mossbetweentoes – adventures in homesteading, with brief forays into politics, geekery, parenting, crafting, and design

Dogs and Lemons: Cures for the Winter Doldrums

It's Groundhog Day today, and apparently Punxsutawney Phil didn't see his shadow, so Spring will be arriving early this year. But regardless of whether or not we have to wait less than six weeks for warmer weather, our household is getting a little bored of Winter. I don't particularly mind the cold and snow or brown and gray landscapes, but I know my four-year-old has been asking weekly, "When will Spring be here?" I love so many things about Winter: hot beverages, fireplaces, sweaters, and crisp air that makes your little hairs in your nose stick together. But for the kids, they tend not to appreciate those things. Outdoor adventures in Winter require more planning. More clothes. More gear. Meals tend to be sit-down affairs in the dining room, not spontaneous alfresco eats. Each subsequent Winter gets easier, as they get older. But they are still a ways off from loving Winter like their mom or dad do. There is still a lot of complaining.

Except there is one thing they now swoon over endlessly: our new family member, Cannoli.

Cannoli looks excited about her forever home!


It's been almost a month since we picked up our new canine companion, and it's as if we've always had a dog. The kids love her, she is very affectionate, mild mannered, and easy going. We seriously hit the "dog lottery," as one of our friends told us recently.

Chris and I had been thinking about getting a dog for a couple of years now, but we always ended up saying "someday." Only recently did we begin "window shopping" on and elsewhere for a dog. Things progressed rather rapidly over the course of a week, starting with us finding a German Shorthaired Pointer at our nearby MSPCA shelter. We inquired about him, but it turned out that the foster family was already working with another prospective adoptive family. We briefly considered getting a GSP puppy from a breeder in the Spring, but as the stay-at-home parent, I was a little apprehensive about having another "baby" to deal with. And, as much as we liked the idea of a GSP, we were a little concerned that a dog of that size might be too overwhelming for the kids. Wanting to stick with a sport breed, we then looked at some Brittanys that we found on Petfinder. A few that we liked were listed by New England Brittany Rescue, and so we contacted them and filled out an application.

Originally, we were interested in a dog named Buck, who might have been a GSP/Brittany mix. But it turned out that he was in North Carolina for at least another three weeks, so we couldn't meet him. I told Christine at NEBR that we would be open to other dogs that she thought would be suitable for our family. The next day she called about a dog that NEBR had just rescued: a 9 month old female puppy from Missouri. Her name was Dolly, and she was already crate trained and housebroken. She emailed us pictures and a video clip, and we immediately decided to drive up to Maine (where she was being fostered) and meet her. We liked what we saw, and so she came home with us that same day! Since then she has been renamed Cannoli (our oldest child selected the name, and it suits her appearance, which is liver and white: like a cannolo with chocolate chips) and has settled in quite nicely.

One side-effect of having a dog, is that we are now required to spend some time outdoors with her every day, regardless of the temperature. There have certainly been some interesting moments (picture a dog running circles around a two-year-old, lassoing him with her leash and then up-ending him on his snowpants-padded bottom) but it has also eliminated a lot of the complaining. The kids don't seem to mind cold faces and bulky outerwear when they are busy kicking a dog-sized soccer ball around, and laughing with glee when Cannoli pounces on it, noses it further, and then chases after it.

In addition to smiles achieved from outdoor romps with the dog, Winter citrus is always a cause for happiness. Seeing boxed clementines, tangelos, and Meyer lemons piled up in the produce section of the grocery store is like a miniature vacation to someplace warm and sunny. There is part of me that hates buying fruit that I know was shipped all the way from California or Florida, but in the Winter we don't have much for local fruit around here -- with the exception being cold-stored apples that are a few months old. And besides, Florida citrus is practically local when you compare it to blueberries or pears from South America.

This year, I wanted to make some lemon curd with Meyer lemons. There was an interesting looking recipe in Ashley English's canning book, and it called for pressure canning. Since I had received a pressure canner for my birthday recently, I decided to give it a go. Well, what a disappointment. So many of the recipes in that book are good, but this one didn't come out well at all. The curd was oily, runny, and had little bits of egg whites floating in it. Basically, it seemed like the emulsification had been broken somehow. I'm not sure if it was the recipe itself that was the problem, or the high heat from canning that ruined it, but it all got tossed. After talking with some of my "canning friends" and looking at other recipes that I found online, I decided to try again with a yolks-only recipe and to just refrigerate or freeze it instead. I decided to go with Alton Brown's recipe. Viola! Much better! Compare the results below:

Lemon curd: first attempt

Lemon curd: second attempt

I hope that you, too, have a few things to help you through the last stretch of Winter -- whether they're culinary, canine, or otherwise: enjoy!




Difficult Questions, with No Answers

As I write this entry, I realize I am but one small voice in a sea of bloggers who have felt compelled to author a post about the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting over the past week. Like parents everywhere, I have been brought to tears many times, especially when dropping my four-year old off at pre-school, or when tucking him into bed at night, kissing that warm forehead… thinking it could have happened here, it could have been his school, I could have LOST HIM. And then, thinking of how those 20 children were probably just like my child—so innocent, so full of joy, so naïve to the incomprehensible violence in this world.

But in addition to the paralyzing sadness, I have also felt exasperation, frustration, and anger with the rhetoric I’m seeing all over Facebook and the media. I am lucky enough to count friends who span the gamut of the political spectrum, and to live in a “red” town within the “blue” state of Massachusetts. This affords me a unique perspective as I watch my neighbors and friends react to the Newtown tragedy in a myriad of ways. However, so much of what people are saying, specifically about guns, is so polarizing, so black and white.

Growing up, no one in my immediate family had a firearm. I wasn’t exposed to hunting, or to enlisted servicemen (or women.) In fact, we were often scolded for playing with water guns or for pointing a “finger gun” at someone. As a teenager, I would have identified as “anti-gun” for sure. If I was at L.L. Bean I would have steered clear of the shotguns and averted my eyes as if they were Playboys or men’s underwear.

Now I am in my thirties and I have changed. As we try to live a more sustainable life (and our property seems to be teeming with deer intent on eating my shrubs and fruit trees) I have taken an interest in hunting. For the first time in my life, I am having to think about gun ownership in a nuanced way, without preconceived notions and knee-jerk reactions. I know people who own guns. Heck, I might own one myself someday. I will go so far as to say that I agree with the second amendment, and the thought of a country without armed citizens is a little scary to me. Not because I envision a future where we need to form militias to overthrow our government, but because an unarmed populace completely dependent on the State for self-defense is a little too passive for my taste. That being said, I don’t think “a chicken in every pot” mentality can be applied to guns. Certainly there are plenty of people who should NOT have access to firearms. And responding to the Sandy Hook tragedy by arming each teacher and guidance counselor at our schools is not addressing the underlying causes of violence in our society, and in fact might even exacerbate it with a miniature arms race of sorts.

That being said, it does seem like the general public (and the media) ought to be more educated about guns, even if they have no plans to own one. I am certainly no expert in firearms myself, but have spent enough time looking into hunting to have learned that many of the media stories about Adam Lanza’s weapons have been pretty disingenuous. We’ve heard that he used a “high-powered .223 caliber rifle” or “semi-automatic AR-15 assault rifle” – both of which sound pretty scary. Until you realize that .223 is actually pretty small (considering most hunters who kill deer possess rifles that are larger, such as a .28 or .30) and AR doesn’t stand for “assault rifle” but comes from the ArmaLite name, the company who originally designed the gun. Also, “assault rifle” isn’t a standardized term within the firearms industray, but was defined by the government based on mainly cosmetic features.

For example, can you identify which of the following is an “assault rifle”?

Most people would guess the second, since it “looks” more dangerous. And you would be correct. However, would it surprise you to know that BOTH are semi-automatic rifles? And the one on top actually fires .30 caliber ammunition, larger than Adam Lanza's gun?

Speaking of semi-automatic weapons, it seems like when people talk about "semi-automatic" rifles they picture a “machine gun” – when in reality all it means is that the spent cartridge is automatically ejected, and a fresh one loaded into the chamber. You still have to press the trigger to fire another bullet. Aside from the obvious selling point (being able to fire a subsequent bullet faster) the other “feature” about semi-automatic rifles is their reduced recoil. This makes a semi-automatic weapon desirable for a small-framed hunter (women and youth) and the disabled.

So, as you can see, if we are going to have a national conversation about guns, we need to increase our literacy about guns before doing so. It might certainly be valid to restrict high-capacity magazines, or to require more documentation prior to purchasing a gun. Given that Adam Lanza appears to have had access to his mother’s guns, it certainly seems that some gun owners need re-schooling on how to properly store and lock-up their weapons.

One of the most inflammatory things I read this past week came from (a group I typically support:)

Could it be any more clear who is really pro-life than on a day after 20 kindergarteners are shot dead and HALF the country’s first thought is “How can we keep this from ever happening again” while the other half of the country’s worried about “How can we keep them from taking away our guns???”

Could they be any more divisive? As if, you can’t be both. As if, you can’t be pro-choice and be a gun owner. As if it’s a right-wing versus left-wing issue. As if there is a “pro-gun” group and an “anti-gun” group. As if gun-owners weren't saddened and heartbroken over the death of innocent children.

To talk about guns as if they are the enemy, or that all gun owners are violent and irresponsible, or that entire categories of guns are murderous tools of evil is not productive. At a time when we have more in common with our neighbors than ever… what purpose does it serve to polarize the issue, start finger-pointing, and perpetuate myths?

In addition to weeping for those who lost their lives at Sandy Hook, I also weep for us all, for we have a long road ahead us.


Coming Up for Air…

Oy vey, by the looks of the date on the left-hand size of my last blog entry, it's been more than two months since I've posted anything! I had promised myself when I started up this blog (again) that I wouldn't let that happen, and yet here I am. I hope everyone had a wonderful Thanksgiving!

It's been a couple of very busy months (Autumn is the season of back-to-school and of endless toddler birthdays,) and we're finally starting to regroup again just in time for the holidays. So... I hope my next post will be sooner rather than later. I plan to write about mice next time. Specifically, mice that invade your home prior to winter. Fun!

But first, here are a few of the things we've been up to:

Celebrated our wedding anniversary (6 years!)

We spent the night in Boston away from the kids (first night away from our youngest, who is almost two.) I had wanted to revisit the Audubon wildlife sanctuary where we were married, but it didn't happen. Maybe in the Spring! I think the kids would enjoy it there too.

Went to the Butterfly Place, The Topsfield Fair, a local NESBA Marching Band Competition, and the Nashoba Valley Winery

There is something mesmerizing about walking amongst hundreds of butterflies, and my kids both adored the experience. Chris and I went to The Butterfly Place years ago, before kids, and it's still a cool experience for adults. The Topsfield Fair was a little different this year, if only because we spent more time in the poultry barn than we have in previous years. An afternoon at a local high school marching band show is another cheap thrill for kids, and the money raised is for a good cause too. Lastly, if you haven't been to Nashoba Valley Winery, I highly recommend it. We went on a Sunday, and just picnicked on the lawn with some wine, cheese, and bread. Live bluegrass music and a man with a giant bubble wand for the kids were some of the highlights of the afternoon.

Volunteered for chicken processing at Pete & Jen's Backyard Birds

Just what it sounds like. Since we are hoping to get some chickens next year, I thought I would try my hand at evisceration on someone else's birds first. Although we intend to get chickens mainly for eggs, there is the inevitable consequence that a hen will need to be "retired." And, we're also not ruling out the possibility of raising meat birds either, once we get comfortable with poultry husbandry. I was happy to receive experience and education at Pete & Jen's, and will likely volunteer there again if I can, since they are doing important work with the New Entry Sustainable Farming Project and their mobile processing unit. (And yes, I did kill a chicken. And no, it wasn't horrifying.)

Started a work-from-home part-time job

I'm still trying to come to grips with this, since I have earnestly tried embrace my "mommy" job title over the last two years. After our youngest was born, it became clear that I would be a stay-at-home mom for several years more, and it was a real mental shift to think of myself as homemaker and not just a career woman on extended-leave. But now that I have this job (a work-from-home-at-odd-hours job, mind you) I'm having a hard time with that too! There have been some challenging conversations with my oldest child, since he wants to know why I'm "working" even though I'm not in an office like Daddy. He is still getting adjusted to our new household schedule we have adopted, one that allows me to carve out 15-20 hours a week of "working time." Although a part-time job was not something I was necessarily seeking out, this opportunity presented itself and I decided it would be a foolish to ignore it. Legitimate work-from-home opportunities are  hard to come by, and later on down the road when both my kids are in school, I will be glad to either: still have the job, or have the resume experience from the job to gain some income somewhere else.






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Thoughts on Hunting

Losing leaves came early for this apple tree

This morning I woke up and looked out the window into our front lawn. We recently planted a Gala apple tree, still only 4 or 5 feet tall. I've been keeping an eye on it for the last few days, making sure it still appears healthy and is transitioning to our soil well. Well, this morning when I looked out at our tree, I saw that it was naked and damaged. Clearly, the work of deer.

I used to think deer were cute. Growing up, we'd see them once in a while along the side of a road, but never in the yard. We lived at the edge of a wildlife conservation area, so the deer probably didn't have a reason to roam into human-settled territory. But here in North Andover it's a different story. The winter that my youngest son was born, we had a significant amount of snowfall. The ground was covered with at least 2 or 3 feet for most of the winter. We saw deer in our yard everyday. One day there were a dozen of them, munching on everything in sight: juniper, rhododendrons, azaleas, hydrangeas. Even now, in the summer, I see their droppings in the yard, their foot prints in the soil, and the tell-tale half-munched/half-ripped branches on our apple and peach trees. Obviously the deer are here to stay.

I feel quite foolish that I didn't protect our apple sapling with deer fencing or by spritzing it with a repellent spray, since I should have known better. But that's water over the dam now. Moving forward I will have to be more careful. Still, I have to say, I have this fantasy about taking down one of our pesky deer with a bow and arrow. Personal revenge and a cache of meat in the freezer... what could be sweeter than that? (Chris says that when I talk about this he pictures me running outside in the middle of the night in my nightie, bow and arrow in hand. My fantasy is much more badass, in where I sit in a tree, quiet in my cammo and night-vision goggles before launching a silent arrow into my foe. I have a wild imagination!)

Okay, so this is where I'm probably turning off some of you. Hunting you say? You would think about KILLING AN ANIMAL?

Yes, yes I would. Perhaps even more surprising is that not so long ago I used to be a vegetarian. But I never abstained from eating meat because I thought there was anything wrong with killing an animal for food. I just had the belief that it was better for our planet to not eat animals. Since then, I have revised my thinking considerably. Now, I feel that the best way to combat factory-farmed meat, CAFOs, and "pink slime" is not by opting for another protein source (which might have been shipped across the country to get to you, or be genetically engineered, etc.) but by seeking out and supporting locally pastured meat. Even better, if you have the stomach for it, would be to personally raise and slaughter your meat or hunt for it. Not only would you know exactly how your animals were treated, you might even gain more awareness and gratitude for the food on your table.

Today, as I was contemplating our deer problem and my curiosity about hunting (particularly with bow and arrow,) I realized an interesting irony: as housing becomes more and more dense, we are actually seeing more and more wildlife, and yet - because of restrictions on hunting near dwellings and roadways - we have limited means to control these populations. And at the same time, people are becoming more out of touch with our natural surroundings and how food is sourced. According to the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife (MDFW)'s Annual Reports, the number of resident hunters declined by 49% – from 124,849 to 63,667 – between 1958 and 2008. Could it be that lack of access to hunting has caused this decline?

Discharge setbacks in Massachusetts, copyright MDFW. Click to enlarge.

According to an article written by Tom O'Shea, the Assistant Director of Wildlife at MDFW, roughly 60% of land in Massachusetts cannot be hunted due to discharge setbacks. This discharge setback is defined by a state law (Chapter 131, Section 58) in order to provide a safety zone for the public. It states that a person cannot discharge a firearm or release any arrow across or within 150 feet of a hard-surfaced road, or “possess a loaded firearm or hunt by any means on the land of another within 500 feet of a dwelling in use, except as authorized by the owner or occupant thereof.” It stands to reason then, that the closer together our houses get, the likelihood that setbacks will actually overlap, totally closing off wooded areas to hunting (one house alone essentially closes off 18 acres of land due to setback buffers.) Without available lands to hunt, existing and potential hunters will likely stop participating in the sport. And at the same time, deer populations will flourish. As Tom O'Shea writes:

Communities with a large percentage of their land area closed by discharge setback or special town restrictions on hunting, coupled with 25% or more forest cover, frequently experience impacts from higher deer densities. Such communities frequently ask the Division of Fisheries and Wildlife for assistance in finding ways to deal with their concerns, which typically include the incidence of Lyme disease, vehicle collisions with deer, and damage to landscaping and agricultural crops.

The community described above sounds just like North Andover! Although I have an entire herd of deer traipsing through my yard, I cannot just go hunting them. At least, not with a firearm. And even with a bow and arrow, I would need the permission of my abutters.

And then there is the fact that I've never shot a bow and arrow in my life (archery class at 4-H camp more than 20 years ago notwithstanding.) Taking an animal's life is not something that I think would be particularly enjoyable, but I do think it is an important experience that we have all become very removed from. So the notion of taking a beginners hunting course or archery course through Mass Wildlife does appeal to me.

Next month, I have signed up to volunteer with Pete and Jen's Backyard Birds on their mobile poultry processing unit. I'm sure after that experience I will have a better idea if I would be up for hunting, or if I would rather delegate the task to others.



Getting Organized

20 lbs of tomatoes

I'm not sure what it is about September that makes me want to get organized. Maybe it's from years and years of back-to-school rituals: cleaning out closets, covering books with brown paper grocery bags, purchasing a new backpack and a Trapper Keeper. Maybe it's just the change of seasons. Or, maybe we are like the squirrels and chipmunks when they sense cooler weather coming on, taking stock of our resources and planning for the dearth ahead.

Anyone who knows me can testify that there are some areas of my life where I am extremely organized (just open up iCal on my computer or phone) and others where I am not only unorganized but downright untidy (Chris affectionately calls the half-empty glasses of cloudy water left forgotten on the bedside table "water kefir" - yuck!) Moldy beverages aside, I really prefer cleanliness and order... even if I don't find the time to achieve it everywhere and at every instance. Like most people, it gives me great pleasure to cross "to-do" items off of a list. And lately, we sure have been crossing off things at a rapid pace! It feels great! Chris has done most of the manual labor, for sure, so I should at least give credit where credit is due: it wouldn't be possible without him.

Last weekend we finally installed a shelf (or maybe you'd just call it the cabinet bottom?) in the cabinet under the kitchen sink. It's been missing since we moved here. Cleaning supplies and boxes of parchment paper and aluminum foil were just placed inside, on the subfloor beneath. Yeahhhh. I'm glad that's fixed!

This past week I picked up a bulk order of tomatoes from our farm cooperative. And with the help of friends, I canned crushed tomatoes and tomato puree. Chris and I canned sweet pickle relish, apple sauce, and salsa last week as well. It was a hot steamy mess in the kitchen on most nights. (For my birthday, Chris and the kids got me a pressure canner! I'm very eager to try making and putting up some lemon curd.)

This weekend, we purchased a glazed earthenware bird bath to be used as a bee watering hole (discounted because the top part had separated from the base... nothing a little liquid nails can't fix!) and also another apple tree (marked down 40% for an end-of-season sale) and planted it. I also got around to planting the rest of our perennial plants on the slope (butterfly bush, English lavender, hyssop, and viburnum trillium) as well as the gooseneck loosestrife in our part-sun garden around back. While the kids made a play fort out of a no-longer-in-use garden trellis, the bee hive got a sampling grid installed, so we can check on our varroa mite population. Chris fixed up some wiring in the attic that needed to be properly joined in a junction box, and also installed 24 cumulative linear feet of shelving in the kitchen, to house all of our bulk and canned goods.

The only downside to this last accomplishment is that, in the process of using the stud finder to find locations to screw in shelf brackets, Chris discovered a pair of king studs on either side of where I have always wanted a window from the kitchen into the dining room. There is a lackluster patch job of the drywall done in the same location - on both the kitchen and dining room sides - so I have often suspected that there used to be a cut-out window there. But, of course, it was also possible that a previous owner had the same idea that I had, but had cut out the drywall, realized they didn't know how to remove the middle wall studs while creating king studs to support the beam above (this is a load bearing wall we're talking about,) and decided to just seal the whole thing up and move on. Not knowing what was under that wall has deterred me from pursuing "the window option" for quite some time. So of course, I leapt with excitement with the discovery of the king studs and was just about to go grab the crow bar from the garage when Chris but the kibosh on my demolition plans. Shelving is what we needed, not a huge hole in the wall, he explained.

And of course, he would be correct. He is the voice of reason when I'm feeling trigger happy. This is the season of Organization, after all. It is not Spring, and we are not in the midst of a season of blustery Upheaval. So I'm just going to file my window dreams away in my mental filing cabinet, ready to be pulled out when I get the green-light from my better half.