Keeping Busy

Every time I sat down to blog during the month of April, something drew me away from my computer.

A strawberry and starfruit salad.

There was a solid week of both Starkitten and Sunfilly needing my attention with every waking moment, because they missed their father and their old home in Dallas.  I’d also had a few job interviews to survive, my best friend’s wedding to attend, and I picked up a temporary legal job called document review (which ended on Cinco de Mayo) in Dallas.  I had started running/walking a 5k with the kids and my brother during the times I was in East Texas.  I rejoiced in the rainstorms that quenched a Texas still recovering from a nightmarish drought, and I rejoiced even more when I learned that the 15 tornadoes that touched down in Dallas claimed not even a single human life.  I explored downtown Little Rock and became reacquainted with downtown Dallas.  I have been tending my little flowerpot garden.  I colored eggs with the kids for Easter and made fruit salads with strange new fruits like starfruits and pommelos and had a few heart attacks from Sunfilly’s daredevil stunts (and even an ER visit).  And I wrote 40,000 words in a fiction novel I started when I arrived here in a flurry of depression-turned-to art; I think it took about three weeks to churn out that much that quickly.

So, needless to say, April was a pretty busy month.

Divorce is a Lot Like Being in College  

Downtown Dallas seen from Reunion Tower

Downtown Dallas seen from Reunion Tower (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I laughed when I realized this.

The day before I had to start on my document review project (a term which lawyers often shorten to “doc review”), I stopped at a Wal-Mart to pick up non-perishable lunch and snack items and cheap portable toiletries. So I filled up my shopping cart with Easy Mac, cups of ramen, trail mix, and other sure-to-give-you-cancer fare.  I was wearing a shirt I’d picked up at my 10-year high school reunion.  Both the cashier and the man behind me in the grocery line asked whether I was in college.

Since I no longer had my cute little condo in Dallas, I slept on a friend’s couch while I was working doc review.  I had no car, so I took the bus or hitched a ride with my friend, who worked a couple blocks away from where I did.  I worked 12- to 15-hour days.  My iPod became the key component to my sanity.  I kept a book in my purse… just in case I had 5 minutes to read.  Happy hour was a must, when I had time for it.  It really felt like I was back in college.  (In case you were wondering, my parents were watching the kids while I was in Dallas).

I realized that divorce is also a lot like being in college in that it’s a period in a person’s  life when she turns a new leaf or “finds herself.”  Divorce is muddling through the painful end of a relationship that went south for whatever reason.  It’s her swearing that she’ll never love again, but secretly hoping that she still has a shot at that “happily ever after.”

Tales from the Trail

Some friendly cows. The local rancher raises dairy and beef cows without hormones or antibiotics and will humanely butcher and sell the beef to interested buyers.

Since my parents’ home is out in the middle of nowhere, it’s easy to feel isolated.  But sometimes the solitude that comes with living in the country is the best medicine for a broken heart and/or broken spirits.  The little road here runs through an idyllic countryside.  It’s tree-lined and it has the perfect blend of cozy little houses and vast expanses of pasture.  It flows with the land, rising and falling, curving around hills, crossing creeks at their most melodic points.  About 1.75 miles down the road from the house you can find a trailer where an elderly Mexican woman sells some of the best tacos I’ve ever had.  So my brother, the kids, and I began walking/jogging down the country road.  We’d stop at the little store for tacos and gatorades and then head back.

Ripening fruit of a Dewberry (Rubus) plant.

Ripening fruit of a Dewberry (Rubus) plant. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As usual, I tried to make it educational for the kids.  I taught them to recognize certain birds by their calls.  How to tell a young horse from an older one, or how to tell a milk cow from a beef cow.  We’d catch lizards along the road, learn their names, and set them free.  We’d see how many different wildflowers we could find, or forage for wild dewberries.  We’d count slider turtles sunning themselves on logs in the creeks.  We’d count cows, goats, and puppies.

We became acquainted with people whose homes are along the little road, people whom my parents never got to know in their eight years of living in this house.

The funny thing about this community in East Texas, I learned, is that it defies the stereotypes about this region.  The East Texas stereotype is that people are ignorant, hateful towards those of different faiths (even Catholics are persecuted), in favor of Jim Crow laws and segregation, xenophobic, and trigger-happy.  In some cases, that is true.  In this community, people are much more welcoming, open to new things, and embrace a live-and-let live ideology.  I learned that, although there are only a handful of black families here, the children were never labeled or singled out; in fact, two of them were valedictorians in their classes and one was a student body president (if you knew the kind of community I grew up in in Louisiana–where classes were still pretty much segregated at the turn of the millennium–you’d understand why this is really a big deal to me).  The gay and lesbian kids and the atheists are also not singled out or harassed, not really.  I learned that one transgendered boy (meaning s/he identified as a girl) was allowed to put her name on the ballot for homecoming queen–and nobody cared.

And this is the heart of East Texas.  So much for stereotypes!

My Best Friend’s Wedding

Flaunting our pedicures at the entry to Dizzy’s Gypsy Bistro.

I actually have two really good friends who share the title of best friend.  We’ve known each other since our first year of college and eventually became roomates/suitemates.  We were the Trinity (I’m Jesus), the Three Musketeers (I’m Porthos), Kirk/Spock/McCoy (I’m Kirk), Harry/Ron/Hermione (I think I was Ron), and any other famous trio.  Well one of the trio, whom we’d endearingly refer to as “Sparky the Holy Spirit,” tied the knot last month in a beautiful wedding in Little Rock.  The reception was at a posh hotel.  The bachelorette “party” was really a mani/pedi spa day, followed by lunch at a restaurant in Downtown Little Rock called Dizzy’s Gypsy Bistro (I had the black truffle ravioli and it was out of this world).  During that weekend I also learned that downtown Little Rock has a fabulous little farmer’s market on its riverfront and a “natural” playground for kids, since it is the “Natural State.”  The park is made up of local rocks, arranged so that there are walls to climb and tunnels to explore; it was a great way to wear out the kids.

Starkitten was the flower girl at the wedding, and she was certainly adorable in her little dress.  Despite being very shy, she walked down the aisle perfectly, only hiding her face once she was near the front and noticed all the cameras snapping.  Sunfilly, who wore an identical dress, decided that she was a princess and the church was her castle.  The comments she made regarding this were incredibly entertaining.

I also learned that toddlers can be masters at terrible timing.  At the reception, when the other part of the trinity, who served as the maid of honor, was about to give her speech, Starkitten told me she had to go potty… now.  So I was forced to miss the one speech I’d been waiting to hear, but I heard later that it was a moving speech, all the same.

A New Family Member

Two days ago, the neighbors discovered a litter of shepherd puppies in the creek that runs through their property.  This creek flows along the local highway before it turns into their property, and so, by the looks of things, it appears that someone dumped off the puppies at the side of the road (as what happens with tragic frequency in the country) and they got washed down the creek in the rain.  The puppies didn’t seem that harmed by the water, but when the neighbors found them, they were being eaten by coyotes, so the neighbors chased off the coyotes and rescued the puppies.

Yesterday, my parents went next door and adopted the little female, as female pups have a harder time finding a forever home and she was the spunkiest and had the brightest eyes.  My girls were very excited to have a new puppy in the house, but my chihuahua, Skeeter, and my parents’ Australian shepherd mix, Myrtle, were none too happy about it and proceeded to sulk for the rest of the day.  When we tried to name the little puppy, Starkitten vetoed every name we suggested, including:  Ingrid, Astrid, Priscilla, Anastasia, Eunice, Princess, Duchess, and Baby (we do have a fondness for old-fashioned names for our dogs).

The one name that Starkitten liked, and the puppy immediately responded to, was Drusilla (a name shared by both one of the wicked stepsisters in “Cinderella” and a psychotic vampire from “Buffy.”)

Drusilla, it turns out, has chosen Starkitten as her human.  She gets so excited whenever she sees Starkitten and follows her around the house everywhere.  And she was apparently very distraught that Starkitten did not accompany her to the first veterinarian visit.  The vet told my mother that Drusilla had worms, but otherwise a clean bill of health.  He estimated that she was about six weeks old.  We also discovered that Drusilla is, for the most part, housebroken–she cries when she wants to go outside, but when she is too busy playing, she won’t say anything.

I’ve been charged with Drusilla’s training, with help from my mother, who is used to shepherd mixes.  And Starkitten and Sunfilly are charged with running around outside with her.

I intend to post pictures of little Dru as soon as I get a camera working again (I was using my camera phone, but that cell phone has since died).  And then you can all bask in the adorableness that is Drusilla.

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Of Texas and Rebirth

Jump to Arroz con Pollo

With all this beautiful weather, the girls and I have been spending most of our time outside.  My parents live out in the country–it takes twenty minutes to get to the nearest town and we could walk to a large cattle ranch no matter which way we went down our road.  The road that their property abuts is fairly quiet, shaded by very old trees.  It’s so peaceful.  The girls and I walk down the road for about a mile on lazy afternoons.

I scrounged up some flower pots in my mother’s shed and bought some soil and seeds.  I decided to go with local flowers–bluebonnets, cockscomb, daisies, and cacti–in the hopes that eventually I will find a job and begin anew with a new apartment or house with a yard or patio in which to plant these flowers.  It was a lot of fun to plant the seeds with the girls, albeit rather messy.  We also planted the verbs and veggies we’d need for salsa.

By the time we were done, the girls thought it was a fabulous idea to roll and jump in the mud.  But such is the life of a parent.

We also caught a caterpillar munching on my mother’s roses.  I put it in a jar with a bunch of leaves, punched holes in the lid, and we watched the little guy munch away.  We also got to see what caterpillar feces look like.  Sadly, though, it seems the little caterpillar has passed away.  The girls wanted me to catch another one for them, but I didn’t want to negligently take another life.

"Ostara" (1901) by Johannes Gehrts. ...

"Ostara" (1901) by Johannes Gehrts. The goddess Ēostre/*Ostara flies through the heavens surrounded by Roman-inspired putti, beams of light, and animals. Germanic peoples look up at the goddess from the realm below. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Since I was to mixed up in my own depression, the girls missed out on Ostara and Holi this year.  So I’ve been trying very hard to make sure they get to enjoy Easter.  We still did some pagan things–coloring eggs, having an egg hunt, and talking about rebirth–but I also explained to the girls that some people celebrate the resurrection of Jesus on Easter.

And here, I must admit, it’s been difficult instructing the girls in two faiths.  They see similarities with Jesus and the Green Man, which makes sense to me as well.  But I do worry if it will make it difficult for them to understand what Jesus means to Christians.  Or maybe I’m just not explaining it right?

I’m finding symbols of crawling out of a destructive situation popping up in my life lately.

Picture of Hindu Goddess Kali. This photograph...

Picture of Hindu Goddess Kali. This photograph was taken during Kali Puja at Naihati, a town in West Bengal, India. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve had dreams where the Hindu goddess Kali, normally associated with death and destruction, has talked to me.  Anyone who knows me knows that I’ve been leery of talking to “dark goddesses,” mostly because their destructive power is not something to trifle with.  But Kali was not telling me to go out and to destroy things.  In one dream, she was warning me about a great evil–a random guy I was having a conversation with in the dream.  In another, we were having tea at some random coffee shop, like a pair of old friends, and she was telling me how my situation (the husband/divorce issue, joblessness, isolation) is only temporary, like most things in this world.  Kali has appeared like a grandmother figure, as well.  After talking to some Hindu and pagan friends (and an anthropologist friend) about these dreams, which at first confused me, and doing my own contemplative introspection, I think Kali is telling me that some things must end for good things to begin.

Icon of the Resurrection

Icon of the Resurrection (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Ostara and Easter are both about death and rebirth.  Ostara is a Germanic goddess who is associated with the spring equinox.  She symbolizes the rebirth of nature after its death (winter).  Easter is literally about the death and resurrection of a god (Jesus).  Holi is also about the death and rebirth of the Hindu god of love, Kamadeva, who helped Parvati (of whom Kali is an incarnation) to marry Shiva (god of destruction and rebirth) at the cost of his life.


Arroz con Pollo

I grew up eating what my father refers to as “Texican cuisine,” or what many people call “Tex-Mex.”  One of my mother’s favorite dishes to cook was arroz con pollo.  I cooked it for myself during college, but stopped after about my third year of marriage because my husband wasn’t a fan.  Arroz con pollo, which means “rice with chicken” in Spanish, is pretty popular in Latino cooking and, like most Latino cooking, varies widely from culture to culture and family to family.

Arroz con pollo is one of those dishes that you can whip up to feed many people, and it requires very little work.  As with most of my family recipes, this is my best attempts to measure the palmfuls or shakes of the spice jar, so you may want to adjust the spices to suit your palette.

Ingredients

  • 4 chicken leg quarters
  • 2 tablespoons cooking oil
  • 1 small onion, chopped finely
  • 1/2 bell pepper, diced
  • 1 small tomato, diced
  • 1 cube tomato bouillon
  • 1 cup rice
  • 2 cups water
  • 1 tablespoon cumin (more or less, to taste)
  • 1 teaspoon chili powder (more or less, to taste)
  • 1/2 teaspoon cayenne powder (more or less, to taste)
  • 1/2 teaspoon black pepper (more or less, to taste)

Directions

  1. Heat the oil in a large frying pan.  Add the chicken and fry it until it is completely brown on the outside.
  2. Remove the chicken to a bowl, set aside.  (Note, the chicken is still raw and blood may drip, so you want it in a bowl you can easily sterilize.)
  3. Fry the rice in the chicken grease.  Add the onion and bell pepper.  Fry, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are tender.  Add the tomato and fry a little bit more.
  4. Add the water, tomato bouillon, and spices.  Stir thoroughly.
  5. Cover and let simmer until the chicken is thoroughly cooked (about an hour).  The rice will cook before the chicken does, but it will not burn.  Stir occasionally while it is cooking.

Arroz con pollo goes very well with a fresh vegetable composition, like black bean salad, and homemade iced tea or horchata (or margaritas).

Tales from a Winter Trail

Jump to Scrambled Eggs and Mushrooms

The past few days have been strangely warm.  I mean “warm” by Ohio winter standards, as “warm” in Texas requires the threat of heat stroke.  “Warm” in an Ohio winter means the weather is above freezing–like a balmy 40˚F.

I think we have been adjusting to the cold, because when it “warmed” up to the low 40s, it felt nice enough to go for a hike.  (You have no idea how strange it feels to me to say that 40˚F is warm enough for hiking!)  We didn’t go far, but we explored the nature trail and a local pond and canal.

Iced over pondThe pond had iced over on the surface.  This was something I knew happened in colder climates, but I’d never seen something like it before.  It was strange, like the pond was dead.  I knew it wasn’t, but it sure looked lifeless.  No ripples, no fish jumping out of the water, no fowl landing on its surface.  We stood at the bank and stared at the dead pond.  I picked up some rocks and plunked one against the ice, to demonstrate to the girls what had happened to the water because it’s been cold.  This phenomenon was particularly fascinating to the girls, so we took the rest of the rocks and skipped them against the ice.  It became a game: who can make a rock skid the furthest down the ice.  It was almost like bowling with hockey pucks.

We also wandered along the Miami-Erie trail, which runs along Rapids on the Miami-Erie Canal(surprisingly) the Miami-Erie Canal.  Because the water flows more swiftly there, it had not frozen over.  Past one of the locks, under a bridge, was a rocky area where the water moved more like rapids.  We sat on a blanket near the bank and listened to the water rushing.  It was therapeutic.  Everything around us felt dead, but at least the water was still alive.

Some kind of dead polyphore

Some kind of dead polyphore.

With my handy mushrooming guide in hand (National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms), I kept my eyes peeled for the few things that might be alive this time of year.  I saw quite a few mushrooms that must have grown in November or December but had been killed by the snow and frost.  They were shriveled and black and mealy, and some tiny insects and grubs were making a meal of them.  They made me reflect on the irony that saprophytic lifeforms like mushrooms (“saprophytic” means “feeds on dead or decaying matter”) also die and become food for something else.

Trametes versicolor

Turkey Tail Mushroom

I also spotted some turkey tail mushrooms (their scientific name is Trametes versicolor), a shelf polyphore that is pretty common in North America.  They are actually quite fascinating to observe.  When I was a child, I’d imagine that little animals or something fantastic as fairies lived off colonies of these mushrooms, sort of like a small city on a tree trunk.  Supposedly you can make a medicinal tincture out of them, but I haven’t found any literature (at least, from any legitimate source) that was particularly clear about what these mushrooms are used to treat, except that they treat something.  Maybe they are the cure for hypochondria?  (Well, apparently scientists are examining it as a possible treatment for cancer, but that doesn’t explain why a Google search for turkey tail results in all kinds of “Buy this cure-all mushroom pill!” articles.)

Galerina marginata

Galerina marginata

I also made note of some possibly poisonous mushrooms that seemed to have popped up and then started dying from the cold.  These are mushrooms in the Galerina genus.  I say possibly, because there are edible (and hallucinogenic) mushrooms that very closely resemble Galerina mushrooms, but only expert mycologists with some impressive laboratory equipment can discern the difference between them.  Even expert mushroomers (usually going for the hallucinogenic kind) have mistakenly ingested Galerina mushrooms, with deadly consequences.  Most mushrooming guides I’ve read strongly recommend against harvesting “little brown gilled mushrooms,” and this is the reason.  So, as I always do, I instructed my girls to not touch wild mushrooms unless I tell them it is safe.  This is one of the reasons why.

These mushrooms were growing off a sawed-off pine log. I believe they are also in the Galerina genus. They appear to be dying from the cold.

A junco in a dormant apple treeWe did see some dark-eyed juncos in the trees.  Juncos are in the sparrow family.  They were obviously frightened by our approach (and the loud laughter of the girls amplified by the echo in the dead woods and pond certainly did nothing to convince the little birds we meant no harm).

These adorable little songbirds were certainly a refreshing break from the dead world of winter.

Scrambled Eggs and Mushrooms

One of our New Year’s resolutions was to eat more vegetarian cuisine.  Not necessarily vegan cuisine (although we will eventually transition to a day of fully vegan, but I’m not a fan of things that are overly processed, either), and for now we’re still doing the eggs-and-dairy kind of vegetarian.  There are several reasons for this.  One is to save money on meat, which is becoming very expensive here (as opposed to fresh produce–and also so that we can afford more whole grain breads and fresh produce).

Another reason is for health: my husband and I have both been packing

Toddler breakfast

A balanced breakfast of eggs, mushrooms, various fruits, a half-slice of whole-grain toast, and yogurt. They have water in their sippy cups. Usually the kids don't eat everything (each girl has her own quirks), but this gives them some healthy options.

on the pounds and, instead of going on a fad diet, we are just going to change what we eat.  We figure it’s better to eat things that are not processed, have more fiber, and aren’t pumped with hormones and chemicals (as so much commercial meat is, unless you buy certified organic, which is expensive and hard to come by in rural grocery stores).  For the girls, we want to make sure they are raised with healthy lifestyle choices (as opposed to my upbringing–which was the same for a substantial number of Americans) and healthy lifestyle choices are best taught by example.

It’s also for environmental reasons: just consuming things that are more sustainable (like buying organic or locally grown) and don’t contribute to greenhouse gas, as cows do.  And for me, as a Wiccan who dabbles in Hinduism, it’s also partly an ethical thing (many Hindus and Wiccans/neopagans are vegetarian because they tend towards nonviolence and they see all living things as brothers and sisters under the divine).

That’s not to preach to you to make any lifestyle changes, but just to explain why we are aiming to eat 4 days a week of vegetarian or vegan.

This is a new thing for me, being a carnivore by nature.  It’s easier for my husband, who grew up eating a mostly eggs-and-dairy vegetarian diet.  So I’ve made a wish list of vegetarian cookbooks and found some interesting websites with recipes for those who are just starting down this path.

In the meantime, I’ve been experimenting.  One of my first endeavors was making a country-French-inspired scrambling of eggs and mushrooms.  It turned out to be a great success with my family.  So much so, in fact, that I’ve now made it several times.  When I serve it with a side of fresh fruit and yogurt, it fills up my girls’ bellies and provides a balanced breakfast.

This recipe serves 3.

The tomatoes have been sliced and the ingredients in the egg mixture are ready to beat.

Ingredients

  • 3 large eggs
  • 1/2 cup mushrooms, sliced or chopped (portobello would work best, but any kind will do)
  • 3 tablespoons parsley, dried or chopped fresh, and extra for garnish
  • 1 large tomato (or 1/2 cup small tomatoes), diced
  • 2 tablespoons parmesan cheese, shredded or grated, and extra for garnish
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
  • salt to taste

Directions

  1. Heat the oil in a medium frying pan.  Add the mushrooms.  Sautee them until they are cooked (usually they will get tender and darker).

    Making scrambled eggs & mushrooms

    The mixture in the frying pan.

  2. In a bowl, beat the eggs.  Stir in the black pepper, parmesan cheese, salt, and parsley.
  3. Add the egg mixture to the frying pan.  Stir frequently so that they don’t stick to the bottom of the pan and burn.
  4. When the eggs are cooked thoroughly, remove from heat and serve.  Garnish with any combination of parmesan cheese, tomatoes, and parsley.

It goes well served with a side of fruit, whole grain toast, and yogurt.

Striking sunset over the ice

The sun setting over an icy, dead, wintry landscape.

November Recap Part 2: Happily Hiking and the Awesome Cranberry

Jump to How to Hike with Small Children

Jump to Making Trail Mix

Jump to Homemade Spiced Cranberry Sauce

As I mentioned in my prior post, this is to be the second part in summing up November.  And as I mentioned before, we spent most of November hiking the local nature trails.

I’ll begin by sharing some of our adventures on the trails.

Probably the scariest moment was when Sunfilly threw a tantrum for no apparent reason (as two-year-olds are wont to do), throwing herself into a pile of leaves along a creek bank.  Out of the corner of my eye I spotted a small, dark brown banded snake slithering out of the leaves towardsher.  My split-second reasoning was this: “Garter snakes usually get startled and try to get away from screaming humans.  This snake has a diamond-shaped head, a trait shared only by poisonous snakes.  Poisonous snakes tend to be more aggressive than nonpoisonous snakes.  Even baby poisonous snakes are poisonous.  It’s probably not a garter snake and probably poisonous.  It’s not worth waiting to find out.”

Possibly a baby copperhead.

This is the snake that I killed and the stick I whacked it with. It's a crappy underbelly shot. This is a lousy picture because I took it using my pseudo-intellectual phone.

Okay, well, actually it was instinct, but that was what pretty my instinct was saying.

In that split second, I grabbed the large branch Starkitten had been using as a makeshift walking stick and whacked it on the head with all my strength.  Three times.  Then it was dead.

I took advantage of this tragic situation (I don’t like killing things that aren’t for food) to explain to the girls why I ask them to be careful when going through leaves, or why I instruct them to stay on the trail, or simply why they need to listen to me.  Starkitten is old enough to understand when I say that something can hurt her, but I think that when she observed the snake die, she understood what I meant when I explained that snake bites could make her die, too.

Since the snake’s head was crushed pretty badly, I couldn’t determine for sure what it was, but I suspected that maybe it was some kind of water moccasin, which I thought was pretty common in North America.  Then after talking to one of the volunteer park rangers I meet frequently during our hikes on the trail, I’m led to believe it may have been a baby copperhead, which was his suspicions based on my description of the markings and the aggressive behavior of the snake. He informed me that water moccasins don’t live this far north, which surprised me, considering how cold it does feel in humid Louisiana; and those nasty buggers made a terrible habit of getting into the house I grew up in and sleeping on the black curtain rods, blending in with the viny design of the metal.  I assumed they did something similar here–hiding in warm buildings to weather the cold.  But apparently it gets too cold for them in Ohio.  I was also surprised that copperheads do live here, as I always thought of them as preferring warmer climates.

Well that was a fun little herpetology lesson for me.

A group of slider turtles sunning themselves on dead trees in a creek.

And speaking of herpetology, we did spot quite a few red-eared slider turtles here.  They are fun to observe, especially when there are many of them piled onto each other on some log, sunning themselves.  The game the girls and I played was to see how long we could watch them quietly before startling them into swiftly diving into the water.  Hopefully such games will prepare them for the eventual camping and hiking trips my husband and I would love to take them on, where you would have to be extremely quiet to spot an animal, or to avoid something spotting you.

And one thing that I have really enjoyed about autumn in Ohio is the plentitude of migratory waterfowl.  I never really saw them so numerous in Texas, and rarely in Louisiana.  Here, they are everywhere.  And what is really amazing is that, in the late evening or early morning, if the kids are asleep or being quiet, you can hear the geese honking and ducks quacking overhead as they fly south–past my old home–for the winter.  The stillness of late November, after the first snow, really made experiencing this seem surreal.

As we passed someone's farm along the trail, we spotted a flock of ducks. Too bad it wasn't a public hunting grounds...

But when it was still warm enough to hike, and since it rained quite a bit here (making me think of that song by Guns n Roses),  we would happen by flocks of waterfowl anywhere there was water.  And “anywhere” included low-lying spots in some farmer’s land that had just accumulated water from all the rain.

Ducks and geese were a lot braver than the slider turtles and certainly braver than the wood ducks in Louisiana that I grew up seeing, but not as used to humans as the ducks we would see at the public parks in Dallas (where the birds were used to being fed by humans).  They would stare at us as we passed, swimming off nonchalantly if the girls got too loud, and only flying away if they thought we were running towards them (which at first the girls would do–“Look, Mommy, a duck!  Let’s catch the duck!”).

The "mystery bird." It blends in with the tree on which it is perched.

There were also some kind of crane or heron that we would observe on occasion.  It would sit up high in the trees, and then suddenly dive into the water, and emerge with a struggling carp in its beak.  It looked very majestic.

Even more amazing to observe was the rare sighting of a bald eagle swooping over a lake and catching a fish in its talons.  We saw it happen twice, and both times Starkitten couldn’t stop talking about it.

How to Hike with Small Children

The trick to hiking with small children is all about patience and preparation.

You have to realize that kids do not have the stamina that adults have, even if they seem to have a million times more energy, and toddlers will have meltdowns about things over which you have no control (Sunfilly once had a meltdown because a dragonfly landed on Starkitten and not her).  And if they are in a foul mood, it is probably best to not take them hiking, because the odds that they will not obey orders that would ensure their safety are pretty high.  And you have to keep in mind that they cannot regulate the body temperatures as efficiently as an adult, so overdressing or underdressing them can lead to an unhappy toddler or ultimately even a sick one.

I typically took them in the morning, right after a big breakfast, and dressed them in layers.  This way they were in a good mood and it would be easy to dress/undress them to make sure they were comfortable.  And this way, by the time we returned, they would be nice and sleepy and nap well.  I also made sure they had comfortable sneakers for hiking (there are hiking boots for kids at specialty stores, but since we don’t have that kind of money, I looked for sneakers that seemed to have a lot of cushioning in the soles and arch support).

Maybe it’s because I’m a little neurotic, but I tended to keep my backpack stocked with things like:

  • an extra change of clothes and socks for each girl
  • diapers and wipes (and diaper wipes are great for washing your hands in a pinch)
  • a first-aid kit containing Benadryl, children’s pain reliever, bandages, Kleenex, Neosporin, and pain reliever for me
  • pocket ponchos for each of us
  • several bottles of water
  • a Thermos full of coffee for me
  • kid-sized Thermoses filled with milk for each girl (they are amazing at keeping drinks cold, even in the triple-digit Texas heat, for several hours, and they have convenient tot-friendly straws which detach for easy cleaning)
  • trail mix
  • a lunch box with our picnic lunch
  • a few empty plastic shopping bags in which to put garbage

Of course, the backpack was certainly heavy, and reminded me of my ROTC years in college, but it was worth having these things handy when we needed it.  I usually would carry Sunfilly on my shoulders on the way home, so undoubtedly my back was sore, but I was amazed at how much weight I was losing from all the exercise.

As for lunch, I usually packed fruits like apples, oranges, and peaches.  For protein, I’d pack tuna or egg salad sandwiches, although occasionally it would be hard boiled eggs with crackers and cheddar cheese squares, at Starkitten’s request.  If I forgot to freeze my ice packs for the lunch box, I’d pack the non-perishable lunch kits, like the tuna kits or chicken salad kits that you can get at any grocery store.  These kinds of foods are low-mess and can be eaten while sitting on one of the park benches we’d find strewn along the trail, or even while sitting by a stream and watching the ducks.

For conservation reasons, I’ve educated my girls about the harms of littering.   That is why I’d make sure to pack extra garbage bags.  I’ve explained that dumping your trash on nature can hurt the wild animals and plants.  Of course, now Starkitten complains when she sees an empty beer bottle or some other refuse marring otherwise pristine woods.

After the snake incident, I make sure to keep a walking stick handy.  The walking stick I use is just a branch from a tree chopped down by our landlord.  It’s straight, solid oak and is handy for whacking whatever nasties may try to hurt my babies.

Starkitten flaunts a maple leaf she found, which is larger than her head, and her makeshift walking stick.

And I cannot stress the “patience” part of hiking with kids enough.  Some kids love being outdoors, some don’t.  Some kids are content to walk and explore nature, others want to get messy in it.  Fortunately for me, my girls love being outdoors and are learning to not just grab at things.

But I still have to keep them engaged.

So we play games, like who can find the biggest leaf? or how many colors of leaves or flowers can we spot? or how many turtles can we find?

I’ve also noticed how easy it is to educate kids during a nature walk: that fungi and insects and vultures help to clean up things that have died and return them to the earth to benefit other living things; that the gingko tree is a living fossil; that some animals hibernate and some migrate; that not all trees shed their leaves for winter; and even how to watch the clouds for rain.

Making Trail Mix

Trail mix is really great for staving off growling tummies, and is packed with carbs and protein.  Since it’s expensive, I tend to make my own, as the ingredients can be much more affordable if you buy them individually (and in bulk).

You can really mix together any combination of ingredients, but here is what I tend to use, as the kids seem to like it best:

Homemade trail mix.

  • peanuts
  • dried edamame
  • sesame sticks
  • raisins
  • dried cranberries
  • dates
  • sunflower kernels
On occasion, I may toss in some M&Ms, as it makes the kids happy.  I’ll also toss in dried blueberries or strawberries or fiigs if I find them on sale at the local natural foods store (yay for supporting small businesses and organic farmers!).  If I was mixing it for myself only, I’d add wasabi peas, which are just amazing, and toss it all in some cayenne powder.  I like my food spicy.

Homemade Spiced Cranberry Sauce
I’ll spare you the cliche “why we should give thanks” Thanksgiving speech that everybody and their mother has said something about and skip right to the food.  I tried a citrus brine for the turkey for the first time, and it was divine.  Another thing I tried for the first time, and my family and our guests loved it so much I’m finding myself making it at least twice a week is homemade cranberry sauce.
I honestly never thought it would be so easy to make, but it was.  And, frankly, I don’t think I can ever eat canned cranberry sauce again–and my husband made that declaration on Day 1.

This is where the cranberries started popping.

Ingredients
  • 4 cups (about 1 bag) of cranberries
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 1/2 teaspoon ginger
Directions
  1. Pick through the cranberries for any that look overripe or moldy or just gross you out.  Rinse them and let them drain.
  2. Pour the sugar and water into a medium saucepan and bring to a boil.  Stir occasionally so that the sugar dissolves better.
  3. Let it boil for 3-5 minutes.
  4. Add the cranberries.  Reduce heat to medium and boil for about 10 minutes, or when the cranberries start popping.
  5. Reduce to a simmer, add the spices, and stir.  Let it simmer for another 2 minutes.  Then remove from heat.
I’ve read that most people cool it and then refrigerate their cranberry sauce, but my family likes to eat it while it’s still warm.  With the spices, it gives all kinds of warm fuzzy feelings that are classic for this time of year.

Okay, so I'll get a little Thanksgiving-sentimental here. I'm thankful for evenings like the one pictured here, enjoying a perfect sunset to a perfect day lost in Mother Nature with my family.

November Recap Part 1: Foraging is Fun

Jump to Botany and Mycology as Hobbies

First, I must apologize for the hiatus.  November turned into a month full of crazy stressful events that swept me away from much me-time.  So now that all of that has passed, I am going to play a little bit of catch-up.  This is the first of two parts of my recap of November.

This chipmunk lives under my patio. He is hibernating now, but during autumn, when he was still active, the girls would happily gather acorns for him and drop them in the hole that served as the front door to his little home, to help him get ready for winter. He was a challenge to photograph, as he would see me and dart away before I could snap a good shot of him.

The first couple weeks of November were beautiful.  They were warm, the way I think of autumn in the South.  It was perfect for going on long hikes with the kids and exploring nature.  When my husband was home, we would also go fishing.  I liked the long hikes the most, because Starkitten is such a little trooper–she can walk an entire three-mile trail and be happy about it–and Sunfilly is small enough that I can carry her on my shoulders when she gets tired, and her weight, plus the weight of my backpack, meant that I got a lot of strength training and actually lost a jean size during that two-week stint.  (Granted, I gained it back with interest after Thanksgiving.)

A praying mantis on my doorstep.

There were a lot of things we saw and did during those two weeks.  I took advantage of the falling leaves to teach my girls about the seasons and explain about autumn.  I explained that some animals are getting ready to hibernate, trees are losing their leaves and becoming dormant, and birds and butterflies are flying south for warmer weather.  We made a game out of it: spot the flocks of ducks and geese, and which trees were still “awake” and which were “going to sleep.”

Botany and Mycology as Hobbies

There was also the foraging.  Wild walnuts are everywhere.  I’m allergic to walnuts and pecans (it is a tragic allergy, indeed), but my husband and daughters certainly enjoyed finding them and eating them.  And with two handy manuals–Wild Berries & Fruits Field Guide: Indiana, Kentucky, and Ohio and the National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms–I was able to identify quite a few delicious (and, more importantly, safe) berries and mushrooms.  I loved these guides because they are reputable, well-organized, and pocket-sized.  I’d pack them in my backpack for quick reference, in case I saw something that might be a great hiking snack.

My interest in botany (and mycology–the study of mushrooms and fungi–I will use “botany” to refer to both disciplines for the sake of simplicity, even though they are in fact completely separate) began when we first moved to Ohio and I was amazed at the abundance of wild mushrooms and berries not only on our rental property, but all along the local nature trails.  So many of nature’s goodies looked delicious, and yet I was well aware of the dangers of eating heedlessly.  Since I wanted to learn about my new environment, as well as eat of it, I researched well-respected field guides and went with the two that I mentioned, along with a few larger ones to supplement.

So the general rules to follow in foraging are:

  1. Take a notebook and pen with you, and a camera if possible.  You’ll need to record details about the plants that you found for the most accurate identification.  It’s also wise to have several small containers or ziplocs handy to store what you find separately and to prevent them from being crushed.
  2. Never eat what you find right away.  Take it home to identify it fully.  In some instances, you may need a microscope.
  3. Cross-reference.  Cross-reference.  Cross-reference.  You need to be absolutely sure that what you think you’ve found in the forest or on the trail is in fact what it is.  Use more than one book and take advantage of the internet to look at pictures and find detailed descriptions.  In fact, one of the things I love about my two pocket field guides is that they will let you know what plants or mushrooms can be mistaken for each other.  This tells me I need to read up on not just what I think it is I’ve found, but what its look-alikes are.
  4. Don’t over-harvest.  Remember that plants and fungi are food for wild animals, too.  If you gather all the morels in the woods, it can spell starvation for all sorts of critters.  It can also lead to a shortage next year, as the plants you harvested would not have been able to make seeds–or the fungi to make spores–sufficient to reproduce.
  5. Quality of what you find is important.  Once you know that what you are looking at is edible and you want to go back and harvest more, pay attention to the quality.  If it looks like it’s had bugs in it, or looks squishy or overripe, don’t pick it.  You wouldn’t buy a nasty fruit or mushroom at the grocery store–why take it from the forest?  Besides, leaving the unwanteds on the plants helps ensure food for the wild animals and a steady harvest for next year.
  6. When eating a new fruit or mushroom for the first time, sample only a small amount and wait at least 48 hours.  This gives you time to see if there are any allergic reactions or if there are any toxins.  Don’t give any to your kids until you experimented on yourself first (and if there are multiple adults in your household, I’d recommend that you each try it and wait 48 hours, but taking turns).  Also, don’t try more than one new food at a time.  This way, if you do get sick, it will give your doctor a better idea of what to treat and to act quickly.
  7. If you have any questions or concerns, contact your doctor and/or a botany or mycology professor at your local university.  Especially if you have any doubts as to the identity of what you have found, it’s best to defer to the experts.

For fruits specifically:

  1. Observing the leaves is important.  How many are on a stem?  What shape are they?  Do they alternate or are they symmetrically ordered on the branches?  If you can, cut a piece of the branch to take home as well.
  2. The bark may also be important, so take note of it.
  3. Notate whether the plant was growing in the sun, partial sun, or shade.  Did you find it in the woods, or along a stream?  This can be important, too.
  4. Notate how tall it is, or whether it was a vine or tree or shrub.  Some plants are edible in one related form but not the other.
  5. Notate any smell the leaves or fruit emit.
  6. Once you find edible fruits, be sure to rinse them before you eat them.  I usually bring wet washcloths in a ziploc to wipe down the berries I know are edible so we can eat them on the trail.

For mushrooms specifically:

  1. If you’re a novice mushroomer (as I am), avoid gilled mushrooms completely.    When I first moved here, I spoke with a local park ranger about this, and his words of wisdom were repeated in several mushrooming guides I’ve since read.  There are too many fatally toxic gilled mushrooms that too closely resemble the edible ones, so much so that they are easily mistaken.  Until you have lots of mushrooming experience under your belt or are in the company of an experienced mushroomer, it’s safest to just leave them alone.
  2. Notate where the mushroom was found, how much sunlight can reach the mushroom, and how much precipitation fell the day before.  What it was growing on is extremely important.
  3. Notate whether the mushroom has any smell.
  4. When you harvest the mushroom, be careful not to yank it out.  The threadlike roots, called mycelia, are what actually produce more mushrooms.  If you damage the mycelia, you risk that chance that no more mushrooms may grow there anymore.  You wouldn’t chop down an apple tree to get the apples; be equally considerate to mushrooms, too.
  5. While the mushroom is still fresh, press the spore-producing underbelly against a clean sheet of paper or index card.  This will create a spore print and will be integral to mushroom identification.
  6. If you have identified an edible mushroom, never eat it raw.  Aside from the cautions about cooking out possible toxins and germs, I’d like to point out that it may have been hit with the errant droppings or urine from a bird or dog or some other critter.  You’d want to kill those germs.

While this list of considerations may seem long, it’s by no means exhaustive.  I highly recommend that you look up other guides to foraging to make sure you are well-prepared.  Remember, it’s not to be anal about science.  It’s for your own safety.

Also, don’t let it seem daunting.  I found that on my first trip down the nature trail–with two toddlers in tow–gathering and identifying wild berries and mushrooms actually went by pretty smoothly.  I learned a lot about autumn-producing plants in Ohio very quickly.  I also learned to identify poisonous plants such as deadly nightshade very quickly–and to explain to my girls not to just eat any berry they find, but to let me tell them if it is safe.

Here is a sampling of some of the yummy and/or interesting plants that I found during November.  You can click on the image for a better view.

Honeysuckle berries

Honeysuckle (the Lonicera genus) makes berries.  I guess I should have known that, but it never crossed my mind.  I know that you can use the flowers to make tea, but it turns out the berries are inedible for humans.  Birds, however, seem to love them.  They are easy for me to identify, because I’ve seen the vines all over the South (the smell of honeysuckles in May is intoxicating for me).

Dogwood with blue fruit

Silky dogwood (Cornus amomum) makes a blue fruit that looks deceptively delicious, but can actually make you sick.  This is also considered an endangered plant in North America according to the USDA, so chancing upon one was pretty exciting.   (If I am wrong in its identification, then it’s the stiff dogwood, which looks fairly similar.)  These dogwoods are important for preventing soil erosion; they grow along stream beds and lakes and their roots hold soil to prevent runoff.

Poison sumac

If you find white berries in Ohio, as a rule of thumb, assume they are poisonous.  This poison sumac (Toxicodendron vernix) is one example.  And this is also an example of why you want that field guide with you.  Just touching any part of this plant can result in skin irritations (like poison ivy) or even more severe allergic reactions–people with sensitive allergies can get sick just from being near the plant.

Rose hips

Roses (Rosa genus) are best known for their beautiful flowers and sweet smell… to the point of being cliché.  Wild roses are a pain in the rear for anyone wanting a manicured garden and take cliché to painful levels, especially if you’ve ever listened to country music (I’ve heard, ad nauseum, the phrase “you can’t time a wild rose” as a metaphor for country women).  A lesser known, and even cooler, fact about roses is that they make a very delicious and beneficial fruit, called rose hips.  They are packed with vitamin C and antioxidants. Wild roses grow all over the place along the Miami-Erie Trail and Buckeye Trail in Ohio, especially along streams and the canals.  The fruits are smaller (because the flowers are smaller), but they are incredibly sweet.  We would just suck out the juices from the fruit, however, because biting into the core was unpleasant: the core has a fuzzy texture and tastes rather bitter.  I’ve read that some people make jellies out of them, and I’ll be curious to try that next year.  As it was, this was our favorite snack along the nature trail.  You can also make a tea out of rose hips, and apparently the nutrients in it help boost your immune system–useful for this time of year.

English: Hen of the woods mushroom

Hen of the Woods - Image via Wikipedia by Gargoyle888

But berries weren’t the only thing I found.  I failed to bring my camera the day I found them, but I found a hen of the woods mushroom (Grifola frondosa) during one of our hikes.  It weighed about four pounds and, after I cleaned it and cut out the wormy parts (a lot of worms and pill bugs like to live in between the folds of the mushroom) and diced it, it filled about three quart-sized freezer bags.  I’ve since found two locations where this mushroom is growing on our property (the largest one weighing about nine pounds), which is cool, because the hen of the woods will keep growing back on the same spot.  And they taste delicious–I’ve read that some rate them as just a few steps down from truffles–and apparently also have some beneficial vitamins and antioxidants.  They only grow on oak stumps or branches and they are easily mistaken for a pile of leaves, which is why I didn’t notice them when we first moved here.  But I’m so thrilled to have found so many of these amazing mushrooms, as they have since been used to jazz up spaghettis and soups and many other dishes.  It even tastes fantastic by itself, just sauteed with butter and onions.

And that reminds me of another nifty pointer I’d like to share about mushrooms: the best way to preserve them is to freeze them.  Cut them up into whatever slices you’d like beforehand, because you cannot thaw them.  When it’s time to cook, you just toss the frozen mushrooms into the pot or pan and cook them.  This preserves the flavor and texture best, and it tastes just like the ones you’d harvested that day.

I couldn't get close enough to inspect it, but it sure looked delicious. Because I couldn't reach it to examine it, I'm not sure if it is edible. But it was too pretty not to share with you. Growing next to it is what appears to be poison sumac.

Next blog post: adventures on the trail, what to pack for hiking, and homemade cranberry sauce.

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