Earthlodge: The Original Sod Home

earth lodgeI read an interesting article on the “earthlodges” of Native Americans in the Dakotas the other day. I’d learned early in my life when the family moved from New York to “Indian Territory” – Oklahoma – that not all Native Americans lived in those portable teepee tents so prevalent on the plains. I knew the ‘civilized’ tribes of the southeastern United States were able constructors of log cabins for their permanent villages, and of course knew about those spectacular adobe pueblos in the southwest. And while I learned in junior high Oklahoma history about the sod-roofed shanties built by white settlers (and for which Oklahoma was famous), I’d never heard of earthlodges.

Earthlodges are large round structures from 20 to 50 feet in diameter which are built to be much more permanent than the yurts that basically amount to a Mongolian version of teepee for migratory people. Lots of people these days have deck-mounted yurts that are popular as camp cabins or gazebos, but they’re not really something stable or well-insulated enough to live in full time.

In contrast, the earthlodge is dug into the ground and framed with logs, covered with woven willow mats and then covered completely (except for a smoke hole in the middle of the roof) with mud and sod. Your basic hobbit house, but as its own hill rather than dug into a pre-existing hill. Of course, there are some modern earthlodge designs that combine aspects of natural landscaping and lodge building, which are actually quite nice if you don’t care much about windows. It would be quite easy to engineer one of these with skylights, so interior darkness can be alleviated.

earth lodgeThe original earthlodges were built communally, often housing between 15 and 25 people. They provided solid, very well-insulated shelter for harsh Dakota winters, and stayed naturally cool in hot Dakota summers. They lasted only as long as the palisade poles and main support logs lasted in the ground, about 7 to 10 years before they’d rotted enough to need replacing. Since it took only about a week for a group to construct an earthlodge from scratch, the old one would simply be torn down and a new one erected in its place. The old logs recycled into firewood made this village system quite efficient given that the Dakotas do not enjoy the thick, lush forests of the American southeast.

For a new homesteader looking for cheap, eco-friendly housing on a tract of raw land, it’s not difficult to see how the problem of ground-rot could be simply eliminated by seating the anchor and palisade logs in concrete. The thermal mass of palisade logs plus dirt/sod can be nearly warm in winter and cool in summer as 3-foot thick adobe walls. More modern – and fully waterproof – coverings take the place of those woven willow mats, and fewer palisade poles would allow for regular insulated walls or an opportunity to place windows and/or exits to porticos, or to build storage rooms or closets off the main structure. For a truly permanent structure, some research on new under-sod waterproof roofing material would probably be a good idea.

The niftiest thing about this kind of permanent shelter is that if your land is raw enough to need some clearing, the logs and poles can be taken as part of your clearing plans. These will have to be de-barked and dried above the ground, there are many good Do It Yourself books and plans out there for site-built log homes that have clear instructions on how to do this. If you’re planning to grow crops, the sod shouldn’t be hard to come by. Rather than a big central fire pit and large hole in the roof, a central wood stove with just a pipe running up through the roof will protect from the elements much better than the wicker baskets the Mandan people used to cover their smoke holes when it rained.

It also strikes me that the side walls could be constructed of straw bales and covered with mesh and stucco or adobe instead of mud and sod and still be as easy to heat and cool. Some may consider rock as well, if the land has an overabundance of those that need removing before crops can be grown. Any of these alternatives for some or all of the side walls would make for a very handsome home. The sod roof does have great appeal, I’ve always envisioned a hobbit house with wildflowers instead of just more grass to have to mow.

The interior, once you’ve got the central roof supports and planned your walls, can of course be framed and subdivided as you please for cooking sleeping and living areas, bathrooms and utility as you wish. The Dream Green link above also offers a plan for a ‘multi-lodge’ made up of several octagonal earthlodges connected to a front portico area. This idea offers the possibility for future expansion as the family grows.

So chalk this up as yet another eco-friendly green construction to think about if you’re new to homesteading or are planning to build more structures on your homestead than you’ve already got. A far less modern (more true to origin) version of earthlodge would make a very serviceable combo barn, root/wine cellar and tool/vehicle storage shed. For as long as you can keep the livestock from eating the walls and roof, that is.

Links:

Indians 101: The Earthlodge
Dream Green Homes Earth Lodge
Blue Ridge Yurts

ALERT! Pie Crust Update!

Pie Crust Update!

Ah, pie! Who doesn’t love pie? Custard pie, pumpkin pie, berry pie, meringue pie, ‘mater pie… and any good – or merely beloved – pie chef has his or her favorite crust ‘secrets’ that draw the oohs and ash from their intended pie-audience.

Now, there are different sorts of pie crusts for different sorts of pies. There’s the kind of solidly “bready” pie crusts one wants to use for pot pies and quiches and such. There are “sweet” pie crusts of graham cracker crumbs and butter, with a little brown sugar mixed in, that are scrumptious with pumpkin and other smooth spice-heavy pies. There are much more substantial bready (with additions like oatmeal), sweetened crust-like stuff you dollop on top of those hard-won blackberries and raspberries in mid-summer for cobblers.

Then there are the super-flaky, very light and subtle crusts that can be used for any type of pie, but are best for specialty items like tomato pie and some berry/fruit pies. I admit my luck with butter crusts has not been very good. They often turn out hard and chewy rather than light and flaky. Don’t know if that’s because I work it too much, or something else. But I don’t even bother trying anymore, just go with the crust recipes that work reliably rather than on a hit-or-miss basis.

To that end I have a very good crust recipe from Debrah Madison’s 1997 tome, Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone that I use for ‘mater pie and light quiches. It doesn’t sound like it would be the flakiest crust ever, but it invariably turns out that way. It’s difficult to work with, being made with vegetable oil (for lightness I use safflower) instead of butter or margarine. This gives the dough an oily texture that doesn’t lend itself to easy working. But if you roll it out between sheets of waxed paper, it gets nice and thin and is easily peeled out into a pie tin or onto a pie filling. Not something you’d want to use for stuffed anythings, as those do far better with real bread crusts like for pizza.

Pie Crust Made with Oil

• 1.5 cups flour
• 1/4 cup wheat bran
• 1/4 tsp. salt
• 1/2 cup safflower oil
• 2 tbsp. milk, soy milk or water

Mix the dry ingredients in a bowl. Mix oil and milk/water together in a separate bowl, add to the dry ingredients. Mix until the dough sticks together. Shape into a flat disk and roll between sheets of waxed paper to 1/4 inch thickness. Pull off one sheet of waxed paper, and invert over pie tin. carefully pull back the waxed paper to leave the crust in place. Work into the tin carefully, press-patching rips as you go. Trim. This is one 9″ deep pie’s worth of crust, double recipe for a two-crust pie.

Doesn’t take long, and this crust is surprisingly praise-worthy. Given, of course, my notorious failures in All Things Baked notwithstanding. This recipe is one that fails much less often than others I’ve tried, and the family likes it better than any purchased frozen pie crusts other than graham.

But there’s a recent Big Update that I’m anxious to try – Food Hacks reports that using vodka instead of water (or, in the above case milk) makes those extra crispy/flaky pie crusts even better! Which dedicated foodies will nod along with just as I did, while of course figuring the Thanksgiving pie quotient and wondering if Tuaca would work as well, but with more oomph…

According to Food Hackers

Swapping ice cold vodka for water in pie crust recipes ensures a flakier crust. The liquid makes the dough more pliable to work with, and then evaporates while baking, giving you a lighter result than water.

That makes sense. Tuaca has vanilla and citrus and other spices in it, so when its alcohol content evaporates during baking, it should leave a flaky crust with a lot of flavor. Perfect for pumpkin or sweet potato pies!

I’m with the Food Hacker – cooking or baking with alcoholic content is definitely a good recipe for awesome. The family and guests won’t get high off the goodies, but the cook sure might! Given the amount of hard work that goes into a major feast for mass numbers of people, that can only be a good thing…

At any rate, come this holiday season as I’m busy producing as many pies of all varieties as anybody could ever want to eat, I’ll report back on how well the use of vodka and/or some other alcoholic specialty turns out – in order of best to worst. If I can get past my hangover in time, that is… ;o)

Houses of Straw

Leonard Leslie Brooke illustration
Leonard Leslie Brooke illustration
Sure, we all remember the children’s story about three pigs and a big, bad wolf, who could huff and puff and blow the house down (unless it was made of bricks). The stick house held up a little bit better, but the straw house didn’t provide much in the way of protection at all. But these days, houses made of straw and stucco are getting quite sophisticated. Even looking sturdy enough to stand up to a good, stiff breeze, whether it comes from a wolf or a hurricane.

Bales of straw (usually wheat straw) as building material isn’t exactly new, though perhaps not as old as the Three Little Pigs tale. late 19th century homesteaders out on the Nebraska plains are credited with building the first straw bale and mud-wattle houses, much as Oklahoma homesteaders pioneered stone and earth-sheltered homes with sod roofs. These early examples of hardy home-building with whatever’s handy largely escaped modern notice until the early 1970s, when the hippie “back to the land” movement took off. Most straw bale houses built over the following couple of decades were non-code off-the-grid shelters, but the benefits of bale construction have gained new fans.

Featured in this New York Times article is a rather spectacular example in the Catskills hand-crafted with loving care over a period of years by Clark Sanders. For the new revival in homesteading pioneers for the 21st century, there are a number of outfits and websites offering education in straw bale building techniques, helpful hints, and contacts for associated material like stuccos and plasters, wall lattice, etc. Some of the most interesting and useful are listed below. There are even some very nice straw bale house plans that can be built as offered or altered to your own site’s needs and combined with other green technologies such as earth sheltering, etc.

A relatively small straw bale shelter could be built fairly quickly and cheaply by new homesteaders on their land as a place to live while developing the various water and energy systems that will support something more permanent at a later date. If sited well and built sturdily, such a shelter built into a berm or hillside could later serve as a well-insulated root cellar for food storage, or a cool shelter barn for ruminant livestock. Just be sure your plastering job keeps up with the normal wear and tear of time, or the livestock just might eat their own barn!

Check out some of the listed sites and their offerings, see if straw bale construction might serve you well in some application. All told, the recurring benefit theme of this construction method is low cost. Which is always something modern homesteaders need to consider.

Links:

Straw Bale Construction
StrawBale dot Com
Bale Watch: 50 House Plans
A House of Straw

USDA: Sequester Impacts

Sequester_ImpactsWe homesteaders are among the citizens who pay a good deal of attention to the programs and operations of both state and federal agricultural departments because they can directly affect us (for good or ill). We often make use of our state ag departments’ extension services for education in things like beekeeping, land use, community ag promotional programs, etc. And we keep track – often with some trepidation – of the various ways that the U.S. Department of Agriculture [USDA] can make or break our attempts to make our livings off the land and the work we put into it. Under this rubric come permissions and restrictions for selling our produce and other home-grown products to the public, to local and regional government programs, food banks, schools, etc., as well as all those expensive and tiring hoops we must jump through to obtain and keep certifications for organic labeling, etc.

We live on and off the land, and must keep ourselves abreast of the tricks of that trade. In this blog I have expressed some reservations about Tom Vilsack, who was appointed Secretary of Agriculture by President Obama some years ago, due to his corporate-friendly policies. Particularly in regards to Monsanto’s agri-chem and GMO activities, which are a considerable threat to organic producers. He has also been somewhat less than supportive of local producers being allowed to supply raw and processed foods to local schools and food banks, which we see as an important part of the ‘locavore’ – “Eat Local” movement. Buying and eating foods grown and processed close to home removes one of the most environmentally insidious government-subsidized cost-adds to our food supply – the costs of transporting foods grown in other states, regions and countries from farm to processor, and from processors to market. Almost all of it accomplished by the burning of fossil fuels.

The U.S. government has been operating for some months under what is known as “sequester,” one of those hostage threats Republicans in the U.S. Congress used to try and get their policies enacted despite being unable to win actual elections on the merits of their ideas. This seq uester has cut spending levels across the board fairly drastically, and crippled many government agencies and departments to the point where some of their most important jobs don’t get done. USDA is one of those crippled departments.

For example, the sequester has slashed government subsidies to school districts to help support their school breakfast and lunch programs. At the end of this month (October) schools will have to provide their own funding exclusively, though the government claims they will be reimbursed at some point. If the sequester is ever recinded, and now presuming those same Republican hostage-takers won’t keep the entire government shut down indefinitely while crashing the world’s economy by refusing to pay the bills for appropriations they’ve already allotted from the budget.

Concurrent drastic cuts and cut-offs to both the SNAP (Food Stamps) and WIC food programs are cutting deeply into the ability of families – many of them working full time but earning minimum wage – to put food on the table. With neither school feeding programs or food assistance from the government, a great many people will simply have to do without. We know that doing without food isn’t a particularly healthy way to live, but at least one party in our political system doesn’t think that’s a problem. I presume they and their families eat very well, thanks. We certainly pay them enough for that.

Both SNAP and WIC will run out of funds nationwide by mid-November. Just in time for the holidays! Funding for rental assistance has also been cut, and no new farm/business loans are being processed. Farmers who had previous loans through USDA and have sold this year’s crops can’t get the checks cashed because county offices for the Farm Service Agency are all closed. A freak autumn blizzard in the Dakotas killed thousands of cattle and horses, but the conservation arm of the USDA cannot help to get the dead livestock buried. This is obviously a serious issue for the immediate health and well-being of both rural dwellers and healthy livestock.

From here on, until and unless our government flunkies in Congress wake up and do their too well paid jobs, we are all on our own. Severe weather affecting farmers and ranchers will not be mitigated by the usual government emergency loans and/or mobilization of resources. Families going homeless and hungry through the winter will not be aided, nor will they or their pets or any farmer’s lost livestock get buried when they finally die. Hell, in another [not ag related] outrage of Congressional shananigans, the families of our soldiers dying in Afghanistan and elsewhere are no longer receiving the ‘death benefit’ they are entitled to, so not even our war dead are getting buried if the families don’t have cash on hand.

This situation is obviously untenable and cannot keep going for long, but I see no signs that the radical reactionaries in Congress are willing to do anything whatsoever that might save the nation from absolute ruin. If something doesn’t give very soon, by the time agricultural America gets started planning the spring crops there may be no national government at all and no help for anyone to access adequate food.

There are a few things we can do. First and foremost, call and/or write your congressional representatives and let them know this obstructionism must stop. Now. Let all your friends and family know how important it is that our representatives face harsh pressure on these issues. Get involved with your county and state electoral organizations and help draft decent candidates to challenge die-hards in next year’s elections. Think hard about running yourself if you believe you can do a good job, everyone you know will be thankful.

Get together with your homesteading and farming neighbors and meet with your community aid organizations (like Lions, Kiwanis, 4-H, etc.) to expand community shares programs, community gardens and crop set-asides to go directly to local food distribution services and schools for feeding hungry people. Do as much fund-raising as you can – host events, give public presentations, lobby county and state governments as well as local businesses and corporations – to replace necessary funding for programs to help our communities.

If we go ahead and act as if the federal government is no longer in the business of serving the people, we can make concrete plans to serve each other. Then, when (and if) the dust in Washington settles, we may find ourselves much more committed to each other and much more capable of doing for ourselves. Which, in the end, may be the best lesson the political class in D.C. could ever be taught by ‘We The People’.

Autumn Weatherproofing Tip

water_proofingA FaceBook friend offered up an interesting and easy way to insulate windows, without having to replace them altogether with a company like Otto’s Exterior, as the weather gets colder, that should work very well for everyone whose homestead living quarters isn’t fully outfitted with double-paned windows. I’ve been doing the way too labor and staple-intensive job of covering windows every year with plastic sheeting, then taking it down again in the spring so I could let some fresh air in. And sometimes managing to get all the staples out of the wooden frames, leaving lots of little holes that make it ever more difficult to re-insulate in later years.

Don’t know why I didn’t think of this, but thank goodness someone did! It’s all about Bubble Wrap, which can be purchased by the roll at many retail and hardware outlets, or recycled from your own saved packing stash of “stuff you might need someday” that’s taking up way too much room in the attic or shed. And not only does the actual insulating material (bubble wrap) make great insulating sense, the method of getting it onto your windows does NOT require any staples or tack-tape! No-holes has a lot going for it in the home preservation department, for sure.

All you need is bubble wrap (large or small bubbles) that your kids/grandkids haven’t yet popped for fun, a pair of scissors, and a spray bottle of plain water. Instructions are a breeze:

• Cut the bubble wrap to the size of the window pane.
• Spray a film of water on the window using the spray bottle.
• Apply the bubble wrap while the window is still wet and press it into place.
• To remove the bubble wrap just pull it off starting from a corner.

Voila! Well-insulated windows! The bubble side should go next to the glass for best results. If you wish to get a good view out the window pane for any reason, just pull off the bubble wrap from the corner, and then re-apply with the water sprayer when you’re done. After removing you can put your pre-cut bubble wrap window insulators into a box or bag for use in following years, just hide it from the bubble-popping kids.

Tiny Houses: Part 3 – Cities Developing Tiny Housing

tiny_houseThis blog has examined the new trend toward “micro-housing” in terms of sub-urban and rural settings in the articles Teeny, Tiny Houses in July of 2011, and Tiny Houses: Part 2 in March of 2012. The trend for small, efficiently-designed housing doesn’t look to be letting up any time soon despite a slight bounce-back of the general real estate markets.

Now we are hearing more about big cities either looking into developing “micro-housing units” convenient to downtown workplaces and shopping, at reasonable prices (and rental prices) for young workers, middle income singles and couples without children, and segments of the elderly population.

The Christian Science Monitor for September 25th asks, “Could you live in 150 square feet? Cities try out micro-housing.” They report that San Francisco, Seattle, Chicago and New York have begun trials of ever-smaller ‘efficiency’ apartments – dubbed micro-housing – in the hearts of their metro areas. For those who would eschew living as Bruce Willis’ character in the movie The Fifth Element, the very thought of living in a single room is uncomfortable. For many singles, childless couples and young people coming out of college (where they’ve lived in a dorm room for awhile), living small in the midst of the city doesn’t sound so bad.

Think about it. If you work 8-10 hours a day (sometimes more), what do you really need from ‘home’ apart from some privacy, a kitchenette to store and prep the few meals that aren’t eaten out, a suitable bathroom, a TV chair, a place to do any take-home work they’ve got, and a comfy bed to sleep in?

There is a notorious lack of affordable housing in urban, downtown areas all over the country, and despite the recent economic collapse, the costs aren’t going down. The Japanese have long been pioneers in living in small spaces, but how many Westerners would be happy in 250 square feet or less? New York designer/architect Alexander Gendell, whose company Foliture specializes in fold-away furniture for tight spaces (think Murphy Bed), told CSM…

Low quality of life does not have to go hand in hand with limited living space, he says. He points to Tokyo, where the Japanese have figured out how to make every inch of living space count, he says. “It’s entirely possible to live well in 200 square feet of living space,” he says, as long as every function has been well thought out.

“We are certainly not the first ones to deal with this issue,” Mr. Gendell says with a laugh. “We are blessed in this country with more living space,” he says, but many other nations have proved that it is entirely possible to live in a more concentrated living environment – one that would be better for the planet.

Chicago has built thousands of downtown dorm units in high-density buildings in recent decades, for the income-challenged and homeless population. As housing prices in cities begin to rise again, these small units will become increasingly popular. Moreover, I’d be willing to suggest that as “living small” becomes a somewhat normal thing in cities, the suburban and rural movement toward tiny houses will also benefit. Even stay-at-home homesteaders tend to spend more time outside than in as we work toward our idyllic self-sufficient dreams, many of us are nearing retirement age and the children are on their own. The whole “Tread Lightly On The Earth” philosophy has merits that perhaps in coming years our city cousins can learn to appreciate as much as we do. They’ll need outdoor activities to occupy their time too, so perhaps we can expect a boom in rooftop community gardens as this micro-housing trend takes off.

City homesteading can be ‘a thing’ too!

A Timber Business That Doesn’t Cut Down Trees

timber_businessIn my very rural neighborhood with lots of small-acreage homesteads that have been going for generations, there is a lumber mill. Belongs to a neighbor, mostly just a big-timber circular saw and carriage under a sturdy roof with no walls, stacked hardwood logs he and his several sometimes/part-time workers have salvaged from acreage nearby being cleared for building and/or farming. For some years his main business was ‘machining’ those logs into the makings of log homes – from small cabins to big McMansions – for a local log home outfit that has since suffered the results of recent economic and real estate troubles.

Oh, he’ll still process logs if you really want log walls for a house or cabin you’re building, but mostly his mill has been silent lately. One of his backhoes is down, though his big front-end loader is still working on some development acreage a bit south of here. We’ve contracted him to do a big job on the steep front end of our half-mile driveway, the culverts of which were crushed by heavy railroad machinery years ago. That means that whenever we or the railroad whose access IS the front section of our driveway pay to have the thing re-graded after a season’s hard rains send most of the gravel into the road down below and carves deep canyons that’ll wreck the underbelly of any non-4WD vehicle, we can be assured that the next hard rain is just going to tear it up again. He also gives us the half-round slicings off the logs that he does mill, which are excellent wood stove fodder during the cold months.

But seeing his mill idle so much of the time these days is sad, in that none of us locals are very rich even during boom-times. And I’ve wondered what other things a person could do with a homestead sawmill that could tap into the still-strong rich-people retirement and vacation home market in this area. Son-in-Law has a nice wood shop in the next county north, as he is a master cabinetmaker and woodworking artist when he’s not teaching sculpture at the area’s Community College. Has all the routers and lathes and fancy edger-type machines that can turn hardwoods into cabinets or fine furniture or anything else that can be made of fine wood. In fact, there are quite a few fine furniture woodworkers in these mountains, as it used to be how the region earned outside money – Hickory, Drexel-Heritage, Ethan Allen… all the big names in expensive generational-quality hardwood furniture before the industry closed up shop and moved to China because Americans couldn’t afford it anymore.

When I went looking around, I found several good sites dedicated to the fairly “new” industry of salvaging ancient logs from the rivers that were used when the country was young to float harvested timber to the mills. Seems that cold water preserves this old growth timber very well, and when long-lost logs salvaged from the riverbottom mud are brought up and carefully dried, it offers some of the very finest hardwood to be had anywhere outside the virgin wilderness that cannot be logged.

For at least two hundred years the rivers in our country were used to raft logs from one place to another. The trees were cut and stripped of limbs, then tied together to float downstream to a mill. Many times the river would be running high and fast, and when these rafts hit rapids they broke apart. Many logs were lost to the rivers, where they waterlogged and sank into the mud on the bottom. The cold water preserved the logs – often harvested centuries ago from virgin old growth, and now they can be used to make fine furniture and hardwood flooring with grains that simply cannot be matched by today’s early-harvest tree farms. Even better for the few with the salvage and transportation equipment, the furniture and wood flooring that can be made from the logs commands a very high price in today’s markets.

Here in North Carolina salvage timber companies are mining rivers on the coastal plain of the Neuse and Cape Fear, but the bigger rivers just over the Continental Divide – which drain into the Tennessee and eventually the Ohio on their way to the Mississippi have so far escaped the big salvage outlets. Even three or four fine timber logs salvaged and trucked here to the mill and finishing shops would bring a pretty penny to the homesteaders who cared to take advantage of the opportunity. In the sounds and bays where timber once formed walkable surface from shore to shore, thousands of such logs wait to be mined.

Wired had a 3-page story on this new industry called Reservoir Logs that detailed the salvaging and eventual end use of these precious old growth logs.

If you’re on the shoreline or live nearby, underwater timber harvesting is remarkably quiet: no screaming chain saws or smoke-belching heavy machinery. In a steady, splashing procession, tree after tree bobs to the surface, where a small tugboat rigged with a pair of hydraulic claws grabs the trunks and tows them into something called a bunk, a partly submerged U-shaped cradle. I can see three bunks from the barge. Each stores up to 300 trees and can be raised onto a second transport barge that holds up to 1,000 logs. The Sawfish and its four-person crew will fill it in just four days.

Sure, in the highlands one could not be expected to deploy big ships and remote-operation submersibles, because the water’s not that deep and the logs not so tangled. The haul would be smaller, but the rewards just as big for the right people. For instance, consider what Desert Rose Banjo says about Recovered Old Growth Timber

Since its emergence onto the world market barely four years ago, recovered old growth timber has caused a tremendous stir in the musical instrument world. It is called submerged timber, old wood, sunken wood, water-logged wood, timeless timber, lost timber and a number of other names. Knowledgeable people are either embracing it or condemning it as “snake oil”, often both without ever seeing a piece of wood or playing an instrument using it…

Ah. The crafting of fine instruments from dulcimers to dobros to banjos to mandolins and violins has a storied history and a vibrant present in this region of True Bluegrass and traditional mountain music. Desert Rose investigated the product, and had the wood totally tested by an independent government laboratory. Its certified results documented and fully supported the claims circulating about the density, strength-to-weight ratio, modulus of elasticity and all other industry specifications. Moreover, the acoustic performance characteristics of the wood were measurably superior to land-harvest woods for making fine instruments and wind harps, wind chimes, tongue drums and vibes, etc. A single old growth salvaged hardwood log – say, maple or hickory, cherry or white oak – could make dozens of instruments, a few two-octave vibe keys, as many wind harps as any major estate could afford, and still have enough left to turn into a matched dozen fine Windsor dining chairs plus 24-foot table.

For those interested in researching this opportunity, check out some of the old growth timber flooring and veneers offered by such companies as Aqua Timber. And remember that salvaged old growth timber is environmentally friendly!

An Early July of Biblical Proportions

The first week of July here in the southern Appalachians has been positively diluvian. That means we’ve had so much rain – falling at the rate of 1-2 inches an hour spaced in waves throughout the day and night – that I’ve literally considered that I ought to build an ark. Worst day of all was the 4th of July, which brought more than 6 inches of rain, flooding streets and fields and swelling creeks to dangerous levels. Nearby towns cancelled parades, picnics and fireworks shows. Sun finally came out yesterday, but the creek’s still high.

fruitHowever, with the overdue appearance of old sol in the daytime sky, the fat, well-watered blackberry crop may finally ripen instead of simply mold itself into oblivion. Tomatoes and peppers may kick in at long last as well, you never know. But my issue right now has to do with one of my apple trees that managed to lose its footing in what has become a pure mud-bog. It’s a total loss after only 15 years of production, leaving me with just one producing apple tree. Must get a few new ones or we’ll never have home grown apples again.

One of the kids visiting for the holiday helped me salvage the unripe apples on that tree, hoping I could do something with them despite the fact that they’re three weeks to a month away from ripe. They’re filling three large baskets on the dining table right now, still waiting for me to figure out what I want to do with them.

Now, I could quarter them and cook them down in a big pot, then strain for pectin to use when making jams and compotes later when the peaches, pears, berries and grapes come in, but it seems a waste of my Final Harvest. I could use them for applesauce instead, but they’ll need a lot of sugar. Maybe I’ll make unsweetened sauce and save it in the ‘fridge until the blackberries are ripe, make some combo sauce (will need less sugar). Or I could peel and slice them for drying in my nifty solar dryer – which hasn’t seen service so far this year – then hope against hope that the sun may stay around long enough to do the job. They could be half-dried, then reconstituted in sugar water before drying again for snack bits and/or pie filling. But they’re small, would make very small dried tidbits.

So of course I went looking for crab apple and little green apple recipes, found some intriguing ones. Below are the most promising ones I’ve found. I’ve enough apples to try several methods of preservation, may save the drying for the rest of the crop that’s still growing. Will report on how they turned out, so stay tuned!


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Sweet Wine Poached Apples

1 pound little green apples
1 cup sweet red wine [like Riesling]
1/2 cup white sugar
Pinch of salt
1 orange, sliced crossways
1 bag of mulling spices
or
2 tsp. ground cinnamon or 1 broken cinnamon stick
1/2 tsp. ground cloves or 5 whole cloves
1 tsp. Carolina allspice
1/2 tsp. ginger

Wash apples, quarter with skin on and cut out the seeds. Combine the wine, sugar, spices and salt, Bring to a simmer while stirring constantly. When the sugar is completely dissolved, add the orange slices and apple quarters. Cover and turn heat to low. Simmer for 5 minutes or until the apples are tender, just before the skin starts separating.

Remove apples and pack loosely in half pint jars. Strain leftover wine and add this to the jars to 1/2 inch from top. Cap, cool, then refrigerate or freeze. Should keep at least a week in the ‘fridge, several months in the freezer. Serve as appetizers on bamboo skewers or long toothpicks.
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Green Apple/Tomato Chutney

1/2 pound unripe apples
1/2 pound green tomatoes
1 3/4 cup brown sugar
2 onions
4 tsp. turmeric
2 tsp. pickling spices
2 cups plus 2 tbsp. cider vinegar
2 tsp. chili powder
2 tsp. salt
1 tbsp. small diced ginger root

Wash apples and tomatoes. Peel and core, dice apples and tomatoes into small cubes. Bring vinegar, sugar, salt and spices into a heavy saucepan and heat on medium while stirring until it comes to a simmer. Add chopped onions, ginger and green tomatoes. Reduce heat to low, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon to prevent sticking. Simmer for about 30 minutes. Add apple cubes, continue to cook ~10 minutes. Mixture will be reduced and thick.

Cool on stove, then ladle into jars, cap tightly. Keeps about 6 months on the shelf, longer in the fridge.
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Blackberry and Green Apple Jelly

1.5 pounds green apples, quartered
1 cup fresh blackberries
4 cups water
3 cups white sugar
1 tsp. pickling spices (optional)

Place apples and blackberries in a heavy saucepan (do not use aluminum), cover with water. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to medium and let simmer for 10-15 minutes until pulp is soft. Strain the mixture through a fine sieve, then filter through cheesecloth or coffee filter paper. You want 4 cups of juice, add water if there’s less than that. Compost the pulp and seeds.

Return juice to clean saucepan and bring to a simmer, cook for 10 minutes. Skim off any foam that comes to the top using a wooden spoon. Stir in the sugar until completely dissolved. Continue to cook until the liquid reaches thread stage [220ºF or 110ºC,].

Pour jelly into sterile half pint jars leaving 1/4 inch headspace. Cap and process 10 minutes in water bath or cool and seal with wax.

Hurricane Sandy: Solar Plan-Ahead

Hurricane_SandyWe all watched in dread fascination as Superstorm Sandy hooked a hard left right where predicted off the coast of northern Virginia to slame full-force into northern New Jersey and New York City just days before Election Day. Its storm surge was every bit as devastating as predicted, and its 1,000-mile-plus wind field wreaked havoc and whipped up 30-foot waves on Lake Erie (20-footers on Lake Ontario). The storm whipped an arctic front around the back side and dumped feet of snow on southern Appalachia. Tens of millions lost electricity in the storm, and some have still not been reconnected.

As we usually see in Florida and along the Gulf coast during hurricane seasons, home supply companies quickly ran out of portable gas-powered generators and other emergency supplies, even before we were treated to the appalling spectacle of a wind-whipped inferno taking out more than a hundred homes in Queens, which was above the surge and thought it was safe. I’m sure we’re all gratified that good forecasting and serious pre-storm planning as well as pre-placement of relief personnel and supplies kept the death toll down to less than half a percent of Katrina’s toll back in 2005. But we also learned that for all those portable gas generators that were sold to people who knew their electricity would go out, the attendant problem of gas stations being unable to dispense gasoline without power rendered most of them entirely useless.

So I’m passing along an interesting blog article entitled Use solar to survive the next storm. Now, solar panels atop a pole in the yard aren’t any more likely to survive hurricane-force winds or 14-foot waves than your bird house is. But houses in New Jersey and New York that had rooftop solar panels fared very well – there are reports of considerable damage to shingles and gutters and such, but so long as the entire roof isn’t taken off, the solar panels up there should be fine.

Now, we know that solar panels won’t provide any ready juice in the middle of the night, or when the kind of deep, rain-drenched clouds a superstorm brings are between you and the sun. But for emergency purposes you should have some batteries already charged and ready to take over at least a minimum of lighting, radio, charging of PCs and cell phones, perhaps even running your laptop or iPad for up to date information. Even your basic surge protector for computer equipment – the kind with an undersized car battery with converter built-in and plugs will serve the purpose until the sun is shining again. You can set it up to draw its full charge from the solar panels normally, even if your panels are wired into the grid. While that wiring is done, just insist on a switch that will allow you to use the solar panels exclusively whenever the grid is down.

Here are some nifty portable solar generators that would in this storm have proven way more useful than a gasoline generator you couldn’t get gas for, once the next day dawned. Goal Zero offers emergency solar kits in personal, family and household sizes. Home Depot and Lowes have a variety of solar products and generators too, and the prices are getting more reasonable every year. Cabela’s outfitters offers portable solar generators too, a little tougher-built and a little more expensive. Truly industrial-level portables with steel containers of batteries are available through several companies, those by Mobile Solar are impressive, can even be sized for off-grid living.

We homesteaders don’t generally live in big cities, but there are urban homesteaders all over the place these days coming up with sustainable means of living in cities. How about having street lights with solar panels and batteries? Solar powered stoplights and such as well, to switch over from grid whenever there’s an interruption?

At any rate, for those of us who know enough science to be expecting increasingly violent weather from global climate change need to ensure our emergency supplies and power are well thought-out. It seems to me that NOT having to rely on the power company that’s been cutting service personnel for years to increase profits is better than sitting in the dark for days or weeks at a time. It also seems smarter to NOT have to find a source of gasoline in the aftermath of a hugely destructive event just so you can plug in your computer and charge your cell phone. Whether you just want an emergency supply or are able to install an ample rooftop array you can switch over when the grid goes down is of course dependent on your situation. But all of us should be thinking solar for this aspect of emergency planning.

Almost Summer

Garden-Greens Vichyssoise
Garden-Greens Vichyssoise

June is upon us, which usually means the spring crops are about done and the summer crops haven’t started producing in abundance yet. So… you’ve taken your morning garden stroll. The corn is a foot high, the tomatoes growing fast but still not blooming, the beans, squash and cukes are up and starting to climb. The potatoes have all shown up and at least now you can remember where the heck you planted them.

You’ve got a big handful of mature kale – the rest will have to be harvested soon before the bugs get it, dried and crumbled to flakes for winter soups. In the basket there are about a dozen pea pods, 4 asparagus spears and some almost bolted red leaf lettuces. What to do, what to do…

Aha! How about a cold end-of-spring soup?

Garden-Greens Vichyssoise

• 2 cups fresh greens – kale, spinach, collards, lettuce
• 3 peeled and cubed potatoes
• 1 cup chopped asparagus and/or shelled peas
• 1/2 cup chopped onion
• 1/4 cup chopped celery tops w/leaves
• 1/ 2 cup chopped mint
• bay leaves
• 2 tbsp. lemon juice
• 2 tbsp. butter
• 6 cups water or broth
• 1 cup whole milk or cream
• Salt and pepper

Melt butter in a heavy soup pot. Add vegetables, mint and bay leaves, cook for about 3 minutes, stirring, until soft. Add water/broth and simmer for 20 minutes until soft. Add milk and then puree until smooth, then add salt and pepper to taste. Refrigerate and serve cold, garnish with mint sprigs and a drizzle of olive oil.
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On the side I plan to serve up a basket of fried day lily buds, since they are now abundant and and the squash is nowhere near blooming yet…

fried lilies

Fried Day Lily Blossoms

Batter:
• 1 cup flour
• 1/2 tsp. salt
• 1 egg, beaten
• 1/2 cup beer
• 1/2 cup ice water
• 1/4 cup chopped fresh sage leaves
• 3 cloves garlic, chopped

10-12 Fresh picked barely-open day lily blossom buds.

Thoroughly mix the batter, with sage and garlic. Dip flowers into batter and fry in hot vegetable oil until golden brown. Drain well and serve.

This beer batter is also excellent for squash or pumpkin flowers, onion and pepper rings, mushrooms – any type of fresh vegetable coming in from the garden. You can omit the sage and garlic for a more delicate taste.

Looks like dinner to me!