarket is good, but once you’ve tasted corn the same day it was picked, you just can’t go back.

 A couple of weeks ago, one of my great-nieces visited our farm with her friend.  They just happened to be here during our annual sweet corn harvest.  They helped us clean and preserve the corn, and in return, we gave them just-picked sweet corn to eat for supper.  They thought it was a very fair trade.

They helped shuck:

And they helped wash and preserve:

Even the horses enjoyed the leftovers!

Every spring as I prepare my garden for another season, I ask myself:  Is it worth it?

Is the fresh produce worth all the hours spent in my garden and in front of the kitchen sink and a hot stove?  Is it worth the muddy knees and sore back muscles? 

And every spring the answer is the same.  Yes.  Definitely, yes.

(Growing up, raccoons were an annual threat to our corn harvest.  Read the July chapter of Another Year on the Family Farm.)

Next Week:  What the Heck is Schwartzbeeren?

It May Not Be Capistrano, But…

…The Swallows Have Returned.

And this year I was happy to see them.  Well, maybe that is a bit too strong of a statement.  Let’s just say that I was not unhappy to see them.  Because, rest assured, there have been many years in the past when I was unhappy.  Very unhappy.  Let me explain.

Masterful engineers, barn swallows build mud nests that cling to ceilings or, as in our case, the fluorescent light fixture on the ceiling of our barn.  When we first built our barn twelve years ago, the swallows selected what they considered an ideal spot inside one of the stalls.  But swallows can be aggressive when protecting their nest.  They squawk and swoop towards your head as a warning to stay away.  Plus, they poop on the floor.  And the hay bales.  And the horse waterer.  And the…you get the idea.

So, on a daily basis, I would knock down the mud nest before they had a chance to lay any eggs.  I was persistent and determined that they not soil my new horse stalls.  Unfortunately, they were just as persistent and determined to raise their babies in their “ideal spot”.

It was finally Simba, perched on our newly-stacked hay bales mere inches from their nesting site, who would convince the swallows that the spot they had selected was, perhaps, not as ideal as they first imagined.  They would finally give up and go elsewhere.

After several years of this same routine – me knocking down each day’s progress on their mud nest until the hay bales were stacked and Simba claimed his own “ideal spot” – the swallows finally acquiesced.  Last year, for the first time, they began building their nest in the open loafing area instead of inside the stall.  When I saw that, I acquiesced also.

We have now reached a multi-species compromise.  The swallows have given up nest building in the stalls, and I have given up knocking them down.  They now get an undisturbed nest in the loafing area and I get a clean stall and a bug-free loafing area for my horses.  It wasn’t the first choice for either of us, but both species are relatively content.  That’s how a compromise works.

If only Congress would take note.

When the nest was completed this year, I was curious as to the size of their potential brood.  Although the nest was too high for me to peek inside, with the help of a ladder I was able to reach high enough with my phone to take a photo.

Later, I took another photo after the birds had hatched.  One of the hatchlings was obviously prepared just in case a bug happened to drop out of my phone.

Here’s one more photo of the hatchlings in their nest:

Oops.  Sorry.  False alarm.  That was BJ checking out my phone.

Let’s try that again:

The babies are out of their nest now and flying with their parents.  When fall arrives, and the birds migrate to South America for the winter, I will remove the nest and wash the mud off of the light fixture.  I want no obstructions to the light when I do my chores during the dark winter mornings and evenings. 

Now that the swallows have raised two consecutive broods successfully in our loafing shed, I am certain that they will return again next year to that same spot in our barn.

I look forward to it.

(Swallows were a regular summer fixture in the barn of my youth.)

Next Week:  Aw, Shucks

August Reflections

I think about my parents a lot in August.  It’s not that I don’t think about them other times of the year, but I am particularly contemplative in August.  My father died August 12, 1998 at age 84 and my mother died August 8, 2011 at age 96.  So, August just naturally lends itself to remembering and reflecting.

Everything I know about farming I learned from my parents.  From my dad I learned about livestock, machinery and crops.  From my mom I learned about chickens, gardening and food preparation.  But I would be doing my parents a huge disservice if I limited my comments to those things that I could have just as easily learned from a textbook, or in these days, the internet.

It was my parents that taught me about honesty, integrity, and the value of hard work.  And it was also from my parents that I learned about gratitude.  How an ungrateful heart is an unhappy heart.  That true compassion and willing sacrifice for others stems from gratitude for one’s own blessings.

You won’t find that on Wikipedia.

Our parents didn’t teach my siblings and me about gratitude by setting us down each evening and lecturing us about it.  Although, truth be told, I do recall hearing, on more than one occasion, my mother quickly squelching our various complaints with “You know, it could be worse!” And then she proceeded to inform us how, exactly, our situation could indeed be worse.

Mostly, however, they used a more subtle approach – teaching through example.  For instance, I learned to appreciate each and every meal set before me by observing my dad savor every mouthful of what he lovingly referred to as “mom’s good cooking”, no matter how hurried or simple the meal had been.  It was only later in my life when I learned from my mother that there were many nights during my father’s childhood when he and his siblings went to bed hungry.  Without even knowing it, he taught me to be grateful that not once during my childhood or since – not once – did I ever go to bed hungry.

From my mother, I learned to appreciate each and every family member, even when I become irritated and exasperated with them.  (Which is roughly as often as they become irritated and exasperated with me.  I have never claimed to be a saint.)  My mother had a cool head and displayed emotional restraint in even the most trying of times, and it is probably for this reason that I remember so vividly her silent tears as she buried her mother and only sister.  After that, since her father had died when she was twelve, her only remaining immediate family member was an older half-brother.  So now, even if I have a disagreement with one of my sisters, I am filled with gratitude that I even have a sister with whom I can disagree.

Several days before my mother passed away, we spoke about her impending death.  Mom had, with full cognitive function, refused additional medical treatment that could have increased the quantity, but not the quality, of the time she had left.

I asked her, “Are you scared?”

“Oh, no!” she replied happily.  “I know God loves me or he wouldn’t have given me such a good life!”

At the time, I just smiled and nodded in complete agreement.  It was only later that I thought more about her “good life.”

After her father died, her mother single-handedly used a horse-drawn plow in the fields by day, and a sewing machine by night to feed and clothe her children. 

Then the Depression hit.  And the Dust Bowl.

When she wed my father in 1934, they had only their meager wedding gifts with which to start a new life.  Five years and four sons later, they still lived on a rented farm, saving every spare penny towards a down payment to someday purchase their own place. 

“Someday” finally came fifteen years into their marriage, during which time they sent off relatives and friends to World War II and spent a year nursing a bedridden son stricken with polio.

By the time Mom died, she had buried her husband of 64 years, three sons and four grandchildren, some of them through tragic circumstances. 

Any one of these heartbreaks could have turned the stoutest of souls bitter.

But it was not her heartbreaks upon which my mom dwelt in her last hours.  She chose instead to be grateful for her life’s blessings.  And there had been plenty of those as well.

Now, when I think of my parents, I realize that they are still teaching me life lessons, like gratitude.  I wish I could tell them that.

But I’m betting they know.

(My parents play a huge role in all three of the books in my farm series.)

Next week:  It May Not Be Capistrano, But…

The Prairie’s Tree of Life

Most people are well aware that Kansas is nicknamed “The Sunflower State”.  With good reason.  Various varieties of sunflower are found in virtually all parts of the state, growing wild in pastures, and along roadsides and creeks.  Cheery, bright yellow heads follow the movement of the sun for weeks in late summer and early fall, and herald the arrival of a new season filled with cooler, milder temperatures.  

Most non-Kansans would not be aware, however, of the fact that the Cottonwood is the state tree of Kansas.  In this photo, the sunflower may take center-stage, but it is the cottonwood in the background that shades the emerging flower in the heat of a summer afternoon.

It was for this very reason that the Kansas Legislature, in 1937, proclaimed it as the state tree by saying: “The cottonwood tree can rightfully be called ‘the pioneer tree of Kansas.’”

Imagine you are a pioneer, crossing the rolling prairie grasslands of western Kansas to claim a homestead.  How do you choose the location of your new home?  What do you look for?  You look for a mighty cottonwood, rising majestically anywhere from 70 to 100 feet above the prairie landscape, easily visible from miles away.  Not only does the cottonwood supply shade and windbreak in the often-brutal heat of summer, but it signals something even more precious – water.  The cottonwood tree requires adequate moisture in order to grow naturally.  A healthy cottonwood tree has discovered and tapped into a water source that can also be used to supply the needs of a budding farmstead.

The cottonwood tree was a symbol of new life for the pioneer.

The cottonwood tree can grow as much as eight feet per year and reaches full maturity in about forty years.  But it can live as much as 100 years or more after its initial growth spurt.

That’s why I love this giant cottonwood that lives near the creek on our farm. 

It is a fully mature tree, and hasn’t changed in size for the almost-quarter century that we have owned the land.  It’s hard to know exactly when it was a seedling, when it first took root, but my guess is that it was already a large tree when my father was a young boy swimming in the creek with his brothers.  In fact, it could very possibly have already taken root when my great-grandfather first purchased the land in 1900.  There are several young, developing cottonwood trees growing along our creek now, but this tree is the only still-living fully mature cottonwood tree on our farm, and I consider it our family tree.

That is why I felt a tinge of sadness when I discovered the fallen branch one morning during a walk with my dogs.

Danny and I both knew the branch had been dead for some time.  It had not shown any sign of life for several years.  But it was a long, heavy branch and connected to the trunk high up on the tree.  We thought it might be dangerous to remove the branch, so we agreed to let nature take its course.  It would fall when it was ready to go.

But the tree itself still survives.  And good will come out of the fallen branch.  The jagged remains left on the trunk will make an excellent nesting area for the native birds.

And the branch itself will benefit us.  Danny cut it into firewood that will supply much-appreciated warmth when the harsh north winds howl this coming winter.

Turns out that our “pioneer tree”, our “family tree”, is also our “giving tree.”

(Cottonwood tree leaves turn a shimmery, golden yellow in late fall. Check out the October chapter in my second book, Another Year on the Family Farm.)

Next week: August Reflections

“The Wheat’s Ready!”

I can still see my father rushing into the kitchen, exclaiming those words to my mother as she stood in front of the sink washing the breakfast dishes.  There was such urgency in his tone.  It meant that everything else on the farm now took a backseat to harvest.

As harvest drew near, as the fields transformed from green to gold, as the heads filled with kernels began to droop under the weight of their precious cargo, Daddy checked the fields daily.  He waded into the interior of the field of waist-high wheat, because he knew the edges ripened first.  He picked a few heads and squeezed out the kernels with his fingers.  He popped a handful into his mouth and chewed.  If the kernels were still soft enough to chew into a gummy, pasty blob, the wheat wasn’t ready.  But if they were dry and hard and crunchy, it was time.

The weeks leading up to harvest were occupied with servicing his combine and truck, the only equipment he needed.  He greased gears, changed oil, checked tires, replaced worn parts and cleaned his truck bed, which he also used to haul cattle.  Then he waited, filled with anticipation and anxiety.

I remember great harvests after which my mother could afford to replace the worn living room sofa.  And I remember somber harvests when Daddy announced at the breakfast table that the thunderstorm the previous night had destroyed two thirds of the crop.

So much depended on that harvest.

As a child, I loved harvest.  Our normally quiet farmstead was filled with activity – Mama busy cooking, my sisters hauling meals to my dad and brothers in the fields, uncles visiting to help out and give my dad a break, cousins to play with.

As a teen, I still loved harvest, even though it now meant work, not play.  But it was interesting work.  It was beneficial work.  It was family work, and I was part of the family.

Nowadays, harvest for me is different.  I still love the sight of the “amber waves of grain”.  I will never stop loving that.  But I no longer play with my cousins in the wheat truck.  I no longer haul the wheat to the elevator and eat fried chicken in the fields.  We rent out our cropland, and it is the renters who do that. 

Since our move back to the farm, harvest commences for me with a casual text from Danny instead of an urgent rush into our kitchen.  His text will simply let me know that the harvesters are moving onto our field.  From our front porch, I watch as multiple state-of-the-art machines with air conditioning and GPS devour the wheat in giant swaths.  Sometimes, if my own work for the day is done, I’ll sit in my porch rocker, observing, as I sip a glass of merlot.  There are no harvest tasks for me anymore.

As I slowly rock, I can’t help but wonder what my dad would think if he could see these metal monsters clean up in a few hours the same field that used to take him a day and a half.  But, I guess, that’s progress.  I take a sip of wine.  And I sadly realize that harvest, for me, has lost its magic.

Until this year.  Until I got the chance to see harvest again through the eyes of a child.

Our son, his wife, and four children visited our farm the weekend following the Fourth of July holiday.  They came from Phoenix to see family, and let the kids experience a few days of farm life.  They didn’t come for the wheat harvest.  That turned out to be an unexpected bonus.

Danny and I both agree that in all our years, we don’t ever recall a wheat harvest in our area that wasn’t completed by the Fourth of July.  But this year, due to the wet, cool spring we had, many fields were not yet ripe until after the holiday.  The wheat on our own land had been cut several days before our son and family arrived.  But Danny was determined to give our grandchildren the opportunity to witness a wheat field being harvested.

He called our tenant farmer and asked if he still had fields to cut.  It turned out that they had not yet cut their own.  “Would it be okay if the grandkids got a combine ride?” Danny asked.

“Absolutely!” was the response.

The 8-year-old and 10-year-old granddaughters put on their boots and cowboy hats, and along with our son, drove with Danny and I to the field.  We watched from our vehicle as the massive machine made its way around the field towards us.  When Travis, the driver, saw us, he stopped, got out of his cab, and welcomed us onto the field.

Danny and our son stayed in our vehicle while our two granddaughters and I climbed the ladder into the giant cab.  There was room for all of us with the 8-year-old on my lap and the 10-year-old sitting cross-legged on the floor of the cab, directly behind the top-to-bottom glass windshield.  She had an unobstructed view of the entire process.

During our ride, the 8-year-old constantly asked Travis all sorts of questions that he skillfully answered to her complete satisfaction.  Meanwhile however, the 10-year-old was silent, totally mesmerized by the whirring blades of the header, the rapidly oscillating sickle, and the spiraling auger feeding the cut stalks into the belly of the beast.

I touched her shoulder.  “What do you think of all this?” I asked.

Her face beamed as she turned to smile at me.  “So cool!” she exclaimed.

I nodded.  It really is.

(Read about my childhood harvest memories in A Year on the Family Farm and my adolescent harvest memories in Another Year on the Family Farm.)

Next Week: The Prairie’s Tree of Life