Spring is Summer and Tarantulas for Teaching

Springtime in Texas doesn’t really exist.  “Winter” doesn’t, really, either.  But there is a rather obvious span of chilly, wet months which people who live in Texas call “winter” because it happens during that time of the year so named by the rest of the Northern Hemisphere.  As I’ve mentioned before, the intermediary seasons of springtime and autumn don’t seem to exist in the South, and so the transition from “winter” to what is mildly named “summer” is rather abrupt.

List of U.S. state flowers

Bluebonnets (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

March 20 for those of us living in the South, then, was really the “first day of summer.”

Texas Paintbrush

Texas Paintbrush (Photo credit: Knomad)

The chilly nights are now gone.  Days warm up to the mid-80s ˚F.  Garage sales and yard sales abound.  Children–including my own–play outside as much as possible: coloring with chalk on the sidewalk and driveway, blowing bubbles, tossing around a ball, digging for dinosaur bones in the sandbox, picking wildflowers, chasing butterflies.  I sit and enjoy watching their playtime, smelling the neighbors’ barbecuing, listening to distant tractors, or simply soaking up the warm sun.

Summer came in less than a week.  One day, the trees are all dead and bare, the grass still brownish and starved-looking.  Then after a week of rain, suddenly daffodils and dandelions and redbuds and my parents’ plum trees were all abloom.  They added some color to a gray world, much like a 1930s lithograph.  Then little green shoots began to dot most of the trees, and other flowers–wisterias and bluebonnets and Texas paintbrushes and dogwoods and primroses and oxalis and random yellow wildflower–made the landscape seem alive.  And, by the end of that week, the trees were all covered with leaves.

Early spring narcissus

Narcissus (Photo credit: mobilene)

On nice days, one of my brothers or my parents would walk down the quiet country road with the children and me.  We’d observe the world waking up from dormancy, counting cows and horses and goats.

During this time, my youngest brother returned from Texas Tech on spring break, bringing what I’ve dubbed the “Panhandle Plague” (a rather nasty cold) with him.  Combine this with a week of rainy weather (forcing everyone to stay inside) and you have a good petri dish for germs.  After he went back to school, we all came down with it, and most are still recovering.  But that hasn’t stopped me from enjoying the outdoors (and fortunately the kids bounced back the fastest, so it didn’t faze them much).

Mourning Doves will perch for safety but eat o...

Mourning Dove (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sometimes I just sit on the front porch and watch the cars race down the distant highway.  Life here in East Texas is slow, so it’s easy to just sit and soak up the world around me.  I’ve learned to recognize the calls of the local red-tailed hawk and know which trees it likes to roost in at night.  I’ve noticed that mourning doves really only coo early in the morning and in the evening.  I let the crickets and frogs serenade me (but I’m still unsettled by coyotes–probably because I’ve overheard them killing some hapless critter too many times in the past).  I can spot all the trees and shrubs in our area that were killed by last year’s vicious summer heat and drought (and that sometimes makes me wonder if climate change is pushing the Texas scrublands eastwards).

Oxalis triangularis

Oxalis (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve taken to walking around the yard barefoot as much as possible.  It’s therapeutic, letting me feel like I’m reconnecting with the earth.  A neopagan mentor of mine once advised me that walking barefoot in the dirt is important spiritually (at the time, I was living in Dallas and finding myself getting sucked into the selfish materialism that plagues the “Beverly Hills of the South”).  I must admit I didn’t do that very much–not even in Ohio–until recently.

But lately, feeling the lush blades of grass between my toes is revitalizing.  Digging my toes into the clay soil is soothing.  I’ve learned that I can tell how warm it will be during the day by feeling the temperature of the morning dew under my feet.  Sometimes I feel like I’m getting back in tune with Mother Earth, and so when I’m at my lowest points emotionally, I try to go outside and dig my feet into the grass and just let the world surround me.  I suck at meditating, but I do have these moments where I just lose all thought and almost feel a part of the living things around me, instead of a separate body.

Maybe one day I’ll get the hang of it.

Tarantulas for Teaching

Texas Brown Tarantula

Texas Brown Tarantula (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When we have the stretches of rainy days, the girls get bored because they have to remain indoors.  So I wind up being creative in the things I do to keep them occupied.  One of the games we play is “name things that start with this letter.”  One day, we were playing with Letter T.  The kids quickly ran out of things that began with ‘T.’  So, I suggested “tarantula.”  Naturally, they asked me what a tarantula was.  I decided it was time to give the kids the foundations for learning to gather their own information.

First, I took them to my parents’ encyclopedia shelves.  There, we looked for the first ‘T’ volume and I opened it to the entry on tarantulas.  I showed them a picture of the big, hairy spider in the encyclopedia and read aloud some of the details about it.

Then I explained that you can also use the internet to find information.  I took them to Wikipedia and showed them that you can type in “tarantula” and find an entry.  We compared the physical encyclopedia to the electronic one and noted that the information was about the same (Wikipedia actually had more details).  I also showed them that one could do an internet search for tarantulas, or even just pictures of tarantulas.

Similarly, on a later day, Starkitten and I had a discussion about doctors issuing shots and how getting shots (or any other probing that doctors do) is not meant to harm the patient.

I explained, “The doctor gives you a shot, or puts the stick on your tongue, or shines the light in your eyes to make sure that you are healthy.”

“What is healthy?” Starkitten asked.

“Let’s go look it up.”

So I proceeded to take her (and Sunfilly followed) to the encyclopedia shelves again.  This time, we pulled out the dictionary, determined through phonics that “healthy” starts with the Letter H, and I helped them find the entry for “healthy” in the dictionary, which I read to them.

Then I showed them, once again, that they could also use the internet for more information.  I have a dictionary widget on my laptop (incredibly useful for anyone who loves to write) and showed the girls that I could type in “healthy” and get a definition, a list of words with similar meanings (and opposite meanings), and an explanation of how the word itself came to be.

Hopefully, this will plant the seeds for a thirst for knowledge.

Jobitis

I’m still suffering from, as my sister so wonderfully coined, “jobitis.”  It came about during a discussion in which I lamented that for all the interviews I’ve had in the last two years–and the exponentially greater number of resumes and applications I’d sent out–the way employers rejected me you’d think they believed they would contract the Black Death if they hired me.  People who have shared such an experience, whose unemployment makes them feel like a social leper, have jobitis.

But that hasn’t stopped me from applying for jobs.  My law degree pushes me into the legal job market, which is incredibly brutal.  Jobification as a lawyer typically requires a level of schmoozing and ass-kissing I’m incapable of doing.  This is especially true in East Texas, where, like North Louisiana (where I grew up), securing a job has very little to do with one’s actual ability to perform the tasks at hand and more to do with who your father is and what part of town you’re from… and sometimes which church you attend (if at all).  And so, while law school was relatively a piece of cake, I lack the charm and golf finesse and fancy wardrobe required to actually work for a law firm (and that’s kind of a tough case to pitch to one’s student loan servicers).

I’m not limiting my job search to East Texas, but since it’s the part of the state in which I currently reside, it’s where I’ve placed a good portion of my efforts.

My law degree has also made me “overqualified” for any other kind of work.  I faced this problem in Ohio and Dallas, as well.  Even the kind of work I once did (call center) is now unattainable simply because I’m too damn educated.  In all this time, I’d only had one interview scheduled, and it was a phone interview at that, and the company flaked on me.

I have seriously considered standing in front of the courthouse of any of the major Texas cities holding a sign that read, “Will draft pleadings for food.”  Or even just a busy high-rise, holding a sign that read, “Will oppress the masses for food.”  Or even just start rejecting the rejection letters potential employers send me (which others have done before).  And if my jobitis proves to be chronic, I may very well have to.

I could go off on a soapbox tangent here about how my law school still insists most of our class is now gainfully employed, making an average of $100,000 a year, when that is far from the truth (many are in my position or worse), so that they can dupe another couple hundred cash cows into a lifetime of debt (unless they came from a wealthy family–and even then it’s arguable at this point whether a job will be waiting for them when they graduate, and their parents’ money not simply wasted).  Or how unemployment numbers don’t count those who’ve graduated and haven’t found work, whose unemployment benefits have expired, who were denied benefits, or who simply just gave up looking.

I could also admit that sometimes I do get a little jealous when I look at my Facebook feed and it’s filled with people I care about getting awesome jobs, going on fantastic trips, finding their happily ever after, getting the house with the picket fence… and my life is falling apart.  It’s not to say that I’m not happy for them, because I am, but sometimes it makes me feel like a buzzkill when I need to talk about a problem because I don’t want to rain on a friend’s parade.  And sometimes I’ve wondered if there’s something wrong with me for failing at life.  I realize now that these are also normal human sentiments that we all feel at some point (hopefully not multiple points) in our lives, but when those moments hit me, it’s hard to not beat myself up.

So I make light of my situation by over-generalizing it:  “I’m an overweight 30-year-old who lives with my parents and plays World of Warcraft.”  Few outside observers would care for the details, as it’s all about the stereotypes.

Or I crack jobitis jokes to myself.

I am pleased to say that my husband has signed up for AA and has taken up cross-country running again (he was a star in college) to help keep his mind off the booze.  Hopefully, for his sake and the kids’ sake, he will follow through with it, as the girls need a sober father in their lives.  For the most part, he is cooperative with me.  We have had our bitter exchanges via email or over the phone, but I also understand that this is pretty much a normal cycle for divorcing couples.

He is also mailing me a box of things I’d forgotten or couldn’t fit in the car when I left, including the cord for my camera, so that I can upload photos again.

I find myself also borrowing the “Serenity Prayer” from my Christian friends to keep myself from panicking about all the troubles I must grapple with.  The prayer says:

God/dess, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

Courage to change the things I can,

And the wisdom to know the difference.

I still have my existential moments, and even had my “Why does every man think I’m ugly and horrible?  I wanted to be treated like a queen!” moment.  Thanks to good friends and countless virtual monsters needing slaying and beautiful starry nights at which to gaze in silent awe, I’ve muddled through each of them, feeling a little stronger after each one.  And each time, I say that prayer to remind myself that there are some things I cannot change, and worrying over them will only do me more harm.

In the meantime, while waiting to jobify, I’ll sun myself like a turtle on a log while the kids play outside, before it gets too hot for that.  And I’ll masochistically level my noobish retribution paladin on a PvP realm.  And I’ll keep writing my fiction.

And try to appreciate all the things I’d hurried past before.  Maybe I’d missed something important along the way.

Christmas Leftovers

Jump to Turkey Curry with Chickpea Couscous

Jump to Madras Hot Curry Powder

The week of Yule and Christmas ran by very quickly.  I was busy–as most people were–with cleaning and cooking and cleaning and cooking and enjoying time with family–and I had so many ideas of things to share with you on this blog.

And then today happened.

Snow Cat

Image by clickclique via Flickr

I was sitting down with a cup of coffee, watching after-breakfast Sesame Street with the kids as I groggily shifted into gear to complete all the chores on my to-do list, when I noticed the rain turning into some of that scary fluffy white stuff: snow.

“Oh lawks,” I groaned.

I had a list of errands that I planned to run tomorrow, but if it’s snowing, I didn’t want to be out in it.  I checked the weather forecast, and it said that it was going to be snowing off and on for the next few days.  And, like anyone who learned to drive in the South, the thought of driving in the snow scares the crap out of me.

I called my mother, who learned to drive in Chicago.  She helped me prepare for this frightening task:  “The ground isn’t frozen yet?…  Then you don’t have to worry about ice in the road until it gets colder.  Just keep a good distance between you and the other vehicles.  If you hit ice, turn your wheels in the direction of the spin.  Don’t brake on ice.  Before you hit your brakes, let the vehicle slow down first.”

So the kids and I put on our winter coats and headed out the door to run our errands.  Fortunately, the snow turned to rain and the drive into the nearest city (a good 40 minutes of driving on a sunny day) was uneventful, although longer than usual, because I drove slower.  This annoyed the Yankees greatly.

The challenge came when I had several places to drive to and it started snowing again.  We came out unscathed, but the snow started falling hard and even the Yankees were driving slowly.

Taken in Megeve, France

Image by Joss Dude via Wikipedia

I kept telling myself, “Breathebreathebreathe.  Drive like a granny.  Is that a polar bear?  Keep several car lengths between you and the next vehicle.  Slow down before braking.  Ice is everywhere and it’s out to kill you.  Don’t punch the accelerator like the Texan-in-the-big-behemoth-truck stereotype–there is no time to squish puny cars.  Drive slowly.  Remember to breathe.  Omigod what is all that white stuff and why does it hate me?!

It was hard to not think of C.S. Lewis‘ classic villain, the White Witch.  She was making all this happen and she knew I have a weakness for sweets.

I soon realized it was well past lunchtime (in a trip that would normally have been done hours ago), and so stopped between errands to pick up lunch for the kids.  No sweets allowed, lest they have been bribes from the White Witch.  But while sitting down at our table, Sunfilly demanded to take off her coat by herself, and in a rage at her stuck zipper, pulled at her coat before I could turn to help her, and broke her zipper.  I think the White Witch knew I was onto her.

I had to add one more stop to my trip:  a store to buy a new coat.

That extra trip to the store turned into going to three different stores, as I couldn’t find a coat that fit either girl at the first two.  All this while driving through crazy scary fluffy white stuff falling from the heavens.

One of the stores I wound up going to was the dreaded Wal-Mart.  Even though they didn’t have any toddler-sized winter coats in stock, I did what any good Southerner would do when the apocalypse dust is falling from the sky and bought a bunch of non-perishables.  I mean, after all, it looks like the Saints are going to win the Super Bowl again, and last time that happened, 49 of the 50 states suffered from the white apocalypse dust (remember Snowmageddon?).

So what should have been a two- or three-hour venture turned into a six-hour venture.  In the snow.  It was dinnertime when we arrived home.  And I needed another pot of coffee.

And did I add the kids didn’t nap?  Oi!

English: Small trees after heavy snowing.

Image by Emr via Wikipedia

There was silver lining.  In the sea of white that was now the farmlands I passed on the way home, there were many ponds, which have not yet frozen over.  In one of them swam a pair of swans.  I was in awe of their beauty, and even more impressed at how large they were.  I realized I never would have seen them had I stayed at home and hated snowy roads.

And I gained confidence in driving in the snow.  You see, by the time I got home, I realized I was driving confidently.  I wasn’t terrified anymore.

That being said, it was leftovers for dinner tonight.  And, as I had plans to write about so many other things that went on over Yule and Christmas, I felt that I could save it for next time, as my first time driving with my kids in the snow was a fairly frightening event for me.  (I had driven in Dallas snowstorms a couple times, when I was supposed to go to work.  I wound up calling in.  That is how much snow on the road terrifies me.)

But, as we all know, dealing with leftover turkey requires a bit of creativity, and so I figured I’d share tonight’s culinary creation.

Turkey Curry with Chickpea Couscous

In short, we cooked a huge bird for Christmas dinner and I was running out of ideas for traditional ways to prepare leftovers.  And I was going through some serious curry cravings.

Here it is, while the curry paste is melting.

The ingredients I used were:

  • 3 cups of diced or shredded leftover turkey meat
  • 1 small onion
  • 1 cup turkey drippings
  • 1 can of carrots
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 3-4 tablespoons curry paste

And for the couscous, which I served as a side, I used:

  • 1 cup couscous
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 2 teaspoons Madras hot curry powder
  • 1 tablespoons pine nuts
  • 1 can chickpeas

Quite simply, I diced/shredded (I really did a combination, depending on how cooperative the meat was) leftover turkey into 1-inch cubes and sauteéd it with some onions and olive oil in a large pan.  I’d saved the drippings from when I initially cooked the bird on Christmas, and so I added a cup of refrigerated drippings to the mixture, along with a drained can of carrots.

Contrary to how it may sound, turkey drippings aren’t that greasy, and it adds a nice flavor to the bird.  The drippings gel when refrigerated, and the gel is heterogeneous, with the fat forming a white layer at the top.  If you want, you can scrape that part off before using it.

Then I added a substantial amount of curry paste and stirred thoroughly.  (You can usually buy some form of curry paste at most grocery stores, usually in the Asian food section.  If you want to make your own, I recommend this recipe for Thai curry paste.  It’s rather spicy, so when I cook for the kids, I usually halve what the recipe calls for on chillies and excluded the shrimp paste/mountain sauce ingredient and it still came out great.)

Then it’s just a matter of cooking until everything is warmed up and mixed well.

This is everything but the actual couscous, waiting to boil.

For the couscous, when boiling 1 cup of water, I added 1-1/2 teaspoon of Madras hot curry powder, 1 tablespoon of butter, 2 tablespoons of pine nuts, and a drained can of chickpeas.  When the water was boiling and the chickpeas were cooked, I added 1 cup of couscous, mixed thoroughly, and let it sit (as you’d usually prepare couscous).

Madras Hot Curry Powder

To make the curry powder, you need:

  • 8 tablespoons coriander seeds
  • 6 tablespoons cumin seeds
  • 1 tablespoon mustard seeds
  • 1 tablespoon fennel seed
  • 4 tablespoons ground cinnamon
  • 8 tablespoons peppercorns
  • 1 tablespoon ground nutmeg
  • 1 tablespoon whole cloves
  • 2 tablespoons ground cardamom
  • 2 tablespoons turmeric
  • 2 tablespoons ground ginger
  • 1 tablespoon cayenne (or less, depending on how much heat you can handle)
  • 1 Mason jar

Directions

  1. In a dry skillet over very low heat, place the coriander, cumin, mustard and fennel seeds. Roast the seeds gently, shaking the pan occasionally, until they begin to pop.
  2. When about half the seeds have popped, add everything else.  Continue to heat and stir gently until the mixture is hot.  Be careful not to burn it, though.
  3. Pour the mixture into a dry blender.  Grind into a fine powder.  You may need to pause, remove the blender from the machine, and shake it up to keep from clumping in the blades.  (If you have a lot of patience and want to do it the old-fashioned way, you could break out the mortar and pestle.)
  4. Wait until the mixture cools off, and then you can store it into an empty jar.

That’s all there is to it.

The end result was oh-so-delicious.

And at the end of the day, the snow turned to wind and rain.  So I scared myself onto the road for naught.  But at the end of it all, I had a story to tell, about driving through the snow for the first time and seeing swans for the first time.

I guess the snow isn’t all that evil.

English: Swans in the snow

I wonder what they taste like. - Image by Michael Preston via Wikipedia

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.

Butternut Bisque and Crisp Autumns

Jump to Butternut Bisque recipe

One of the really nifty things for a Southerner moving to Ohio during autumn is that, well, it’s autumn.

You see, in the South, “autumn” is when the temperatures actually get below 80˚F for a change, and the leaves turn dead brown.  Not pretty colors like yellow or purple or red–unless you buy one of those fancy Japanese maples and they actually survive the sweltering heat (or just oven heat, depending on whether you live in Texas or Louisiana).  Autumn doesn’t really exist in the South.  It’s fall: fallen dead leaves, fallen deer that fall dead during hunting season, ducks that fall dead during hunting season, pecans that fall, and temperatures that, uhm, fall.

This is what Louisiana looks like in the fall: misty and slightly chilly, with the pin oaks and crepe myrtles stubbornly clinging to their leaves until Thanksgiving. Everything is green because it rains. A lot.

In the South, there really are only two seasons:  hot and extremely dry; and cold and wet.  Sometimes there is snow in the winter.  Sometimes (during El Niño years, I think) in Louisiana and parts of Texas, it rains all the way through the end of June (and sometimes it will rain just on the Fourth of July, just to spite everyone who wanted to play with explosives, as is the American way).

Fall is also about cooking chili and gumbo.  It’s about pecan pies and deer sausage.  And tailgating any kind of football game.  It doesn’t even really feel like fall until mid-October, unless it was a really rainy summer (El Niño again).  And then fall lasts only about a month before it plunges into winter, or what we call “cold, rainy time.”

Fall in the North, I’ve learned, is drastically different.  It’s properly autumn.

Thomas Kinkade

Thomas Kinkade - Image via Wikipedia (public domain)

Autumn in Ohio is like a postcard autumn, or a Thomas Kinkade painting.  It’s amazing.  The air smells sweet from the leaves turning colors.  And I mean colors.  It’s like Mother Nature took a box of warm colors and dumped it: cornfields and bean fields in fuzzy greenyellowbrowns, trees in redpurpleyelloworanges, red berries everywhere, acorns and buckeyes and walnuts crunching under your feet when you wander through a quiet wooded nature path.

An Ohio lake

See? Ohio looks like a Thomas Kinkade painting.

In the South, it’s state fair time, and everything is deep-fried and oh so delicious.  In Ohio, I discovered farmers markets.  Every weekend, there is some small town hosting one.  And even if you don’t want to brave the freezing cold (it goes down to 40˚F or even in the 30s here!), on any afternoon down a little country road, there will be some farm with a sign advertising homegrown produce.  And the produce you buy there is better–and cheaper–than anything you can find at the grocery store.  And if you know where to look, they may even be organic (or pretty close to it).

One of the first things I did upon moving to Ohio was buy some local honey to cope with the allergies my family suffered from (me the most–as I write this I am recovering from a sinus infection).  I was amazed to learn that some local farmers also keep bees and sell them at local stores.

Squash also make great additions to autumn-themed or Halloween displays. Or footballs for your toddlers.

And then I set out to find the one fruit that is the first thing I think of when I think of fall: squash.  Man, do I love me some squash.  And I terrified my poor husband when he came home from work one day to discover that a quarter of the fridge was suddenly filled with various types of edible squash.

“What are you going to do with all this squash?” he asked me.  “We’re going to get sick of eating baked squash every day.”

“I’ll get creative,” I replied.

And so I did.  Here is one of my alternatives to my go-to of baked squash.  It’s called butternut bisque, and it’s a variation based on a recipe I found in “Simply in Season.”

You’ll need one medium butternut squash.  They are a pain in the rear to peel, so what I did was cut it in half, scoop out the seeds (you can wash the stringy parts off of them, soak them in some salt water, and then toast them in the oven to use as garnish when you’re done with the bisque), and bake it face-down on a cookie sheet for 20 minutes to get the meat soft.  After baking the squash, let it cool and then scoop out the meat.  Whatever you don’t use for this recipe, you can refrigerate (it will last about 3-4 days) or freeze for later.

Butternut Bisque

Ingredients

  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 1 cup of sliced baby carrots
  • 3 cups of vegetable or chicken broth
  • 2 cups of cooked butternut squash
  • 1/2 cup lowfat, plain Greek yogurt
  • 1 can condensed milk
  • 2 tablespoons sour cream
  • 2 tablespoons garlic powder
  • 1 tablespoon onion powder
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon black pepper
Directions
  1. Melt the butter in a large saucepan.  Add the onion and carrots and sauté over medium-low heat for 5 minutes.
  2. Add broth.  Cover and simmer for 10 minutes.
  3. Add the rest of the ingredients, except for 1 cup of the squash (set it aside).
  4. Then transfer the mixture to a blender in small batches and purée until smooth.  Return the mixture to the saucepan.
  5. Mash up the remaining squash and break apart the pieces as much as possible.  Then add it to the mixture.  (Note:  If you don’t want a chunky soup, you can just throw all the squash in the blender and skip this step.)
  6. Cook over medium heat until hot.
  7. Garnish with a dollop of sour cream and the baked seeds.
The soup is pretty sweet, and so I found that serving it with something sour works well to complement the tastes.  To keep with the autumn foods palette, I served it with my pot roast recipe (which includes vegetables) and a side of purple sauerkraut.  My kids, who are usually quite picky about their soups, destroyed everything.  We had enough left to refrigerate and make as a side with sandwiches for the following lunch.

Butternut bisque, served along with purple sauerkraut and pot roast with veggies

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