Appalachian Thursday – A Poor Harvest

applesI’ve mostly given up trying to grow our food. I keep a pot of herbs and this year I grew a cherry tomato in a pot near the front porch. Based on what I paid for the plant and the number of tomatoes I picked, I’d say I broke even on that one.

But, like the local bears, I’m opportunistic when it comes to harvesting food. Blackberries, raspberries, apples, pears, grapes, and nuts tend to be plentiful in our area. We pick them wild and have neighbors who are glad to share.

This year, though, there just wasn’t much to harvest. I made an apple pie last weekend and had to supplement with store apples. The walnuts are few and far between. Even the hickory nuts are less this year.

Growing up on the farm, we had walnuts, chestnuts, and filberts (hazelnuts). Walnuts turned our hands (and clothes) black. Chestnuts could be removed from their prickly casing by pinching them between the soles of our boots and pushing them out. Hazelnuts we just let dry a bit and then whacked ’em good with a hammer.

Mom probably made things using nuts, but mostly the pleasure was in just eating them straight from the shell. And eat them we did! Chestnuts in particular were an easy target and the crisp texture and flavor of that buttery, yellow nut was SO good. You can score them and roast them briefly to make them easy to peel, but we just bit ’em until the shell cracked.

Hopefully 2018’s poor harvest is just an off-year–a down season in the cycle. And since there’s not much out there, I guess I’ll leave most of it to the critters. I kind of like it when the squirrels sit on the back deck methodically eating nuts that leave smears of black, walnut leavings.

Reminds me of how God provides for squirrels and growing children just the same. And how what he provides nourished my body back then and my heart today.

Appalachian Thursday – Wild Critters

Spring 12 bears 051There are people who have never seen an animal in the wild. Oh, maybe a city squirrel or some pigeons, but I’d argue they’re not really wild.

My mountains are a veritable zoo of wildlife. Just yesterday Thistle and I encountered a teenage bear on our evening hike. She was easily persuaded to abandon the trail for the deeper woods where she melted into the rhododendron like she’d been a dream. Thistle knows better than to give chase.

But she will chase squirrels, chipmunks, and rabbits all day long. As well fed as she is, I suspect it’s just for sport. We’re also knee-deep in turkeys and see the occasional deer. Back in WV you can’t NOT see a deer. They’re frankly too plentiful.

We’re also treated to sitings of raccoons, possums, groundhogs, foxes, skunks, coyotes, and the truly rare bobcat. I saw more skunks back in WV where we had one living under the back porch for a while. He would come out after dusk and see if there were any scraps left in the dog dish. We’d stand behind the screen door, watching, and he’d squint at us (I think skunks may not have the best eyesight). Adorable, but we knew better than to go out there.

I suppose there are folks who would rather NOT encounter wildlife every time they go outside, but it’s one of the reasons I love these mountains so much. Bears on the back deck can be a bit of an inconvenience, but they’re also a living, breathing example of God’s miraculous creation–a reminder I’m glad to have.

Helping to Rescue Smokey Bear

SmokeyIn The Sound of Rain my hero, Judd, is shown a 1950s poster of Smokey Bear. His boss–who is also my heroine’s father–wants Judd to serve as a sort of liaison with the forest service in their efforts to preserve forests. Although I only mention the poster and Smokey in passing, it was fun to do a little bit of research about a childhood icon.

For example, it’s Smokey Bear, NOT Smokey the Bear. And he’s named after “Smokey” Joe Martin, assistant chief of the New York City Fire Department in the 1920s.

And now Smokey has entered my life once again!

On New Year’s Eve I took Thistle to the national forest near our house for her daily hike. As I pulled into the parking area I noticed something over in the trees. Upon closer inspection I discovered a full-size Smokey Bear sign leaning against a tree.

Odd, I thought. It seemed like a pretty remote spot for Smokey to campaign about the danger of forest fires. Especially since he wasn’t bolted down.

Then, that evening, I checked a local news site because our weather had turned downright awful. And what did I find but a piece about a Smokey sign being stolen from a local fire station!

Anyone with a tip as to his location was asked to contact the Sheriff’s office or the fire department. So I did. Turns out it WAS the missing bear. He’s back home now and being reattached to his post more securely.

I was even interviewed by the local newspaper.

Helping get Smokey home was the highlight of my new year’s weekend. Who needs champagne, countdowns, or midnight fireworks when you can be part of getting Smokey home?

Bees, Rattlesnakes, and Bears – oh my!

rattlesnakeYou know it’s a doozy of a hike when the least scary thing to happen is a bear thundering off through the brambles.

That’s how my hike with Thistle started one evening last week. And we weren’t much alarmed. After all, the bear was leaving. Then Thistle ran on ahead and in short order came streaking back past me.

While hiking with my husband that morning she’d gotten into some yellow jackets (bears crack those nests open like pecans this time of year). I thought, surely that hadn’t happened again. I called her to me and two yellow jackets flew from her fur. Okay, it had. We ran down a side trail where she wallowed in some tight brush, divesting herself of any insects. Which was good since I had that MAJOR allergic reaction 15 years ago. (I’m theoretically cured after 7 years of shots, but who wants to test that?!?)

We made our way to a stream and gathered our wits. The bees were quite a bit scarier than the bear. Even so, we had hiking to do, so off we went, taking the long way around. As we came back down the mountain on a nice, wide trail, we stumbled across the scariest thing yet.

A rattlesnake.

A yellow phase timber rattlesnake to be specific (I only learned this later). And when I saw it, stretched full length in a sunny spot on the trail, Thistle was standing tail to tail with it. Or tail to rattle. My dog had no CLUE there was a snake in the world.

I convinced her to come to me with some treats and we stood there for a moment, marveling. (I did–Thistle just wondered why she had to wear her leash and might there be more treats?)

Then we went the even longer way around.

One of the themes in my upcoming novel, The Sound of Rain, is how we’re never really safe. No matter how many precautions we may take, bad things will still happen in the most unexpected ways. It’s just how this fallen world works.

My first thought after such an eventful hike was that maybe I should give up hiking until the first good freeze. But honestly, I love walking in the woods. It’s my freest, most creative time. And it’s something my husband, dog, and I love to do together.

So, I’ll keep hiking with the bears, the bees, and the rattlesnakes. Because, as my characters also learn, we may not be safe, but we are secure. Not because of any precautions we’ve taken, but because of who we trust.

“Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil. For thou art with me.”

Appalachian Thursday – Berry Season

HelvetiaSummer is a fruitful time in the soft, green mountains of Appalachia. The black raspberries are gone and the blackberries are just getting started. Typically we have MORE than enough to go round–even sharing with the bears!

When it comes to blackberries there are pies, jellies, jams, sauces, salads, and even sweet tea. But really, I think most of two things–cobbler and wine. My great-grandmother was a believer in blackberry wine to cure most things. A family story goes that when my brother was a baby he had an, er, intestinal complaint that doctors couldn’t cure. A tablespoon of blackberry wine from Grandma Jane and he was good as new!

So here’s a recipe from a booklet titled, Oppis Guet’s Vo, Helvetia. It includes recipes, household hints and cures collected by Eleanor Mailloux from the residents of Helvetia–a Swiss Village near where I grew up in WV. I don’t know if the recipe is any good, but the writing is great!

“On a lovely August day, find yourself a blackberry patch and pick a couple of gallons of berries. Put in crock and cover with water. Let set for a day–whenever you think of it mash and stir. Strain into containers and add 3 1/2 cups sugar to every gallon of juice. Usually, blackberries don’t take yeast, but for your first try you might add 1/2 cake dissolved yeast in 1/4 cup lukewarm water–add to juice and stir well. Ferment until stops working, put in jugs and cover tops with cloth. Let continue to work in warm place until bubbles cease to rise. When completely fermented, seal. Drink the following spring.”

And for a more practical recipe, you might try this cobbler from the Jubilation Cookbook for the Joyful Woman given to me by Anna Cutright in January 1989.

Blackberry Cobbler – Margaret Holmes
-Put 1 stick of butter in a deep dish and put into oven at 350 degrees.
-Mix: 2-4 cups blackberries with 1 cup sugar
-Mix: 3/4 cup plain flour, 1 cup sugar, 3/4 cup sweet milk, 2 tsp. baking powder
Stir into a smooth batter. Pour batter gently into center of melted butter. DO NOT STIR. Gently pour fruit into center of melted butter and batter. DO NOT STIR. Bake about 1 hour at 350 degrees.

My advice would be to serve that with a scoop of homemade vanilla ice cream!

The Best Laid Plans

BearI like to make plans. I like for things to fit neatly together–preferably in an attractive pattern. For example, over the weekend I bought fried chicken at a deli for a church event. I really, really, REALLY wanted to suggest to the clerk that he should put the breasts and wings in one container and the legs and thighs in the other.

It would have been more equitable.

But this is NOT how life works. (In case you didn’t know.)

I took Thistle for a walk up Bartlett Mountain on Saturday. The road starts out paved, switches to gravel, and then becomes a dirt track. If you’re determined, you can go all the way to the top of the ridge on a bear trail.

We went high enough to get a good view of the mountains with their first tinge of autumn color, then turned around and headed back down. I was walking along making it a point to notice how delightful life was right at that moment. It was a soft, misty afternoon with the smell of autumn in the air. I had my dog and an evening to do as I pleased. Idyllic really.

That’s when Thistle spotted the bear. Thankfully, she’s a smart dog, so she just sat in the road and waited for me. I called her back, leashed her, and proceed to encourage the bear to move along. The bear wasn’t being aggressive, but neither was she leaving. Mostly, she seemed curious about us. While I wasn’t afraid, neither was I eager to satisfy the bear’s curiosity. So we backtracked, found a bear trail through the woods (ironic, right?) and pushed our way through the trees down to the gravel section of the road.

Bear behind us, it occurred to me that my afternoon idyll had been disturbed. There I was, appreciating a simple pleasure, when a bear threw a wrench in the gears.

And ain’t that like life.

You’re on the downhill, coasting along, taking in the scenery and–wham–bear. Talk about unplanned. Talk about a piece that doesn’t fit the pattern.

I think God is working on me in this area. I want Him to lay out His ten-year plan for me (twenty would be even better) so I can check each item off my list and feel the satisfaction of a to-do list that is DONE.

But bears keep popping up. They’re not necessarily scary, just unexpected and often inconvenient. But maybe, just maybe, they’re meant to push me toward the path I should have been on all along . . . And maybe, just maybe the unplanned path is the better one.