Summer Solstice

Happy summer solstice! As always it’s been far too long since I have written. I truly need to learn that I don’t need to write quite so much when I make a post.

Streamlining my writing is hard. I want to say every little thing, I want to fix every spelling error right as it happens, I want to include only the very best images. But I really need to get past that and learn to just write more regularly.

Today, being the summer solstice, is one of the handful of pagan holidays I celebrate. It’s a tough one – there’s no corresponding holidays on the American calendar. The only corresponding religious holiday is “Midsummer” – or a celebration of the birth of St. John – an obscure and rarely noted celebration that almost nobody knows about let alone celebrates. But in pagan cultures, celebrating the seasons and especially the solstices is a big deal. There’s just no culture available for the summer one in the US. There’s not a single major holiday that makes it easier or is even close to the date. Want to decorate your house in lights, stars, and have a fire for Yule? That’s easy! That’s stuff that got absorbed into Christmas from paganism so it’s available commercially everywhere. Want to have a golden cloth or summer herbs for making an amulet on the summer solstice? Tough out of luck. You’re lucky if garden centers are even still carrying the herbs you need so late in the season.

But pagan celebrations always make me happy. They have such a deep focus on being spiritual, feeling happy about your world, celebrating with people… Not to mention their deep connection to agriculture and the seasons. It always makes me feel a little more at peace to celebrate them, and a little more hyped for homesteading. Being pagan often lends itself to a desire to create and build and maintain with one’s own hands. Fae, deities and spirits generally appreciate things made with old-timey love, rather than a purchase. You can’t exactly give a fairy a gift card to Starbucks. So I find a thread of homesteading and older skillsets tends to run deep through people drawn to pagan faiths and the corresponding celebrations always make me feel a deeper connection to both nature and those old skills passed down for thousands of years. Skills on which our society is built and in which handiwork and love shine.

Today, as I said my prayers at noon (honoring the power of the sun, and welcoming the slow rebirth of winter) I thought a lot about my plants, the lifestyle I want to maintain, and why I want to maintain it. It was a good time to review what I hoped to get out of the year and reflect on my love for this lifestyle.

And speaking of this lifestyle, while we’ve had some setbacks this year I would say that the experience has generally been more positive this year. Of course terrible things still exist in the world, and even in my life… And I likely give a great deal more time and energy to such things than I can easily spare… But the homesteading has been improving over last years struggles. The garden is lush and flourishing. We may have finally resolved our Evil Groundhog problem with the capture and ultimate demise of not just a baby groundhog but the mother as well, leaving our garden in a more peaceful state. Our berry canes are just beginning to reach fruition and the garden is recovering from the attacks by said groundhogs. We’ve even stayed on top of the problems more than usual this year, such as making sure every tomato is staked and tied before they even reached 2′.

The chicken flock is slowly making it’s transition into a breeding flock of wheaten ameraucanas. I continue my search for good stock, but it’s slow going and difficult. The best stock is in Texas – on the other side of the country – and very little is available in this area. Next year I hope to have my own breedings of birds for my flock. Right now, we are still an easter egger flock and I even have a broody hen on some eggs.

And my efforts to gain tri-color rex continue to advance, admittedly slowly but present. Over the next two years we may have rapid turnover in both of our livestock stock. I hope we see real and dramatic results from that!

All around things continue to advance in the deliberate and more positive way. Though some aspects continue to provide difficulty, I hope we see better results this year than ever before!

Start your engines….

It’s spring again on the homestead. Or, it’s almost spring on the homestead. We’re still getting regular frosts but they’ve been interspersed with beautiful, sunny, 40-6*F days in which I go out and start doing work. Most of February is boring and uneventful… We’ve been folding a lot of seed pots and doing a lot of cleanup, but otherwise not much happens until the end of the month.

Now that we’re getting those few warm and sunny days, the ground can start to be gently worked. Compost can get mixed into beds, chickens begin to lay again, beds can be tilled and mulched to capture the last of the nitrogen from the upcoming snows, cages can be cleaned from their frozen winter layovers. Rabbits can be bred without the fear of cold. Dead weed stalks can be pulled. With the absence of both greenery and snow, lawns can be cleaned of any trash, broken pots, loose bags, small tools etc that were previously covered up, consumed by grass and time or otherwise forgotten about.

We moved a bale of straw out to start rotting for our potato boxes this year (rapid mold growth from lack of previous decomposition was a big problem last year), re-tied the trellises as needed, and plotted out new garden spaces. It’s our hope to dig a rain garden in the back lawn and plant it in such a way that it helps drain water from the rest of our lawn. Despite all of our work, the lawn is frankly lacking in drainage. We are living on former swampland, after all. We’re where the water stops and we have to deal with it. Thirsty plants that need a lot of water in a slight depression in our lawn will have lots of water for a long time. And with their water uptake, storage and filtration, the rest of our lawn might be a little less mucky. We also have plans to put in a more permanent pathway for walking on down the center of the lawn. We’re all sick of our boots sucking into the mud.

For me, all of this happens rapidly. A few days of beautiful sun with no rain, and then back to being bundled up indoors while the ground freezes so hard that it cracks and breaks apart. On these warm days with nothing growing I also allow the chickens to range across the entire lawn. They love the opportunity to eat the bugs out of the garden beds and compost that I till up. When the cold weather and snow sets back in they won’t even want to leave their coop, let alone venture across the entire lawn.

This early spring management is especially important for us this year as last year we had a lot of trouble with some little monsters known as wireworms. They devoured our potato crop and made a small dent in our radishes as well. They’re common in lawns across the US and are the larval stage of the click beetle, a fun little bug enjoyed by children that is fairly harmless but makes a solid snapping sound when threatened, handled, or laid on it’s back. The larvae, however, devour root vegetables at an shocking rate and is a demon to a gardener/farmer like me. My goal is to manage them effectively without pesticides. One way to do that is to till the soil frequently in cold weather as they do not like cold, regularly disturbed dirt. By keeping the soil cool and chilly and mobile, they may migrate out of the beds and into other spaces. We also have a “grub buster” globe filled with beneficial nematodes that might prey on the wireworms as well as the fleas we dealt with over the fall that we fear may return in the spring and the white grubs we sometimes find in our beds. When it warms up and the tilling is no longer beneficial to deter the wireworms, we will spray the nematodes on the beds and across much of the lawn and hope for the best. We don’t have a lot of other spaces in which to plant potatoes.

The rats are also becoming active again with spring. We’ve moved all our feed bags into metal bins, we set out various baits for much of the winter as well, but there’s only so much that can be done to exclude. We’ve never left feed sitting out for the chickens and rabbits either, the rats don’t seem to mess with the compost and we cleared out the majority of their living spaces. Yet there they remain. We are determined to be rid of them.

Fleas, rats and worms. Such is the nitty gritty of farm life.

But at least the sun is absolutely wonderful feeling these days. I will desperately enjoy it until it becomes so hot that I crisp up like a lobster.

Next week it will be cold and snowy and wet again with very little sun to be seen. Then I will be back indoors, starting seeds in pots under lamps in my basement like the grower of illicit goods. Currently I have leeks, basil and thyme sprouted and growing with celery, parsley and oregano planted but not yet germinated. Next it is a massive number of paste tomatoes and several varieties of peppers. Before you know it many of these plants will be going into the ground. Wish me luck!

Yuletide Greetings

Hello! With the advent of December (if you’ll excuse the pun) my mind starts planning out my annual winter celebrations. In our household we celebrate Yule, a pagan and Wiccan tradition and one of about a dozen major religious winter celebrations in the US.

Yule is a really fun holiday, that was subject to heavy Christianization into the celebration we know today as Christmas. Many of the traditions were lost in the process and are hard to understand.  A lot of the history of this celebration has been lost to the ages and is slowly being pieced back together.

Modern celebrations have a few big elements in common with historical accounts of the celebration. The first being the purpose of the Yule celebration. Yule celebrates the spiritual embodiment of the Sun. Yule takes place on the shortest night of the year, and is a celebration designed to be so festive, happy, joyous and bright that it reminds the Sun itself of how wonderful the earth is, and begins the cycle of days getting longer again. This deep connection to the sun is intrinsic to ancient pagan celebrations of Yule, regardless of the specific faith that was celebrating it. In those times, celebrations were shared across cultures and many sects celebrated the same holy days in similar ways, just worshiping different gods. Because of this, nearly every major religion has a winter festival of lights, and it was this celebration that layed the foundation for Christmas as we know it.
The other thing these modern celebrations have in common with ancient ones are many of the broader traditions and symbology for the celebration. Filling the home with lights (in those days, specifically it was candles), and bringing a tree indoors to decorate with candles was meant to make the world bright and inviting and also depict the sun. The exchange of gifts and a grand feast was meant to make the season joyous and festive. Decking halls with boughs of holly, mistletoe and pines were a reminder of the beautiful green growth of spring. Wassailing was singing door to door, which evolved into caroling, but also was an exchange of song and alcohol from the poor for gifts and food from the rich. Usually, the poor also offered blessings to the rich if they received their gifts, and curses if they didn’t. This history lives on in some Christmas carols, such as “We Wish You A Merry Christmas” and it’s references to carolers demanding a figgy pudding.

We celebrate Yule with these traditions in mind, and conveniently that’s pretty easy since most Christmas traditions are based off of old Germanic Yule traditions. We put up an evergreen tree (a fake one from my sister) and decorate it with baubles, ornaments, and lights. We hang wreaths of evergreens (Ok… They’re plastic too) over our bay windows, and put lights on the walls.
We also throw a big party on the 21st. This is my equivalent of Christmas, both eve and day, all wrapped into one. We invite a multitude of friends and family over to celebrate, 20 or so of our closest companions. At dawn I wake up to bless the Yule log (another old tradition we have a variation of) which is a massive chunk of wood. After that I spend the day prepping for the party. We enjoy a huge feast, an exchange of gifts, drinks, and a ceremony where we burn wishes for the new year over the blessed log in our fireplace, asking the spirits of the world to grant them to us.

Because of the nature of the celebration, it requires a lot of advance planning and a lot of resources. Like much of America these days, cash is in shorter supply than time, so we DIY many of our gifts. In the past we have given out trays of home-baked goods, home-made candies (including these really great caramels I made), some mushroom jars I made once, apple butter, etc.

Once again we will be giving out apple butter this year (we ended up making 3 gallons of it this year, after-all), but we’re adding some other home-made gifts to the list as well. This year we managed to make 13 half pints of home-made salsa, much of which will become gifts. There are other gifts we plant on making to give away that I will hopefully be detailing throughout the month.

We are also planning our feast and exploring options for our Yule dinner. This year we have two small(er) chickens we were planning on roasting, a pair of rabbits, and chickpea stuffed portabellas with pecans and carrots (for our vegetarian friends), roast veggies, stuffing, and deserts. But specifics are undetermined yet (beyond the vegetarian meal. We don’t eat holiday-worthy vegetarian meals often, so we pick recipes for that dish from the internet). Over the summer we made a Jamaican jerk chicken that was a big hit… Should we make that again? Should we go for something classic, loaded with sage and onions? Should we do a nice citrus pair of birds? Should the carrots be sweet or savory? The mashed potatoes plain and smooth, or lumpy and garlic filled like 2 Chainz famous mash? (We had those potatoes for Thanksgiving by the way, and they were excellent!)

There’s a lot of options but one things for certain, as the ability to leave the house recedes into freezing temperatures we’ll have more time to make those choices.

Do you have a favorite holiday dish? Share it with me! Yule is primarily about community and joy in literally dark times. I’d love to add a bit of your community and joy into mine!

Eggstrodinary Sunshine

I’ve been seeing so many posts being so very excited for spring, and a rather common talking point is how much the sunshine gives you vitamin D and how healthy that is for you. And it makes me wonder how many people understand how vitamin D even works in the body.

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Sunshine does not, in fact, provide you any vitamin D whatsoever. It’s an interesting fact that sunshine actually converts the cholesterol in your skin into Vitamin D.

According to health.howstuffworks.com;
“When UVB rays hit your skin, a chemical reaction happens: Your body begins the process of converting a prohormone in the skin into vitamin D. In this process, a form of cholesterol called 7-dehydrocholesterol (7-DHC), naturally found in your skin, absorbs the UVB radiation and gets converted into cholecalciferol. Cholecalciferol is the previtamin form of D3. Next, the previtamin travels through your bloodstream to your liver, where the body begins to metabolize it, turning it into hydroxyvitamin D, which is also known as 25-hydroxyvitamin D or 25(OH)D. The kidneys then convert the 25(OH)D into dihydroxyvitamin D, also called 1,25-dihydroxyvitamin D or 25(OH)2D — this is the hormone form of vitamin D your body can use”

Which basically means that UVB rays (or, unfiltered sunlight) reacts with cholesterol in our bodies to make a substance that enters our blood, which our organs then process into vitamin D!

Additionally of interest, Vitamin D is really important in doing certain things in the body like absorbing calcium, fighting infections and generally keeping your blood flowing and your muscles healthier. Perhaps, though, the most exciting thing about vitamin D is it’s potential to prevent cancer when found in high levels. It tends to line up surprisingly well with what we’ve seen in increased cancer rates in a modern world (we spend much less time in the sunshine than we used to as a species), and while correlation is not causation (and many factors including genetic contribute to cancer), many cancer research institutes are taking it very seriously.

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Interestingly, we can see exactly how this effects our bodies in chickens and eggs that we eat. There’s a reputable and highly-cited study done by Mother Earth News that used an independent lab and tested dozens of egg samples from pastured poultry. Their findings made complete sense with what we know about how bodies process sunlight. Chickens exposed to more sunlight produced eggs with significantly lower cholesterol and 3 to 6 times as much vitamin D as CAFO style eggs.

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So it only makes sense that chickens raised in sunshine produce better eggs. It’s the same reason we try to get sunshine ourselves. And the same applies to other animals as well, like pigs or cows. Animals raised outdoors in full sun have higher levels of vitamin D in their bodies and lower levels of cholesterol, which they pass on to their byproducts (milk, cheese, eggs, even their offspring) and their meats (ham, bacon, steaks).
So if you ever wonder why your great-grandpappy lived to be 95, worked like a horse until the day he died, all the while eating eggs and bacon for breakfast every day and never getting cancer… You may only need to look up at the sky. The answer could have been right above you the whole time!

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Solstice Morning

7AM and my alarm goes off. There’s no rising before dawn naturally in a modern house, the sort in which we still live. Today I will be burning the candle at both ends, as it were, to keep my yule fire burning as late as possible. The dogs give me scornful looks as I slip out of bed. “What are you doing getting up?”, they say with their accusing eyes. “You’re interrupting our sleep! Go back to bed. The lights aren’t even on yet. Silly human.” Dogs simply don’t concern themselves with such things. Soon their stares were replaced with drifitng glazed eyes and twitching paws, chasing squirrels in their dreams.
The world is still dark but the snow, now a few days old, reflects every light, bouncing it around to give the whole neighborhood that early morning winter haze that makes seeing quite easy if one moves slow. And, in truth, it’s not as dark as it was just 10 minutes earlier. The first hints of color are just starting to appear on the horizon. The weatherman said that dawn would be at 7:15AM this morning, so at 7:05 I trundle off in my warmest pajama and gather my things. As the light went on in the garage, the rabbits eyes me with bleary eyes. I was never out at this time of day… What on earth was I doing up? “Go backto bed, silly human.” the rabbits told me as the shuffled in their boxes and nests, trying to stay in a nice, dark space. Dark makes rabbits feel safer, and more at home.
Tradition is such an important part of homesteading. Everything we do is seeped in it, and Yule most of all. Yule is one of the oldest holidays, the sort from which all the other ones stem. Trees, hats, carols, yule fires, gift giving, and even holiday lights came from this ancient celebration to welcome the sun. But the morning before ceremony is still all of it’s own. After assembling my candle, matches, sage stick, and saw (all waiting for me from the night before) I let the chickens outside. I couldn’t imagine a ceremony about nature and mother earth with my animals locked away in their coop. As they stepped outside and stretched their wings, I lit my candle. As the first bits of sun peaked the horizon behind our overcast skies, my rooster crowed. It’s hard to think of a more appropriate sound for the moment, loud, joyful, welcoming the sun. My sage was lit and burned, warding off bad spirits. Then everything fell silent. The wild birds were nowhere to be found and even the rabbits stopped their snuffling and held still. As if the world held it’s breath for a moment while I said my prayers.
I evoked the native American tradition of calling upon the spirits of the four directions and welcoming them to my ceremony, to offer their blessings. My great, great, great grandmother on my mom’s side was native american, but hid her heritage from everyone she could, as the time she lived was one where “injuns” were still persecuted with the harshest of racism. We have little ability to locaate the original tribe from which we came, but the culture has always resonated with me and their prayers are some of the finest in the world, coming from the soul rather than a rote passage.
Starting with the East, the direction I was facing, I welcomed the sunrise, life, and blessings into my home. To the south I welcomed summer, warmth, passion and glory. To the west I welcomed the sunset, wisdom, logic, thoughtfulness and introspection. And to the north I welcomed the winter, the strength to endure, to grow an (in the end) to be at peace.

I selected a log from my log pile as the birds resumed their morning racket. We have no trees to cut, so a precut log was my only option. Never purchased, but rather, a gift from the tree companies working on my street. A big log for our fireplace, a full foot across…. But somehow just the right length, and made of oak. I placed it on my haybale, with the candle just below and my saw in hand. I decided I would try to trim the edges, I took off the small branches coming out of it, and realized that the oak was so thick and heavy it would be very difficult to cut through the whole log… Even with my electric saw. Instead I cut a thick notch into the outer layers of the log and drilled a hole. This will be filled with alcohol and oil to help start the log burning the night. The cuts are ceremonial in nature anyhow, and it seemed that the universe had already gifted me the perfect yule log without my having to worry about it.
The world went quiet again as I picked up my candle and poured some wax over the log and asked the spirits for their blessings. I invited any other benevolent spirits to share their wisdom and kindness with us as the sky grew more and more day. I re-lit my sage, and began to cleanse the air again. I thanked the benevolent spirits for what they may bring, and asked with much politeness and respect that the bad ones avoid our home, and to only give us as much challenge as we could handle.
Then I said goodbye to the spirits of the four directions. I thanked them for their joys and strength that they brought our home each year, and wished peace upon them, sending them on their way, perhaps to another solstice log blessing somewhere else in the world.
By this point, the dawn sky had almost left us, replacing blues and husky greys with shimmering whites and bright light. I lifted up my log on one shoulder, and carried it inside to the hearth, as my rooster let out his last bevy of crows for the morning. He’s such a respectful bird, and never crows in the late morning, only at dawn. The hens resumed cackling and the rabbits began digging in their hay. Soon it would be time to get chores started, making sure everyone had food and water and clean cages… Everything was starting to sound busy again. But for the time it took the sun to rise everything was quiet, peaceful, magical. I was alone in an amazing world where even the animals respected the gravity of the moment. What a wonderful experience.
Good morning bloggers. Today I also sold one of my rabbits, one of Kibbles babies. We have a few new rex rabbits in the barn and so Kibbles can now have purebred rex kits, her first litter of them now being about 10 weeks. The smaller black otter buck went to a pet home for the holidays, somewhat unusual given my usual customers, but the man purchasing it seemed very eager to learn about the best rabbit care options…And every pet has to come from somewhere.
Tonight is my yule celebration. We’ll eat a roast duck, sing songs, wear Christmas hats and exchange some gifts. We’ll light the yule log and wish for the sun to come back into the world. It’s going to be here for such a short time today, and it will be such a long night after it leaves. The longest of the year.
I hope you have a happy Yule this year, regardless of what holiday you celebrate. I hope that today is a joyful day.