Sunday, December 26, 2010

Keeping the X in Xmas

There is something incredibly freeing and peaceful about not buying into the consumerist frenzy that is Christmas. I thought I’d write a paragraph or two about how and why I’ve stopped celebrating Christmas, delving into things like the guilt I felt even as a child knowing my parents were going into debt every Christmas in order to have a massive array of be-ribboned packages under the tree; my preference for giving and receiving gifts for no reason other than, “I knew you’d love this. I know it’s not your birthday, or any other holiday, but I saw this and thought of you;” the dishonesty and meaninglessness of a holiday co-opted from pagans and manipulated into what has become an empty, stressful, pressure-filled orgy of capitalism and obligation… but I find that even just writing about all that is unpleasant, so suffice it so say: I don’t do Christmas. It makes me uncomfortable. Ignoring it is utterly blissful.

Instead of Christmas, we celebrate Kwankahvusolmas-X (Kwanza+Channukah+Festivus+Solstice+Christmas+the X from Xmas.) And in the spirit of keeping the X in Kwankahvusolmas-X, we celebrated out in nature, on the earth's skinny trails, in the warm winter sun, stress-free.

With short days and long, cold nights, it makes sense to spend time inside with loved ones, eating good food and enjoying music. And why not celebrate the day when the sun turns back from its descent and the days begin to grow longer again. I know some who like to kill a tree and drag it inside. Some who bow down before the birth of new hope. Some who light candles against the darkness. And many who scorch credit cards with the passion of love or reciprocity or obligation or desperation.

In recent years have I've found myself moving further and further from the annual frenzy of consumerism, fealty and fellowship that churns through each late-December. I continue to revel in the change of the season, but no longer feel the need to dive into the rest. And, more and more, to avoid the whole public affair altogether.

Moments being moments, I'm sure that I let certain opportunities pass that could be considered "lost". But moments being moments, I keep the ones I have with me, and do my best to live in them. I enjoy the moments I spend with my family even if it takes place outside of the proscribed holiday schedule. Maybe, even, because it happens outside the holidays.

We were invited. But we declined. Instead of spending two days on the road in winter driving conditions, we stayed very close to home. Instead of fighting queasy feelings toward a holiday we feel disconnected from, we gave ourselves to the days of the season. Out into the world and under the sky. The trees remained rooted in soil and rock. The jingling came from Sprocket's collar. The song was the voice of the raven, the crow, the dove, and the hum of tires on moist earth. We drew breath from the cool air and warmed our bodies with our motion.

Not, perhaps, the traditional celebration. But it did suffice.

Simple Pleasures: Peasant Food

Text: Trina
Photos: Trina and Greg

Up until I was four or five years old, my parents were living the simple, humble hippie life in Northern California, one highlight of which was tromping in creeks to get to the wild blackberry stashes, filling buckets with fresh picked, vine ripe berries, and hauling them home where my mom would make blackberry cobbler and jar upon jar of homemade blackberry jam. Then when I was six, they started their own business and work became life; life became work. There was no more homemade jam, no more canning, not much time for creek tromping.

I suppose that change must have imprinted on me as a lesson in quality of life – what you give up to be what society considers "successful," what you gain by choosing a simpler, humbler lifestyle -- because now (actually, about five years ago) as an adult, I made the decision to greatly simplify my life by stepping off the professional career treadmill and taking a simple, brainless, blue collar, punch-in-punch-out job in order to get my life back. It worked. I am no longer completely consumed by my job and defined by my title, and most importantly, I now have the time and energy to do more – many more – of the things that add joy and meaning to my life.

Greg was way ahead of me, having opted out of his "real" job years before, and doing seasonal work that allowed him to have winters off so he could spend them doing his favorite thing: riding his bike... all over the world. On a very low budget, and from an extremely humble home base, he has enjoyed amazing bike-touring and bikepacking adventures in Borneo, New Zealand, Chile, Hawaii, British Columbia, and England.

One of the greatest joys in this simpler life we now enjoy together is having the time to tend a vegetable garden and mini orchard, and to devote a lot of time to making wholesome, delicious food from that garden. We’re not yet able to grow enough food in our own garden to feed ourselves from it all winter long, and I don’t know that we’ll ever get there, but it sure is fun trying! Learning how to can food and finding good canning recipes has been a big part of the equation. In the process, we’ve been pleasantly reminded of the old practice of using every part of something, be it vegetable or animal. Fitting nicely with our romantic vision of a simpler, pioneer-esque lifestyle, this philosophy is referred to in one of my canning books as “The Department of Not Wasting Anything.”

This philosophy is what led to back-in-the-day foods like pickled watermelon rind; green tomato relish; ricotta cheese, which is made from the whey that is leftover from making some other kind of cheese; and new-to-me membrillo, which sounds very exotic -- in Spain and Portugal it is typically eaten with the contrasting dry, salty manchego cheese -- but is nothing more than a paste made from the pulp that is leftover from making quince jelly.

Chefs who use quince invariably say things like, “It is a truly unique fruit; there is no substitute for it; it has a flavor unlike any other fruit,” and they mean that in a good way. Quince is an uncommon, ancient, ugly fruit related to the pear and apple, looking kind of like a lumpy, knobby, furry cross between said pear and apple. So far we’ve only had opportunity to enjoy its aroma which is nothing short of otherworldly. I challenge you to sniff one and keep your eyes from rolling back in their sockets. If scent is any indication of flavor, and I'm pretty sure it is, it does indeed hint at something indescribable and perfumey that we hope to enjoy soon with the springtime addition of an Aromatnaya Quince tree to the orchard-ita.

I did glean 6 or 7 quince from a neighborhood bush last week, and peeled and cooked them only to subsequently learn that there are varieties of quince trees chosen for their flowers and others selected for their fruit. I had harvested from a flowering quince which I'm sure makes beautiful blossoms, but its cooked fruit certainly did not live up to the succulence promised in the many descriptions and recipes I've been reading. I hope dogs like quince.

The Department of Not Wasting Anything approach has also led us to start making bone broth instead of throwing away bones and scraps from the meat we eat, and using that bone broth as the base for simple, earthy, hearty stews and soups like this,

which is nothing more than some beans, onion, garlic, thyme and a couple of handfuls of our dried wild boletes, enriched by the little bits of meat scraps that fell off the bones during cooking. So simple, so healthy, and so delicious in a simple, earthy way.

A related change has been the move to buying free-range, local, non-factory-farmed, humanely treated and humanely slaughtered beef, lamb, goat and pork. When you buy meat this way, you get almost all of the animal, with the bones cut up for the dogs, and the organs for….? In the spirit of not wasting anything, I’ve tried my hand at making paté from goat liver, which proved adequately decadent, and will soon be embarking on beef tongue with horseradish-mustard sauce. Yikes! If we never post again, you know why.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Phoenix Graft: Ghetto-Bonsai

A How-To for the Impatient Bonsai-Maker with Absolutely No Integrity or Self-Respect and Even Less Respect for the Ancient and Venerated Art Form That is Bonsai

Text: Trina
Photos: Trina, Greg and used-without-permission-but-sources-cited

Based on the legend of the phoenix rising from its own ashes, the phoenix being a bird that flew into the sun, died and was reborn, a "phoenix graft" is a highly denegrated, blasphemous, disrespectul and really cool technique for cheating your way into an insta-bonsai that almost immediately looks like you've put 30 years' worth of patience, expertise, and TLC into it. Only you didn't. You cheated. Here's how: Steal an old, dead, gnarled tree from an undisclosed location:

Haul it home without breaking off too many of its lovely, delicate, twisting branches. Carve a channel into the dead wood into which you tuck and tie a young, skinny, pliable whip of a tree.

photo source

Plunk the whole thing into a pot and voila! It looks 300 years old! Perfect for the ghetto bonsai-er who is just too damn cheap to spend $2,450.00 on a spectacularly, expertly crafted phoenix graft such as this one at White Bear Bonsai:

photo source

Or even just $1,700.00 for one like this:

photo source

It actually does take a small investment of time and effort to get a phoenix graft past the Frankenstein stage, which, as far as this ghetto bonsai-er is concerned, totally counts for something!

photo source

The folks at the Buffalo Bonsai Society, however, disagree. Here’s what they have to say about phoenix grafts: “The technique of attaching young live plants to weathered wood is arguably the most controversial of all bonsai techniques. The Japanese call the practice tanuki, implying deception or cheat. As you can imagine, this is frowned upon in Japanese bonsai… If you set out to make a tanuki, a deception, you will have no respect for your work.”

Respect reschmect! My intention is not merely to deceive, but also (mostly) to skip the tedious 30 years of patience and care that goes into a true bonsai, and still end up with a living object that has a facade of great dignity and beauty. I want instant-ancient and by Dog I will have it!

The other thing about true bonsai that I find extremely problematic is, oh, keeping the things alive in such tiny pots. I personally hold the world record for most number of bonsai killed in one lifetime. My newly conceived solution and patented, registered, trademarked invention – Giant Bonsai ™ -- will take Ghetto Bonsai one step further -- or lower, as it were -- removing the bonsai aspect altogether and relying solely on the phoenix aspect to achieve the illusion of extremely old age. This juniper skeleton will be the framework for my first attempt this coming spring:

The obvious benefits of Giant Bonsai are: bigger pot, bigger tree, more soil, less root pruning, easier to keep alive. And, just for the sake of adding a smidge of integrity to the process, I’m starting with seeds I collected my very own self from around the neighborhood: sycamore, walnut, oak, maple, smoke tree. Stay tuned for progress reports! Phoenix Graft Part 2 here

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The First Ride of Winter - and more

Text: Greg
Photos: Trina and Greg

I guess we can dispense with all that "before winter" hoopla now, as it is officially and astronomically Winter. Yes, the shortest day of the year is here, and now the days will be getting longer and longer, swooping us ever closer to Spring, which is practically here already! Well, except for the intervening two or three months of icy cold we still have ahead of us.

The winter storms hit our valley this week, stealing the sunshine and bringing thick clouds which dropped moisture upon us. None of which has thus far lived up to anything that strikes us as "wintry". No, it has not been very sunny this week. We got one light dusting of snow. But most of the moisture that has fallen has been nice, gentle rain. And not much of that. Relatively warm temperatures, even at night. Breezes that have blown the surface of the earth dry again.

All of which have conspired to allow me to present: The First Ride of Winter.

Sprocket and I rode out of town and hit the trails. The moisture had added some tack-o-grip to the soil, which made cornering fun and fast. We met a good friend out there, which subsequently made some of the cornering even more fun and fast. To the point that, according to the friend, Sprocket ended up using his entire 9" of travel as he ran along behind me through the dips.

But winter isn't just about riding. Or...? Er, no. It's also that time of year when we eat a lot of crap. With that seasonal spirit in mind, we made some cookies, er, well, Zeek and Sprocket helped us make some interesting cookies. We took them to a cookie party where they met with some degree of skepticism.

Winter is also about, so far, cooking, baking, and wandering around outside enjoying the aesthetics of dry, dead stuff.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Running in the Parp* with Dogs

by Greg

Our dogs are serious working dogs and have important work to do. The other day, their important job was to play chase and keep-away with the flying disc in the parp.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Last Ride Before Winter - Part 9

Words and photos by Greg

I bought some skis. Some poles and boots. Cross country skis. Used, and circa 1985 or so, which is appropriate, since that's about the last time I owned cross country skis.

Trina wanted to go skiing last winter. We went once. Up the mountain on a sunny day on fresh snow with borrowed skis and borrowed boots that chewed my feet down to bloody nubs. We didn't go again.

But now I'm fully equipped and ready to ski. There's just one problem.

Here in the valley, the trend of our season continues unabated. Mostly dry conditions and sunshine, or at least sunshine-ish. Which makes it pretty hard to justify a drive up the big mountain to cold and snow when, hey, there are mountain bike trails right here near the edge of town. And we like to ride.

I was out there today. Just me and Sprocket. We rode/ran right from home, hit singletrack in about 20 minutes, and took a loop including one of my favorite chunky, flowy trails anywhere. Beautiful weather. Amazing trail. And I seemed to "have it" today in a way that made everything about the ride feel "right". Which was an extremely good way to feel on the last ride before winter.

Well, er... IF it's the last ride before winter.

Last Ride Before Winter - Part 8

This past Monday, I rode an amazing cliffside trail with a couple excellent riders, both of whom were also packing cameras. The theme of the day was maybe 50/50 ride/photograph. Or maybe even 30/70. The light was a bit softer and grayer than we'd hoped for, but we still managed to eke some fun shots out of it.

With these particular photo-geeks, there's never really any hurry, and there's never a reason not to stop and shoot. Which probably explains why we squeezed every bit of light out of the day and made it back down the perilous trail to the bottom with no more than an orange band of light remaining on the western horizon.

Yet another Last Ride Before Winter®.