Dead Skunk In The Middle Of The Road

I have seen many dead skunks on our local roads lately. Had I asked my grandmother what kind of sign this was, she probably would have wisely said “it’s gonna be a bad year for the poor critters.” I recognize and understand the profound wisdom in that statement. Nevertheless, it seems like the mortality rate here in late Winter and early Summer is abnormally high.

When I was a child, my father would incorrectly refer to the foul odor on the highway as the result of a “polecat.” Later in life I would realize that a “polecat” was an animal similar to a ferret. One fact was certain, if we passed a dead skunk we would surely smell the foul odor for many miles on down the highway.

Skunk

“Mister” Skunk

Skunks have always been considered a nuisance up here in the Boston Mountains. No one looks forward to an unannounced meeting with one. Maggie and I encountered a pair of them that had found the crawl space under our front porch a cool place to hang out. After peppering the crawl space with mothballs, they retreated back into the woods, whence they came. Our encounter was overall very uneventful. Many of our neighbors have not been so lucky. I found two interesting facts about “Mister” skunk. First, his vision only allows him to see about ten feet around him. This might explain why there are so many carcasses on our local roads lately. Second, skunks are a honeybee’s worst enemy. They even teach their young how to attack a bee hive. Their thick coat keeps them safe from angry bees and their potent stingers. “Whoderthunkit?”

I am a loyal fan of the musician Loudon Wainwright III and have amassed a trove of his recordings over the last 40 years. His “hit to be remembered by” is an eclectic song named “Dead Skunk In The Middle Of The Road” from 1972. Anytime I pass a dead skunk on one of our local roads, I always find myself singing his silly song.

“Take a whiff on me, that ain’t no rose!
Roll up your windows and hold your nose
You don’t have to look and you don’t have to see
‘Cause you can feel it in your olfactories”

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…Fire From Ice…

Survival in the Boston Mountains was always keen on the minds of the early settlers here. A bitter cold winter, with a lost flint stone to start a fire, could spell imminent disaster. Clever mountain settlers knew that they could make a fire with ice. How?…very simple. Water was always abundant. In the cold, grey days of a deep Winter a frozen pool of water was a “simmering” chance for FIRE!

With dedicated desire, I ascended to the rank of “Eagle Scout” at eighteen years of age. I spent more than one summer delving into “survival” camping. Myself and my fellow Scouting companions were blessed with a “well-seasoned” Scoutmaster. With his honest leadership we learned many interesting ways of surviving in the wilderness. One trick he taught us was in the “dead” of Winter.

Fire From Ice

Fire From Ice

One early January weekend we assembled for our monthly camping experience. With a break in the weather, after a week of below freezing temps, we welcomed the afternoon sunshine and headed out-of-town to set up camp. Next morning our Scoutmaster led us to a frozen pond nearby. After chipping out a small block of clear ice, he showed us how to carve the block into a thick circle, much like a giant button. After passing the large button of ice around, the warmth of our hands had smoothed it until it was clear like a magnifying glass. He showed us that if we set it upright between two logs, we could focus the sunshine through it into a slender beam of intense light falling on the ground below. We centered a small pile of dry grass directly in the beams path. In less than a minute the grass ignited. We stood amazed! We had created fire from ice with a little help from our friend the sun.

No, we probably will never have to resort to this method of starting a fire. But you know how fond I am of learning “honorable” ways of getting any task done. Much like making your own bread, brewing your own beer, cutting your own firewood, and growing your own garden, starting your own fire from ice is honorable! At least having the knowledge is personally satisfying.

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Please Pass The Biscuits

Bread is commonly referred to as the “staff of life.” People around the world have prepared bread for 30,000 years. Here in the Boston Mountains, folks have always loved their “homemade butter on the bread.”

Boston Mountain Biscuits

Boston Mountain Biscuits

The most common form of bread, for all mountain folks, is the biscuit. Everyone’s day starts with biscuits that are accompanied with a variety of breakfast staples. A daily mountain diet is just not complete without a hot homemade biscuit topped with honey or sorghum molasses. Much like any common baked bread, every good cook has their own special way they prepare their signature biscuits. Many guard their recipes as if they were more valuable than gold.

Biscuits are a form of “quick bread,” which denotes the fact that baking powder or baking soda is the leavening agent. Southerners are lucky to have Winter wheat as the ingredient for their all-purpose flour. It has less protein than hard Spring wheat used in the northern states. This makes for a lighter, fluffier texture to the biscuit. The basic recipe for a biscuit today is almost identical to the recipes created just before the Civil War.

I would be remiss if I did not include the fact that “biscuits and gravy” is a true Southern staple. “Country gravy” or “cream gravy” is basically a Béchamel sauce created from adding cream or milk to a flour roux. Most times the gravy is created in a cast iron skillet with bacon or country sausage added. Obviously a plate of “biscuits and gravy” is a meal in itself. Again, I would be remiss if I did not mention that  mountain folks also make a delicacy called “chocolate gravy,” on special occasions. If it’s “better with bacon” then it’s “better with chocolate” too! Mountain folks are funny that way.

Here is a reasonably “fool-proof” biscuit recipe. It uses buttermilk, yet another staple of us mountain folks.

“Please Pass The Biscuits” Biscuits

Ingredients

  • 2 cups flour
  • 4 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 2 tablespoons shortening
  • 1 cup buttermilk, real cold

Directions

Preheat oven to 450 degrees.

Combine flour, salt, baking powder, baking soda, and sugar in a large bowl. Using a dough cutter, or a couple of dinner forks, cut [mix] the butter and shortening into the flour mixture until the mixture looks like fine bread crumbs. Add the buttermilk and stir until just combined. The dough will be a little sticky.

Turn your dough out on a surface dusted with flour. Dust the top of the dough with additional flour. Now fold your dough over on itself about 6 or 7 times. Gently flatten dough with your hands until it is about 1 inch thick. Cut your biscuits with your favorite cutter. They should be about 2 inches across. Combine the dough scraps and hand-form your final biscuits.

Biscuits should bake for about 14 to 18 minutes, or until they are golden brown and “sky-high.”

Lather them with butter and honey, …enjoy!

And don’t forget to “Please pass the biscuits!”

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Boston Mountain Pear Butter

Pear butter, apple butter, plum butter, and peach butter have long been Fall staples up here in the Boston Mountains. Pear butter smeared on a toasted English muffin…is my idea of what scrumptious truly means! My neighbor at the top of our hill has two pear trees that were absolutely loaded with fruit a couple of weeks back. Never the bashful soul, I asked if he would share a few if I returned to him, in kind, some homemade pear butter. His answer was a positive. I love a good, fair barter. Last night, using my best chef skills, I cooked up a mess of Bartlett pear butter.

Tomatoes, green beans, squash, peppers, and carrots are typical vegetables that mountain natives preserve in late Summer. Traditionally fruit butters and jellies are canned a little later between early and late Fall. By allowing your fruit to ripen a bit longer, you increase the natural sugar content. This makes for a more natural sweetness to your final product. Also you only have to add a minimal amount of sugar or none at all.

Pear Butter…My Way

4 lbs peeled & diced Bartlett pears

Pear Butter

Pear Butter

2 tbsp finely diced fresh ginger root

3 sticks cinnamon

1/2 cup packed light brown sugar

1 tsp kosher salt

2 tbsp whole allspice

the zest of 1 orange

1 cup water

Preparation

Place the diced pears in a large sauce pan with water and bring to a rolling boil for 5 minutes. Cover and reduce heat to a simmer. Add remaining ingredients. Cook for about 30 minutes, or until mixture is flavorful. Using a potato masher, mash until it reaches your desired consistency. Be careful not to crush the allspice berries. Fill your favorite Mason or Ball jars, seal lids tightly, and place on counter-top upside down for about an hour. Turn upright and allow to cool to room temperature.

Enjoy!

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Chainsaw Zen

The first Christmas my wife Maggie and I spent, down here in Lizard Holler, was exceptionally memorable. Even though I asked her for her hand in marriage the Christmas before, this was the first we spent together as a true unified whole. Always the practical and pragmatic spirit that Maggie is, she had assumed the role of Santa Claus and gotten me one of the ultimate male toys that is essential to living, and surviving, in the woods. I found a brand “spanking” new, canary yellow Poulan chainsaw, complete with a carrying case, lounging under our Christmas tree. Maggie’s knowing smile seemed to beckon me to release  my manly “lumberjack” testosterone and “fire that sucker up!”  Much to my surprise, after carefully following the instructions, that “sucker” fired up on the second pull of the cord. I felt proud! “Power” was in my hands and eagerly I looked forward to pursuing the manly tasks Maggie had set before me.

Master Poulan

Master Poulan

Almost all new motorized machines, nowadays, are factory tested and ready for service right out of the box. Americans expect this attention to detail. Few will ever fail you when they are brand new. After attacking with a fervent vengeance all the dead limbs, trees, underbrush, and the rest of Maggie’s “honey do’s” over the next month, my new toy lay idle for a long while. One day, after an early Summer thunderstorm, a tree fell across our road, delaying our usual swift exit to work. This was the beginning of the time when my chainsaw transcended the role of machine and took on the human attributes of being a mentor…a Zen mentor.

I had read Robert M. Pirsig´s book “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” many years before, but let’s just say I have slept since then. “No problem!” I spoke in a confident voice to myself. “I’ll pull out my trusty Poulan.” Oh what a warm and familiar feeling my hands encountered gripping the handle and the pistol grip. I securely placed my foot in the saddle, pumped the primer bubble, cocked the choke, and pulled the starter cord. The rest you can probably ascertain, my toy “did not” start like it had when it was new. I was, to say the least, a little disheartened. My next approach was less than a “mature” approach. Pull, pull, pull! Nothing. Okay, stop, reset all steps, and make SURE the on/off switch was on. Pull, pull, pull! Nothing. Okay, stop, reset all steps…at this point I realized “today we were going to be a little late for work.” Why not just wrap a chain around this tree and drag it off the road? Well, it was just a little TOO large for that approach.

“DAMN!” I cried out to the universe around me. “I am smarter than this!”

Pull, pull, pull! Nothing. Pull, pull, pull! Nothing. Pull, pull, pull! Nothing…It was then I first heard the voice of my new Zen master, Master Poulan. “Chef Larry, …Chef Larry. Stop. Pull yourself together! If you use the chain tool that came with your chainsaw and clean my spark plug, I will return to you your manhood.”

Laying exhausted in the middle of the dirt road, next to the fallen tree,  my Chef uniform soiled, I reflected on the prudent advice that Master Poulan had given me. I obediently followed his simple instructions and just like it was Christmas day all over again, my toy started right up on the second pull of the cord.

Zen, basically meditation, is a very powerful tool in our everyday lives. No, we cannot always stop and meditate to solve our everyday crisises. Yet, Master Poulan had taught me a very valuable lesson that day. Slow down…and start afresh. Haste makes waste. I was reminded of that lesson which I had learned many years earlier in my childhood. I still allow everyday occurrences to sometimes slow my “mature” actions. Master Poulan, my new Zen master, brought back from my memory lessons that my parents had taught me along the way as a child. These lessons helped form me into the reasonably, functioning adult that I aspire to be today.

“Patience, little Larry, patience. Patience is golden.”

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Winter “Love” Birds

Here I go with the word “honorable” again. Maggie and I “love” our native songbirds. During the Fall and Winter months especially, we make sure that all our feathered friends are offered food. When our pond freezes over we make sure thawed water is available also.

Winter Love Bird

Winter "Love" Bird

Watching all the different species of birds lighting on our back porch feeders is remarkable. Just like making your own bread, brewing your own beer, steeping your own tinctures, cutting your own firewood, showing a little compassion for birds in the Winter is “honorable.”

Harkening back to my childhood, when I waited impatiently for my new cereal box toy to arrive in the mail, I have waited day after day after day for my Cornell Lab of Ornithology “Project FeederWatch” bird counting kit. http://www.birds.cornell.edu/pfw/ Today, like a kid ripping open Christmas presents, I received my bird count kit and quickly discarded the unnecessary mailing envelope.  Okay, maybe it does not take a lot to excite me, but today was extra special for me! My new “toy” arrived. I set up my profile, hung my calendar, and submitted my first count on-line…on time. Yes, I am counting birds, so that the scientists can sort through the data and help any suffering species with their wealth of knowledge and science, to hopefully survive and flourish in the years to come. By doing this, my grandson Calib may actually get to see the birds I’ve seen and hear their melodic choruses, as I have. Yes, I still perform the “manly” tasks of huntin’, fishin’, changin’ my own water pump out on the car, and occasionally playin’ poker on Monday nights with the “boys.” But, I like to watch birds. Trust me, I am no “sissy.” What you can call me is a “Renaissance” man. They replaced water pumps and watched birds… and recited poetry…and played music…

Visit the Boston Mountains in the Winter and you will find that “no home” is without a bird feeder. Trust me, mountain people are attached to nature “at the hip!”

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Beaver Moon Soon

Tomorrow brings the Beaver Moon or Frost Moon. This full moon of November was named so because the Native Americans knew it was time to get the beaver traps out and the pelts and food ready for Winter. Once the ponds froze they could not capture the beaver as easily. Beaver, much like the buffalo, provided essential skins and food for all the tribes across our country. Beaver still plays a part in the mountain traditions here. Local trappers benefit from the sale of the pelts and the flavorful meat.

Beaver Moon

Boston Mountain Beaver Moon

Tomorrow look up and enjoy the same beautiful full moon our ancestors enjoyed. Up here in the Boston Mountains, far away from the city lights, the view is fabulous!

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Deer Dings

Quite a few vehicles up here in the Boston Mountains have what we call “deer dings.” My wife Maggie hit a deer coming home one night a few years back. Presto! Deer ding! You can buy “deer sirens” at the auto store, but trust me, they do not work that well. Good eyesight and quick reflexes are the only preventive measures that work well. Just before I reached our country road today, about twilight, a magnificent buck leaped across the highway in front of me. It is not his fault that we humans build roads and drive vehicles on them. THEY were here before WE were here. Anyhow I was lucky this time.

“You all” keep a careful eye out for deer crossing the roads if you venture up our way for a visit. Especially in the Fall when the sun goes down a little earlier. Otherwise you will most likely encounter what we all know up here as the “deer ding.”

 

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Whistle-Pig Sighting

Woodchuck (Marmota monax) taking refuge in a t...

Groundhog climbing a tree

ALERT!  WILDLIFE SIGHTING!

“Woodchuck,” Whistle-Pig,” and “Land Beaver” all are names used to describe our native Marmota monax the groundhog. I saw one the other day crossing our two-lane highway, AR 23 North, the “Pig Trail Scenic Byway.” I had seen this rodent before and wondered  “what animal was that?”. It is now clear what or who he is. He is a “Whistle-Pig.” That is what the mountain folks nicknamed him because when frightened by some predator, he will stand erect on his hind legs and emit a high-pitched whistle to alert his fellow pigs or hogs of danger.

“How much wood would a woodchuck chuck

if a woodchuck could chuck wood?”

“A woodchuck would chuck all the wood he could

if a woodchuck could chuck wood!”

Being the ever so curious person that I am, I did some research and found that groundhogs also can climb trees. Yes, they can climb trees to escape from predators. I wrote in an earlier post about gray foxes having the same ability. “Whodathunkit?” They also are very good swimmers.

Wildlife sightings are daily occurrences for Maggie and I. Not a day goes by that we don’t see at least one deer or rabbit. Our trusty “dawg” Chef keeps healthy by chasing squirrels and deer daily. Communing with nature is awe-inspiring.

Pileated Woodpecker

Pileated Woodpecker

Listening to our resident pileated woodpecker brings a smile to our faces. Listening to  coyotes harmonizing on the far ridge is not frightening to us. Their chorus is enlightening to us. When you get chance, head out to the woods and simply inhale the inspiring world of nature around you. We always get our daily “fix” down here in Lizard Holler

Click on coyotes or pileated woodpecker above and be directed to a site where you can hear what they sound like…cool…

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All’s Well, That Fills The Well

The majority of folks living here in the Boston Mountains depend on a well for everyday water. There are a few nearby rural water associations that offer “city” water, but a major part of everyday life here in the mountains is relying on your well for precious “life-giving” water.

Old Water Well

Old Water Well

We consider ourselves very fortunate to have well water that tastes good. Most wells have a small amount of iron and sulfur “flavoring” going on. Our well is obviously fed by pure mountain spring water. It doesn’t get any better than this! We have availability of “city” water, but we choose to drink and bathe with the refreshing water from our spring-fed well. With that decision made early on, we rely on rain to replenish our water. Fortunately our well has never run dry. We have done a few “rain dances” on occasion though. Being the savvy folks we are by nature, Maggie and I also capture as much rain water as possible to keep our garden growing without the use of our precious well water reserves. We have fifty gallon containers strategically placed where our gutters’ final flow ends. We have spigots attached for easy use of the captured rain water.

Our woodland home was built about twenty ago, so we don’t have the most efficient “green” elements built-in. We do our part though by replacing water fixtures with the newest efficient equipment possible. Our toilets are older, so we replaced the “innards” and added two bricks to cut back on water consumption. We also have embraced as many new lighting technologies as we could without sacrificing warm and necessary light. All of this said, at the end of the day we try to live a “greener” lifestyle and we also ascribe to follow “locavore” habits wherever  possible.

I will finish with an observation. Well diggers, as professionals, are not as visible as say plumbers are in our everyday lives, but they certainly provide a service that is very necessary out here in the mountains. They garner quite a bit of respect within our hill country society. So the next time you hear someone’s retort that it is “as cold as a well digger‘s ass,” remember that with as much business as they do out here in the mountains they probably can afford the best clothes around to keep their asses warm.

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