I was driving home from work one day in the middle of august when i heard what sounded like a gunshot in the back seat of the car. I immediately pressed on the brake and pulled over to the side of the road. I got out of the car and tried to process what i had just heard. There were no passengers in the car. It could not have been a gunshot. I did not have a gun in the back seat. I opened the door to investigate. Everything was wet. My papers were wet. The seat was wet. The window even had droplets on it. I picked up my empty 3 gallon water jug that had been sitting in the back seat. The whole bottom of it fell away. Apparently my 3 gallon water jug had exploded in the back seat while i was driving. That’s how i learned to screw the lids on the empty ones very loosely, especially during warm weather. I had to go to walmart to get a replacement jug. I visited HEB first. They had one but it was at the back of the top shelf and didn’t have a price tag. I suspect their lack of knowledge about how to get it down and what to charge for it led them to tell me that it was just there for decoration or example purposes, which is what they and their manager told me. I went to walmart and they sold me one for the purpose of holding water. So i have 5 round jugs and 1 rectangular one with a handle to remind me of why it’s important not to screw the caps on the empty jugs too tightly during the summer months.
Year one was not the time for big projects. Year one was the time for saving. My mortgage payments were pretty reasonable during year 1 but the banks wouldn’t do a fixed rate mortgage on a tiny house so i had to account for the fact that my mortgage payment was subject to a notable increase every two years. I saved as furiously as i could in the face of ever arising repair costs. But i could dream about bigger more expensive projects i would one day undertake to fulfill my vision for the property. Namely, i wanted chickens. I had always wanted chickens, ever since i was a little girl. They fascinated me. I had dreams of owning a small flock of buff orpingtons. They were supposed to be a good chicken for beginners. They were friendly and in some cases would follow you around the yard in a little group. This notion sounded magical to my dreamy brain. Since they were a fairly friendly chicken, i wouldn’t have to worry so much about them pecking each other to death like some of the more agressive meat birds. I was allergic to chicken eggs so the eggs would be gifted to my friends of course. The idea of these giant fluffy birds walking around the yard just tickled me to death. I wanted the caged-in area around the coop because of hawks. I didn’t want the hawks to be able to swoop down and grab a chicken while i was inside making dinner. However, i had hoped to let the chickens out in the yard when i was out there watching them and allow them to help curb our grasshopper problem and decrese the frequency with which i had to mow the yard in the chicken area. Chickens scratched for bugs with their little feet which often hindered or eliminated the growth of grass in the areas where they were kept. It would have been a welcome effort during the rainy spring we had. The chickens would have to be secured in the coop before dusk as we had plenty of foxes that i was quite sure were not above digging under a fence for a meal. Cashew would probably be their best line of defence against all the things that would eat them while i was in the house. So i drew up a blueprint of what i would need to build and budget for to add chickens to the homestead and i filed that dream away to be taken out at a later date in time when i had the elbow grease, the time, and the funds to make it happen. Shout out to “White House on the Hill” for giving me advice and info on how to safely raise chickens with the proper gear and setup for cleaning out the coop.
The other thing i dreamt about adding to the homestead was a garden. I missed my hibiscus and my roses terribly. At one point i had a potted double blossom butterball hibiscus that was to die for. It had these giant butter yellow blossoms that were just stunning when they opened. However, it was the vegetable garden i was dying inside without. In the past 6 or 7 years i had lived in apartments, i had always had vegetable gardens in container boxes or pots. I grew okra, tomatoes, brussels sprouts, cabbage, zucchini, greens, lettuce, rhubarb, japanese eggplant, beans, bell peppers, kale, spinach, strawberries, celery, and sugar snap peas. Now i had two acres and i was growing nothing. The reason was grasshoppers; hundreds and hundreds of grasshoppers. With every step in the dry crunchy grass the grasshoppers jumped up from where they were hiding. They were everywhere. They were a relentless force of little munchers. The only way i kept the baby fruit trees remotely alive was to cover them in diatomaceous earth. However, it had to be reapplied after every rain or gust of wind and the hoppers would often beat me to it and already have claimed half the leaves by the time i sprinkled more on. I knew, if i ever wanted to garden on the land (without pesticides) i would have to use a green house. I wanted a model the honey bees would be able to enter to polinate the plants so i began looking at models with sky lights that could be propped open for air flow and access for bees. I found one with hooks in place so that you could hang plants in it as well. I would build planter boxes inside using brick (wood would just need to be treated against all the carpenter ants and termites living on my property). I would stack the bricks but not cement them so that water could drain easily.
I picked out a spot next to the extension shed where i would put the green house and another spot in the dog disaster/chicken run where i would place the coop. I set these plans on the shelf in my brain. A retired sheep farmer once told me that farming was not about fixing crises; it was about looking at the list of crises and picking which one was the most pressing, the one that needed your time, money, and attention most urgently. He tried to instill in me that if i wanted to run a property by myself, i had to get over the notion that the crises would one day be fixed because there was always going to be something on that list. For each thing i crossed off, a new thing would arise. I tried to remember my former patient’s words each time i wanted to start a new project. The septic tank, the well pump, or the a/c unit could break tomorrow. The termites could decide they liked the house better than their old tree stump. I wouldn’t add something new to the homestead until i had enough money to do it and handle a couple crises if they arose.
The berries ripened while i was on my week-long trip out of state. They weren’t red yet when i left and they were almost brown when i came back. For maximum sour flavor i should have picked the berries when they were bright red because when the berries turn brown the flavor is gone. I left half the harvest on the tree because it had already shriveled and turned brown. I took my box cutter and gathered the remaining red berries by cutting the tips of the branches where the berries were clustered and placing them all in the wheelbarrow. Hands sticky with berry residue and tree sap i hopped down off of the chair i’d been standing on and prepared to drive the wheel barrow through the tall grass. One of the websites i’d looked at when researching how to harvest sumac had said that if you licked your fingers after handling the berries you would taste the sour flavor of sumac. I licked my hand. It was sour, exactly like sumac or lemon. Yes! Perhaps the berries that still had some red on them were salvageable. Next year i wouldn’t go out of town during the month of harvest and i’d watch the color of the berries more closely but it couldn’t be helped this year so i just had to salvage what i could and hope for the best. I brought the berries into the kitchen and started pulling them off the branches with my fingers over a metal bowl. There were many little white spiders hiding amongst the branches. I kept having to get them on a stick and throw them outside. Getting the berries off the branches took forever! In hindsight, if i had dried the berries on the branches, then pulled them off, it would have been much easier and more of the flavor would have stayed with the berries instead of on my fingers. When i was finished with that step i had a pile of bare branches and a bowl full of reddish berries. I spread the berries out on parchment paper on a cookie sheet. Then i placed the berries in the oven. I turned the oven light on. When i was home i would turn the oven on and then switch it off quickly. I would continue this routine throughout the day. This dried the berries pretty well. However, it did not dry them completely. Their skins became shriveled and they began to toast. I had to stop because i didn’t want a toasted flavor. I wanted a sour flavor. If i had continued i would have burnt the skin of the berries and the whole harvest would have been wasted. So i stopped. But the berries still had a little moisture in them and it would gum up the coffee grinder, making it difficult to grind the berries into a powder later in the process. I decided that for next year’s harvest i would put the cookie sheet in the extension shed for days. The august heat in texas in an un-air-conditioned shed would definitely do the trick and it wouldn’t burn the skins of the berries or give an undesired toasted flavor to the powder. At this point i poured some of the berries into the coffee grinder and ground the berries into a powder in batches. As i said, there was still a little moisture in the berries and it gummed the powder up, sticking it to the blades and the sides of the coffee grinder. I had to stop grinding the berries before they were completely powdered, leaving little hard bits of the center of each berry, because once again i was cooking the powder and eliminating the sour flavor and replacing it with a toasted one. The coffee grinder was working so hard the parts became hot to the touch and i was accidentally cooking the berries. I had hoped to share some of the finished product of the sumac harvest with my sweet friend who had given me the chives plant. However, i quickly realized that this first year’s harvest was going to be an experimental batch and next year i would produce a crop fit for regular consumption. This batch would be for me as i knew not to bite down too hard on anything with the sumac sprinkled on it in case there was a hard bit of the center of the berries that didn’t get ground all the way. I spread the dark red powder on parchment paper laid out on a cookie sheet and left it in the open air of the kitchen for a day to dry out further. When it was finished i placed some of it in a small travel-sized jar and stored the rest in a regular jar. This year’s harvest, i keep in the freezer so it won’t mold but i hope to process next year’s harvest better so that the berries and resulting powder are dryer and ground more finely. That way no teeth will be broken and i can store it at room temperature without worrying about it molding. Also, next year i will harvest the berries on time so there will be more berries in the bowl and the flavor will be at maximum sourness!
I had to board the dogs to go on a trip. It was a new experience for me. I’d never been to a vet where they asked me if i would be boarding any horses, cows, goats, or chickens along with my dogs. Then on the way out of the parking lot i saw a stable full of horses! It looked nice. They even had fenced fields to run around in during their outdoor time. Anyways, when i returned all i could think about was going to pick up the dogs. I was supposed to take both Sili and Cashew home and then bring Cashew back the following morning to get spayed. The more i thought about it, the less it made sense to take Cashew home just to drive her back. We didn’t live close to the vet. We were one town over. I called ahead and asked if i could visit with both of them but only take Sili home. They said that would be fine. So they went and got the dogs and brought them up to me. Cashew dominated the room and Sili hung in the background, waiting her turn. I hugged Cashew and buried my face in her fur. She wagged her stumpy tail and even peed she was so excited. They took Sili back and put Cashew in a room so i could have some one on one time with her while they went over the spay paperwork with me. I had to choose how much i wanted done if things went south during her operation and the level of pain management i wanted during her recovery. I wanted her revived at all costs and i wanted her pretty comfortable but not so doped up she couldn’t walk after her surgery. They were very nice and explained everything in great detail. I tried not to worry but Sili’s spay operation was so complicated i couldn’t help but fret. They assured me they would keep her comfortable and call me as soon as it was done. I kissed her head and told her i’d see her in 3 days. I had elected to board her for a couple of days after the surgery because she and Sili rough-housed so much i didn’t want her to rip her stitches open trying to play. The whole house was 1 room. I couldn’t separate them during her recovery. So i took Sili home. That night she clung to me like glue. She followed me wherever i went and she placed her paws on me whenever i sat down. I think she missed me.
Cashew continued to grow. Sili learned to share my attention. As Cashew grew into her role of alpha, Sili began to look to her, not me, for what to do and where to go in the face of a threat, whether it be a howling coyote or a falling acorn in the yard.
Over time i grew very fond of the bougainvillea for its vibrant color and abundance of blossoms. The day of the wind storm we were scheduled to receive a cold front. Of course, it was summer in Texas so all that meant was it was going to drop from 100 degrees to 80. When i had left the house before dawn the air was still and calm. However, i had watched the wind bend and shake the trees through the windows as my work day wore on. My heart had drifted down main street and back to my little town to check on my property but my body was still securely at work performing the duties of my job. I considered making a trip during lunch break but it would have taken over an hour. I would check on the property when my work was done. The drive home was, for the majority, down a long one-lane highway with flat land on either side. The wind kept pushing the car sideways and i struggled to keep it continuously in the middle of the lane. Ahead of me, i could see big trucks blown sideways with each gust attempting to correct and stay within their lane as well. Once i left the highway it was winding roads through the hills the whole way home. The trees were swaying violently and the deer had hunkered down in the grass beside the road. When i made it to the gate i could see the hanging plants swinging and the outer-most one was being twisted in a circle by the wind. I knew the hook it hung from was not made for the motion of twisting. I knew i had to intervene quickly. I parked the car without even bothering to shut the gate. I jumped out and examined the predicament more closely. The plastic hook at the top of the hanging plant on the corner was stretched and warped. It was almost a stick instead of a rounded hook. With each gust it threatened to slip. I had to releive the warped plastic hook of the weight of the plant and tether it to the metal hook in the porch ceiling somehow. I ran to the tool shed to grab twine. As soon as i found it i ran back to the porch, ready to create a make-shift hook with twine. I stopped directly in front of the plant in question and in the next second a great gust of wind blew, spun the plant around, and the entire thing came crashing down, splattering muddy water, dirt, and shredded blossoms all over the wooden boards of the porch, the front wall of the house, and the front of my scrubs. I even had dirt in my hair. It was an epic explosion of plant matter. It was as if God had waited until i arrived home to let it happen so i wouldn’t wonder how the epic mess came to be. It was what it was. The pot was cracked in three, held together only by the plant’s roots. The plant’s branches had snapped in some places. There were blossoms and shredded leaves everywhere. It was a mess. But, the tray that held water underneath the pot was just bent, not broken. I bent it back into shape and devised a plan. The roots would hold the broken pot together and the extra water tray underneath it would have to provide the plant its water, since the pot would no longer hold any. I would still take the twine and tie the plant into place with a new knotted and woven twine hook. I would keep the plant alive as long as it would stay and then both plants would go on the brush pile with the arrival of winter. So, i tethered the plant to the porch posts and relieved the tired and mutilated plastic hook of its duties. I played porch plant surgeon that evening and the thing survived the wind storm and limped along for about a month after. Perhaps next season i would tether the corner plant to the porch posts on day 1 so the wind couldn’t spin it.
What a mess.
In the summer Sili and Cashew would go outside to rough house, sprint, and wrestle in the 101 degree heat. Then they would come barreling through the house, slop water all over the general area surrounding their bowl, and collapse around me to enjoy the cold floor and be petted. It was a rare moment of calm that i enjoyed whenever it presented itself.
i was born on my mother’s birthday so we usually tried to spend it together when possible. The Summer after i bought the property she decided to come to me and this time she was bringing my grandmother. I was so excited to show them what i was building. I was excited to show them the land. I was excited for them to meet Cashew for the first time. I was excited for them to see all the trees and the vast amount of undeveloped wooded spaces. I was excited for them to see the hills! I just knew that if i could get them out there and set their eyes upon it, they would see all the beauty and the magic that i could see; that they would suddenly see all the raw freedom and boundless opportunities that piece of land provided. I anxiously awaited their arrival. I hadn’t had butterflies in my stomach in such abundance since the day i took my certification exam. Finally, they arrived!
I told them both to stay in the cars at first. I let the dogs out. They immediately went into “large unidentified object in the yard” mode and set to snarling, barking, and jumping around the car. I was not going to scold them for this behavior as it was a behavior i wanted from them most of the time. Instead i ignored them all-together and did my own thing hoping they’d follow suit. I stepped off the porch and walked up to the car, waving and touching the car saying in a high-pitched baby voice of excitement, “Hi, we found our guests, oh i’m so happy to see you, yes, so happy to see you, hi guys!” Both dogs looked at me with question marks on their faces. Then immediately they got it. This car was a scheduled and expected visitor. They changed their whole demeanor and immediately set to happy jumping and tail wagging. I picked Cashew up so she wouldn’t trip my grandma with her bull in a china shop meets energizer bunny gait pattern. Then i told them they could now get out of the car safely. Cashew squirmed and wriggled in my arms. She did not want to be missing all the action!
I gave them a quick tour around the land and then we carried in all the birthday gifts and food they had brought to eat. There was barely enough room for it in my little 384 square foot tiny house but we made it work. We used the dog crates as a table and i brought in a couple extra chairs from the extension shed. I really enjoyed the company and the good food. It was probably my most enjoyable birthday yet. But what really made it for me was the fact that i had a house to invite my mother and grandmother into. It was the first time in my life i had owned a space to share with family. My mother and grandmother were good sports about the dogs. They were wild and Cashew was still securely in her head-butting phase. I tried to render them calm in the house but in the end i think they just decided not to get up from the chairs unless the dogs were outside.
My mother made gluten free german chocolate cupcakes, my absolute favorite! We were each one year older and if her grandpa were still alive, he would be too.
Realizing i didn’t have any non-bulky, non apocalypse prepper-type back-pack styled purses for formal occasions, my grandmother took me shopping for a tiny purse at the shops in Fredericksburg. We ended up finding a peach bar of goat milk soap and presents for the cousins too. It was nice to spend time with my mother and grandmother in the hill country for a day. I wouldn’t have minded having them out more often but, for now the occasional visit would have to do.
For most people in my family packing for the plane ride was probably quite simple. They popped some dresses off hangers in the closet and folded them into the suit case, dumped in some travel-sized toiletries, and a few lara bars for the plane. My trip preparation was a bit more extensive. I had no use for dresses on the homestead. Dresses and skirts left one’s legs very exposed to ticks, crickets, snakes, scorpions, spiders, and anything else living in the grass. It just didn’t make sense. When walking through tall grass, boots and long pants were the most practical choice. So my dresses were folded and tucked in various plastic bins in the shed. First i had to find them. They were in amongst linens and extra pillows, stuffed animals from childhood and old school projects. When i finally found them i realized they smelled; they smelled like the excess dog food i stored in the shed; like rancid stale chicken. I could not wear those anywhere. They had to be washed. I had to wait for a day when rain was not forecasted. When they finally did get hung on the line they looked funny. It seemed very odd and out of place to see dresses and skirts hanging from the laundry line on the homestead. Once i had worn them of course, but that was a time before my daily routine was surrounded by ticks and mosquitos. That was a different time in my life. If i had wanted sugar free dried fruit i would have had to drive into fredericksburg or san antonio to get it so i bought some in the san antonio airport last minute. It cost a small fortune for 1 serving. For me, packing was as much about what i didn’t bring as it was what i did bring. Every morning i left the house with a machete and a lantern. Now the d batteries in the lantern would have ended me up surrounded by a ring of airport security officials with tasers pointed at my chest and the machete, well that’s just a common-sense no-no in an airport. That’s a way to render one’s self in need of a good lawyer if not a medic. So both the lantern and the machete had to stay in the house. So too did the box cutter on the key chain, the box cutter in the glove compartment, and the mini one in my purse. When one broke i typically just replaced it with a new one, rubber banded the old one back together, and found a new compartment for it because though it had lost its ability to fold properly or needed one to hold the screws in place while using it, it still worked. I also did not bring any instant coffee. It was a sea of little granulated brown pellets in an unlabeled glass container. I thought the airport security might mistake it for explosives. So, without coffee, without the lantern, without the machete, without the box cutters, and with a suit case full of dresses, i made my way back to the city to catch a plane.
A while back i made a post about buying steel toed boots to wear during my projects. I alluded to the fact that the reason i didn’t end up liking them had nothing to do with the quality of the boots and more to do with the intelligence and know-how of the human wearing them. They were wildly uncomfortable until they got wet, muddy, and smooshed. All of a sudden they fit like a glove. Amazing! So, yeah, they had to get broken in.