Friday, November 27, 2015

The Snow Tree

The Snow Tree

From the time I was small, I’ve been attracted to less-than- perfect Christmas trees. I feel sorry for them and I want them to have a home. Since I’ve been an adult, often with the responsibility for choosing the family Christmas tree, my penchant for little losers has worked in my favor. It has made the selection process fast and relatively stress-free.

Christmas trees in our family, whether fresh-cut in the mountains or purchased from a lot, have rarely been the perfectly-shaped reach-to the ceiling type. Fittingly, the decorations stashed away each year in January and hauled out again the next year are mostly an unglamorous, mismatched conglomeration of ornaments the kids have made or that we have somehow acquired over the years.

I continue to drape the wizened chain of cranberries and popcorn that Kristin strung together 50 years ago tenderly over a couple of branches. The unsightly string dangles alongside a string of glass beads with the paint worn off that graced my parents’ tree when I was young, and the unbreakable plastic baubles the kids’ grandma sent for the low-hanging branches when they were very small. There’s never a color scheme for our tree. Anything goes.

Recently I learned about a western pioneer tradition that suits my Christmas tree philosophy perfectly. At the turn of the century, in some parts of the West, Christmas trees were a luxury that only one family in five could afford. This was particularly true on the High Plains and prairies where evergreens were virtually non-existent.

Families who were lucky enough to get hold of a tree decorated it lovingly with homemade ornaments, many made from paper. It sat proudly in the front parlor and was often left up until spring. (Parlors were usually unheated, so a tree last quite well.)

As the first prairie flowers poked their heads out of the newly-thawed earth, the tree was taken down but not thrown out or even recycled as firewood. Instead it was carefully stored away in a barn or attic in anticipation of the next Christmas season.

When the long-awaited holiday arrived once again, the tree was retrieved from its storage place. Now it looked very different. During the summer, the needles had dried up and fallen off, leaving forlorn-looking bare branches.

Not willing to go without a tree, families who could not afford or find a tree each year simply made the best of the situation. The tree was erected in its customary spot, but in place of the long-gone needles, these enterprising decorators laid long thin strips of cotton along the bare branches. When sprinkled with mica chips, easily found in rock outcroppings, the tree looked as if it were covered with sparkling, new-fallen snow.

The absence of the needles became a blessing in disguise. The bare branches made it possible to display ornaments in all their glory. They had nowhere to hide. Children and their parents began making very large ornaments which addressed the bare look and allowed crafty people to better display their handiwork.

If you don’t care much for artificial trees but don’t want to decimate the forest for your holiday d├ęcor, a snow tree may be the answer. Go ahead a get a tree this year, but don’t relegate it to the mulching pile in January. Instead, string it up in the garage, basement or attic, cover it to protect it from dust and start making some BIG ornaments.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

On the road again

I usually reserve pancakes as a reward for completing a “long” run. Until recently that meant 10 miles or so. This morning, for the first time since early August, I made pancakes. They tasted great. They were my reward for running four miles without stopping.

Pathetic, you say. Cheating. No fair. Well, yeah, but since August 5 when I felt a twinge in my Achilles after one mile into a 10-mile run, that is the farthest I’ve run. I’ve walked, I’ve walked and run and walked again. I’ve biked. I’ve rested and iced and stretched and whined some though I’ve tried not to do too much of that.

Achilles problems are the bane of runners—common and painful and stubborn to heal. Even now, I wouldn’t go so far as to stay I’m done with gimping around for good. But what a kick to be able to step out the door and actually run for 40 minutes. How good it felt to work up a sweat on a cold day and feel as if I’d earned the right to a hot shower.

Surprising how habits become part of a routine and how much they’re missed when the routine is broken. I got so used to getting up in the morning, throwing on running clothes and heading out the door that it became uncomfortable when I couldn’t do that any more.  Of course I could have gone for a walk instead of a run but it is just not the same. It was way too easy to talk myself into thinking it was too cold to walk so early, that I could walk any time during the day.

I’ve learned the hard way not to count on evenly progressive recovery and to accept the ups and downs that have become the norm in this process.

Time for me to quit? Maybe. I guess I’m old enough. It has been suggested. Sorry. Not yet. I have a few more roads to explore.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Generational Salad Dressing

My grandfather was a grump but the old man made a mean salad dressing.

When I was growing up, no one but my father ever made the salad dressing at our house. I can still hear the clinking of the worn, silver-plated dinner fork as he whipped up oil and vinegar, salt and pepper in a glass measuring cup. It was a sacred ritual of my childhood signaling the imminent serving of dinner.

We always had salad and it was always encased in my dad’s salad dressing. No additions such as dry mustard or garlic powder were ever allowed to sully the purity of the vinaigrette. It always tasted the same, and to this day, it is for me the only “real” salad dressing.

The making of salad dressing has passed through the generations of our family, a culinary heirloom from which there is no escape. When I first set up housekeeping, I was faithful to my dad’s process, pouring intuitive portions of oil and vinegar into a measuring cup, adding salt and pepper and beating it all up with a fork.

Later, when life got busier, I resorted to pouring oil and vinegar and sprinkling salt and pepper directly and randomly over green salad and tossing it all together. I’ve felt twinges of guilt for this departure from ritual even though I think my salad dressing is just as good s my dad’s was.

My grandson has been the salad dressing maker in his house since he was five. He will never resort to my time and dish-saving ways. Methodically, he pours oil, vinegar, salt and pepper into a cup and with serious intention and slow, even strokes, whips the ingredients before pouring them,  just before serving, onto the salad.

Perhaps it’s a guy thing.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Creating compost

My affinity for trash, old stuff and recycling is probably why I am enamored of the whole concept of composting. I love the idea the of converting debris from the garden into a rich, earthy mixture that provides nutrients needed to support the next round of new growth. It doesn’t happen quickly and requires considerable churning and turning. My backyard has mountains of debris in various states of decay.

I’ve made a commitment to spend a few minutes every day enticing this mess of leaves, stalks, grasses and rotten veggies to move a little more quickly into a new state—into compost. I spread the stuff out, turn it over, layer it with dirt and eventually I hope to get it into semi-manageable mounds that will become rich and black by spring. Meanwhile my backyard looks pretty much like a garbage dump.

There’s a different kind of composting going on inside my house. Last week I began to revise the draft of a manuscript that I finished a while ago. It is a story I have been committed to putting down on paper since I spent time in Africa a decade ago. It has had more than enough time to move on from a raw and messy state into something richer and more worthwhile, but unlike the outside stuff where, given the right conditions, transformation happens, the manuscript needs way more tinkering.

I’ve churned and turned it, over and over. It has moved from non-fiction to creative non-fiction to historical fiction, from third person to first person and back again to third person.  It won’t leave me alone.  It does not make steady linear progress. Instead it moves in fits and starts, each sentence and paragraph begging for attention—for a word or phrase to be removed or changed or inserted in a different place. It demands more than the outdoor debris and it commands way more of my time and my head.

It’s good to have two compost piles to alternate working on for the winter. Focusing exclusively on either one could be crazy-making.

By spring, it will be time to evaluate progress and toss out the stuff that is just not going to morph into something new. Some will go to the landfill, some will disappear with a touch of the delete button.