Homesteaders Are Usually Dead By My Age

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After we returned to the US, years ago, the Turk accompanied me on a work trip to visit a group of homesteaders. These people lived without electricity, running water and indoor plumbing. It wasn’t for religious reasons or out of necessity. It was just a bunch of crazy hippies who’d decided homesteading would be cool. After a lunch of kale and canned meat eaten while bundled in winter coats, they proudly showed off composting toilets and guest huts made from mud and straw. Being a writer, I’m always enthralled with strange life choices but the Turk was visibly twisted at every turn. Eventually, the free-range rooster chased him to the car where he waited out my adventure. On the road back to civilization we were a little shell-shocked.

“What the hell that?!” He exclaimed.

“It’s odd right?”

“Odd? No. It crazy. Why people choose live like that? In my country people live like that in village because they have no money. Only in America would people choose to live like villagers.”

In the past week those crazy hippies kept crossing my mind as the Turk and I have battled our own turn to villager life at our little house in the woods. As weather moved from fall into winter this week, our wooded home began to take on the characteristics of a death trap. When encased by 40-foot pines, the chance of a tree or substantial segment of said tree, plummeting to earth like a pre-historic spear is real. This was exactly what I saw happening as the prediction for the first snow was revealed. Though the prediction was for a dusting, I have a solid skepticism of all weather personnel. Instead of a dusting, my mind saw a heavy snow pushing a 40-foot Christmas tree through my roof and into my cranium as I slumbered.

As the snow began to fall, the “dusting” mark was quickly surpassed. Reports on the local Facebook page warned of a wave of power outages creeping down our street. Block by block, transformers were blowing and, of course, our generator was in the garage, safely wrapped in it’s original packaging. (Because the Turk has yet to admit his fear of it and has thus far avoided installation.) Amid the sparkling flakes falling gently to the ground, one could hear the creaks and cracks of breaking limbs plummeting around us. The Turk and I contemplated pulling out his stock of company hard hats for protection but chose instead to turn up the television loud enough to mask the noise until the power failed.

By a twist of fate, we kept our power but as the sun came up the next morning there were two surprises, three to four inches of snow (Dusting my ass – hence my skepticism is justified) and a massive 20 foot branch sprawled across our front lawn mere feet from the front door. We thought we’d dodged a bullet but later realized we were not so lucky as three trees had crashed through our back fence.

“I have to fix fence. This not safe. Anything can come in here.” He lamented.

“Just what do you think is going to sneak into our backyard besides Sasquatch? There is nothing around here but woods and cranberry bogs.”

“What if coyote jump over fence?”

“If he does I’m sure he won’t stay long. We’ve got nothing to offer.”

“I will fix this weekend.” He claimed.

“You’re going to physically bend the chain-link fence back into place with your bare hands?”

“Why not? I am Turk.”

We spent the following weekend hacking and chopping the down trees into fire wood while simultaneously laying scars in my brain for the next tree-fall, I mean snowfall. After a brief attempt by SuperTurk to bend the steel pipes of the fence back into shape, he decided to table that project for a few weeks. The weekend of fence work and hauling wood made me feel rather Laura Ingles and though I loved Little House on the Prairie, I’m not really down with it in 2018.

Another added dimension to having a house in the woods of New England is that it comes with a well. The Turk and I have never had a well before but he assured me that as a water engineer he was more than capable of caring for the system and saving his family from death by toxic water. It was going well until Thanksgiving week when our water turned brown and took on an unbearable iron stench. Our shower smelled like a crime scene and every tub, sink and toilet in the house turned dark orange.

For days the Turk was in denial about the water but after pouring himself a nice glass of brown water, he stated “Maybe something wrong with the well.” He then disappeared into the well closet downstairs not to be seen for hours. Every few hours he would trudge upstairs, pour another cup of brown water, mutter Turkish profanity and return to the well closet.

Meanwhile, like Laura Ingles, I went out to fetch water, (So maybe it was Poland Spring in a jug rather than water from a babbling brook but it was totally the same.) This is not the first time I’ve had to go out and fetch water. Back in Turkey, tap water wasn’t safe to drink. In the city it was easy, you made a call and a sweaty Turk delivered bottled water but when we lived at the Turkish water treatment plant (yet another relocation for the Turk’s job) I had to trudge across the grounds with a toddler tied to my back and bring back drinking water from the purification building. Foolishly I thought we’d gotten past that stage of life.

By day two, the kids were refusing to shower and my hands had turned black from washing dishes, so the Turk decided to seek assistance. Hours later he returned with some new tricks from the local well company and by the next morning his attempts were starting to pay off as the toilets turn from brown to light orange. (We’re going to stick with drinking the Poland Spring for a bit longer though.)

Between hauling water, dodging falling pines, chopping downed trees into firewood, and shoring fences, the Turk and I are basically homesteading and we’re both too damn old for it. While I love our secluded little corner of New England, there is something to be said for suburbs with city water and free of 40-foot pine death traps. But as I tell the boys, “This builds character.” And if this week is any indication, by the end of winter I should have more character than Sally Fields in Sybil. Wish me luck; it’s going to be a long winter.

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Bloggin’ and Boggin’, It’s Cranberry Time!

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As a kid in Iowa, New England might as well have been a different country. My school wasn’t down with geography but as I’ve learned, that’s a trait shared by many land-locked education systems. (I think it’s jealousy.) Everything I knew about New England could be boiled down to four things:

  1. Pilgrims landed there.
  2. Paul Revere and the Boston Tea Party happened there.
  3. Everyone hated their football team.
  4. Cranberries came from there.

The latter was something I knew because even as a kid I loved cranberries. My mouth watered when Mom opened the can and jiggled out the gel every Thanksgiving. (Shut up, that was classy in the 70s!) When most of the family turned up their noses, I scarfed down the extra tart cranberry relish made by Grandma Pete every Christmas. And thanks to an unsubstantiated claim by a small-town doctor regarding my mild kidney issue, my mother poured bottles of cranberry juice down my gullet for the first ten years of life to my joy.

As a kid, I’d seen photos in magazines of people standing in the water, scooping up cranberries and found it fascinating. My dad and uncle harvested corn and soybeans every fall with huge combines, filling truck after truck but that wasn’t fascinating. It was boring old farming. Maybe if the corn was the perfect shade of red and Dad scooped the corn out of a pool my interest would’ve been piqued but otherwise – meh.

When my husband The Turk told me our new home in Massachusetts was in cranberry country, I was pretty psyched. I wasn’t sure what cranberry country would look like but I was ready for the adventure. As I’ve discussed earlier (here it is in case you missed it) the downside of cranberry country is the plethora of snakes (The little bastards love the bogs but sometimes take a wrong turn to my front steps.) and the sand – sand that is enough to drive a mother crazy. Otherwise cranberry country is beautiful, consisting of lots of low-lying bogs filled with little bushes about 8 inches high everywhere you turn.

From the moment we landed in cranberry country this summer, I’ve waited for harvest season. I wanted to see if the images on TV and in those magazines were legit and more importantly, I wanted to see cranberries harvested for real. I asked everyone I met if they knew a cranberry farmer but came up empty. I considered putting out a call on the local Facebook page but that seemed a bit psycho and as we’re new in this little town, I’m trying to keep my crazy on the down low.

September came and went and I didn’t see a single bog harvest. The bogs were turning that beautiful shade of red but not a single one was flooded and filled with people in waders. Every errand I’d run would turn into a bog-stalking mission and every trip came up empty, until yesterday.

I’d just dropped Number 1 Son off at school following a doctor’s appointment and was cruising home when I spied it, a flooded bog! I slowed just in time to see the tell-tale floating crimson circle. PAYDIRT! I couldn’t let this opportunity pass me by even if it was on a major thoroughfare. I whipped a quick U-ie and headed back with the lone intention of snapping a few photos. My scientific nerdom has long filled me with fascination about these berries and this coupled with my dangerous level of curiosity led to what happened next.

I couldn’t get a good photo and besides, was a photo really enough? I saw an open driveway and skidded in. I tried to look sane but when the woman standing there shoved her small son protectively behind her I realized I’d failed. The day-long drizzle had my hair frizzing like a cartoon crazy and thanks to the damp cold, I had on so many layers my ensemble was only missing a shopping cart.

From the men knee deep in water to the woman loading the truck, their expressions were universal – What the hell is this nut job doing and is she packin’ heat? Immediately I tried to prove my harmlessness.

“I know this sounds crazy, but I’ve never seen a cranberry harvest before. We just moved from Indiana.” (I think I was better before I offered up the Indiana reference but I kept going.) “Can I just take some photos to show my kids?” When you throw in a reference to motherhood you’re always legit.

The farmers were more than amenable to my request causing me to think back to my own dad and what he might have done if some crazy New Englander stopped off in his cornfield and asked to take photos because she’d never seen corn harvested before. I knew what Dad would’ve done and that’s what led me to my next action – “So, how does this whole thing work?”

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Public interest is something that a farmer cannot resist. Farming is a thankless job so even if some lunatic woman shows interest, a good farmer will take the PR opportunity. He and his partner (a bad-ass female in chest-high waders) explained the entire process.

They use a machine to knock the berries off the bush to the ground.

-They then flood the blog with knee-deep water and the berries float on top for harvest.

-Berries are corralled with a black rubber barrier about 6” wide and dragged to shore.

-A huge pump pulls the berries out and dumps them into a truck.

-The truck takes the berries to the Ocean Spray plant on the other side of town and then returns over and over until the bog is empty.

It’s not all that different than harvesting corn but when you add the colors and the whole flooding process and even the word “bog” it just seems cooler. As the farmers in the bog pointed out, you don’t realize how cool it is until some crazy woman recently relocated from Indiana whips her car off the road to take photos and ask a gazillion questions.

I told them about growing up on a corn farm and we soon found that though the crops and processes are vastly different, the rest is basically the same right down to the cranberry farmer’s wife and young son bringing him lunch like my mom and we kids once did.

The Turk didn’t share my excitement, nor did my boys but that’s ok. If my dad were still alive he would’ve loved it and that was enough. My nerd bucket is filled and the farmers even told me Ocean Spray was hiring this week if I was interested in getting in on the packaging end of things. I’m giving it some thought. I do look fabulous in a hairnet.

So this Thanksgiving buy an extra bag or a couple more cans of cranberry goodness. I gotta keep my new found people in business. We have to support our farmers be they in a field or a bog because without farmers we’re all screwed.

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Thar She Blows!

thar she blows

Now that we have moved to a hotbed of biodiversity, I’ve determined my children will become outdoorsmen. What’s the point of living in New England if you can’t legitimately rock some L.L. Bean?

Lots of men garner their sportsman skills during boyhood from fathers and grandfathers who lead them on this journey but in our house that is not the case. Sure, when we lived in Turkey I witnessed their father, The Turk, join army friends to hunt wild boars and wow me with sea fishing skills but none of that seemed to make it across the US boarder with his new American passport. This summer, as the Turk hid indoors from mosquitos while the boys and I enjoyed our new wooded homestead, I realized if my little men were to become outdoorsmen, it was up to me.

I decided to started with fishing and while it was a great idea to “teach my men to fish so they could eat for a lifetime,” I wasn’t certain I had the knowledge to be the master baiter. (Hehehehehe. See what I did there? A dirty fishing pun. I’m twelve.) The last time I’d fished was when we lived in Turkey. From a dock in the Aegean, The Turk taught me to angle like the native fishermen using a reel but no rod, bait that looks like bamboo and exercising caution over certain catches. “You catch that one, he electrocute you and you die. Do not catch that one.” My beloved warned. That was my lone lesson and we did pretty well but none of that was going to help me as a freshwater fisherwoman.

Prior to that Aegean outing, my experience consisted of pond fishing in Iowa when my dad would bait the hook, remove the catch and often help his lone daughter cast the line. (Because her coordination was a bit slow to develop.) I was not what one might call a skilled angler. I needed a refresher course if I was going to teach my offspring the ways of the sportsman. Fortunately a family friend is retired nearby and was more than willing to be a surrogate grandpa helping me to hone (Scratch that, I mean, develop) my fishing skills. After a morning at his pond I was ready for a solo run.

We headed to the sporting goods store where I normally spend copious amounts of money on items for peewee football, so it was refreshing to give them my money in a new department. (When I’m eating dog food during my retirement, I will constantly remind my offspring that my 401K was spent on football gear.) After gathering the requisite equipment it was time to make it official and get a license. The keeper of the fish department issued my license but must have been looking at Number 1 when he filled in the “physical description” segment. According to my fishing license I’m a blue-eyed blonde weighing 120 pounds and while that’s flattering, I’m a green-eyed burnette and haven’t weighed 120 pounds since the 5th grade, but I’ll take it.

Our first excursion was a success likely because I’d spent several hours at home preparing the rods while cursing the process. A fat dude at a skeezy bait shop recommended a nearby dock and though his shop likely doubled as a mob front, he knew his quality fishing spots. (Likely because he needed occasional drop spots for his mob business involving cement shoes.) The boys reeled them in one after another.

One thing I didn’t take into account about leading my boys to sportmanship was the gross-out factor. When you take two kids fishing alone, you are in a constant swirl of wormy hands, tangled lines and slimy fish thrust in your face. It’s parental purgatory. Who actually enjoys the touch of slimy fish while freeing them from capture or the feel of worm guts under mildly manicured nails? Not I, but just like you can never let dogs see your fear, you can never let your sons see your gross-out factor. That simply provides them with an upper hand. (P.S. – having brothers is a huge asset to a gal grooming boys to become men.) As the fish came flying at my face followed by “Mom! I got one! Take it off and help me put on a new worm.” I muttered my mantra, “I’ve touched worse…I’ve touched worse.”

Nugget is down with fishing but his interest only lasts about 10 minutes then I spend the remainder of the outing untangling his line, (that he’s attached to everything from nearby trees to my thigh) plying him with snacks and trying to keep him from falling in. Last week while he was in summer school I had the luxury of taking only 1 kid fishing. Foolishly, I believed it would be relaxing like fishing appears to be on beer commercials. With his first cast he caught a tree and needed his pole restrung, then there was a broken reel and the fish that swallowed the hook. After averting disaster for 5 full minutes and swearing non-stop under my breath, I was ready to test the repaired line. Immediately I  hooked something Number 1 and I were certain was the freshwater brother of Moby Dick.

“Hold on Mom! It’s a big one!”

I tried to be cool but it was impossible. This was it. I had a big one. “It won’t reel! I can’t get it to work!” (I’m still working on my repair skills.) I was frantically spinning the handle while watching my pole bend like a scene from a National Geographic show about Amazonian monster fish. The pressure was palpable. Here I was, showing my son girl-power in action. His mother was about to reel in a big-ass fish!

“Don’t lose it Mom!” His excitement was building and he was jumping up and down a little too close to the edge. I did not want to face the choice of saving my child or reeling in my big–ass fish because I can’t guarantee I’d drop my pole. (Don’t judge, the kid can swim.)

Fortunately I didn’t have a Sophie’s Choice moment because my line snapped. I watched as my bobber, bait and line all took off across the water. Moments later a penis-like head popped up near the bobber. Because I am missing the parental edit button that prevents me from the deletion of potty words in front of my offspring, I yelled – “Screw you dickhead! You might have broken my line but you head looks like a penis!” As the words came out of my mouth I wished I was with my one-eared kid who only hears half of my profanity.

“Mom!” My judgmental ten-year-old exclaimed. But within seconds he reconsidered, “I mean you are right. His head does kind of look like a penis.”

So it wasn’t a big-ass fish. It was just a big-ass turtle but it was a nice teachable moment for my son to understand the importance of accurate trash talk. My sportsman development has a ways to go but I’m finding more joy than anticipated in the ride. Especially when the Turk opens his beer fridge and screams, “What the hell? Why there are worm in my fridge?”