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Tadpoles and eggs

Tadpoles and eggs

We have a little seep at a low place in the field where a little water runs all the time, a place ideal for small frogs. I love to hear them sing. They are mostly tenor and mezzo soprano, and proud of it. This time of year they are in celebration mode. The sound of their music carries a long, long way.

My love for tadpoles had its origin in my childhood. Mama found some frog eggs somewhere and brought them home. She put them in a deep dish on the back porch and forbade little hands to touch. That spring we watched with wonder as the eggs hatched and the little tadpoles put on their front legs, then their back legs, and their tails went away. Mama put a rock in the dish so the little frogs could climb out of the water when they were old enough. By that time she had placed a scrap of screen wire over her miniature pond to keep the little critters from jumping out. They were little bitty fellas, about an inch long, more or less, roughly the same size as these that are hatching right now.

The adults are small, about four inches long until they jump and then they spread out quite a ways. I see them sometimes as I walk by their little home, jumping from the bank into the water. They are afraid of me.

Tiny tadpole pond, with algae

Tiny pond with tadpoles

Before long the algae will thicken along the edges of their pond and you won’t see them very much. Tadpoles eat algae as they grow. Perhaps big frogs do also. I am not sure.

It looks like hundreds of tadpoles hatch, but we don’t end up with very many frogs (which might be a good thing, when one thinks of the plague of frogs in Egypt; they were even in the bread dough.) (Exodus 8:3) Snakes and other predators perhaps eat them.

March is concert time, and we are enjoying the music. Grandma always said the opera music Grandpa listened to sounded like frogs. Could be true; their song is really lovely.

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Quebec Home

Quebec Home

This time of year I can not help remembering Christmas Past. There was a time when I was younger when I felt that life began after Christmas. The hard part of the year was the end, and once I got past that I could manage. I am not the only one for whom Christmas was (is) a wincing pain, to be endured until friends or family have had their little deal. Untold numbers of people today are only too glad for Christmas to be over.

I thank God that the pain of those years is now only a memory. And it’s not because I’m married now, and life is good.  It is because the Lord led me step by step, by little and by little, away from pain into peace, until finally the pain was gone. Today I can remember that pain, but I can not feel it any more.

It happened during the years I lived at Quebec, fifteen in all. I am brimful of stories from that time. So many astounding things took place. One of them was a real White Christmas.

In North Carolina, unless you live at the crest of the Smokies, it is rare to consistently experience snow at Christmastime. Here in the mountains we have snow fairly often, but not necessarily when we want it, such as December 24th after we have finished our shopping.

I don’t remember what year it was — some time in the late 90’s. Nor do I remember the exact day the snow began falling — maybe Christmas Eve, maybe the day before. I was off from my job for a few days, which was good, for I was never one to drive in new snow. It was beautiful, and I didn’t have to go anywhere so I sat beside the stove and watched it from the living room. It snowed and snowed and snowed until there were ten or twelve inches I guess.

Not enough to keep the four wheel drive trucks from rolling. My house was somewhat hidden, but near the road. I could always hear the traffic going by, and Christmas Eve was no exception, snow or not. But gradually their rumblings became farther and farther apart, and as night drew near an unusual stillness began to settle over the valley.  What was it?  Why had the vehicles stopped passing? And then I realized: It was Christmas Eve — the one night when all self respecting coon hunters, road runners, good old boys and girls, and their kids, stayed home and waited for Santa.

I eventually had to go out to get some firewood to feed my stove. The snow had stopped falling. A pale moon lit up the whole valley. There was no noise, no sound at all except the far away rushing of the creek. The stillness was almost tangible.

I took my wood back inside, chunked it into the stove, and went for my coat and cap. I stood in the snow for a long time that night, under the bare limbs of the big dogwood tree, looking at the white fields below me, and listening to the silence of Christmas Eve, savoring what I knew was a once in a lifetime experience.

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witch hazel

witch hazel

I first saw them in the cold of winter, shivering on the banks of the West Fork of the French Broad River, their golden petals nevertheless unfurled, glowing in the thin rays of the December sun. I was amazed at their audacity. Nor were there merely one or two little flowers, struggling to put forth one last show before finally giving up the ghost. Oh,no! The whole bush was bursting with bloom. I didn’t know what they were, but I had heard of the winter flowering shrub, the witch hazel. And that is what it was – a native witch hazel.

After I married Jack and came up here I discovered we had a witch hazel above the spring, a small tree, really. I didn’t notice it until winter, when it bloomed. In the summer I was able to see the fruit and the leaf of this curious bush and I am now able to identify it by the fruit.

Yesterday I noticed a small one in full bloom in the campground and was able to get a good photo of the blossom.

Witch hazel is used as an astringent. It is a treatment for swellings and wounds, as well as  skin problems such as acne and psoriasis. The use of its twigs for divining rods led to its reputation as a witch.

Witch hazel is a plant of encouragement. When summer has passed, the sap has gone down and the world’s turned gray the brave withch hazel puts forth its frostproof tentacles and toughs it out until spring.

I reckon we can do the same. 

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Hickory King corn, a good variety for grits. A very tall corn.

Hickory King corn, a good variety for grits. A very tall corn.

When I was growing up here in Transylvania County we never ate grits. I was an adult before I ever tasted them. And I have to say I cared not for them then. I found them blah, bland and tasteless. But I learned to add salt; and with butter they got better. Now I have them two or three times a week or more. They grow on you.

And no, they don’t grow on bushes. I knew a man once who enjoyed spinning a yarn occasionally. He particularly delighted in telling Yankees how he harvested grits in the fall, shaking them off the grit bushes into a sheet!

There are two types of grits – hominy, and corn. However hominy is corn. So actually, all grits are corn. The difference is in the processing, or lack of it. To make hominy, corn must be soaked in lye or a similar agent until it swells and pops off its husk. The result is a softer grain that when cleaned and dried grinds easily into grits. Almost all grits sold in supermarkets and eaten by consumers today are hominy grits.

Hominy can be eaten as it is after processing. I remember hominy being served at meals from time to time when I was a child. A grain of corn having become hominy is quite a bit larger than its original size, and the taste is different from that of ordinary corn. My aunt Edna told a funny story about the time Grandma left her and my mother in charge. They decided to cook dried hominy. They built the fire in the stove, put on a pot of water, and poured in as much hominy as they thought they needed for supper. If you’ve ever cooked hominy grits you know how much water it takes, even for a small amount. Well, their hominy slurped up the water and was soon expanded to double its size or more and boiling out of the pot. Before their escapade was over, they were cooking hominy in the dishpan.

Corn grits are not as readily available as hominy grits. They are mostly found in specialty shops and farm markets. Grits are almost, but not quite, corn meal. They are prepared by simply grinding whole corn into the proper size and consistency – a little coarser than coarse corn meal. Corn grits take longer to cook; they are “grittier” than hominy grits and more flavorful.

If your ground corn is too coarse for grits, then it’s chicken feed — too fine, it’s corn meal. And you need to know also: corn meal is not just for corn bread. Old folks used to cook it with milk or water for “mush” that they ate with milk and sugar. That’s not my idea of tasty, but Jack says it was very good. I never ate mush, but I will swear by corn meal gravy. There’s just nothing better in the gravy line. Just use your regular recipe and substitute corn meal for flour. The flavor and texture is far better. And then there is Italian polenta, which is also ground corn, but about which I know practically nothing.

I learned to like hominy grits and I must confess to having learned also to enjoy non-hominy corn grits now that I have learned the proper way to cook them. I was using too much water and consequently they were thin and tasteless.  And bitter also. But the bitter taste I found is not typical of corn grits, but was due to the poor quality of that one particular batch of corn.

Like a lot of folks who are senior citizens now, we didn’t have a lot of anything when I was growing up, and that included food. When we had meat, which was not too often, it was squirrel, rabbit, or little fried fish my daddy caught. But we were well fed. Mama always managed to get milk for us. And we had those wonderful staples – pinto beans – and corn bread. We didn’t know the importance of that humble combination at the time, and I was amazed years later when my cousin pointed it out to me. The beans and the corn bread constituted a complete protein!

The Lord does provide!

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Night after night from July until cold katydid enlargedweather the katydids provide background music for all outdoor activities here. Even when I am inside, I can hear them if I listen carefully.  Sometimes their constant strumming gets to be a little much, and I long for the silence of early summer evenings.

A few katydids almost always arrive at Toxaway around the 23rd of July and begin practicing their music as they wait for others to join them. They were late this year by a week or more, but finally they all made it in.

When the katydids arrive I remember Grandma’s laughter and her story about Bella Jablonski, the city girl from Brooklyn who came to visit her. Bella was Aunt Altha’s friend. They were both student nurses at the Jewish Hospital in Brooklyn, New York at the time, and Aunt Altha had invited Bella to the mountains for a short vacation. Bella was completely ignorant of farm life; Grandma said Bella mistook the rooster’s crow for the lowing of the cow. I guess that’s possible if you’ve heard neither.

Well, of course Bella had never heard katydids performing in concert, and nobody thought to tell her of their all nighters.  Grandma’s was a board and batten farmhouse that let in not only the heat and the cold, but every sound.

The first morning of Bella’s visit Grandma asked her guest if she had slept well, whereupon Bella replied that she had not. When Grandma asked her what the trouble was Bella told her, “It was the bugs! The bugs scraped the wall all night long!”

The katydids have gone to scraping in the daytime now as well as evening, and their buzzing fills each sunlit afternoon.  They are very docile now and easy to photograph. I found one on the porch railing today.

 

 

 

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cornbreadBefore I tell you about this delicious cornbread it is appropriate that I say this bread is food for the stomach. There is another Bread that sustains real life, and that is Christ, the true Bread from Heaven. You can read what Jesus said when he called himself the Bread of life in the Bible – John chapter 6.

In these three dimensions however, there is no bread, nowhere, to compare with this delicious old fashioned soda bread. It contains no flour and no sugar. I make it almost every day and it is soon devoured by me and my husband Jack and the dog Bruno, if he’s lucky.

Several years ago Jack bought an old gristmill, nearly a hundred years old. Lacking a waterfall of suitable size to power his gristmill, he bought an old hit and miss gasoline motor of the same vintage and soon he was grinding corn. Recently he bought wheat and now we have whole wheat flour. Whole wheat is good, I guess, if you have time and patience to make yeast bread. But…why bother, when corn bread tastes simply divine and cooks up in a minute.

I cook mine in a tabletop convection ovenOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA that I bought for around a hundred dollars last winter. One of the best investments I ever made for my kitchen! Here’s how you do it:

Grease a small cast iron pan and place in oven. I use an 8 inch pan. Heat to to 400 – 450. While oven is heating measure a little over a cup of coarse ground corn meal and sift it into a bowl. Throw away whatever does not go through the sifter, and don’t push it or bread will be over-crunchy Add a half teaspoon of salt and a quarter teaspoon of soda and mix in. Add one egg and some oil or bacon grease, a tablespoon or two. Do not mix at this point. When the pan is hot add about a cup of buttermilk and mix everything up quickly. Take pan from oven and pour excess melted grease that is in pan into the batter and mix in. Pour the batter into the pan and return pan quickly to oven. In a few minutes you will have a cake of the best cornbread on the planet.

Do not substitute sweet milk for buttermilk. The chemical reaction between the sour buttermilk and the soda is what causes the bread to rise.

This recipe is based on a recipe I found on the internet. Unfortunately I can no longer find it to give credit to my source. I do remember that the lady who posted it said her mother (or perhaps her grandmother) made this bread every day for her family. I can certainly see why. I am certain it was much in demand.

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Appalachian Hill Cane

Appalachian hill cane

I noted with interest last year that there is a newly discovered bamboo in North America. Its scientific name is Arundinaria appalachiana. The common name is Appalachian hill cane. Scientists at Iowa State University who specialize in bamboo were introduced to the new cane by Alan Weakley of the University of North Carolina. To him it was not a new plant.

Nor to us mountaineers. We’ve known it all our lives.  It’s that little spindly, tough, tall grass that grows on the slopes of many of our mountains. Most of the time it is two feet or under in height.

However, under optimum conditions, this cane can grow to six feet tall. I had a patch one time that was nearly as tall as me.  In time that little cane patch grew pretty big and it was in my way, so I cut it down one winter after it had dropped its leaves. That is what is so unusual about hill cane. Other North American canes do not shed their leaves.

It came back, but I cut it down again, and finally got rid of it. I was sorry I had cut down my cane when I found out it was famous. Fortunately I found some nice ones that had escaped the blade. I have found a more amenable location for my cane and hope to start another small patch next spring.

Let that be a lesson to you as it was to me: the things we want to get rid of today we just might want back someday!

 

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