Portage River Farm

  (Pinckney, Michigan)
Notes on our struggles and successes on our family farm in rural Michigan.
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Farmhouse Cooking

One of the unexpected challenges of our new life on the farm has been the need to radically modify our cooking. Janet and I have always taken pride in the food we have provided for our family. We have always put an emphasis on things "prepared from scratch" and have accumulated a large cookbook of favorite recipes.

What I didn't realize ahead of time is that our family recipes were mostly based on the "from scratch" items coming from the supermarket. As the fresh produce piled up this summer, it quickly became apparent that we needed a whole new set of recipes! We are now in the process of starting all over again to find appealing ways to incorporate an abundance of fresh produce into our diets.

Along the same lines, I have also been struck by the sheer number of chicken recipes that we have used in the past that only utilized the breast meat. These recipes are either going to have to be modified or replaced with ways to use the whole bird. It took the experience of raising our own meat to make me realize how wasteful recipes that use only the choice portions of the animals can be.

Now that we have loaded up our pantry with hundreds of mason jars full of preserved food, we also have to find a way to use those. Prior to this, we simply picked recipes for the week and stopped by the store to pick up whatever we needed as if it were an infinite pantry. Although we will never completely eliminate our dependence on the grocery store, we look forward to relearning the skills of meal planning to gradually reduce it.

Black beans are another example. From the picture you can see the beautiful little harvest of black beans that we grew in our garden. We already had a favorite recipe for Mexican black bean soup in our cookbook, but it called for the use of canned beans from the store. As another step in our education, we had to learn to divide the weight of canned beans from the recipe by a factor of 2.5 in order to know how many of our home-grown dried beans to use.

As we sit down to enjoy our meals, we feel a sense of pride and satisfaction at the increasing frequency of ingredients that we have grown. I think it will be quite a while until we can resist pointing out those items to our children. They invariably pick up the conversation and start dreaming with us of the day when we can have meals entirely produced on our own land.


Autumn Splendor

The beauty of Fall time is far too fleeting. For the past few weeks, the leaves have put on an increasingly dazzling display as each species took its turn to flare up in brilliant hues before fading and falling in favor of the next. The winds and rainy days that follow are now making quick work of hurrying the leaves on their plummeting journey leaving only black and grey skeletons warning of the bitter season just ahead.

The sights and smells of the season bring an odd mix of nostalgia, euphoria and melancholy. The passage of time is never more acutely felt than when the scents of decaying leaves and ripe hickory nuts drift past on the cool afternoon breeze. My memory stirs to recall misty scenes of Autumns past, of phases of my life now over, of people long gone.

There is something so distinct about the light of a sunny Fall afternoon. The color of a clear blue sky, the golds and reds of the leaves, the faded greens and yellows of a field of goldenrod. In particular I am always pleased by the multicolored display of the maple trees still green at the core, with bright yellow leaves crowned with crimson at the very top. Those bright trees always bring the voice of my grandmother back to me as she would exclaim, "My! Those leaves look good enough to eat!"

Whether working outdoors, driving to work or merely passing a window, I always try to pause to take in the sight of the leaves. I find myself wishing that it would slow down and linger a while instead of being over so soon. As I near our farm on the way home from my workday, I alter my usual course to drive slowly up Toma road. I periodically stop to snap pictures or stand at the bridge across Portage River to admire the view.

I suppose it is the season's ephemeral nature that most inspires my admiration. As I pick up my pace to complete belated summer chores, my mind savors these last pleasant days. It feels that the best that this life has to offer can be but briefly held in breezy, fragrant Autumn.

Eerie Light Show

Friday evening was the Fall Festival at Aidan's new school. He and I had a nice time playing games, eating donuts, listening to a local Celtic band made up of kids, taking a hayride, touring a local fire truck and police car. He was especially pleased with the cupcakes that he won in the cake walk and couldn't wait to get home to sample them. Janet and the other children were away for the weekend so we drove home to a dark and empty house.

Our farm is located far from any large residential areas and can be very dark at night, so dark that the University of Michigan has an observatory on a hill just southeast of us. On clear evenings the stars come out by the billions. Before sending everyone off to bed, we often gather the whole family on the deck to lie back in the chairs to marvel at the beauty hanging above. We always remark on the massive Milky Way, the big and little dippers, the Pole Star. We have watched meteor showers and wondered at the strangeness of satellites drifting silently past.

We pulled up our bumpy driveway and came to a stop in front of the house. I exited the car and started walking toward the front door. Aidan hurried to catch up with me to calm his uneasiness about the darkness around us. As I reached out to place a reassuring hand on his shoulder I glanced upward to take advantage of this brief opportunity to see the night sky.

Immediately my eyes were drawn to something unusual to the northwest. I stopped walking and involuntarily said, "what is that?" Aidan gripped a hand-full of my jacket and followed my gaze upward and repeated my question with an edge of alarm in his voice. A massive vertical column of white light shone down from the sky. It looked a bit like a ray of sunlight breaking through the clouds or perhaps as if someone were shining a huge spotlight straight up into the night, except that the sides of the column were perfectly parallel rather than spreading as light tends to do.

A quick scan of the rest of the sky told me the identity of the mysterious apparition and I quickly reassured Aidan that we were looking at the Northern Lights. The column turned out to be one of many that dotted the night sky above us. Most were on the horizon where they joined to form vertical curtains of ghostly white light. His apprehension immediately turned to wonder and we walked around the house exclaiming how beautiful they were and wishing that the rest of the family were there to share it with us.

I had only seen the Northern Lights once before. We used to own a sail boat and spent our summers exploring the Great Lakes. One night in late fall found me out in the middle of Lake Huron as I sailed south to move the boat to its winter berth. The lake is so massive that it takes more than a day to cross and is far too deep for anchoring, leaving little choice but to sail on through the night. I remember observing a pale curtain of greenish light that spanned the northern horizon and seemed to follow me for nearly the entire night. Since it was my first time observing them, it took me a number of hours of staring at them before my mind finally sorted out what I was seeing.

Aidan and I finally tore ourselves away from the display and we went inside to resume our nightly bedtime routine. After putting him to bed, I returned again and again to check on the lights. The show lasted for about four more hours until the sky finally cleared of all but stars around 2AM. I made many attempts to figure out how to capture the lights on my digital camera with very limited success. Hopefully you will be able to make out the faint vertical smudges of light above the trees that do little justice to the silent beauty of this eerie phenomena.
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