Blackberry Mountain
Sunny Days 03/17/2011
Everyone keeps talking about the weather here; it is so beautiful and warm and my toes are very happy because they can wiggle in sandals finally!  I’m not convinced that we are out of the cold yet but the current warmth is a great treat.  I try to remind myself to get out in the sun as much as possible now because in a few months I know that it will be miserably hot and I will be wishing away the sunshine for just a few moments of shade.

Humans are not the only ones that enjoy the sun and if you pass by our house you might witness that first hand.  The chickens jump out of the coup first thing in the morning exploring the yard for worms and other juicy crawling bugs and critters.  A few of them hang around when we are tilling in the garden so that they can steal our worms.  It is quite entertaining to watch as one chicken finds a treat because suddenly ten or so other chickens run and attempt to take what is not theirs and the poor worm or bug ends up in several pieces but the chickens are happy.  The goats wandered a bit too much this winter so they have been on “tie outs” for most of the daytime with water and feed beside them and plenty of vegetation in our yard to eat…they are excited to see new life coming up in the form of grass and weeds and they are already fast at work eating whatever is sprouting.  We are working to be sure they don’t get our garden this year!  The goats sure do eat a lot but they have a process—they are known to eat up to twelve hours a day but they will eat for a while and swallow and then, later, sit and basically regurgitate their food and chew it and swallow again.  They have four stomachs and each serves a different purpose and is a vital part of the digestion process.  Each day when I come and go during my lunch break I can’t help but smile as I see the goats laying in the yard apparently sunbathing.  Roses has dug herself a little groove to snuggle in beside a large tree and can be seen laying out or even rolling around…it is a hilarious site!  Bella sits close by and bleats at everyone that goes by.  We have also noticed that our neighbor down the street has tied their goat out on the side of their house closer to us and we think it is so that our goats can communicate…which is so cool since they are herd animals and like to have friends.  The cats love this time of year because when we open the windows they can jump outside anytime they want, often running inside as soon as a door is open and then jumping out the window again almost immediately.  I used to dislike cats but the Homesley family changed that and I am happy for that because cats are very entertaining creatures and sometimes loving too!  The dogs like just about every time of year but this is the season that Eggs enjoys going on creek runs---meaning she is dirtier than ever.  Speaking of cats and dogs, we have had MJ & Eggs for about a year now.  It was this time last year that a friend that stayed with us found Eggs in the woods and I found MJ in the road in front of a local Japanese restaurant.  Both were less than twelve weeks old according to the vet so Happy “Sort of” Birthday to both of these awesome animals! 

Warm weather means digging and planting and lots of other hard work for us gardeners but if all goes well that means we will have new life and plants coming up throughout the spring and summer.  I have begun my seedlings for my herb garden and will post more on that later. 

For now, enjoy the weather!  Get out in the sun (or rain if it comes again) and breathe deep as you take in this beautiful creation that we have been blessed with!

I remember having to stay after English-II Honors class my freshmen year of high school.  My teacher asked about my behavior during classes, and I simply told her The King and I was one of the most boring books I have ever read and found it all to be useless.  I was proud.  I thought it was cool that I told her how dumb the book was, and carried the attitude throughout English classes in high school and college, managing to get by with a B in most cases.  It’s funny how prideful I was on being such a nonintellectual.  What’s more ironic?  I met and fell in love with a poetry loving, fiction writing, English major.  Not only did that happen, but I married him so I am now wife to a writer.  Really the irony here does make me wonder if someone up there is giggling a little as I struggle to find the literature in myself. 

Jeremy writes most days, and upon returning home from work I am often greeted with a new poem or short story segment.  Some days the work is completely new to me and other days I find myself anxious to hear the next part of a developing story.  It is not always easy for me to sit and listen and understand what is being shared with me, because it is really much easier to be prideful about my lack of intellectual interest.  Jeremy has been writing for years, since long before I met him.  In the years since we have been married he has written quite a lot keeping me amazed at the ideas he produces.  I have learned a lot about the creative process as I have watched it work its magic through Jeremy’s pen and then again through his editing.  While there is part of me that still squirms at the thought of sitting and interpreting a story or poem, I am finding it to be a completely new learning experience (since it seems I goofed through the course the first time round).

I’ve been reading a book, on spirituality, with a lot of big words and lengthy descriptions that I am not used to.  I usually would put the book down pretty quickly, but Jeremy suggested holding the book in one hand and a pen in the other with a dictionary nearby.  I have taken a while to read the book but have learned so much, and even have notes in the margins to reflect on.  The process takes longer but everything else in life is so fast paced I am finding that it is actually quite nice to take time to read a piece of literature slowly, searching for the true meaning on the pages.  Even more, I am finding that I am able to use the same curiosity needed for reading, in work and everyday life.  Recently while preparing a children’s lesson for church, I realized that the ways we read and interpret scripture are not so different from the ways we read and interpret literature, and on the same page, the ways scripture was written—poetically, with deeper meaning, using metaphors, with passion—are very similar to the ways literature is written today and has been all the thousands of years in between. 

The thing about reading carefully and finding meaning is that I spend more time with one piece of literature in my hand no matter if it is scripture, a sappy romance novel, a book on spirituality, or a novel written by my husband.  Once I, the reader, dig in and find that there are layers to each piece of work and that everything is not on the surface, I can not help thinking about how much was put into the work by the author.  Living with a writer has really shown me this, and that for writers, so much is involved in pouring out your thoughts onto paper and forming them in a way that others will understand.  For the brave souls that put their work out there, writing means sharing your most personal ideas and beliefs with friends, family, and strangers, opening yourselves up to be criticized, praised, or unfortunately ignored.  Kudos to all of you for your hard work!

Through reading and writing, the mind can exercise and work in ways we cannot fathom.  When I take time to read, I find that my life is less stressful.  It allows me to spend time out of my constantly buzzing schedule and be still—to use my mind and not let it run on auto pilot.  Today I encourage you to read a little slower and dig a little deeper, you might be surprised at what you find.  And be sure to read Jeremy’s latest entries under A Writer’s Journal. 

"Peaches on the shelf, taters in the bin, supper's ready everybody come on in and taste a little love of summer."  Ed Kilbourne

I recently received an email from my high school Sunday school teacher.  I had not seen or heard from her since I graduated college and moved to Cherryville, so the email came as a surprise. A truly pleasant one.  She emailed to see how we are doing, and filled me in on a few things about her life.  She then began to inquire about canning—my dad (her pastor) had mentioned my attempts at canning a couple summers ago and she wanted to know more.  She asked a few questions about whether I had gardened or bought produce, if I was successful, and how I learned about it.  She mentioned that while being out of work for a few years she had started to appreciate a simpler life, and felt that God had blessed her by opening her eyes to this :).    

As I pondered how to respond I began thinking about the “farm”, and the canning and gardening that awaits me.  I always thought gardening was neat but not much more, until I married Jeremy and moved to the country.  We didn't jump straight into gardening.  We got started our second summer here and have been building on slowly since.   Jeremy is the "main gardener".  His grandfather used to farm this land so it seems like it was meant to be.  While he is the main gardener, I do my share with the dirt, and in the kitchen putting the taste of summer into jars.  I have grown very fond of gardening and learn more from it each year.  There is something very special to digging in the soil and watching seeds grow that were planted by my own hands.  I have a lot more to learn, and having a goal to fill up jars with as much food as possible helps a lot. 

When I first decided to can, I started to ask friends and family what they could tell me to help get me started.  My mom said she had tried it when she was first married, but it was such a hassle that she did not keep it up.  My grandmother was raised on a farm and helped her mother garden and can all the time, because that is how they fed their family.  I thought for sure that I could call her and she would tell me everything I needed to know.  Unfortunately, I found that after growing up on a farm and having no choice but to help her mom all those years, she had grown to want nothing to do with farm life, and could not recall her former skills to share with me.  I was able to find a friend at church that provided me with suggestions and even several cases of jars, which gave me a good place to start. 

I have canned a little for the past two summers---tomatoes, salsa, green beans, pickles (unsuccessfully), peaches, apple butter, and strawberry jam.  Almost everything I canned came from our garden--- the fruits did not...strawberries came from a local farm, peaches purchased by mom and dad in Gaffney, South Carolina—home of the giant peach, and apples from Jeremy's family in Virginia.  My favorite canned good thus far is a batch of apple butter I made with Virginia apples.  I set my goal too high last year and did not can as much as I had hoped, but plan to try again this year.  Either way, I have had some success, and still have jars of different things I use here and there.  I learn more each year and continue to work on improving my canning set up, skills, and most importantly, what is grown to be put in jars. 

As we move towards a more sustainable lifestyle, I find that it takes a lot of work, but the efforts put towards a garden, canning, raising chickens and all the other tasks that come with this so called 'simple life', are extremely rewarding.  Lessons on life are learned along the way, muscles are grown (remember there is a lot of digging to be done), and when I sit down to a meal-- whether it is a summer meal prepared fresh out of the garden, or February, and a jar of apple butter is carried out to be put on a piece of toast--I know exactly who did the work, and promise the food tastes a little better.  These are the blessings that God has opened my eyes to see.
Odds and Ends 01/15/2011
A few things...

Well, I was wrong when I told you that I had some White Button mushrooms ready to be eaten.  Those little mushrooms photographed in last week's blog turned out to be large Portabella mushrooms.   We realized they were colored differently than they should be and then discovered it was because I had gotten the two types mixed up.  Regardless of the mistake we still got our first crop of mushrooms throughout the week.  Both types grew and continue to grow, enough for us to pick a couple each day.  We both really like mushrooms so this week we had mushroom omelets, mushroom pizza, and tonight, I made spaghetti loaded with mushrooms and a salad topped with them.  Needless to say...they are delicious!

Last Sunday a winter storm hit the area (as well as a large part of the country) and we got about 8 inches of snow and ice by the time it was over.  I was out of work most of the week, and the local schools  were canceled all week...the south is not ready for this type of winter weather.  We still have a lot of snow on the ground and an older church member told me there is an old wives tale that says if snow stays around for a while it is waiting on more to come.  This could be an interesting winter!  I do enjoy the snow and it is always nice to spend extra time at home with Jeremy and the animals.  We stayed inside mostly because it was so cold, but we ventured out one day to play on the land (photos on the main page and farm section).  I saw our neighbors sledding down the slope on our road and so I tried out snow tubing down Mozelle worked great and I plan on trying again if we get more snow this year.

I finally took down the Christmas decorations today.  I keep them up as long as possible because I like them and find no reason to rush to rid the house of them just because a specific date has passed.  While cleaning today I figured I might as well, plus the tree needed to go outside before it fell apart all over the place.  Luckily, Cedar trees just happen to be one of Rose's favorite foods.  I took the Christmas tree out and put it straight into the goat pen and nearly got trampled trying to get in and out.

I just wanted to drop in and share a few things from the past week that made me smile...mushrooms, snow, and Christmas tree eating goats. 

That is all for now...

Here are a few photos of the mushrooms from this week.  I'm experimenting with lighting so they look different.

The first photo shows a few days ago when you could see the White Button mushrooms really starting to grow on their side of the box.

The second photo shows three of the white button late last night.  Jeremy keeps asking if he can eat one.  I'm thinking we can try out mushroom omelets for Sunday lunch today.

I will post a photo when you can see it better but we do have a few small Portabella starting to grow. 

There was a point this summer when we were bringing in about eight eggs a day.  With nearly 5 dozen eggs a week we could cook eggs for a meal on several occasions, I was able to do lots of baking, we fed the dogs some every now and then (they love them), and gave a dozen to friends and family when there were enough.  All those eggs spoiled me and now its wintertime and the temperature has been very low which means that the chickens are using a lot of their energy to stay warm.  On top of that we’ve had a fat rat eating our feed so we’ve been changing our feeding times and the chickens have been working harder while free ranging—all that being said, they stopped laying.  A few began molting, a phase in which they lose feathers and grow a new coat and rest from laying before starting a new cycle, but the rest stopped—just in time for holiday cooking, too.  So as soon as I began to take the eggs for granted—I was forced to go without.  I tried to find someone else with chickens so that I could have farm fresh eggs for cooking but others were in similar situations.  I did finally give in and purchase eggs from the grocery store but I realized that as the seasons shift things are not so readily available.  There are cycles that we choose to ignore as we mass produce our chickens and eggs and vegetables even.  You can’t really get a tomato around here in the winter but we get people to ship them to us so that we don’t have to go without.  We have the stores full of the things that aren’t available elsewhere and so we don’t have to scavenge like the chickens do when we take their feed.  If we did, we might realize God has blessed us with an abundance of plants and animals. 

                As the days passed we got two eggs every day or so from two loyal birds.  We learned to check a tree stump for eggs daily because one bird prefers that spot to the coup.  On New Years morning, after a month long lesson on patience, I checked the coup and stump and found four eggs and a couple more later that day.  I got a little giddy when I saw the eggs.  For our New Years dinner we ate them cooked over a fire with some farm fresh bacon and sausage our parents brought us.  YUM!  Jeremy is a great breakfast cook and a better fire starter so he put the two together in our fire place using a couple cast iron pans making our eggs well worth the wait.  The chickens taught me a couple lessons this time:  I am learning more about the cycles of nature and how to understand and respect them and that if we work for it we will be provided for but more often than not patience is required.

Mushrooms Galore 12/28/2010
I finally got something that I have been wanting for a very long time...a 1/2 Portabella and 1/2 White Button Mushroom growing kit.  Jeremy and I both really like mushrooms and I cook with them often so I have been interested in growing them for a while. The kit consists of two dirt mixtures that are easily put together in the same cardboard box they are shipped in.  I have to spray them once a day and in about three weeks we'll be eating mushrooms. 
Joy to the world 12/21/2010
It’s almost Christmas.  There are 5 days left to be exact, though many of us have been shopping, planning, and preparing for the festivities since Thanksgiving (and even before that in some cases).  I am mixed with emotions over the holidays.  It is so busy and overwhelming with expectations that it can be hard to find Jesus among all the glitter and wrapping paper.  I’ve tried to celebrate differently this year but I still get caught up in the chaos on many occasions.  This past weekend I attended four Christmas parties where I was able to spend time with friends and family that I have not seen in months or longer, sharing joys and concerns.  I also helped direct a children’s Christmas program and took our church’s younger youth Christmas caroling.  All of the weekend was completely chaotic but I enjoyed just about every second of it (I’d be lying if I told you I didn’t panic a few times). 

While running around and accomplishing all of these tasks and events I was reminded that one of my favorite parts of the holidays is when we carol to some of our older church members.  The kids love singing and being together but the folks that we visit show us just how much it means to them.  Tears were shed, hugs were given, the youth were surprised with cookies, and sometimes the folks we visited even joined in with the singing.  The whole experience is truly a gift on both ends.  This year we decided not to call ahead so that we could surprise every person.  Every single unsuspecting member was completely full of joy when they answered their door to a porch full of smiling, singing children.  One couple joined us as we sang and told us that it was the best thing ever.  They had never ever had Christmas carolers or any other young people stop by like this.  They were 91! 

I love the holiday season because it brings together friends and family for gatherings that really don’t happen any other part of the year.  I think it is wonderful that the joyful spirits that we call holiday cheer can brighten the day of someone that lives alone or of a couple that doesn’t get too many visitors.  But I find it extremely sad that it takes the holiday for all of this to happen.  I’m just as guilty of it as the next person.  The holidays remain chaotic because we try to cram everything into a period of four weeks (otherwise known as Advent, a time that we are to prepare our hearts for the Lord’s arrival) in between Thanksgiving and Christmas.  It is my wish that we could take a morsel of the holiday spirit and turn it into something bigger and something greater that can be shared year round.  Consider this over the next few months.  When you take down your stockings and your tree, don’t pack away your joyful spirit too.  Keep the spirit burning inside of you so that you might feel the urge to visit a friend, to bring cheer to someone who lives alone, to share a meal with someone.  Don’t let the meaning of Christmas get packed away with all the other things that we store for 11 months out of the year. 

Our home is the house my father-in-law was raised in, placed on the family land.  The land is beautifully decorated with trees of all types, several fields under the local power lines, and a couple creeks if you are brave enough to get back into the woods.  It is truly a place for adventure.  Many would see the land as an opportunity for farming, but it took me a long time to see from that perspective.  When Jeremy and I got married and spent our first summer living in Cherryville I would laugh about how crazy it was that our neighbors had chickens and those chickens walked across the road (like the jokes I had heard as a child) and hung out in our yard.  I would take photos of them just because I thought it was so neat and I just had to show my friends how the "real" country life was.  I never would have guessed that in less than 2 years I would have my own chickens.  Today the memory makes me laugh as I sit and think, "Why NOT own chickens?"  They give an egg nearly everyday, meat and, they make more chickens. 

How did we end up with chickens?  As we got comfortable living here, we also got comfortable with the idea of making this place home.  After that we thought it would be neat to have a few chickens for eggs.  The idea was planted in our minds and became a reality after viewing a documentary about where our food actually comes from.  The idea of chickens being mass produced in houses where they never see daylight and their life begins and ends in a record amount of time was unsettling to say the least.  That weekend we cleaned out an old shed that Jeremy's Papaw used for storage and turned half of it into a chicken coup.  We drove to the local flea market and bought 3 hens-- 1 Rhode Island Red and 2 Black Sex-Links.  Over the next few weeks our flock increased to a family of 9 and now, a year later, we have about 23 chickens and 16 chicks.  We collect white, brown, and GREEN eggs from our chickens every day and we kill one when we need chicken for a meal.   I never would have thought I would own chickens but now that I do I wouldn't have it any other way.  Some people say that chickens are dumb...and just like humans, they can be, but I think that they are fascinating and not really that dumb. 

This year we spent Thanksgiving at home eating the last of a few summer crops and one of our chickens in a tasty chicken stew.  It was different than any Thanksgiving ever before because I was away from parents and siblings and because we did not eat Turkey but it was truly a blessing to eat a meal that I fully participated in growing and raising and for that I am thankful
Not much can beat a fresh out of the oven, fluffy biscuit topped with homemade apple butter.  For a while I got my fix of this delight each time I dined out at Cracker Barrel but when I married and moved into a house where I had my own kitchen I decided it was time to start making my own.  I began with frozen biscuits and bought a jar of my favorite apple butter--together they made it almost like I was at the restaurant but as time went on and my passion for cooking grew I decided NO MORE STORE BOUGHT BISCUITS and so I began trying out biscuit recipes on my self and my husband and many guests--thus the beginning of the biscuit experiment.  I have not bought biscuits since then and I am still on the quest to find the perfect biscuit.  I have found a few that qualify so any chance I get to add a side to a meal, I pull out the flour and, of course, the buttermilk and see what I can create. 

Cooking is my favorite past time, if you can call it that, and I really enjoy creating my own ingredients and cooking from scratch.  So, the quest to find the perfect biscuit has become quite fun.  The best things about biscuits is that, for the most part, they have few ingredients, are easy for beginners and they still pose fun challenges for the experienced.    

When deciding the type of biscuit I wanted to create I thought of typical biscuit comparisons: crisp outside or soft all the way through; butter or plain; fluffy, crumbly, or flaky; shape;  size; milk or buttermilk.  I chose my favorites out of the list and decided that I desired to find a fluffy, buttermilk, large, bulky biscuit with a touch of butter. 

Here are a few tips I learned along the way:

-Self-rising or all purpose flour do make a difference but self-rising is more convenient.  All purpose allows for more baking powder and more airy biscuits.

-Crusty outsides with a soft inside comes from cooking biscuits with space in between them verses being cooked while touching.  Crisper biscuits are delicious but they do not keep well.

-Buttermilk adds a very rich flavor.

-The less you work the dough, the better.

-The colder the ingredients (ex: shortening, milk, butter, mayo, etc.) while preparing, the better the final product will be.

I am always trying new recipes and testing on Jeremy, my husband and best critic, but do give my favoritism to a specific recipe using buttermilk and mayonnaise not requiring a rolling pin or too much effort.  I"ll share that recipe in this week's "From the Kitchen" section. 

It's neat how you can learn so much from cooking and I don't just mean about the food.  The Biscuit Experiment proves that there are many options we face and choices we'll make.  We don't always make the best ones and sometimes we fail but even in our failures we can use the results--I feed leftovers or mess-ups to the chickens and they never complain.  When we have results in life that we aren't please with we can use that opportunity to learn, to make different decisions next time round and before you know it, the results will be very rich and rewarding.  But always remember that even the most experienced can fail.  We just have to learn and try again.  Just remember what ingredient to try differently next time.