Saturday, November 21, 2009

21st Century: Whassup?!? 17th Century: Wassail?!?

It's Wassail Season!

Every year, I mark the beginning of wassail season on Halloween with the first hot cup at my Aunt Hazel's house in Woodruff. We take our bags of candy and decorated children to Aunt Hazel and Uncle Sam's house, dump off the candy to be handed out to trick-or-treaters, take a big group picture of the 25+ costumed family kids, grab a cup of steaming wassail from the pot on the stove and begin the walk around the tiny town, filling pillow cases with treats.

Even when we lived in the Valley, we would pack up the kids to go to Woodruff for Halloween if it fell on a weekend. It's an unofficial Potts family reunion. My Uncle Cliff brings his grand kids from Payson, my Cousin John brings his kids from Thatcher. And the first and last stop is always Aunt Hazel's, or, "The House of Woodruff" as Tanner called it when he was a tot.

There are certain things you can count on with Halloween in Woodruff: GiGi Gardner's soft, homemade gingerbread cookies are a favorite; the popcorn balls you always get at the house across the river; the truly scary haunted house that Peggy and Benny Goodman (who are in their 60s) rig every year, that had my fearless husband giggling in embarrassed fear last year (sorry, honey, everyone's fair game) alongside the usually fearless husband of one of my friends. I'm fairly certain they grabbed hands for a moment to pull each other past the masked, chainsaw wielding girl, but I won't swear to it. And, of course, we count on the wassail at Aunt Hazel's.

I called Aunt Hazel to get her recipe this week, and like all of us Potts women who cook but don't really use recipes, she gave me ingredients and rough ratios, then told me to just taste it and adjust till it was right. With Mom as my tester yesterday, I made my own first pot of the season for the 30 Primary children we hosted an activity for at the church.

Here's what we ended up throwing in the pot, to make enough for a crowd:

1 gallon of apple juice
1/2 gallon apple cider (you can do all cider or all juice, if you prefer)
1 gallon orange juice
5 large cinnamon sticks
10-15 allspice berries
15 whole cloves
2 c brown sugar*
2 T ground cinnamon**

Heat on high until steaming, stirring occasionally. Reduce to medium and simmer for at least 2 hours. Taste after the 1st hour to see if you need to adjust anything. Then, leave it on low for as long as you're serving it.

*I could have done without the sugar, but I like it tart. Do what feels right for you and yours. Yesterday we were serving this alongside popcorn, so it felt right to make it sweet for the youngsters.

*I only added ground cinnamon because my whole cinnamon sticks didn't have much scent; if yours are really aromatic, don't add the ground cinnamon. I added this after it had simmered for an hour and still didn't have the right amount of body. Freshness/strength of spices is a big deal for this - I bought my cinnamon sticks the day before I used them, but I'd wager they sat around in a warehouse for awhile before they hit our Safeway shelves. If your spices have a burst of aroma when you open the lids, you should be just fine. If not, you might want to toss the whole spices into a non-oiled frying pan and toss them around a little over high heat to begin to release some of their potency before putting them in the pot of juice. I've never tried it, but it seems like it would be a good idea. Or you could bump them around a little bit in a mortar and pestle if you have one.

This morning, I warmed up the leftover wassail for the girls and me, then went off to take a bath. After getting out of the bath I realized I'd left the wassail on high and rescued it just before it evaporated. Which led me to think of my next favorite winter holidays tradition: Homemade Potpourri or as we call it around here "The Stuff That Makes Your House Smell Like Christmas."

Whenever guests are coming over during the holidays, or I feel festive, or there's an odor in the kitchen that needs masking, I just throw the following together in a small pot:

Cinnamon stick or two
Whole cloves
Whole all spice
One orange, quartered
One apple, quartered

Bring it to a boil, then turn to low. I just keep adding water throughout the day. If you accidentally boil away the water, no biggie - just add a few fresh spices, more water and keep it going. Get up the next morning, add more water, and carry on. Refresh the spices after a day or two. If you have a wood stove, you could probably keep this simmering on top of it.

If you don't have whole spices, the powdered stuff works just fine. You can leave out the fruits altogether, if you want to. No allspice? No big deal. You get the picture.

Ok, now just go stand over the steaming pots on your stove, close your eyes and smile insipidly. Until you feel someone staring at you, then give the pots a good stir and look busy.

Love from the sweet-smelling farmhouse,

(P.S. Please don't stop by to smell; the house is a wreck. Go make your own.)

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

So Thankful

Tonight I'm thankful for...

  • small town celebrations that include my kiddos singing Thanksgiving and Christmas carols for the gathered crowds and handing out hot chocolate and candy canes
  • running into aunts and cousins and grandmas, childhood friends and new ones
  • the Capitol Christmas Tree coming from Arizona for the 1st time, and my children having the sense they took an active part in something historic as they joined in the festivities
  • the all too infrequent joy of running into someone you simply didn't expect to see - in this case, an old colleague from the Forest Service traveling with the traveling tree
  • the chance to rattle off the highlights of the last 11 years since we'd seen each other, and realizing anew that so many good and important things have happened in our lives
  • the crisp fall air requiring us to bundle up, stand a little closer to one another for warmth, and hug each other and briskly rub each other's arms a little more often
  • the cacophony of elementary school choirs, passing trains, honking motorists and chattering townsfolk, all forcing us to lean in a little closer to hear what each other is saying
  • teachers who give so much of themselves, and in so doing, bring music to life in the hearts of our children
  • an 11-yr-old daughter who insists on side pig tails, bopping around unselfconsciously and joyously in the top row of the choir, not caring one whit that no one around her is dancing
  • a 9-yr-old daughter who braves her fears about being clumsy on her crutches, and gets up in front of the crowd anyway
  • the realization that even if the 12-yr-old son hasn't been at school for two days, he still deserves to be part of this festive night, and being rewarded by seeing color in his cheeks as he finds his way to friends and falls right back in step with them
  • an 18-yr-old son who commits to the commitments he makes, and enjoys responsibility and accountability in all his endeavors
  • a husband who forgoes sleep and rest after long hours of work so he can be at as many kid events as possible, and who genuinely laments missing any of their activities; there's nowhere he'd rather be than with us
  • a mother who delights in her grandchildren and their accomplishments, just as she did with her own children
  • a dad who lights up every time his grand kids come bounding into the house
  • an aunt who treats her great nephews and nieces with as much love as she would her own grandchildren - and who showers them with movie nights, handmade gifts they cherish, and love
  • a sister who knows
  • a drafty old house, where our little girls are bundled in the living room for warmth, until their windows can be replaced in their bedroom
  • the 4 or 5 months of piano lessons when I was 10, which allows me to lull those snuggling girls off to dreamland in the dimly lit room quietly playing just the melodies of precious hymns like this and this
  • feeling a calm spirit envelop the night and sensing the activities of the day draining from my daughters' little bodies as their breathing deepens and I somehow feel them sinking into sleep.

For these things, and so many more, I am thankful.

Is Your Light Hiding Under a Bushel?

Sitting in a room full of adults one day, I heard something like this, "How many of you in here are great artists?" Everyone looked around awkwardly. No hands were raised. "How many of you are singers?" A tentative hand or two. Again, sheepish looks.

"Look what happens to us as adults," the teacher said. "We forget our gifts; we become embarrassed."

He continued, "If I were in a class of 25 1st graders and I asked if any of them were artists, I guarantee you, most of the hands would have shot up at once; then the remaining kids would have looked around, and bolstered by their classmates' confidence, sent their hands up, as well. If I asked if they were singers, the same thing. Those 6-yr-olds would be bouncing in their seats, hands waving, starting to yell out their favorite tunes and breaking into song.

Somewhere along the line, as we get older, we become afraid and stop believing in our gifts."

I thought of that last night when I read a note from a woman fighting, and appearing to overcome, a cancer that many people don't overcome. She is feeling survivor guilt, wondering why she "deserves" to be healed when so many people "better" than her, who have lived more virtuous lives or made fewer mistakes, don't recover. When precious children afflicted with the same disease aren't making it, but somehow, she is. She said it kind of feels like we all felt after 9/11, wondering why our fellow Americans back East bore the brunt of the horrors, while we suffered and ached, but far removed from the grit and the smoke.

On a lesser scale, how many of us sometimes wonder how we can possibly deserve the blessings we've received or the gifts we've been given, when there are so many "more deserving" who seem to have so little? How many of us think we have a gift, even once used that gift with joy and confidence, but have become afraid or disbelieve we really do have a talent? And who would care anyway if we just set it aside?

This cancer survivor referenced the following quote by Robert Louis Stevenson, and I just wonder if there are a few among us who might find something in it that rings true.

"Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us.

We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?

Actually, who are you not to be?

You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone.

And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others."

Shine away, friends. You're beautiful.

Love from the farm,

Friday, November 13, 2009

Tales of Pottsville: Is There Life Out There?

Ever the news junkie, I spend far too much time keeping up with current events. Which is how I stumbled across this important news item this week: it was reported in the honest-to-goodness free press that the Catholic church is looking to the heavens for signs of alien life. I breezed through the article and caught references to considering whether there's life in other parts of the universe, scientific studies and the like.

Oh, if only Grandma Potts were here to join in the conversation. See, Grandma firmly believed in life on other planets. She was wide open to discussions of green aliens and space ships. The Bible references other sheep that Jesus visited after he was resurrected; she didn't particularly care what the sheep looked like or where they lived. Grandma was unfailingly accepting in that way.

Grandma and Grandpa Potts (not sure he'd appreciate my bringing his name into it) diligently bought The Enquirer during the kinder, gentler days of the publication before celebrity exposes, when the magazine features were about 3-headed cows in Wisconsin, Elvis sightings, babies that could burp the alphabet at birth and, of course, alien sightings. Oh, and don't forget Nostradamus doomsday stories. Those Nostradamus predictions were pretty much weekly discussions. I could never read them - they scared the bejingles out of me.

When I say Grandma believed in aliens, I don't mean she only read about their adventures. Oh, no. She occasionally sought contact with them. And that was where the fun began.

See, Pottsville consisted of three homes: my Grandma and Grandpa Potts at the top, Aunt Barbara and the cousins in the middle, and our home at the bottom. (The landscape was actually pretty level; I'm not sure where I got the top and bottom perceptions, but kids are like that.) At the height of Grandma's alien adventures, Aunt Barbara hadn't even moved up on the hill yet, so it was just our two homes on 40 acres, surrounded by lots of high desert in all directions. We were 3 miles outside of town (town being an oversized title for a little pioneer settlement called Woodruff) and off the back road to Snowflake, which was 20+ miles to the southeast. Essentially, it was just us way out there in the desert. And, once the sun went down and we were all tucked into our homes after dark with our Coleman lanterns and battery operated radios (yeah, we'll delve into that more deeply at a later date), there wasn't all that much to do.

Which is why UFO hunting with Grandma was so stinkin' fun. See, Grandma would see something off in the distance - it could be unusual red lights on the horizon or flashing lights in the broad, black star-spangled sky - and that was all it took.

Into Grandpa's old green and white truck or the front seat of Mom and Dad's Oldsmobile we'd jump, and off we'd go, bumping across the dirt roads at night, chasing those lights. Mom wasn't entirely on board with Grandma's convictions that aliens were just a stone's throw away, but she did love to drive and the dark nights could be long, so she was game to join in. We'd drive for what seemed like hours, keyed up with anticipation, adrenaline pumping, desperately scanning the horizon to re-sight the suspicious lights if a mesa temporarily took them out of view. Mom would dodge the jackrabbits that were shocked to find us out in the wilds during their part of the night, and Grandma would keep a running commentary about just what she thought we might find at the end of our dash across the desert. See, Grandma wasn't intense and freaky about her conviction - just the opposite - she would light up and laugh heartily, eyes twinkling as she shared her wild ideas and findings. Grandma was a poet and a storyteller - she could keep the conversation moving along.

You'll be shocked to learn that we never quite caught up with the red lights or the flashes in the sky. I don't know how they evaded us, since Mom was quite the accomplished cross-country driver in her younger days. Somehow, even when we ultimately had to give up the chase and head home, the disappointment wasn't that great. Having the windows down, my sister Lynda and I would stick our faces out to feel the warm evening breezes, Grandma would point out the constellations - the Seven Sisters being my favorite to find - and there was that sense of getting away with something because everything was slightly off kilter: it was way past bedtime, glimpses of flashing eyes told us the desert night creatures were out with us, and the adults were acting so carefree.

I don't know if Grandma held her fascination with aliens right up until she left us. I can say she wasn't the only one around here who was open to the idea - it was just down the road about 30 - 40 miles or so that local Travis Walton of "Fire in the Sky" fame was said to have been abducted by aliens. Who knows. What I do know is Grandma's story weaving was captivating and the adventures were always colorful and big. Life in Pottsville was all a 9-yr-old could ever ask for. What a time we had.

Who knows what the Catholic church will find as they're looking heavenward. I can tell you, if nothing else, the quest for life out there could sure help while away a dark summer night.

Love from the farm,

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

An Addendum

After Karlie and Adam ventured to the barnyard this morning to feed the two remaining chickens and discovered a red hen in the horses' trough, I realized I had erred on the tally sheet and given the coyotes credit for a few too many kills. Please see the revised score board below:

Coyotes: 57
Smiling Dog: 3
Horse Trough: 3
Walkers: 2 (still alive)

Most of the post holes have been dug and posts are in for the new and improved, more secure chicken yard. I guess the two remaining hens will go in the freezer (they're the non-producing girls we spoke of previously) and we'll start again in the spring.

So sad to have our chicken joy thwarted. While the newcomers hadn't grown on me yet, our "veteran" chickens - the ones who lived to a ripe ol' age of almost one - sure had.

Deep sigh.

Love from the farm,

(P.S. Then again, we might just find ourselves warming baby chicks by the fireplace this winter. I'm not sure I can go a whole winter without chickens, or wait 10 months for farm fresh eggs. Without the chickens, and after the turkeys do their holiday duty, we'll be down to one goat and one duck, 2 dogs, 5 cats and 2 horses in yonder fields. Not quite farm status. Hmmmm....I think it's likely we'll be ordering some peeps in the near future.We'll keep you posted on any new deliveries.)

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

A Good Old Fashioned Book Burning

"Hey, Macy, run down and let the chickens out of the coop, will ya? In fact, go ahead and leave the chicken yard door open so they can wander around a little bit before we close them up for the night," I said at 5 this evening.

My thinking? The girls NEVER get out of the chicken yard these days. Some of the books talk about chicken farmers who choose to let their chickens out of the yard for a few hours late in the day - they get their ranging in, then trot themselves in to their roosts for the night. Our hens have always been good about returning to the roost. I miss our free-ranging days, so I'm happy to give the hens a few hours' freedom.

It's "a few hours" later. Mike and Macy just went down to lock the girls in for the night.

There are only two hens remaining.

The coyotes? They've just begun their victory howls in the surrounding fields.

I'm going to burn those darn books.

If anyone's keeping count, the tally for the 2008/2009 season is as follows:

Coyotes: 60 Smiling Dog: 3 Walkers: 2

....And then there were 2.

It's a cruel, cruel world on the farm.

Love and loathing from the farm,

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Bellows

You ever notice how practically every single John Wayne movie - heck, I think even the war pictures - seemed to feature big herds of cattle, mooing and bellowing away? And how every single cattle scene sounded EXACTLY the same? I'm of the mind that it's because the exact same audio was used for all of those films. Now, don't quote me on this, but I'm fairly certain that Tommy Lee Jones and Robert Duvall snuggled up to the very same audio track in their camp scenes in 'Lonesome Dove.' (Ok, they didn't snuggle up together; I'm not playing that fast and loose with the cinematic references.) If you have spent the past couple of decades wondering who the distinctive talent was that provided the voiceover for all those classic Western scenes, I can tell you the answer.

It was the cows across the way, right here in the high desert of northeastern Arizona, at this very moment across from Morning Dove Farm.* It's true. I'd recognize that canned bellowing and complaining anywhere. (*We still don't have a name. We'll just keep throwing ideas out there till one sticks.)

This is our second fall and nearly our third winter on the farm, and each year it takes me by surprise when the creatures that typically serenely dot the landscape at a fair distance across the way suddenly show up in the neighborhood and become this bawling, mooing mass of cows and calves. I don't know what on earth is going on during these noisy days and nights a few days each year, but we've made our guesses: these cows are seriously, desperately looking for love and are enamored of a rare breed of bovine menfolk that are all blind, requiring incessant, undulating, unrelenting cries from these hefty, sultry ladies to find their way to paradise; mamas and babies are being viciously separated, and the mamas are squalling and inconsolable, looking for their poor lost lambs (I know they're not called lambs; it's a metaphor, or an analogy or something); some poor newcomer is over there, blindfolded, enduring the annual, minimum 72-hour Marco Polo Marathon hazing tradition, broadcast each year on RFD-TV, which will not end until the bandanna-wearing heifer retrieves the golden corn cob from the tallest salt cedar shrub, or some such nonsense.

I don't know what is going on, and haven't had the gumption to ask my neighbors who are riding their horses importantly among all the racket, looking to all the world like they ought to be undertaking their cowboy ways out on the wide range, with wisps of smoke from the morning's campfire in the background, rather than alongside a black top road, just a hop, skip and a jump from Interstate 40 and Old Route 66, and within view of their own pick up trucks and SUVs.

Regardless of what's prompting the ladies to carry on, I love it. I absolutely love to hear their raucous complaints, up close to the road or straining from further back in the pasture. It reminds me of my college days when once in awhile I got to roam the rangelands of southern Arizona horseback during calving season or just before winter when cattle needed to be moved to winter pasture. I was positively useless during those adventures, except for cooking a hot meal at the end of a cold day a time or two, but there was just something about knowing the 5 or 6 of us humans and our horses, along with however many head of cattle lazily lumbering along, were the only souls for a few hundred square miles or so. (Well, the only souls that weren't slithering along the ground or scampering atop rocks and under bushes, anyway.) Those were wonderful times, watching the cowboys expertly rounding up strays; seeing those precious baby calves peeking out from behind their moms' rumps; having no earthly clue how ridiculous it was that I insisted on wearing my tennis shoes on round up to prevent my pretty cowboy boots from being scratched or scuffed on the trail....Oh, to be 18 and clueless again.

While I suppose there are some people along our country lane who might be sleeping a little lighter these days with all the bellowing and bawling going on, frankly, I'm wishing it weren't so chilly so I could open the windows and let the carrying on invade my sleep; then, I could go back 22 years and 90 lbs or so, before gray hair and stretch marks, to some wonderful nights out with the cattle; the stars in a wide black sky; smelling the creosote, my all-time favorite outdoor fragrance; and exploring the southwestern desert winding in and out of rugged mountain passes. Those were some amazing times.

Love from the farm but dreaming of the open range,