Reader discretion is advised: this Homestead Year in Review contains graphic images of poorly stacked firewood.
One lifetime is simply not enough to fit in all the fun there is to be had on a homestead. Fun in this context includes actual fun, as well as some things that are not, but that we call fun because we really shouldn’t swear.
Our driveway is about 300-feet long from the dead-end dirt-road to the house. Though it’s far from a record, it’s plenty long enough when it comes to shoveling snow by hand—something we’d been doing since setting up housekeeping here about twelve years ago. And that gets old.
We have a neighbor down the lane who’d been offering to plow our driveway ever since we settled in. No charge. Our neighbor is a busy man, mind you, with lots to do besides worrying about our snow problems. But, it turns out, last year we picked a good time to give in and take him up on his offer. Last winter’s snows, just as the ones before, seemed relentless. Of course, what we would call a heavy snow here—say one to two feet—is a mere dusting by some standards.
So, after our version of a heavy snow, we would go out and fidget with our shovels, make scoops in the pack, and watch for Mike. He would show up faithfully every time and get the job done. We made him soup.
Even when winter had finally relaxed its grip last year, mounds the plow had built up lingered well into spring. We would look the other way while walking out to check the mail on warm days. But there was no denying their chilled breath hanging in the air like those cold spots you find swimming in a summer lake.
Wild Spring Edibles
The snow heaps were still receding when we set about the business of foraging for spring edibles. We were seeking morels, delectable mushrooms that have graced our woodlot in years past. But, alas, no morel omelets or morel quiche for our table this time around. Every year is different, and we’ve learned that the deciding factors in such matters easily elude us mere mortals. So we moved on and gathered wild leeks. Lots of them.
Fortunately, wild leeks—or “ramps” by their other name—don’t seem to follow the morels’ plan. They’ve been consistent producers here year after year. We have maybe half an acre of them, all told, in several patches through the woodland, and in early spring the leaves are plentiful. They’re delicious in salads and other fare, and later, after the leaves begin to go by, the bulbs have grown larger and are excellent in many dishes, including omelets. Even omelets without morels. Leek-and-potato soup, or vichyssoise, is another possibility.
By late spring, we were due to outplant the warm-weather garden seedlings we’d started indoors, and those we’d bought—begrudgingly—from the savvy, older couple down the way. Our colder-weather crops, the chard and kale, did better than expected. These were plants we’d started indoors and that we had nurtured and spoken kindly of and watered and outplanted and spoken even more kindly of all spring. What had been sad and straggly little things with scant promise, developed into robust plants rivaling the produce we see at local farmers’ markets. A small but encouraging victory.
Late spring slipped into early summer almost unnoticed, and in the summer heat, I kept thinking that the high snowfall amounts and low temperatures of winter would just fade from memory. But somehow all of it seemed to lurk just beneath the surface, as if a tap on the shoulder and a little voice were reminding me of something… something I’d been putting off.
Heating almost exclusively with wood means it’s firewood season all year long. And since our place started out entirely in the trees, it’s been a chore to get enough open area for a garden and enough sun to dry firewood. We’ve been keeping up for the past few years, but it’s been a bit of a challenge. I definitely needed to get more firewood worked up for drying.
I might gripe about cutting, splitting, stacking, drying, hauling, loading, and unloading firewood. But whenever I’m inclined to start whining about those things—or about having to stop and mix chainsaw fuel, or sharpen the saw, or put air in the truck tires, or any number of other things—I think of yesteryear’s homesteaders. They were a different breed, the kind who would eke out sustenance from homesteading wild ground without safety nets or any of the cushy things I have at my disposal. Sometimes, everything I’m doing seems difficult even with the luxury of almost playing at something that was a matter of life and death for them.
All around where we live are stone-lined cellar holes in the woods, remnants of small homesteads where those unshrinking settlers carved a living out of soil, trees, and rocks perhaps more than three-hundred years ago. Near one of them is a small cemetery now all but lost in the trees.
It’s a Dry Heat
Food drying was a new thing for us this year. We started with a solar dryer in the shade. That’s only partly a joke because, with the exception of our garden and wood-drying areas—which are some distance from the house—we still get limited sun in the summer. And since the food dryer needs frequent monitoring, it wasn’t practical to have it way out by the garden. So, some things, especially tomatoes, were not drying completely, even on hot and sunny days.
I wish I could claim I’d built the solar dryer myself because it’s quite a good design, but it came as a kit, just as I did. It has provisions for incandescent bulbs to supplement the solar drying, so we installed them and got better results. Of course, that defeats the point of the solar feature, at least partially. One practical solution to that problem is to take down more trees, something I’ve been avoiding because the trees help to keep the house cool in the summer. Everything is a tradeoff.
Things went even farther down the conventional-energy path when we got an indoor, plug-in food dehydrator. With its heating element, temperature control, and drying fan, results were even better. Of course if we were generating solar electricity to at least supplement what we’re getting from the grid, all versions of the food dryer would ultimately be at least partially solar powered. But that’s a project for another time. We’re working toward a time when we can generate dried tomatoes and send them back into the grid for credit.
We are preppers, not in the fanatical sense but in the common sense. Part of the reason for drying (and canning) in lieu of freezing is that now and then we have a power outage that lasts a week. There’s “always” the generator to keep the freezer going, but it’s nice to have a larder stocked with nonperishables—minus the botulism, of course. So far I’ve survived worrying about botulism.
Somehow summer became late summer and then early fall, and before we knew it we were thinking mushrooms again. Morel season in the spring was disappointing and we had our doubts, for a while, about fall mushrooms because of a long dry spell in late summer. But the rains finally came, and with them came the fungal fare we were hoping for. We found lots of edible mushrooms, even if they were mostly of the same variety.
“There are old mushroom hunters and there are bold mushroom hunters, but there are no old, bold mushroom hunters.” That’s the adage we keep in mind in our mycological machinations. Still, tempting new fungal sprouts come out every year to test our resolve. At the end of the day, though, we err on the side of confusion.
Kidding aside, we’re overly cautious—so much so that I know we pass up choice edibles just because they could be mistaken for undesirables. On the extreme end of things, we do know how to steer clear of seriously poisonous mushrooms like the so-called destroying angel, even in its button stage, when it can mimic an edible puffball mushroom.
But there are some perfectly good “boletes”—typical-looking ground mushrooms with pores under the cap rather than gills—that I’d like to try, even though they can appear similar to some unsavory characters of their kind. Maybe, since I’m getting older, I should get bolder. Maybe.
The big wild-mushroom haul for us has always been the maitake or “hen of the woods.” There’ve been some off- years, but this fruitful fungus is a consistent producer overall in our area. It’s a mushroom that can fetch $9.00 per pound wholesale, and in some years we’ve had enough surplus to sell to the local food co-op. But mostly, we’re selfish.
The cauliflower mushroom is another interesting one. Although not nearly as prolific as the maitake, at least in our area, this one has a different flavor and texture, and certainly is a welcome find. As with maitake, particular trees or stumps are often predictable sources.
Common names can be problematic, and even scientific names have their issues. That’s because scientists convene occasionally and change things based on new studies. But if you find a whitish mushroom in the woods that’s roughly the size of your head, with curves and folds that resemble the convolutions in a brain or a brain coral, you’ve probably found Sparassis spathulata, the cauliflower mushroom. Very tasty.
Other wild mushrooms we’ve tried and enjoyed are black trumpet and the bearded tooth mushroom, Hericium erinaceus, also called lion’s mane. The lion’s mane, we agreed at the time we first tried it, was suggestive of lobster in texture and taste. Much later we found other, independent references saying the same thing.
Mushrooms aren’t the only thing happening in the fall. It’s become a tradition for us to go wild-cranberry picking. About a half-hour drive from our house is our secret cranberry spot. When the time is right, we park three miles from the site in an undisclosed location under the cover of darkness and slink into the area donning camouflage and night-vision goggles.
Actually, we just try to get there early in the season before the berries are all picked over. And on a good day (year), we bring back enough to make a batch of homemade cranberry sauce. It’s uncanny that over several years we always seem to get just the right amount for the recipe without ever consciously keeping track of how much we’re picking.
Then there’s the question of whether to make the whole-cranberry sauce or the gel kind—as if there isn’t enough for the relatives to argue about during the holidays. We’ve yet to learn the origins of our cranberry spots. Cranberries are native to the region, but we suspect that the areas we visit, in state forests, are old, abandoned cultivated sites.
Well, winter is upon us once more. It seems to happen every year. So far, though, the almanac gods have not followed through on their threat to smite us once again. It’s been relatively mild and snow-free here, but there’s still plenty of time for that to change.
In the meantime, we’re waxing our snow shovels and checking to make sure our neighbor’s snow-plowing hotline is up to date.
So until next time, we wish all you fellow homesteaders all the best adventures in the new year. Have fun and try not to swear.