Small Thoughts   20 comments

This may end up being a recurring series on this blog, or more likely it will be a one off occurrence. I want, simply, to write out a series of small thoughts I’ve had in the last two days and provide them for comment, consideration, or even contempt, should these provoke such a response. (I hope they don’t provoke such a response.)

This, admittedly, is more a product of avoidance than it is significant insight. Over the next week or two, I plan to finally roll out introductory posts (or in one case, a re-introductory post) for the four categories of posting that will be my main focus in this year. However, my introductory post to How To Be Poor may take a bit more focus than I have in the next few hours before I head up to Cannon Beach to visit a friend who’s in town. I wanted to post something today, though, so here are a few small thoughts I’ve had in the last 48 hours.

The birds are out in force today. The snow we received earlier in the week has melted, the weather has turned to a combination of rain and warmth, and our little avian friends are exploring, with considerable spring in their hop. They’re all over the gardens, rooting around in both our bare and cover-cropped beds, no doubt searching out bugs and seed. This isn’t much of a surprise; I imagine they’re hungry after multiple days of snow-covered earth. All this rain, as well, has likely brought worms to the surface and unearthed quite a few other tasty morsels.

It’s a real joy to watch them bounce around and explore. This is one of my favorite sights on the farm, of these winged creatures foraging. There is something mesmerizing about the behavior—and very gladdening of the heart.


The approximate design of the gates I built on Thursday, with the difference being that mine were made of standard boards, rather than small, beautiful logs like this one. Also, I shamelessly stole this image from a blog post at Check them out.

Yesterday, I spent most of the day building wooden gates for Lance and Tammi. I had a demonstration gate from which to work—built by Lance—a series of boards, a pencil, a hammer, a bucket of nails, and a miter saw. Each gate looked much like the gate at left, except made from more standard boards rather than fantastic, small salvaged logs. The gates will be used for lambing season, which is around April over at Lance and Tammi’s as opposed to right now at Meadow Harvest. (The many baby lambs there are incomprehensibly adorable.)

Over the course of the day, I made seven gates. I managed to get the process down quite well and really enjoyed the process of hammering endlessly at nails, marking the wood, buzzing the miter saw, watching the familiar shape take form. I have built few things in my life, not having grown up with much craftsmanship happening in our household and having worked retail jobs before starting to farm. I know this isn’t an original thought, but there is something very satisfying about constructing real, physical, useful items by hand. It feels productive in the best of ways. It feels like real, good work. And it is good, as the gates will prove useful tools, utilized in the service of raising healthy lambs and feeding the community. They were made with a mix of spare and low-cost materials and human labor—and they’re simple, attractive and functional. In an age when that often is not the case, I felt a real satisfaction crafting such tools.

It also helped me to realize I can build things and I even, dare think, can be fairly good at it. Not that my gates are of any surpassing quality, but the basic skill seemed to be there. That left me thinking that, with much more experience, I might be able to become a solid builder. That is an eventual goal of mine.

Last night, Ginger made a fantastic chili. Now, I’ve spent much of my life not being a fan of chili. I never hated it, but neither was a huge fan. My father made chili—good chili—and I did like that okay, but still was not in love with it. Then I became a vegetarian for something like twelve years, and let me just say that I am far less a fan of most vegetarian chilis. This is probably unsurprising given the fact that I don’t love beans. Ground beef, to me, was often the one saving grace of chili.

Ginger, however, has since revealed to me the secret of making great chili, vegetarian or otherwise. It’s the use of pumpkin or winter squash. The first time she did this in my presence, she simply used canned pumpkin. Future times, she’s used our own winter squash. Let me just say that this makes all the difference—I have yet to taste a chili Ginger made I didn’t enjoy. Last night, however, she outdid herself, not only through the use of sweet meat winter squash, but also some fantastic green chilies from New Mexico, which she discovered buried in the freezer. The resulting dish was absolutely fantastic, just a beautiful melding of flavors.

One way to heat up a wood stove quickly is to use small pieces of oak. I learned this recently from Brian. Due to his kayak-building business we often have small sticks of oak around that can be thrown into the fire. This creates a near-instantaneous heat boost, as oak is a hardwood and, accordingly, burns quite hot.

I found myself today in the situation of needing to heat the stove quickly. Ginger had fired it up to reheat the aforementioned chili and we both wanted corn bread with it. I’ve been on a corn bread kick of late, making it left and right. When you have chili, you really should have corn bread, and we were missing it as we ate the chili last night. So today, the corn bread was a must. I delayed, though, and before long the chili was already hot, I hadn’t started the corn bread batter, and the stove’s oven chamber was only 150 degrees. What to do?

Well, we waited and I got busy. I went out to the wood shed, scrounged up some sticks of oak, threw them into the fire, then started making the batter. Before long, the oak was crackling away in the wood stove and I had the batter ready to go. Into the quickly-heating oven went the cast iron skillet and about three tablespoons of butter. Once that had melted, I swirled it around in the skillet, coating the inside, poured the rest of the butter into the batter, mixed it, dumped the batter into the skillet, and put the whole thing back in the oven, which was now up to about 300 degrees, thanks in large part to the oak.

Within a half hour, we had hot cornbread straight from the oven and hot chili that tasted even better than the night before. Outside, the rain fell and the birds hopped and inside, before long, Ginger and I both had contented bellies. A fine winter day, indeed.


Posted January 20, 2012 by Joel Caris in Farm Life, Food

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20 responses to “Small Thoughts

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  1. A short video I made to illustrate the state of the world and our disconnect with reality:

    Graffiti Philosophy

    • Thanks for the link, Mike. The graffiti in your video is that odd combination of beautiful and haunting. I thought it was really effective, as was the music. We definitely find ourselves in a very twisted reality.

  2. I like the idea of a post dedicated to a few random thoughts to share; however, I am hungrier now. I hope dinner will finish soon.

    I lived in Montana a little over a year and had so many varieties of chili. going to have to try Ginger’s version: I’m intrigued.

    I agree that it does feel good to construct something so physical like that. I should find a project to do that involves similar materials, something useful and involves hammering nails. 🙂 I’m learning to get over some of my timidity with things I have little experience in or am crap at, like anything beyond a doodle or cooking something involving fish. sounds silly some of the things, but I’ve not had any early guide, and I have a use for those skills: emotionally and no.

    • I can understand that sort of timidity. I’ve always hated the idea of appearing to not know what I was doing, so I’ve tended not to like doing things I didn’t already know how to do. That’s very silly, of course, and far from an effective life strategy, but it’s one of those emotional quirks I’ve had to deal with. I have some ideas about why it’s there, but the important thing is that I get past it and not feel embarrassed when I don’t already know how to do something.

      So yeah, I had some hesitancy when it first came to building the gates, but I soon found I loved it. It helped that I was left on my own for the most part to figure it out. Trying to do something for the first time while someone observes me to make sure I’m doing it right completely messes up my ability to do it right. Makes me very anxious.

  3. I think it’s a law of the universe that chili is better the second day. I also think that chili is probably one of the oldest assembled foods known to man. I like it best with venison that I have hunted, gutted, skinned, and butchered myself.

    I was also a vegetarian (although only for a year). We don’t eat much meat, maybe twice a week on average. I try to keep deer in the freezer. I’ve killed two deer in my life and both of them last year, which was the second year I had ever hunted. I did all of the work myself. I felt it was necessary to know what it took to eat the animal from killing it to the plate. It was a LOT of work, but it was good work. I learned those animals intimately, in a way I have known no other sentient being. It gave me the time, as a meditation, to thoroughly thank those deer for their sacrifices. The first meat my son ever ate was that buck. I think it’s fitting that he ate wild and truly free range meat that his father had brought to him as his first meat. Hopefully it will be symbolic for his life. As in that was the complete opposite of the shit that they sell in the box grocery stores and fast food fry pits.

    • I think that is indeed a law, Aaron. It seems most all soups follow that law. I often have no idea why I bother even eating a soup the same day I make it. It should always be done a day ahead of time and then left to sit and meld over the next 24 hours or so.

      Venison chili sounds fantastic. One of these days, I’ll give that a try. I had a chance about five years ago, back when I was in AmeriCorps. At the time I was a vegetarian, so I didn’t partake in the chili, which had been made by one of the team’s supervisors using venison he had hunted himself. Looking back, as my attitudes changed, I found the idea that I wouldn’t eat venison chili somewhat nonsensical. That’s the exact sort of meat that makes the most sense to eat.

      I hope one day to attempt some hunting. Not there yet—not for moral reasons, but just because I haven’t gotten around to learning it and haven’t yet been presented with the right situation. One day, though. Love that your son’s first ever meat was from an animal you hunted and killed yourself. That seems very elemental, very appropriate, very honest. Hopefully that experience will help carry him through a life mostly free of the grocery store and fast food horrors people call food.

  4. Mmm, corn bread and chili – one of my favorite meals. I will definitely have to try the pumpkin/squash version!

  5. I look forward with anticipation to your series on how to be poor. Part of my anxiety for the future is that I don’t know how I would react, although I have gone without things like hot water and stoves for short periods of time. I also admire your gate work. I am still working through the very basics of amateur carpentry and have produced a few things from scrap lumber that look like they could feature in Looney Tunes cartoons – bent nails everywhere. Still, they do the work.

    • Thanks, Kfish. I hope the series proves helpful. I’ve been mulling how to structure the different sections of the site for this year and have come to the tentative conclusion that How To Be Poor will focus more on the mental/philosophical side of things, which seems like a big piece to me. The Household Economy will see the brunt of posts on specific activities, including gardening. That might change as it goes forward, but there’s the current plan. Hopefully the philosophy side will be helpful to you—the ideas currently bouncing around in my head will be very much focused on reaction and psychology. But I’m no expert—just a guy offering his advice, backed with limited but growing experience. (Of course, that idea of the expert is going to eventually get a post in How To Be Poor, as well. That’s something we need to consider more, I believe.)

      As for your carpentry attempts, I would say keep at it. You’ve certainly done more than me and, at the end of the day, if it works then that’s what’s important. I’m sure the improvement will come with practice. One thing I noticed while making the gates was that hammering the nails straight was largely a product of angle and body placement. You probably already realize that but it still, for me, was one of those small revelations of obvious information that really helped how I worked.

      • The keys to hammering nails straight is to always look at and concentrate on the head of the nail – kinda like hitting a ball. Another key is to not choke up on the hammer – keep your hand well below the head after finding the balance point that works best for your hand and arm strength. I recall seeing framers drive and set 30d nails (about 3-1/2″ long) with three hits without a full-hand grip on the hammer; just two fingers and thumb aided by a wrist strap. And yes, all this comes with practice and experience. The main thing to remember is, “Be not afraid…”

        • Thanks for the advice, Martin! I’ll have to keep that wisdom in mind the next time I find myself doing some hammering, which I hope is soon. I really did start enjoying it once I started to get those nails going in straight, and at a decent clip. Hammering them in with just a couple swings was immensely satisfying.

          Practice is key, indeed. One of the reasons we all have so much work ahead of us—most of us are quite out of practice with the sort of things we need to be doing.

  6. Hi Joel,

    Hope you are well. The gates look good in the collected / natural timber, although milled lumber looks good too and is probably a bit more practical, long lasting and easier to work with. Thanks for your comments about the yurt too. It was really interesting and insightful reading about your practical experience with them. I hope you keep going with your carpentry! I’m looking forward to your future comments on poverty too.

    I’ve just had an article published on the area that I live in. If you want to check out the mountain range (mid summer) have a look here:

    PS: Snow sounds awesome. It’s 95 degrees here again today…..



    • I definitely intend to keep going with the carpentry, though it’s not one of my main focuses this year, so I’ll just take it as it comes for the time being.

      Love the article! The pictures are fantastic—you live in a beautiful area. Much as the commentators there indicate, I love the focus on observation in the article. Being interested in permaculture but only having a very generalized familiarity with it, it’s helpful even in article form just to see some pictures and then read your observations of the land. That’s, obviously, the sort of thing I’ll need to be doing if I ever find myself with a piece of land that I can really start working with long term.

  7. Hey Joel. Thanks mate. It took me 7 years of watching to come up with all of those thoughts in the article. When you attach yourself to a block of land you have to take it as it comes for better or worse! The article was inspired by a young permie who came up to visit and insisted that I was doing the wrong thing not having cattle here. It was kind of disappointing because I can’t store enough water here for anything other than chickens… Oh well. You can’t impose a purpose on land, you just have to hope for the best. Regards.

  8. Hi Joel, Good to see the gate is getting noticed and thanks for the link. Gates for keeping sheep in, I think, are called “hurdles”, traditionally woven from copiced hazel of similar. Whatever they are called or made of if they are free (+time) it’s a good job well done. Keep it up.
    It was a challange for me to make the gate with nothing but what was in the woods (no nails). I gave up when it came to the hinges but thats where the old blacksmith would have come in. That would be the ultimate challange as I’ve got ironstone and can make charcol but not enough time.

    Cheers and keep up the good work.

    • Thanks, Andy. I didn’t know the term “hurdles,” but I’ll have to keep that in mind so I sound like I know what I’m talking about in the future. I like the term—though it sounds like a challenge to the sheep as much as anything.

      I certainly was impressed you made the gate without nails. I imagine that felt like quite the satisfying accomplishment by the time you were done. I imagine it would have been an order of magnitude more satisfying if you had gone on to forge the hinges, as well. Perfectly reasonable you didn’t manage to take it to that level, though.

      I’m fascinated by the idea of coppicing. It’s a concept that keeps popping up in my readings and life. That’s something I want to study more and eventually experiment with.

  9. Pingback: The Household Economy: A Return to Normal « Of The Hands

  10. Pingback: The Reintroduction: A Pantry Full of Jars « Of The Hands

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