Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Holiday Bonus

I’ve always thought of December 1st as the official start of the Christmas rush. The trouble is, the first of December follows closely on the heels of the Thanksgiving rush—you know, that frenzied week of shopping/cleaning/cooking/baking/dishes where you’re wondering, what happened to the actual Thanksgiving celebration? Caught up in the busy-ness of family and food, a lot of folks end up with little opportunity to enjoy the feast, much less give thanks.

If Thanksgiving comes early, like it did this year, merchants are all for it—an extra week for people to do Christmas shopping! But I see this year’s post-Thanksgiving week as a bonus for the holiday season…there’s a little break in the action for sitting back, eating some chocolate, fitting in an extra holiday movie, and maybe making plans for a more generous and thoughtful celebration.

Six years ago, our first holiday season at Berryridge Farm, an early Thanksgiving provided the same kind of holiday bonus week. But that time couldn’t have been more different from any we’d ever experienced. A series of unfortunate events, for which John and I were ill-prepared, knocked us sideways. We wondered if we were going to make it through that week…and more crucial, if we had what it takes to stay on our little homestead for the long term. We spent the Christmas that followed being grateful for the simplest things: our health, the roof over our heads, and each other.

In this year’s holiday bonus week, I’m happy the upsets that happened over this Thanksgiving weekend were so minor…like discovering the local, organic cream I’d splurged on for the pies was slightly “off,” or waking up the next morning to find the bunnies had gotten into my wintering-over kale bed and devoured nearly every last leaf. The cream got an extra spoonful of sugar to offset the tang, and the kale gained a more philosophical grower…when I reminded myself that our food supply is much more secure than the rabbits'.
And in this holiday breather time, I’m doing just what the doctor (me) ordered. Eating chocolate, contemplating not just more ways we can share with those less fortunate, but the true meaning of the season… and being grateful.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Samhain, aka the Irish Halloween

As Halloween celebrations—for kids and grownups alike—seem to be on the upswing, two related holidays, the Day of the Dead and Samhain, appear more and more on our radar screens. Maybe because who isn’t game for a good excuse to indulge in all the sweets and chocolate we can eat! Or maybe we need something to perk up our spirits when summer is over, and it’s still weeks until the big holiday season starts with Thanksgiving. Whatever the reason, when I look out on our little farm at the end of October, the veggie beds mostly empty, apple trees bare of the ruby fruit of early fall, I’m all for marking a special day between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice.

Since we live too far away from any neighbors to have Halloween trick-or-treaters, the idea of celebrating Samhain is kinda growing on me. As I understand it, Samhain is an ancient Celtic festival, very similar to the Hispanic tradition of the Day of the Dead. At this time, the dead walked the earth, and people could connect with their ancestors, considered sources of wisdom. Given all the spirits roaming around, the Celts would dress in disguises, so any evil ones couldn’t recognize them. Communal bonfires were also a big custom, thought to ward off evil spirits too. On the way home from the bonfire, people would put a candle in a hollowed-out turnip (the Scots used pumpkins, and brought the custom to the US), apparently to keep those witches, ghosts and goblins away as well.

However, Samhain is also notable as the beginning of the winter half of the year. Which fits here in the Foothills. We won’t be seeing any snow for a few more weeks (crossing my fingers), but the glorious fall color has faded. and most plants around our place have begun their winter sleep—save for a few winter greens, that with any luck, will hold their own until April. So now that the hard work of tending and harvesting is over, I’m happy to devote myself to creating more Irish stories!

Monday, September 17, 2012

Low-Tech Pesto

Time was running short.

I’d grown basil every summer for six years, thinking, oh, boy, I can’t wait to try making pesto! But I'd never used more than a few sprigs for roasted tomatoes or chicken. Now, with the chilly nights of late summer rapidly approaching, my basil’s rich green leaves would soon turn a pale, sickly lime, dotted with brown spots. Then the plants would curl up their toes and my chance to make basil pesto would vamoose.

Not this time, I vowed. Besides running out of summer, though, I had another obstacle to pesto-making: no food processor. Which was required for every pesto recipe I’ve ever read. I never missed having a blender or processor--I aim for DIY rather than kitchen gadgets. But I’d recently inherited a lovely marble mortar and pestle from my sweet mother-in-law, and just harvested an abundant crop of garlic. Now, armed with a recipe in the July “O” magazine, I had no excuses.

I plucked several handfuls of basil, gently washed it (a few ants were hanging around), and tore the leaves off the stems. I carefully measured it to make two cups. I peeled and minced five cloves of garlic, then roasted and finely chopped a cup of walnuts (Don’t much care for pine nuts, plus they’re really expensive. And I really like walnuts.) I started with a few basil leaves in the marble bowl of my mortar and pestle, and started grinding vigorously. After several minutes, all I had to show for it was some bruised basil leaves. This could take a really long time.

I dug out John's hand immersion blender, that I use a couple of times of year to puree winter squash for “pumpkin” pie. I piled the basil, along with the garlic and walnuts, into a bowl. The recipe called for a ½ cup of olive oil, a teaspoon of salt, and another of sugar, none of which sounded right to me. Foregoing the sugar altogether, I put a pinch of sea salt into the mixture, added a quarter cup of extra-virgin olive oil (1/2 cup seemed like too much too), and fired up the blender.

Well, I worked my ingredients until my arm was sore, but I had nothing that quite resembled a “paste”—just some mooshed up basil. The walnuts and garlic was still pretty intact. Plus the blender was majorly overheating. I’d just have to work with what I had. I boiled up some organic pasta, drained it, and swirled some olive oil into it. Feeling my confidence ebb, I piled the lumpy mixture into the pasta, along with a handful of grated Dubliner cheese. If my experiment tasted as awful as it looked, I’d just wasted all those wonderful fresh ingredients, plus an hour that I could have spent outside, tending Berryridge Farm.

With trepidation, I swirled a forkful of spaghetti, and took a bite. It was like an explosion of flavor! It was like I’d never tasted anything so rich, garlicky, zesty, herby, nutty. I savored every mouthful, and had seconds to boot. I figured I’d have the worst garlic breath ever, but maybe the greens of the basil and the oil had mellowed the garlic. It was, hands-down, the best meal I’d eaten in a long time. A whole teaspoon of salt and sugar would have probably ruined it. Since then, I’ve made my simpler living basil “pesto” three times, and it’s become one of our favorite go-to summer meals.

 Then I discovered The Barefoot Contessa makes a similar dish with greens or herbs, nuts, garlic and olive oil—not processed but simply chopped then mixed. It’s called “gremolata.” Who knew?

Friday, June 8, 2012

When Irish Eyes Are Smiling

When it comes to raising potatoes, I am the kiss of death.

I realize that’s a bit of an unfortunate allusion, given the Irish Potato Famine back in the 1800s. But call it what you will, whether my problem is ignorance, negligence, bad luck, or out-and-out stupidity, as the Berryridge Farm potato manager, I have overseen the ruin of more potato crops than you can shake a hoe at.

Early on, I took charge of our potato crop because a) I love potatoes, and b) since I’m Irish on both sides, I should be a champion spud grower.

But it hasn’t turned out that way. I’ve weathered early blight, late blight, weeds taking over, and storage stupidity. In 2008, we had a fantastic crop, not much blight, with about one hundred pounds of taters, many of which I’d harvested in the cold November rains. I stashed the whole caboodle in our un-insulated shop. That’s where the stupidity factor comes in: I forgot to bring the potatoes into the house when we got smacked by a late December Northeaster and the temperature dropped to five degrees. Can you say “taters frozen hard as baseballs?”

I thought we could save the crop, until the weather warmed up. That's when I had a half-dozen grocery bags full of blackened, squishy, rotting potatoes. I almost cried. That was my low point.

The next year, we escaped the blight, but our harvest seemed a little…modest. Picking potatoes, I’d turn up a hill, and find two or three teensy tubers. Where were the lovely fist-sized spuds of yore? But I’d just published my memoir Little Farm in the Foothills, and busy with author appearances, I didn’t give my tater mystery the attention it deserved.

But the following year, 2010, the mystery deepened: the yield was even smaller, and almost all the larger potatoes had big chunks missing. At the same time, swathes of seedlings of our above-ground crops sort of just disappeared too. We did a little research and discovered where our potatoes (and seedlings) were: in the tummies of our resident voles. Voles are little rodents a lot like moles, who live in underground tunnels. Only moles are carnivores: they like to eat bugs and stuff underground. Would that voles ate the same! No, they’re vegetarians—and they are voracious eaters of just about everything in your garden, above and below ground: your carrots, beets, peas, kale, spinach, broccoli, and yes, your potatoes.

Due to vole predation, last summer’s crop was small too—but at least I’d protect it from freezing. We put a fridge in the shop, and I stored my taters in there. But I forgot one small detail: to adjust the temperature setting suitable for an indoor fridge to an outdoor one. After another northeaster, I went out for some more potatoes, and discovered my bags were full of frost: foiled—or should I say frozen—again! I turned up the fridge temp, but of course it was too late. My crop went the way of the previously frozen one: the compost pile.

But I have new hope for the 2012 season, even if this seems like the coldest, rainiest June ever. John traveled to eastern Washington and brought me six packages of certified organic seed potatoes from the Irish Eyes Seed Company, based in Ellensburg. The other bright spot: I’m planting potatoes in the raised beds John has built, with screening covering the bottoms. Voles, whose habit is to feed from below, can’t get to the plants!

Well, these Irish eyes are really smiling now. I’ll let you know if they’re still smiling in August, when I start harvesting!

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The Lusty Month of May

May 1 marks the ancient Celtic festival of Beltane, according to The Celtic Book of Days by Caitlin Matthews (Destiny Books, 1995). Beltane, or Bealtaine in the Irish, celebrates the bright half of the year. Inspired by the song in the movie Camelot, John likes to call this month "the lusty month of May." There's actually some historical basis for that: way back in the day, on Beltane it was customary for unmarried couples to go off to the woods for…well, use your imagination.  In any event, when May finally arrives, it seems like the earth is brimming over with vibrant, lusty life!

Modern people have put their own spin on May Day celebrations—contemporary Irish folks have even finagled a bank holiday out of it. When I was a kid, the first of May was a blast. My sisters and I would craft little baskets out of construction paper, fill them with clover, dandelion blossoms, or whatever flowers we could scarf from our mom’s flower garden, and attach a little handle. Then we’d stealthily approach our favorite neighbor’s houses, carefully hang a basket on the front doorknob, ring the doorbell, then giggling, we’d race home before the neighbors could open their door. I thought the whole anonymity thing was exhilarating.

 I haven’t done that for…well, I won’t tell you how many years it’s been since I left a May Day basket on somebody’s door. But these days, I celebrate May Day with a different kind of exhilaration…the kind you get putting in your spring garden! You see, here in the Foothills, May 1 is exactly two weeks before our last frost date. Which means it’s safe to start planting! Of course, there are a few cool-weather crops you can seed in April, like spinach, and peas. But May Day means we can get serious about Berryridge Farm staples: carrots, beets, parsnips, potatoes and kale. A lot of sources say you can plant these in April, but I’m sorry—with this being our 6th Spring in the Foothills, we know April is just too undependable. We’ve probably had upwards of 5 inches of rain this month, plenty of temps in the low 40’s or even down into the 30’s, which is hardly conducive to happy seeds and germination!

 On the Celtic timetable, May 1 actually the official beginning of summer (since February 1, St. Brigit’s feast day, marks the opening of spring). All I can say is, I wish.  I’d love to be celebrating these mid-spring days as is the brightest, sunniest part of the year, but we get so much rain in May, right up through June, that the longest days of daylight don’t feel that bright. But I guess the plants have it all figured out—whether weeds, seedlings or established plants, they grow like nobody’s business from May through summer solstice time.

I’m heading outside asap to get some seeds in the ground—what do you plant in May? If you aren’t sure about the last frost date in your area, you can consult your local university county extension program for gardening and farming info!

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The Return of the Mojo

The hens had stopped laying.

This didn’t come as a shock—experience and research had taught us the drill: Late fall to early winter, hens start molting—that is, their feathers gradually fall out, with a new set growing in during the shortest days of the year. And during these short days, egg production drops. Last winter, our 6 “girls” went from producing 3-6 eggs per day to 1-2 per day—I think we’d had 2 or 3 days total with no eggs at all. Since we had only 5 hens this second winter of keeping chickens (after the hawk attack last spring), we figured the numbers would be slightly different for the winter months: Maybe a half dozen per week, with 5 or 6 days with no eggs.

But no problemo: by early December we were prepared—the three dozen eggs stashed in the fridge would provide a nice cushion for holiday baking. I didn’t mind fewer eggs: I was actually looking forward to having a short break from trying to figure out what to do with all of them!

Only…things were different this year. While egg production steadily declined through December, and the birds looked scraggly, just like last year, they were acting kind of…squirrelly. Instead of scratching around the yard no matter what the weather, they spent most of their time in the covered area next to the coop. If there was any snow on the ground, you couldn’t coax them out into the yard for love or money. The scratch we tossed out got ignored—okay, I could understand that. Plain ol’ grain wasn’t too exciting. But shockingly, I got the same reaction with leftover salmon bits that had previously sent them insane with chicken food lust. Even more puzzling, they were so…quiet. No brassy cackling and complaining. Plus they spooked so easily you’d think they were purebred racehorses. What had happened to our feisty, active girls?

Then, in early January they took to spending all day inside the coop, venturing out only to peck at their feeder a few minutes, then back in they’d go. Were they chilly? Freaked out by the neighborhood bobcat that still might be lurking around? Or just bummed out by winter? By now, with the hens hanging out in the coop practically 24/7, it was awash in feathers—clearly molting was still going great guns. But how could they lay if they weren’t getting any natural light, sitting around in dark all day? (I guess if I lost my clothes during the coldest time of the year, I’d be staying inside too, but still.)

Fleetingly, I wondered if they were sick, but they were still eating like troopers. Whatever ailed them, by mid-month, they weren’t only laying fewer eggs, they’d stopped laying altogether.

Three weeks into the egg drought, we were getting a little concerned. “They’re only a year and a half old,” I said to John one day, since we’d read that laying hens’ output decreases a little bit each year. “They can’t be too old to lay, can they?”

“I always heard they’d be good for at least four or five years,” John said, looking thoughtful. “Must be something else going on.”

Then at a family gathering that weekend, we met a young gal who’d kept a home flock, and asked for advice. “Oh, they’re just cold,” she said. “Put a heater in the coop, and they’ll start laying like that!” She snapped her fingers.

As soon as we got home, John re-installed a rudimentary heater he’d rigged up during a northeaster last year: a 60-watt incandescent bulb set inside a coffee can, with holes punched in the can to let the heat escape. The next day, with high hopes, we checked the nest boxes, but they were empty. And they stayed that way.

“Maybe it’s a light issue,” I said to John. “Didn’t we read somewhere that artificial light is how commercial egg producers keep the hens laying?”

“Seems worth a try,” he replied, so I went straight out to the coop and re-positioned the light bulb, so the light shone full-on their roost. Now, with the inside of the coop as sunny and warm as the tropics, I figured we’d see eggs within hours…

But no. With our stash of eggs nearly gone, we broke down and bought a dozen from our local drive-through dairy stand. I hoped our purchase would prompt the chicken gods to send out some egg-laying vibes, but still no action. Two more weeks passed, with that darn 60-watt bulb burning night and day. The girls must’ve liked it, since they continued to hole up in the coop most of the daylight hours—even the fully-feathered hens.

Okay, maybe they were just being stubborn or something. Time for tough love. So, filling the hen’s feeder with their no-soy, balanced organic feed, I’d scold, “You slackers are getting this expensive food—we want a return on our investment!” John’s warnings to the hens were even more dire: “Come on, girls, let’s see some eggs or it’s the stew pot for you!”

Joking aside, we actually started some soul-searching: What would we do if they really had stopped laying permanently? Would we look for a new source for buying pullets? Or did we want to give up keeping a flock entirely? We’d gotten so discouraged we even quit checking the nest boxes.

It had now been six weeks since we’d seen an egg. While John and I like to figure out things for ourselves, it was time for drastic action: Google our no-egg problem. With the search prompt, “When chickens stop laying eggs,” the sites we pulled up pretty much told us what we already knew:

*Hens might be chilled
*Hens might be afraid
*Shorter days = fewer eggs

Then we came across something new:
*Feed wasn’t balanced.

Uh-oh. “John, maybe that’s our problem,” I confessed. “I’ve been cheating, mixing in a lot of scratch.” Apparently trying to stretch our $30/40 lbs. layer mix with generous amounts of scratch was a big no-no.

More discouraged than ever, I was ready to sign off…then I saw the word Molting—with a new insight: the process wasn’t simply to grow another set of feathers, but to give the hens’ reproductive systems a break. Once their egg producing innards were rejuvenated, they’d get back to laying. Could there be hope after all?

The next morning, the last day of February, I went out to feed the chickens (with 100% feed, by the way). Just for the heck of it, I checked the boxes, and what do you know: there lay one medium-sized, lovely brown egg. “John,” I called, bursting into the house. “We got an egg!” We were as proud as if we’d laid it ourselves. The next day, there was another egg, and two days later, a pair more. For insurance, we kept the light running another week, but clearly, we were back in the egg game.

One month later, the fridge is filling up fast. Now that we’re getting 2-4 eggs a day, John and I are back to powering down the omelets and egg salad. And along with their egg-laying talents, the hens have regained their mojo—back to scratching rain or shine, cackling and squawking whenever they hear us outside. I occasionally long for the serene, peaceful weeding sessions I had B.C. (Before Chickens), but I’m so glad to have our lively girls—and their eggs—back at Berryridge Farm.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Overwintering Garden Soup

The stars were in alignment. I had lots of store-bought staples on hand: split peas, hulled barley, celery, plus carrots and onions (since we’d depleted our own harvest back in December). I had the home-grown necessities too: plenty of potatoes, and the last of one of the nicer garlic heads. (Confession: most of my garlic had spoiled after I’d left our crop in the ground when the August rains started.) And I'd just pulled a quart of turkey broth from the deep freeze, thanks to the last bird we’d roasted. Happily, I was free of any pressing writing deadlines too. And the kicker: the ground had finally thawed after our big January snowstorm. Clearly, this was my big opportunity to make Overwintering (Pea) Soup.

You may be thinking, hmmm—sounds like plain old split pea to me. But the soft ground meant that late yesterday afternoon, my reward for slogging around the garden in the cold February rain was fresh-picked leeks and parsnips. These are the veggies I didn’t pick back in November, when a late fall snowstorm caught us by surprise…again. I’m convinced it’s these home-grown, overwintered root crops that take a soup from merely delicious to sublime. Especially the parsnips—a veggie I never ate until we started growing our own. (I can’t believe I let a whole lifetime go by without parsnips!) Really, they’re the ultimate secret to amazing soup. But you don’t just peel ‘em, chop ‘em and toss them into the kettle. That’s easy, but in my mind, misguided.

No, you roast them first! Cut into chunks, put in a glass baking dish, drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle with a bit of sea salt and garlic powder, and roast for about 50 minutes at 350 degrees. By then the sugar in the parsnips has caramelized, and it’s like eating candy. No, it’s better than candy, because you can get candy anywhere. One bite of these home-grown and hand-prepared vegetables, and you’re sure you’ve died and gone to heaven. The added benefit of cooking with parsnips is their lovely smell—a fresh, sweet, earthy scent that clings to your hands long after you’ve washed the raw-veggie grime off.

I like to think the soup turned out extra yummy because 1) I picked some new leaves of kale and chard by flashlight that had made it through the worst of winter (with only minimal slug damage) and added them in. And 2), because all the ingredients were organic, down to the organic turkey that supplied the broth. The peas were actually a little too chewy, mealy even, but that particular factor is out of our control. Well water keeps legumes from cooking down to a nice, soft texture. But I really can’t see myself buying distilled water to cook peas and beans in! There is one big problem with homemade soup, though: eating it ruins your taste buds for canned stuff, even the expensive organic brands.

Back in my red meat-eating days, in my twenties, I would have put in a ham hock, while Irish split pea soup recipes call for a couple of pig's feet!  But I think the homemade stock adds all the extra flavor you need.

While all the peeling, chopping, sautéing, roasting, simmering and clean-up took over 3 hours, I figured it was worth it. Besides, my soup project was a way to procrastinate on the de-cluttering I’ve been meaning to do! Too, it was somehow comforting to be making soup on a rainy winter night. And now we’ve got three more soup meals in the freezer.

Even better, I have a couple of dozen more parsnips in the fridge, many more leeks still in the garden, and the winter kale and chard is hanging in there…so I’m already anticipating my next batch of Overwintering (Lentil this time) Soup.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Wild Kingdom

The New Year has brought a challenging twist to life in the Foothills: a few days ago, I crossed paths with a bear. I froze in terror. It was dusk, and I was alone. John was away, and there was no one within calling distance.

Now, if I’d been out hiking on the many trails in our neck of the Foothills, or up in the Cascade mountains, I would’ve been just as scared, but I wouldn’t have been shocked. Black bears in the Pacific Northwest wilderness are about as common as wild mushrooms. This bear sighting, however, did take me by surprise. Because I was taking a walk on the private road leading to our property, and this bear was maybe one hundred yards from our house, as the crow flies. When I saw a big, black something moving ahead of me that late afternoon, I could hardly breathe. I tried to tell myself it was a deer. But who was I kidding—this creature had a huge, dark, rounded mass, not a slender silhouette. And deer generally either saunter, trot, or spring into their signature ping-pongy gait. This animal lumbered.

And here I was, with nothing more than an umbrella to defend myself with. The bear stopped in the middle of the road, as if assessing me. I guess it decided I wasn’t a threat or an annoyance, because it crossed to the other side of the road, and disappeared into the brush. I waited several moments—minutes that felt like hours, waiting for my heart to stop pounding, for my stomach to unclench, and hoping the bear was making some headway toward wherever it was going. But there was no way around it—I wasn’t going to get home by teleportation, like on Star Trek—no chance for a “Beam me up, Scotty,” to get me back safe. I’d have to walk. A ¾ of a mile distance.

For those of you who are wondering, why didn’t I whip out my cell phone, and call for help? Surely I wouldn’t take a walk in the boonies without a phone! Actually, in the interests of living a simpler life, I don't  have a cell phone. Besides, there’s no cell service out here. This gloomy afternoon, I really was on my own. So I forced myself to move forward, one cautious step at a time. Then I started walking faster, peering right, left, and behind me—I’d never been so vigilant. I was never so glad to make it to our driveway, and inside our fence.

I’d made light of previous bear sightings in my memoir, Little Farm in the Foothills—because, to be truthful, I’d never really felt threatened. Our first summer in the Foothills, I’d seen a bear a couple of miles away from our house, near a campground. I did get a jolt of fear, but it only lasted an instant. For one thing, I was on my bike, so at least I had a getaway vehicle (although I’ve heard bears can run upwards of 40 miles per hour, which would actually make me a sitting duck, even on a bike). And it took no notice of me, just shambled into the woods. So, no worries. I figured any bears in the area would stick around the campground Dumpsters, which were probably full of yummy leftovers. Then five years went by, and neither John nor I saw any sign of bears.

Things changed last summer, around the end of July. I got a rare phone call from my brother, The Wood Guy, who lives around a mile from where I’d had seen my first bear years ago. Coming home from work, he’d seen a bear on the road where I ride my bike. “It was a big one, Sue,” he said. “So watch out.” Three days later, on my bike, I saw the bear myself, about an 1/8 of a mile ahead of me. This bear was a bit closer to home, but still, I felt, nothing to worry about. It was well over a mile from our house. Then the following Sunday, heading home after a bikeride, I met one of our local law enforcement guys making his rounds on our road. He stopped his SUV and rolled down his window. “I just wanted to warn you that a few minutes ago, I saw a giant bear over there.” He waved toward the dead-end lane that abuts our road. “Be careful.” Now this was too close for comfort. I skipped my walk that evening. But when the days and months passed without encountering any bears, I relaxed. That is, until last week.

For whatever reason, our wildlife sightings have really picked up lately. In November, I was up unusually early, and from the kitchen window, I saw a long, low shape stalking the fence line next to the chicken pen. A bobcat. I ran outside, shouting and waving my arms, and it lit for the woods. Naturally, the cat’s had lots of opportunities to check out our hens when we’re not around, but John has built a sturdy compound for our little flock: a 10’ x 20’ run with six inches of poultry fencing below the soil, and steer wire enclosing the top. He’s also created a little fenced “tunnel” adjacent to our woodshed complex, so the hens have a safe, covered dust-bath area. All in all, I like to think that all those layers of fencing and wire has confused the cat enough, so that he’s quit trying to get in.

The cat didn’t leave our property, however: the same week, John and I saw the bobcat outside our fence around the corner from the hen compound, walking away from it. Which encouraged me to again conclude that it was giving up on trying to get our hens. Then a day later, from the bedroom window, I saw the bobcat up close, in our front (unfenced) yard. The cat must have seen the movement in the window, because it turned and looked right back at me. It was an extraordinarily pretty animal, with features as delicate as a housecat. It was hard for me to conjure up any dislike for it, even after another neighbor, who’d just acquired a small flock of hens, told me it had killed four of her chickens. But bobcats, from everything I’ve heard, pose no threat to humans.

But back to the critters that do: Two days after sighting the bear, I met a neighbor walking her dog, and told her about it. Turns out, a friend of hers had seen the bear too, in the very same place the week before. I’d always figured bears should be hibernating this time of year, but with the mild December we’d had, perhaps our bear got thrown off schedule.

And now we have mountain lions to worry about—my neighbor had seen two of them in her yard the day before. It could be, now that she’s got a housecat, and with the extra special delicacy of two chicken flocks on hand, the big cats have decided to move into the neighborhood. Our recent snowfall will make bears and cats easier to see—which is certainly a plus, however temporary. In any event, I’d better get used to the idea that there are some big wild animals where we live.

But if I want to live a full life, I just can’t cower in our house. So these days, I ask John to walk with me. I must say, I feel much safer, having a taller, stronger companion--especially a guy who is a retired police officer, and prepared for a little self-defense. Before I met John, I didn't even know anyone who had a gun. And when we lived in town, I was a cupcake police-officer's wife. (That is, I kind of pretended he didn't deal with firearms every day.) But once we moved out to the Foothills, I got comfortable really fast with having a few weapons around.

For our country strolls, John carries a sturdy maple walking stick, fashioned from one of our trees, and a Bowie knife on his belt...just in case he's forced into hand-to-hand combat. After my bear encounter, he started tucking a .380 pistol in his waistband as well. He says the .380 wouldn't kill a bear, but the noise could give one a good scare. I'd rather the bear just gets back to what it's supposed to be doing--catching its Z's in a cozy den until spring!