Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The Second Saturn Return

Astrology believes human life has "Saturn cycles." Every 29 years, slow-moving planet Saturn completes a journey around the zodiac and returns to where it was at your birth (in my case, at 11 degrees of Sagittarius). Our first Saturn Return, around age 29, typically has us rethinking what we've been doing, and many people at this time enter another stage of life or another line of work. At 29 I left the office world to go to grad school where I discovered a discipline and a career I'd never dreamed of.

Astrology says that at the second Saturn return, about age 58, one begins to detach from the worldly life and becomes -- ancient Indian astrology says --"a forest dweller" with an increasingly different set of values. I've watched friends go through this. Some are successful: They quit drinking, survive a layoff, sell a house and move, become a missionary, go back to college, parent their grandchildren, write a book. The transition isn't easy: It's two steps forward and one back. Others aren't successful. Their circumstances change, but they aren't willing to do or see anything differently. They decide the world owes them or that life's been disappointing. This leads to consuming bitterness. Maybe you know the type.

Saturn Returns mean change, and change means "out of the comfort zone," but 29 years is enough time in any comfort zone. It wasn't exactly peaches and cream, at 29, to cut my income by 75 percent and move hundreds of miles to a place I'd never been and where I knew no one -- but I ended up here, and how great is that? My second Saturn return is coming up. I feel its challenge already and intend to meet it. Happy and healthy 2015!

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Light Like Christmas Cookies

How perfect: a sunny Christmas Day, 50 degrees, and eight off-trail hikers who met through Meetup.com, for various reasons all of us free on Christmas afternoon to explore LaBarque Creek Conservation Area and Natural Area, 639 acres, almost all forested, including seasonal waterfalls on LaBarque Creek tributaries. This was our second annual Christmas Day hike; last year's was snowy, cloudy, and icy. This year's had the pale yellow light of Christmas cookies. Recent rains allowed us to see running streamlets with green-and-gold pools up to three feet deep. We found that the Conservation Department has been sawing down red cedar trees, an invasive, non-native species, so that natural Missouri dolomite and sandstone glades can restore themselves. The downed trees made our going rough at times. But we were out for adventure. Above you see our leader, Kim.

I am always at the end of the line of hikers, about 45 seconds behind the rest despite my best efforts. This is called "being the sweep," and it is a job: The "sweep" makes sure the number of hikers leaving the woods is the same number that came in. One of us slipped on wet rock and fell, but it wasn't me; unfortunately he landed on, and broke the screen of, his cellphone.

(Excuse me--I have to go--the kitchen mousetrap just went "snap"!)

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Winter What??

I was outclassed by the lady at the annual Missouri Mycological Society Photography Night whose slide show of fungi was not only gorgeous--so was mine--but she had everything identified and labeled with its Latin name. It's the way the Society closes the year, and I'm a bit sad because morel-hunting season is four months away and in the meantime, in winter,  there are no fungi to hunt, eat, or study, outside of books.


In a city park so dull I usually walk its half-mile path while reading my phone, I look up and see mushrooms growing high on a dead tree. Into the tangle of trees I go to investigate. What to my wondering eyes should appear at that tree's base but the hugest freaking trove of edible oyster mushrooms, each six to eight inches across (they're usually oyster-sized--not very big). Oysters have no poisonous lookalikes in Missouri.

Pinpointing the tree with GPS I get a bag from my car and remove about three pounds of mushroom--hoping no one is watching because I don't know what the laws are. An ethical forager takes only what she can use. At home, I take a spore print to confirm my ID. Poach some in beer, and roast and make quiche and pizza with the rest. They're delish. The next week, I take another four pounds and share.

Okay, I was simply super-fortunate to find an oyster log. Today I'm out puttering next to my propane tank, and spy there my first-ever Earthstar mushrooms, side by side, like petaled flowers, each with a central sphere full of spores. These are very old and dry so I can't identify which type of earthstars they are; when fresh, they're grayish-white. Earthstars are inedible. But I'm still bowled over: Earthstars at Christmas! What could top this? But something will!

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Joy to the World, the Solstice Comes

So worn out, with no energy. All I cooked was a bowl of cherry Jell-O, an impulse I could not explain because I never eat it. I dragged myself outdoors and in the woods hacked invasive Japanese honeysuckle away from oaks and felt a bit better; it saves their lives. At 4:45 the sun set. I remembered the winter solstice was coming at 5:03 p.m. and wanted to be doing something special at that moment, like setting off bottle rockets. Or should I whip some cream for the Jell-O? Then, at 5:03 I hear what I've never heard before: singing. Caroling. "Joy to the World." Coming closer until it's right outside my door. I open the door and get the surprise of my life:

My neighbor Terri (top left), who is musical, had organized her children and grandchildren to come down the road and carol for me! I've never seen and heard anything so sweet!

Not only that, but they brought me a present and a bowl of grape/apple/nut/marshmallow salad--perfect with the Jell-O!

Monday, December 15, 2014

I Don't Hate Winter Anymore

The winter solstice, the day the daylight begins to lengthen, specifically Sunday, December 21, 5:03 p.m. Missouri time, is one week away. I read that the solstice was also once the day of Saint Lucy, Queen of Light. John Donne wrote a poem about it, which begins:

'Tis the year's midnight, and it is the day's,
Lucy's, who scarce seven hours herself unmasks;
    The sun is spent, and now his flasks
    Send forth light squibs, no constant rays;
            The world's whole sap is sunk;

I raised a cup of cocoa to John Donne and to central heating.

Hating winter meant hating a quarter of life, so I had to change my approach. I've posted about caulking, covering windows, and clothes. Daily I push myself out the door, saying as I drive, walk, or feed birds, "Is this really so bad? I dread this all year? It's not bad at all." I gave myself things to look forward to. They cost money, but I tell myself I'm stimulating the economy. This mild December in  eastern Missouri has also helped me toward acceptance. I still hate below-zero temps and icy roads. On today's walk, as rainclouds made an exit, I tried capturing the bald light from the low-slung sun. This is what it truly looked like, without filters or anything.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Cattle with Earrings

Cattle raised without antibiotics or hormones have always been a goal of mine--to eat them, not raise them--and last year I split a quarter with my neighbor Terri, her son, and another friend, resulting in about 27 pounds of roasts, steaks, and ground beef for each of us, locally-raised, reasonably priced, and flavorful--grocery-store beef pales, and even tastes pale, by comparison. Having heard via newsletter that Crooked Creek Farms (it has two sites, handed down in the family since 1891) was selling 10-pound lots of naturally raised ground beef--we love it--for $65, we reserved our lots and today drove about seven miles over the hills to pick it up and pay. It was a beautiful December day--not an oxymoron, because the sunlight was blond and platinum, and the temperature around 50 degrees, as good as December in Missouri gets. There really is a crooked creek there.

On our way out we stopped to visit with cows with earrings. I don't know the breed (why didn't I ask?!); I know only that back in Wisconsin there were mostly Holsteins, good milk producers, and these aren't those; they seem to have Hereford heritage. Say hello to the two black cattle who were eyeing us, #314 and #379; on the far right, a red one has earrings marked 345. They all have such earrings. Terri and I discussed whether we would rather make friends with them or eat them. Split decision.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Beauty and Surprise

Top side
Beauty is why I live here; I can't thrive without it. While living in a basement, with a job in a basement, and getting back and forth on the subway, I subsisted on books and pictures, and in other unpromising circumstances clung to the glitter of junk jewelry or a worn-out cassette tape in my Sony Walkman playing and replaying The Mamas and the Papas, or Mozart as performed by St.-Martin-in-the-Fields. I lived in and left cities with little to no beauty, or none I could see; I didn't live in the areas with views, vistas, or charm. Over a long period of time this taught me to look for beauty in the smallest things and unlikely places.

I didn't know it, but I was starved for surprises and gifts as well as beauty. I went to work, paid rent. My weekly budget left me $6 in disposable income. Walking neighborhood streets for exercise, I did not look at people, or houses, or to the right or left; these were cities in which if you did that they called the police, believing you were casing their houses.

For the past seven days here the sun did not show. Still, the weather was reasonably mild and I shuffled through the gray woods, with no birds in them, my eye catching on nothing but boring beige-ish inedible parasitic-on-deadwood fungi that all looked alike until I turned them over and saw they had wonderful petticoats.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Santa's Throne

Eureka--I found it--in Eureka, in the old community center next to the ballparks: Santa's throne room. I have always hoped to find it, beginning back when my family--like every family on our block--had a silver artificial Christmas tree with a motorized lamp turning it four different colors, the outer limit of awesome in 1966.

I'll return daily until I find Santa Claus on duty, and if he allows it and there's room between those armrests I will sit on his lap and tell him I've been sickeningly good and nice this year, and for Christmas I want--

--everything to stay the way it is, except I want a bit more energy and bone mass. Other than that I can't imagine a better life or home than mine.

Monday, December 1, 2014

The Dismal Science

"Hi, Galaxy," I said to my phone. "Call The Medicine Shoppe." A Walgreens recording answered. Figuring that Galaxy messed up, I myself dialed the Old Towne pharmacy I'd used for 14 years. Chillingly, the Walgreens tape answered again.

It was surreal. I'd picked up a refill three days before from the familiar pharmacists and techs in the drab little Shoppe that kept only one of each item on its shelves, and had a rack of greeting cards that I alone (I think) bought from.

I drove there. Medicine Shoppe #1390 has closed. All prescriptions were transferred to the Walgreens a quarter-mile away, the sign said. No chance to ask questions or say goodbye before the staff--a motley, earnest, totally sterling team of women whom I trusted with my life--dispersed--to where?

Walgreens welcomes "Customers of Medicine Shoppe #1390"
I'd shunned the Walgreens because The Medicine Shoppe ladies saw my husband through his two and a half years of fatal illness; they'd rented me crutches; they'd witnessed my weepings and ailments, phoned and argued with doctors and insurers, knew all my secrets, and had never, not once in 14 years, given me the wrong medicine. I saw them save their meds from floodwaters. My insurer tried to force me to fill prescriptions by mail and I refused. My loyalty is non-negotiable.

Closed now. Maybe bankrupt. Or not profitable.Could have been franchisee's retirement, corporate downsizing, or higher rent. Maybe unable to compete with the Walgreens, grocery-store, and Walmart pharmacies within a two-mile radius. Possibly new rules for Medicare prescription payments. But no goodbyes. The weirdest sort of shock and heartache. And they're all out of work. They call economics "the dismal science" for a reason.

Walgreens had a sign outside to welcome me. Things could be much worse. But I wanted to cry.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Using Apps for Better Sleep and Waking

Two free Android apps for healthy sleep are "Twilight" and "Light Alarm Clock" and I'm loving both so far. "Twilight" reduces the brighter-than-daylight display from your screen (any screen) in the evenings, in harmony with actual nightfall, so you're more likely to fall asleep naturally when you should. I was staying up with business, games, and Facebook on my phone until 1:00 and 1:30 a.m. "Twilight" allows me to go to sleep at least an hour earlier.

Waking in winter--at any hour--is a chore. The sun rises late, and window insulation further darkens my house, disrupting circadian rhythm so I was a zombie in the mornings and and ready to work starting at about 6:00 p.m. -- unsustainable, even with coffee. "Light Alarm Clock" gradually emits mock daylight for up to 30 minutes before waking me with my selection of gentle music and the sound of twittering birds. I set it for 6:45 a.m., actually got up at that time instead of my usual day-wasting 8:30, and witnessed a red dawn: very pretty, but an old sign for rough weather ahead. Here's that dawn, and late morning, the same view the same day.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

New Loop Trail at Glassberg Conservation Area

As I geared up in the Glassberg Conservation Area parking lot for my traditional Thanksgiving hike, a hiker returning to his car cleaned mud from his hiking poles. I said, "Is the trail muddy?" He said, "There's a new trail," more than once because I didn't understand. But I found out.

Glassberg's former Trail "A," a quarter-mile which ended disappointingly in an open field, and Trail "C," terminating at the Meramec River overlook, are now joined in a loop measuring about 2.25 miles, marked simply "Trail." It rates moderate ups and downs, and at its highest elevations, at the forest's edge, yesterday's snow had left the trail slick and muddy. Having no idea of the trail's length or where it ended up (I hadn't asked whether it was a loop) I pressed onward, hoping to be the first to report this new trail to you and map it. The pamphlets and map at the site don't as yet show this loop. The trail itself was well marked. I enjoyed the hike but because pie was waiting at home, my favorite trail marker today was "Parking Lot" with an arrow pointing the way.

Trail marker and downed trees
You'll find the Department of Conservation has done extensive cutting, mostly of cedars, in a bid to restore native Missouri oak and hickory forest to this former private property of 429 acres.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Monday, November 24, 2014

My Kind of Turkey

It's no secret that my Seasonal Affective Disorder prods me to "Sleep." "Be apathetic." "Don't do anything." All activities are too far, too expensive, too crowded, too tiring. The world is colorless. Furthermore, it rained all day yesterday. I went out into the woods this morning only to get some daylight for Vitamin D.

Wood ears
I saw a deer, who made that squeeze-toy wheeze, and a wild turkey, who flapped away ("Run, turkeys, run!" I said), and, although it's too late in the year for them, mushrooms, including a cache of edible oyster mushrooms and wood ears such as you get in Chinese food (pictured above). Most abundant, however, were the fungi called Turkey Tail and False Turkey Tail. They look alike, but the real Turkey Tail has pores on the underside, and the other is smooth. What you see here gilding a fallen log is False Turkey Tail. Its sunny colors on greenish lichen served their purpose until the sun itself came out. Only 30 days until the Solstice when the daylight begins to lengthen.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Meet My Fireplace

Picturesque, its native stone dominating the living room, I've never shown you my fireplace because it doesn't cross my mind. Last lighted in 1991 as testified by the tenants before me, it blasted hot soot throughout the cabin,
requiring an actual disaster team for clean-up, and the charring underneath the mantel from that hot mess is still visible today.

Estimate for re-lining and repair: $8000, and the landlord wouldn't pay, or for the cost of running and installing a new propane pipe for a gas fire. Because critters came down the chimney and died behind the glassed-in hearth--here covered by a blue wintertime sheet of custom-cut insulation--I had the chimney sealed. The huge crack up the front was there when I moved in, and I shuddered in its draft for 13 winters, until this very day when I caulked it with caulk that's white when first applied but turns transparent. I also filled holes in the native rock, unworried about resale value. This cabin was not built for year-round occupancy and some say the chimney was faulty from the first.

Fireplaces are wonderful, so romantic--and they suck the heat out of the room, require careful maintenance and tending and the bringing in of wood, and I wish mine were the fireplace it aspired to be, but it isn't.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Frost Flowers for the First Time

Driving into St. Francois State Park for a hike with the gang I saw shredded white plastic bags scattered in the road shoulders and wondered who'd done that, and at the Mooner's Hollow trailhead I was told, "That's not litter. Go look at those. They're ice flowers."

How the stems split
Photog with flower
They were amazing little pearlized natural sculptures made of ice, each unique, some as big as a head--and new to me. When the earth is still warm but the air is freezing, sap rises from the plant into the stem, which then splits and emits moisture, bit by bit, like an oyster growing layers of pearl, and the result is delicate "frost flowers," also called "ice flowers", or "rabbit ice" (an old mountain term, said the oldest hiker, Butch; the appearance of frost flowers indicates "it's the time of year to hunt rabbits").

Ice flowers are unique to autumn and early winter. We were so absorbed in their wild beauty--like fabric netting, like ribbon candy--that a 2.5 mile hike took us two hours to complete.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Two Men This Morning

GPS found for me the nearest building-supply store, boarded up and closed now after a windstorm, and then GPS took me to a Lowe's it didn't know was now a Gander Mountain store, and after that took me on a circuitous and time-consuming trip to the next-nearest Lowe's, far out of my way, and I sighed because I'd had other plans for the morning. But I wanted a single sheet of foam-board insulation to cut up for covering one more window plus the glass front of the non-working fireplace. At last I got the board--9 feet by 5 feet. It wouldn't fit  in my car and I'd known that so I had my box cutter and tape measure and the  measurements, and asked the Lowe's checker if there was a place in the store I could lay it down and cut the pieces. (Outside were high winds and occasional snowflakes.)

To my amazement the checker--his nametag said "Rein"--measured and cut the boards himself, perfectly, in five minutes, and I was so grateful I snapped his photo to show you.

Then I had to get the boards -- 6 feet by 3.5, and a smaller one--into the Corolla. Smaller piece, fine. Larger one wouldn't fit in the  trunk or back seat, nohow; always six inches too long. For 15 minutes I kept pulling it out of the car trying different angles, wrestling it as it acted like a sail in the gusty winds. I was about to razor 12 inches off the long side and try to repair it later when a man came up to me and said, "I see you're struggling with that. I will put it in my truck and follow you home with it." I wanted to accept his offer, but GPS had brought me so far from home that my area was far out of his way.

So we both worked on fitting the board into the car, bending it as much as 3/4" foam board can bend, at one point accidentally breaking off a corner of it, until I said, "It's no use. I will just have to make a a cut." But then he adjusted the board and suddenly it fit and didn't obscure the entire rear window either. I didn't take his picture, but you know he was kind. Maybe an angel.

GPS in its wisdom had known all along it was taking me to the only place where two different people would help me.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Warm Clothing, Part 3: UnderArmour and Its One Problem

UnderArmour clothing is tough stuff, all polyester and compression, and its Cold Gear and Heat Gear are worn by athletes, hunters, cops, soldiers, bikers, and all those whose activities turn normal fabrics into dripping or freezing rags. You'll see it on a good percentage of Walmart shoppers because we all think we are athletes, hunters, cops, soldiers, or bikers. Its only fault, discussed at length online in forums frequented by athletes, hunters and cops: This miracle fabric that stretches, breathes, wicks, and warms so wonderfully reacts with underarms and begins to smell within the hour, no matter how clean you are--and it won't wash out. UnderArmour denies that this happens. What to do?

1. Buy a lot of tops and change them daily. Retail prices are hugely inflated ($40 for a tee?) so I bought my collection on eBay, many "worn only once." They were cheap, probably, because of the problem UnderArmour denies.
2. Wash them with GearAid's "Mirazyme Odor Eliminator," or a similar product meant to remove the stink from tents, backpacks, waders, and anything skunked. Set the washer to soak, squeeze in a few drops of enzyme, soak the clothes for 5 minutes, spin 'em, hang them to dry and you'll be eucalyptus-fresh. The more you do this the less the shirts will smell, until they're totally tamed.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Cold and Bright, or Dark and Warm? Pick One

From the inside

From the outside
Last winter, the coldest since' 98-'99, I froze in the Divine Cabin despite weatherstripping, caulking and heavy, doubled plastic sheeting  taped over the windows, a special problem because most windows here are single-pane. They're original, I wouldn't want them changed, but gollywogs, all the propane and space heaters couldn't make up for it and I ended up living in a hooded sleeping bag for two weeks.

This year I began winterizing in August, hoping to use bubble wrap as window insulation--the Internet said it was great. I'd done major spray-styrofoam and caulking when a smart and personable, loyal, humorous, and occasionally prosaic engineer friend visited and said bubble wrap wouldn't work and that in winter he put foam-board insulation over his north-facing windows.

So he did it for most of my windows. The bedroom has pink insulation and some daylight does get through it as you can see. I insulated two doors and left one door and window clear so I could watch the road and the bird feeders.

From outside the house looks either abandoned or under construction, but I don't live outside, I live inside. Or want to. I'm hoping, hoping, because tomorrow comes the test: The season's first polar blast.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Warm Clothing, Part 2: My Second Poncho

Saw this on eBay, pre-owned, a thicker and more wintry alpaca knit than Poncho #1 (below) which I loved on sight and wear all the time, and thought, "That one is too loud and bright for you; you'll look tribal and tribal you are not; find one in a neutral color, beige or black, and longer, to cover down to the knees or so. People will look at that poncho, not at you; isn't there some kind of rule for women's clothing: People should look at the woman, not the clothes?"

Bosh. I'm not dead yet. Stunningly beautiful, soft and windproof, does not snag, $51, and so durable you will be able to cremate me in it. Wore it on a sharply chilly night and learned it is not a substitute for a down-filled or technical parka, but it awes everyone and it's a piece of clothing that inspires me to live up to it.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Warm Clothing, Part 1: My First Poncho

In spring and fall I like sweatshirts because a woman in her 50s needs climate control RIGHT NOW so I wear only those with zippers and hoods, and prefer them to have pockets. Trouble is, billowing and droopy sweatshirts with those baby-clothes cuff bands and unflattering bottom bands look like hell anywhere but at home.

Jackets for spring and fall bind my arms, or are either too heavy or too light, too short or too long, or they're okay for fishing but you need a different one for town; some are too nice or stiff to tramp through messy woods with, or not water-resistant. I haven't had a good spring or fall jacket for years because I can't find one that fulfills my every need.

Seeking alternatives I bought my first poncho, 100 percent alpaca knit, in the wine color I favor. For $16 on eBay how could I go wrong?

It's perfect in every way, like being embraced by a blanket--a warm, nice, secure one--and it goes everywhere, indoors or outdoors, casual or town. It's flattering. It's as warm as you want it to be; flip it up around your neck to catch your torso some cooling breezes. Alpaca, like cashmere, is close to indestructible, nonflammable, soft, natural, and nice. A poncho is not like a shawl or ruana; I don't have to be an artist to wear it or keep it on. People compliment it and ask if they can touch it. People want to buy a poncho for themselves. How great is that? I can foresee myself bundling it up and using it as a pillow on a plane. I've had it just over a week and I might actually look forward to winters now, with a poncho to comfort me. I'm totally at peace when I wear it.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Let's Talk Pink Camouflage

It used to be that you needed only to wear blue denim to be perfectly in step with Jefferson County high fashion. If you didn't wear blue denim, you carried a blue denim handbag. You had to have blue denim on you somewhere, and the senior women pushed that envelope by accessorizing with Indian turquoise jewelry. Then the sleeveless, zip-front vest became a must-have. I own several, much to the dismay of a city friend who could not help but remark on the coral-colored fleece vest I wore to lunch, although out of concern for city feelings I had left my shooting vest and my hunter-orange one at home. Then everyone who was anyone here bought pit bulls, and people middle-class and above bought bulldogs, which sound kind of the same.

These days you'd better wear UnderArmour. This brand of well-made, hard-wearing technical athletic clothing, $50 for a long-sleeved tee-shirt, sells like hotcakes, especially to the poor, who can now buy it from the farm & home stores that once sold only Dickies and Carhartt pants and John Deere logo wear. Even upper-middle-class Jefferson Countians wear UnderArmour caps. The local youth too cool for Under Armour clothing wear UnderArmour cross-training gym shoes.

Even so, don't come out here this autumn expecting acceptance into the highest circles unless you are wearing UnderArmour camouflage gear, specifically the pattern "Real Tree." Real Tree is carried even by Walmart, and, for the ladies, there's a line of pink "Real Tree" camouflage everything, lounge pants to aprons (see photo) to dinnerware.

Pink camouflage clothing bothers some people. Let me explain: It's the gingham of our time. The pink indicates acceptance of the wearer's femininity ("I am not a feminist") and the camouflage, tacit support for hunting and the U.S.military, and by extension, approval of a gun-toting lifestyle, and by further extension, a passion for the Second Amendment, which in turn conveys distaste for all things Obama. Pink camouflage indicates not only a "stand by your man" philosophy but a rightist form of patriotism. My own pink camouflage item is a ballcap emblazoned with "USA" in case its message isn't clear enough; I wear it hoping to be taken for a native. I like President Obama, but no one can tell. That's my camouflage.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

The Equivalent of a Twelve-Point Buck

Lost on a hundred acres plus the adjacent Missouri Conservation acreage, beating through downed trees with all my apps' arrows pointing different directions, and bruised and scratched and breathless with no water, I hit my shins on a branch and fell. There's nothing like whirling through the air thinking "!" and landing on one or another body part.

I have two kinds of falls. One is divinity forcing me to see a natural wonder. I found my first morel mushroom after a fall, and blewits (white mushrooms with ice-blue interiors), and tiny amphibians, and foxholes, and rare plants. The other, less common fall, the "stupid fall," teaches me only that I should have watched my step.

Wear your orange in autumn!
Got up all sweaty, thirsty, and breathless and beheld at the foot of a tree the 12-point buck of mushrooms: the unmistakable Hen of the Woods (Grifola frondosa), a choice edible, a big one. Took a moment to register.

After no rain for six days, "It's probably all dried out and no good," I thought, and pinched one of its featherlike fronds. It was perfectly fresh.

I released the fungus from the ground. No way I was I leaving it! Solid almost all the way through like a cauliflower, it weighed between 15 and 20 pounds. Determined, lugging it along, I escaped the snaggy part of the woods, went down and up ravines so steep they're scary just to look at, and bumbled on home, stopping to rest, gasping and with a backache and a cherry-red face and fearing a heart attack. But some things are worth it.

Although "Hens" can weigh up to 100 pounds, a 20-pounder is a great find by any standard.All evening I roasted the fronds to a lovely brown crispness, and chopped and sauteed the solid white meat and otherwise preserved as much of the find as was reasonable. No way was I not going to show and tell!

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Who Was Knocking?

The birdbath needed filling, and I reached to open the porch door to get the watering can and almost set my hand on this huge (five inches?) green creature, Mantis religiosa, or the "praying Mantis" ("mantis" meaning "prophet") clinging to the door and screen. This startling all-green mantis--its coattails resembling folded leaves, as artfully dressed as a geisha--is most likely non-native, a European mantis, the kind kept as a pet. I'm not kidding; it says all over the Internet that praying mantises make "marvelous" pets, I suppose if you don't step on them or suck them up in the vacuum cleaner.

In the autumn, after a summer of growing to adulthood, mantises mate, and the male of the species is puny, skinny, and brown, so I'm guessing this big bold one is an adult female and she's about to mate or has recently done so. The females perform "sexual cannibalism," a spectacle I don't care to see. This is the first time I've looked a mantis in the face. What was she doing at my door today? Did she think there might be males in the house? I left her, returned five minutes later, and she was gone. Could she have had a message for me? What was it? "Be big, green, lean, mean, and beautiful?"

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Oh No; You Must Care For Me

Thought I'd run up some curtains on my Kenmore sewing machine, at purchase guaranteed for 25 years. "Good Lord," I thought, when I asked for and received this as my college-graduation gift, "It's guaranteed until 2003," and by then we'd all be piloting flying saucers. "I might go hungry," I told my parents then, "but with this I'll never go naked." And I never have, although I quit sewing dresses, pants and skirts around 1999, when clothes got so cheap that fabric and notions cost more, and my sewing skills honed in junior high school rusted out. Few things are as piercingly clear as when someone eyes your outfit and says, "Did you make that?" I use this wonderfully-made, solid-state, 23-pound machine rarely and take it totally for granted.

Curtains, however, I can still run up with confidence. Thirty-six years after the purchase and the five free lessons at an urban Sears store, I chose black fleece to insulate my single-pane windows when the cold is deep--as it will be someday soon.
I set to work. Straight seams are no problem. But the needle clanked and stuck, and the thread snarled, amassed on the underside and broke, and the machine whined and resisted and I finally consulted the instruction book, a fascinating object in its own right.

My mechanical masterpiece was asking me to clean and oil it and recalibrate the thread and bobbin tensions, using the tools that came with it. Instead of a blue screen and non-response it spoke and told me in its language, now almost a lost language, that it needed TLC. Just a little. Now it runs sleekly.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Can U Speak Widow?

I meet each week with a club of mature women, educated and accomplished, about half of whom are widowed. We speak a dialect of English called "Widow," featuring these most-favored words:

Straub's (high-end grocery store)

Example: "After my husband died following surgery at the hospital, my terrific niece made arrangements to consign her snickerdoodles to the museum shop to to help pay for what Medicare didn't cover."

Monday, October 13, 2014

A Dutch Oven at Last

My brother-in-law, a garage-sale genius, happened upon boxes containing 5 brand-new 5-1/2 quart enameled cast-iron Dutch ovens manufactured in France by Le Creuset--among the world's most desirable cooking vessels, retailing today for more than $250 each. The owner asked $20 for each, my brother-in-law shelled out, and then asked on Facebook if anybody wanted one. I did! I did! I said next time I was up in Wisconsin I'd pick it up and pay.

My sister of took one of the five, blue to match her kitchen, and selected this sunny color for mine. When I saw it I was so delighted I wanted to roll on the floor, and packed it like a baby in blankets and towels for the ride back to Missouri. For three months I've done nothing but admire it,  and get up the nerve to use this item, coveted for years, almost purchased after our wedding except we chose instead a more practical stainless-steel kettle and never regretted it. But it was not an enameled cast-iron Dutch oven, the kind that outlives its happy owner, who becomes a cookin' fool for roasts, slow-baked beans, oven-cooked stews and all.

To prepare, I took a delightful class in baking artisan bread in a Dutch oven. A large mirror hung over the classroom's workspace so all in the room could see what the instructor did, and we got samples. Today--now that it's baking season--there's bread. Yes, the pot is heavy. But it's not as if I have to carry it in a backpack. I love anything that is both practical and beautiful. If it's food-related, all to the better.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Time is a Guillotine

I don't care for reality, so I really hate X-rays, MRIs, CAT scans and whatnot, and refused to get my neck X-rayed this year after it had been MRI'd last year when they checked to see if the ache might be cancer. All they found was an aging neck. I could have told them that.

Three weeks into my most recent my-neck-hurts treatment, I gave in to my chiropractor and had X-rays. They are not cute. It's arthritis, brought to me by Father Time. And I thought: How lucky! How really very lucky!

It's not arthritis in my hands, which I use to make my living. It's not in my knees or hips, so I can keep walking as always. It's only the neck, and honestly one doesn't have to turn it a heck of a lot except when driving. Exercise will strengthen the muscles and chiropractic will cut down on the snap-crackle-snap. I have BioFreeze spray and a contoured pillow. I'll get by. And now I can predict the weather, just like the old folks used to do!

Did you know your head weighs eight to ten pounds?

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Just Making Sure

"What are these pretty red bushes at the roadside?"


"Oh, no! If I touch it, will I get a rash? Are those berries poisonous?"

"You're thinking of poison sumac, which grows in swamps and has white berries. You'll probably never see poison sumac in Missouri. But if you're allergic to cashews or mangoes, stay away from all sumac; sumac is related to them."

"Can I eat the berries?"

"Some people make sumac lemonade by steeping the berries, but these berries are dried out. You have to pick sumac berries in the summer to make the lemonade."

"Is it pronounced soo-mac or shoo-mack?"


"Why? There's no 'H'. There aren't any other words in English like that."

"Don't be so sure."*

*Joke credited to Mark Twain.

Friday, October 3, 2014

The "Do Anything You Want" Day

Last night it rained two inches and I loved getting up this warm sunny morning because rain means good foraging in the woods for you know what. I had tea and checked my horoscope: "Your celestial bank account is so full, why don't you spend some of it? Do exactly what you want; you can afford it." Another horoscope said I'd find romance.

7 pounds of wild edible
Much encouraged, I, baker of irresistible scones and biscotti, satisfied my desire for a scone pan by ordering one online, then took basket and scissors into the hot, humid woods emerging with seven pounds of tasty, heavenly-smelling pink and yellow Laetiporus sulphureus cut from a single downed tree--for eating, it must be obtained very fresh, as soon as possible after rain!--then divvied it up and drove to town to see the chiropractor who fixes my neck. She said she liked fresh wild mushrooms, so I gave her a pound of the choicest. Seeking my romantic prospect, I then lunched at an Italian place: Salad, pizza and red wine. Delicious and I ate the whole pizza myself. Outdoors it was suddenly freezing cold and windy.  Back home I cleaned and sauteed my share of Laetiporus, and then worked for a while, because I enjoy my work. At 4 p.m. I drove 15 miles to a Trader Joe's parking lot for a rendezvous with a fellow forager to whom I delivered a bag containing three fragrant, intoxicating pounds of you know what ("Here's the stuff, man") because I'd scored much more than I could use. And then in the store bought two squat little pie pumpkins and pumpkin-cranberry scone mix. Dear neighbors and friends: Scones are in your near future.

On the drive home I received $2.99 per gallon gasoline and  a golden and purple sunset. Took a photo of my old, crippled outdoor picnic table, now set among gemlike autumn colors. I understood that my romance was with this wonderful world. And food.

And the day's not over yet. . .