Learn Something New

My first skeins of mohair yarn, showing improvement from left to right.

Not long ago I learned to spin. I should have learned earlier, right after my angora goats were shorn the first time, but I looked at all that mohair and lost heart—it was too much for me to deal with. So I dropped it off at a commercial spinner.

A year later, the spinner still hadn’t spun my mohair and finally admitted they had no intention of ever getting to it, so I picked it back up and brought it home.

It was time to learn to spin.

At first I hated it. It was fiddly and frustrating. The resulting yarn, if you could even call it that, was thick and lumpy. I was set to give up on it.

But a friend who spins encouraged me to keep working on it—it’s always hard at first, she said, and that lumpy thick yarn is beautiful and artistic in its own right.

I took her advice, and kept at it. A hundred metres of thick lumpy yarn later, I suddenly found I was producing fairly consistent worsted-weight yarn. And I was enjoying it!

Learning something new is never easy. I know I’ve blogged about this before, but it’s worth repeating. We watch accomplished people at the task, and we think, “I’d like to do that.” Then we try, and our efforts are fumbling, the results uninspired. It takes determination (and often encouragement from others) to push through the initial discouragement and get to the point where you can enjoy the new skill.

I’ve tried to teach my kids that it’s worth pushing through that learning hump to gain a new skill. Sometimes I need reminding myself.

The Sound of a Story

I sit down at my desk and breathe a sigh of relief. It’s quiet here, in my office. Not like the noisy library where I worked yesterday.

But, no, that’s not true. I hear the roar of the surf in the distance. The trickle of the artificial stream in the garden overlays the sound of the ocean. When I step to the office door, a goat greets me with a maa. Starlings mutter in the treetops, magpies warble on the fenceposts, and a fantail chitters in the shed. A plover’s percussive call is underlain by the chirping of a thousand crickets.

The neighbour rumbles past in his tractor, carrying a bale of silage. I can hear his son in the paddock shouting and whistling at his five barking sheep dogs.

It is far from quiet.

And yet …

Somehow, the sounds here caress my thoughts, rather than intruding upon them like the horrible Muzak from the library cafe, or the screams of tired children, or the drone of the automatic returns machine—please place the item on the trolly.

The fantail flits in and out of the story I’m writing without knocking over my coffee. The goats and sheep graze beside me without barging across the keyboard. The crickets keep to the grass. The tractor rumbles along without leaving tire tracks on my manuscript. The ocean doesn’t even wet my toes.

But somehow, I’m certain these sounds end up in my stories, caught up in the weave of plot and characters. The fantail is there, in the flick of a character’s fingers. The ocean is the relentless sound of the plot line. The tractor is the rumble of disaster bearing down on my protagonist. The goats’ deep maa is the voice of wisdom, and the crickets’ chirping lightens the mood.

Storksbill

Continuing my springtime obsession with weeds…

Most of my weeds are most weedy in the vegetable garden. That’s where my tolerance is lowest and the weeds’ damage is worst. In fact many of the plants I consider weeds in the vegetable garden are quite welcome in the paddock—yarrow, clover, plantain, and nearly all the grasses. And in the lawn, I don’t worry about weeds at all—as long as it’s green and can be mowed, it works for me as lawn.

But there are a few weeds that are worse in the paddock and lawn than in the garden.

Musky storksbill (Erodium moschatum) is one of them. In the vegetable garden, the weed is aggressive and quick-growing as you would expect from a weed, but it’s pretty easy to pull out. It doesn’t resprout easily from the root, and doesn’t send out underground runners. It seeds prolifically, but the seedlings are easy to deal with along with all the other weeds.

In the paddock, however, it’s a different story. Theoretically, it’s a fine fodder plant when young, but once it sets seed, it can start causing trouble.

The long spiky fruits that give the plant its common name can work their way into animals’ flesh. I have, fortunately, never had to deal with storksbill fruits stuck in any of my goats, but it’s not something I ever want to have to do.

Keeping the storksbill out of the paddock requires constant vigilance. The plants grow quickly, and seem to go from tiny rosette to fully fruited overnight. And because I can never catch them all, for every one plant I pull, two seem to grow in their place.

In the lawn, those spiky seeds form just below mower height (instead of at about 50 cm like they do elsewhere), making barefoot walking in the heavily infested parts of the lawn an excessively exciting experience.

All in all, as weeds go, it’s not the worst. I can’t say I appreciate its charm, because it doesn’t really have any. It doesn’t appear to have any particular use (and I suspect it arrived here accidentally), but the seed heads do have a weird goofiness to their look that I have to admire while I yank them out of the ground.

Spring Weeds–Dock

Springtime is weed season, and there are plenty in my garden–57 species at last count.

I grumble about weeds, but I also find them fascinating. Weeds are the opportunists, the survivors, the tough and persistent plants of the world. Some have been spread accidentally, through virtue of their mobile, sticky, or tough seeds, but many more have been introduced on purpose. They are plants we once considered useful, and it is our changing values that make them weeds today.

So I’ll be introducing some of my weeds over the next few weeks as they sprout and flower and generally annoy me. We’ll start today with a weed I love to hate–broad-leaved dock (Rumex obtusifolius).

Dock isn’t my worst weed. Not by a long shot. But it is persistent. Deep, branching taproots make it a struggle to pull out, and with each plant able to produce up to 60,000 seeds a year which can remain viable in the soil for up to 50 years, there is an unending supply of new plants. Still, dock struggles to compete with established plants, so it’s mostly a weed of disturbed soil.

The goats absolutely love it, so I can’t complain there. Dock is high in magnesium, phosphate, and potassium, and the tannins in the leaves can help prevent bloat in ruminants. Any dock I pull out of the garden goes directly to the goats.

It is likely dock was brought to New Zealand (from its native Europe) on purpose in the mid-1800s. Though the leaves are high in oxalates, which can irritate the stomach and bind to calcium, potentially leading to calcium deficiency, the plant was regularly eaten like spinach. It was also used to treat a variety of ailments, from coughs to cancer.

Dock often grows side by side with stinging nettle and, like many nettle associates, it can supposedly cure nettle stings. I’ve used dock for this purpose, and can attest that it seems to help, but then so does just about any fresh leaf rubbed on nettle stings.

I wouldn’t want to fight dock on a large scale–it scoffs at most herbicides, easily survives mowing, and can resprout from pieces of root left in the soil after ploughing–but for me, it’s a manageable weed that even has some utility.

 

It’s Show Time!

We got the annual schedule for the Ellesmere A&P Show the other day. For those of you not familiar with the term, A&P means Agricultural and Pastoral–Farm Shows they’re called in the US.

I grew up enjoying the local Farm Shows, entering bad art projects into the competition, and admiring the rows of cattle on display. As an adult, I was lucky enough to live for several years mere blocks from the Minnesota State Fair–the Farm Show to end all Farm Shows. I even entered a quilt there–won second prize in a category in which I was the only entrant. A feat worthy of mention in the News from Lake Wobegon, if you ask me.

Farm Shows/A&P Shows are a defining cultural experience, but the truth is, you don’t even need to go to the show to have a cultural experience. Reading the show schedule is almost as good.

For example, in the little old Ellesmere show, there are 95 different sheep classes in which one could enter one’s woolly livestock. That doesn’t include the children’s pet classes or the wool classes. And then, of course, there are the shearing and sheep dog competitions. Sheep farming may be on the decline in New Zealand, but it’s still king in Ellesmere.

Dairy has boomed in recent years, and there are quite a large number of dairy classes in which aspiring farmers can enter their bovines. The lucky winners of many of the dairy classes will receive semen as their prize. Doesn’t that just make you want to enter?

Semen certainly beats the poor dairy goat farmers, who pay $5 to enter a goat, and can only hope for, at best, $5 for first prize.

If you’ve got a dairy animal, it might just win Best Udder (Judged both full and empty–I expect no saggy udders need apply). Now there’s something to aspire to.

One of my favourites is the calf fancy dress class. Nothing like a bunch of calves in tutus and tuxes to make you smile.

And I noticed a new category I never knew existed–Donkey Challenge, judged on ‘willingness, style and accuracy over four challenges’. Now, that’s a competition I may have to make sure I see this year.

But of course, like any rural event, the real excitement is simply the hustle and bustle on the day. The hot chips and mini-donuts, the carnival rides, running into neighbours and people you haven’t seen for months, and celebrating the importance of agriculture in our lives and culture.

Food, Sleep, and a Good Scratch

I know it’s been a good day of writing when I suddenly realise it’s four o’clock, and I haven’t written a blog post for the day or prepared for tomorrow’s school programme or fed the animals, collected the eggs, filled the firewood box, gotten the mail…

Thankfully, I have an effective alarm to let me know when I’ve gotten too wrapped up in writing and need to stop.

“Maa…”

“Maa…”

“Maaaa…”

The goats are polite, but insistent. They like their afternoon feed, and let me know when it’s late. Animals are good for that. They don’t get caught up in things going on inside their heads. Life is clear and uncomplicated—food, sleep, a good scratch now and again.

Sometimes it’s important to be reminded of that.

Making It Up as I Go

Last Friday, the stars aligned for a cheese and onion tart—I had pie dough already made, a batch of chevre that needed to be used, and plenty of eggs and shallots.

I couldn’t be bothered looking up a recipe, though I knew I’d posted one here before. Instead, I made it up as I went along.

I knew I wanted plenty of onions, and I wanted them sautéed slowly until they were browning. So I got them going.

I knew my normal quiche used three eggs, but I wasn’t going to use more than a splash of milk in this, so I whisked up four eggs and a glug from the milk bottle.

I like thyme with eggs and cheese, so I picked some and tossed it into the onions.

And cheese. Lots of that. I spread a thick layer of chevre on the bottom of the pie crust, topped it with my onions, and poured the eggs over it all.

What could go wrong?

Nothing, apparently. It was divine.

And that is the best part about cooking, I think—being inspired by wonderful ingredients, and following your own tastes to create delicious food.