“Mountain Economy”. It’s finally complete!

So I went and wrote a short story.

Appalachia is the inspiration. Though I have lived in Georgia for close to 20 years, I still consider myself a West Virginian.  There’s no denying that growing up there made me who I am, and at the same time that I love telling people about Cranberry, Sandstone and Holcomb, and even worked in West Virginia tourism for a while, I know that I can’t go back. That story is complicated, but that’s what the state is about. It’s complex, and a few articles or recent soundbites do not begin to explain it. Whatever you imagine when you hear “West Virginia” – it’s probably there. It’s opposite is also there.

Enough rambling. Here is the story. Feedback always welcome!

Mountain Economy (AKA Matthew’s Story)

Mark C. 2018 

 

Matthew knew there was work to do when his father woke him up on Saturday morning. His bedroom was chilly, and his father’s monotone “rise and shine” was harsh compared to his mom’s gentle wake up calls during the week.  He wished he could stay in bed later, but knew there was no need arguing with his dad. He pulled himself out of bed, put on a pair of old jeans and made his way to the kitchen, moving faster when he heard cereal hitting an empty bowl. His little sister, Amber, was sitting in her high-chair, a bowl of colorful “O’s” scattered on the tray in front of her.

“Hi,” he said to his mom and dad who were preoccupied with chores. His dad, Randy, was leaning against the counter. His mom, Sherry, wiped milk from Amber’s face. He sat down and rubbed the sleep from his eyes.

“Morning, Bub.”  His mom added as she grabbed a jug of milk and filled his bowl.  “Make sure you put on your heavy coat. There’s a frost on.” She sat, finally able to enjoy her own breakfast. A few seconds passed before Matthew noticed the silence and glanced at her. Her stare was partially blocked by the dark hair that had fallen from her ponytail, but it was clear she was waiting for a response.

“Yes, mom.” he answered, paying more attention to the faint noise of the weather forecast playing in the living room.

“Thanks, Bub.”

While Matthew ate breakfast, Randy gathered tools and hoses that they would need for their work. He made several trips out the backdoor and to the shed, back through the house, and out the front door to the truck. Each time, the spring on the storm door squealed and pulled the door closed with a crash.  Each time, Matthew jumped. Still sleepy, but starting to wake, he shuffled to the living room and dropped onto the couch. As he leaned over to tie his shoes, he heard the truck start. Dad was ready to go.

The drive was quiet. Randy wasn’t much of a talker, so Matthew gazed out the truck window, hoping to see a rabbit or turkey leaving the woods to forage for food. The grass where the sun hadn’t hit yet was white and frozen stiff.  He tried his best to ignore the overwhelming smell of black walnuts that Randy had picked up at work. The walnuts rolled under Matthew’s feet, and made bracing himself around the turns a chore. The old blue and silver pickup made its way up Smith Creek and turned up the old logging road that worked its way up to the mine. They came to a stop in a flat covered with fading, pale-yellow goldenrod. A rusty sign post was the only hint that a road once carried trucks of timber to the sawmill below.

Randy surveyed the area while Matthew sat in the open door of the truck, enjoying the warmth of the heater as long as possible. He fidgeted with the peeling Batman patch on his shoe, a bad habit, much like his dad’s nail-biting.

“Dad, there’s nothing here. What are we doing?” Matthew asked,  as the tattered Batman logo fell off his shoe and into the frosty leaves.

“Gotta work…won’t take long. You’re old enough to help now,” his dad said as he handed Matthew a backpack. The supplies were almost too heavy for him, but he refused to admit it to his dad. Another backpack, the toolbox and a white tank were unloaded next. Carefully, Randy stepped over the bank and out of view. The cold ground was slick, and the trail was more of a small break in the brush than an actual trail. His grey coat kept getting caught on the briers. Little grey strings fell from the scratches.

“How’s school? Are you liking your teacher any better now?”

“She’s OK.  She don’t like Jamie though. He talks too much and she yells at him.”

“You do what she says,” Randy told him, making sure he understood it was an order.

Matthew gave him a slow, slightly sarcastic, “I will.”  

“That Jamie’s trouble.”

The weight of the backpack  threw off Matthew’s balance as he made his way down the slick bank. He held the pack in front of his face as he clumsily slid down the last few feet, using it to shield his face from stray branches and briers. The trail met the train tracks above Price Creek and continued on over the hill.  

“Bring your backpack here.” Randy unloaded a mass of blue hoses from his pack. “And go sit on those rocks over there by the redbud tree. Don’t look at the fire when I get this torch lit. It’ll be too bright.”

“OK. What do you want me to do?”

“Just go, sit and wait for me.”  

Matthew returned to the spot he stared from earlier and looked out at the houses by the creek, noticing the backyards and what people had in them. It was interesting to see what people keep out back. Old campers, old cars, old dogs and little white, triangle shaped houses with roosters sitting in front of and on top of them. He had only seen the houses from the viewpoint of the school bus, only the fronts of the houses and the small front yards.

He walked farther down the tracks and sat on a prominent rock by the redbud trees. Behind him he heard a pop and the low hiss of his dads torch. He wanted to defy Randy, to turn and watch the work, but he didn’t.  He watched the tiny cars and trucks driving along the creek, which quickly became boring. He picked at the hole in his shoe, and remembered that he had forgotten to pick up the Batman patch that fell off earlier. He turned to tell his dad about the realization-but quickly remembered not to turn toward the torch and stopped himself. From here, he could see the white church  that his grandma attended and the road that cut back to the coal mine where his dad worked until last Fall. A steady parade of cars pulled into the parking lot, each one dropping off well-dressed church ladies, their arms full of boxes and plastic bags. He wondered if they were preparing for a birthday party. A few minutes later, one of the old ladies passed through the front doors and tied three pale blue balloons to the hand rail.

“It’s a boy!”, Matthew mumbled to himself, losing interest in the happenings of the church.

The consistent hiss of the torch followed by the clank of metal continued while Matthew thought about the church, the Batman patch from his shoe, and the church again. He collected a handful of rocks that caught his attention and stuffed them into the pocket of his grey coat. He threw a few rocks at a poplar stump, and tried his hand at making towers out of flat rocks. When the towers collapsed, he used the flat side of one to carve his initials on the rock serving as his perch. As he finished scratching  “R” on the rock, Randy called out “Ready?”. Matthew quickly added a “J” to the initials. It was faint compared to the other letters, but he stood and admired his “MRJ”, then ran down to where his dad was working.

Randy was tired from having organized his work into scattered piles where the parallel tracks used to be. There was a pile for tools, a pile of track cut into long pieces, a pile of short pieces, and a small pile of spikes off to the side. He sat on the edge of the ribbon of rock that the tracks were built on, resting before starting the next chore. Though there was a frost on, he sweated from leaning over the torch for so long.  As Matthew reached the piles, his dad unscrewed the lid of a blue plastic thermos and offered him a drink of water. The thermos was too big, making it hard for Matthew to drink without spilling. He handed the cooler back, Randy took another drink and put the thermos back in the backpack.

“We’ll take the tools up last. I’ll take the big pieces, you take the small pieces.” Randy said. “Can you get it?”

Matthew jumped to the pile, excited to be doing anything other than sitting on a rock, and struggled to pick up the I-shaped piece of steel almost as long as his arm. It was more stable once in his arms, and he responded to his dad with a labored “Yep”.

“We need to carry them up to the truck. Be careful going up. There’s no need to hurry.”

Randy threw a backpack on his back and started to the trail with a larger piece of the track. Matthew walked ahead of him. Going up the hill was easier than coming down. The frost had melted, and the damp leaves gave better traction than damp and frozen leaves.

Matthew grew tired after a few trips carrying the track, then began carrying the backpacks up on his back, which freed his hands to grab saplings and logs to pull himself up the hill. Randy finished carrying the steel and went back for the tank, which he told Matthew to leave for him.

The backpacks were last to go into the bed of the truck.  While Matthew looked for his Batman patch in the grass, Randy opened the thermos and took a drink.

“You ready?”, asked Matthew, barely looking up from the back of the truck.

“I can’t find Batman.”

Randy shuffled backpacks and hoses around in the back of the truck. “Leave it. You need new shoes anyway.”

Matthew continued searching as if he didn’t hear his dads comment. The tailgate slammed shut.

“Hey!” Randy called with a stern, dry voice. “The leaves.”

“The leaves?”

“The tools were in the leaves when we got here because the grass was wet. You check there?” Matthew’s eyebrows lifted as he realized he was searching the wrong area.

Matthew fiddled with the patch as they drove down the hill to the main road near the little white houses.

“What’re those tracks for, dad?”

“We’ll get a good price for them.

“What about the train? Don’t the train need them?”

“Trains don’t come through anymore.”

“Is it stealing? Someone took Jamie’s 4-wheeler and his dad’s tool box.”

“It’s not stealing.”

“But what if the train wants to come through again and they need that track?”

“It’s not stealing.” Randy’s voice was tense. “It’s like….like blackberries. You like blackberries. It’s like blackberries. The mountain has blackberries and the mountain has tracks and when you need them you pick them.”

Matthew thought for a few minutes about blackberries and train tracks.

“Would we get into trouble if -?” Randy smacked the steering wheel and released a defeated sigh.

“Matthew! You..”, pausing and looking away from his son, “…you need new shoes.”

 

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Thrift store box: old, reproduction, import or just neat?

Posts have been few and far between lately, mostly due to a new job (woot!) and some additional community work I’ve taken on. Luckily, I can work from home often, which thrills me because years of a 1.5 hour one-way commute have left me impatient and grouchy. At least I’m blaming it on the commute.

Either way, the new office is near a couple of my favorite thrift stores. Be prepared for an uptick in “Look what I found!” posts.

Recently I found a small box at the store that has confused me. It’s nothing special, I brought it home because I liked it, but after getting it home I started to look at the construction, which is really different. It could be old, but reproductions and imported items sometimes make the age harder to assess.

I’ve included some pics of the box. What do you think? old, reproduction or import?

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Rendering fat for making bird suet.

Earlier this year, a friend offered us several bags of fat from their uncles processed pigs. Being avid birders, we immediately thought of using the fat for suet, and gladly accepted.

As usual, we had more ideas than time, and the suet sat in the freezer for almost a year. Finally we allocated time for the project, and researched suet recipes online. Usually when trying something new, I will look for similar recipes. In my mind, consistency like this means a greater chance of success.  For suet ideas and ingredients, I relied on a several sites.  Wildbirdscoop.com  and The Farmers Almanac will get you started.

My ingredients changed last minute –  over the last few months, I kept scraps of bread, leftover nuts and such to be chopped up and added to the suet. Unfortunately, I moved it from the freezer to the fridge too early and it molded. That went into the trash, and I scanned the kitchen for items to include. The final ingredient list included peanut butter, oats, a standard bird seed mix, and a partial quart bag of West Virginia blackberries.

My tips for ingredients are to make sure everything is dry and similar in size so that your suet will stay together in a single piece.  In the first batch, I added berries that were too wet, which caused the suet to crumble, which is messy, and will lead to the suet falling from your feeder.

You need to have your ingredients ready before you render your fat, as you will need to add it to the warm fat so it can be molded into the size and shape you desire.  We tried 2 forms for the completed suet: a mini muffin tin and a 9×9 Pyrex dish (both lined with plastic wrap).

Once your rendered fat is strained and still warm, we added our “good stuff” ingredients, which were berries, oats, and bread – basically everything but the store bought bird seed. Once that was mixed in, I added bird seed in small, half-cup batches, until the mix looked thick and filled with ingredients for the birds. By this time, the mixture had cooled, and I carefully made small balls of suet and flattened each ball in the mini muffin tin. Once that was full, the remainder went into the pyrex dish.

Important note: some recipes say you should render the fat 2 times so it ends up harder. I would recommend this!  I only rendered once, and the result was very soft suet. The mini muffin suet blocks work well, but will melt quickly. I keep them in the freezer until needed. The pyrex dish never got hard, and since its in a large dish it had to be divided into smaller chucks. The pro of having softer suet it that it can be rubbed onto tree bark, which the wood peckers loved, but for general use, I would render twice.

For the process of rendering the fat, which I had never done, I relied on Good Cookery, which has provided an instructional video.

I won’t transcribe the entire rendering process, mostly because I found myself referring to that video while I actually rendered the fat, pausing when needed, to ensure that my product was looking similar.

Here are a few pics of the finished product, with some pics of the fat as it’s rendered.

Oh, it’s also worth noting that you can now sign up for email updates as blog posts are released. Click here to sign up!

Room-temperature suet and water warming on the stove top.
Starting off with room temperature suet, with about an inch of water in the pan.
Rendering fat on stove top.
The suet will start to turn slightly translucent as the fat is rendered out.
Fat turns dark as it cooks down.
The fat will turn to a dark golden brown as it cooks down. This is almost done!
Separating rendered fat from cracklings using a collander.
The fat is rendered. Time to separate the fat from the cracklings using a colander.
melted, rendered fat
The melted fat will turn a pale cream color as it cools. This is the time to mix in additional bird foods.
Rendered fat with additional bird treats stirred in.
Now we have added seeds, nuts and blackberries.
Finished bird suet.
Suet was spooned into a plastic wrapped muffin tin to make easy to handle standard pieces.
Finished bird suet waiting to be frozen.
These suet chunks are cool and ready to be stored in the freezer until ready to use.
Fresh bird suet from rendered fat.
Close up of finished suet ball for birds. Use on pinterest.

14 books read in 2017! Here’s the list, with my 5 favorites.

As a child, I had horrible reading skills.  You could always find me with an almanac or other reference book, but outside of a few R.L.Stine books, I didn’t fully read an entire book until I was well into my 30’s.  This all changed a few years ago, and every year I try to read more than the previous year.

Thanks to Goodreads.com, I can easily track my reading list. It’s nice to go over the list and rank them, but also good to post here for accountability. For 2018 I’d like to read at least 16 books.

Here is 2017’s list with the Top 5, and a couple of notes on each!

  • A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Smith, Betty.  Great book! One of my Top 5 favorites of all time
  • Farmer Boy. Wilder, Laura Ingalls.  Lots of interesting old farming methods included, some of which my dads family employed. 
  • Brave New World. Huxley, Aldous. They pray to Ford and take drugs to keep themselves content – interesting read on a 1930’s view of the future.
  • The Catcher in the Rye.  Salinger, JD. Holden reminds me a lot of myself.
  • The Handmaid’s Tale. Atwood, Margaret. Wow. Read this oddly relevant dystopian novel. I thought the TV show followed the book well.
  • The Pillars of the Earth (Kingsbridge #1), Follett, Ken.
  • Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Rowling, JK
  • Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Rowling, JK
  • Little House in the Big Woods.  Wilder, Laura Ingalls.
  • Little House on the Prairie. Wilder, Laura Ingalls.
  • Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens. Damerow, Gail.
  • Angela’s Ashes. McCourt, Frank.
  • On the banks of Plum Creek. Wilder, Laura Ingalls.  (Plum creek laughed and talked to itself much too often, making it my least favorite book of the year.)

 

 

The “New” thrift store table.

Any thrift store pickers out there? Last week I came across this small table at a local thrift store. Originally I planned on finding a project that could be fixed up and resold, but it didn’t take long for me to realize that this guy was staying with me.

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This table wants to be a table, it wants to be used, and for me, there is no better feeling than finding something thats been abandoned and helping it live again.  Check out the patch on the edge of the top. It amazes me how carefully cut the patch is. It makes me believe that this table was truly appreciated and cared for by someone.

And it was only $3.03!

If anyone can tell what kind of wood this is, or knows anything about the construction or knob, or age,  let me know.

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Sand Hill Crane Migration (2/2018 Update)

How lucky am I to live directly underneath one of the main north-south migration routes for these cranes? Every year we see a handful as they pass over north Georgia, but this year we were home on December 14th, and saw thousands go through. Thousands! Imagine the amount in this video x20 or so groups. It was one of the most beautiful things I’ve experienced, and the best part is that my dad was here and got to experience it. We were in awe. Check out the video here.

February 20, 2018 Update!

Last week we noticed a flock of cranes flying back north, and yesterday we saw several hundred cranes flying over.  The return north is earlier than most sites led me to believe were the norm. Maybe this means spring is here!

 

Tennessee Warblers stopping by the birdbath. October 2017.

Just wanted to post this video of the Tennessee Warblers visiting the backyard. There are about a dozen that show up around 5pm to eat and play in the birdbath. They have only been visiting for a couple of weeks, so I wonder if they have started migrating south for winter.  I guess it’s that time of year.