Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Chapter 12: The Wonderful Machine

"'It would have taken Henry and Peterson and me a couple of weeks apiece to thresh as much grain with flails as that machine threshed today. We wouldn't have got as much wheat, either, and it wouldn't have been as clean.

'That machine's a great invention!' he said. 'Other folks can stick to old-fashioned ways if they want to, but I'm all for progress. It's a great age we're living in. As long as I raise wheat, I'm going to have a machine come and thresh it, if there's one anywhere in the neighborhood.'

Pa was too tired that night to talk to Laura, but Laura was proud of him. It was Pa who had got the other men to stack their wheat together and send for the threshing machine, and it was a wonderful machine. Everybody was glad it had come."

The closer winter comes, the busier life is at the cabin in the Big Woods. Ma works all day preserving summer's bounty so it can be enjoyed during the winter. Carrots, turnips, and potatoes are all dug and put away. Pumpkins are harvested and cooked down for eating and pie making. Corn is hulled and turned into hominy. The girls help by spending long hours gathering the many different kinds of nuts.

Ma also takes the straw from some of the oats and soaks it. When it is soft, she braids long braids to be used for hat making. Ma can make beautiful hats, and Laura is learning to do it, too, by making a hat for Charlotte.

One exciting day, a clankity-clackity machine comes down the road. It is the threshing machine, run by a crew of men who all expect to be fed. All the extra work in the kitchen is a sacrifice Pa is willing to make, because it saves him untold hours of work in the field. How wonderful the new machine is!

I happened to be reading this chapter right during harvest time out here on the prairie. From morning until late into the night, giant farm machinery could be seen rushing back and forth across acres of fields. The harvest must be got in, and you can sleep when it's winter or you're dead, which ever comes first.

I wanted to do the chapter using one of the modern harvesters. It would have been very interesting to see how technology has changed since Pa Ingall's day. For instance, I don't think that horsepower is counted in real horses anymore! But just in case that didn't work out, I picked up a cooking pumpkin one of my trips to Williston.

My pumpkin sat for over a month, no doubt growing smug in its belief that it would not be needed after all. Surely I would be able to focus on harvesters and it would be allowed to grow old gracefully as a genteel autumn table decoration. But unfortunately, I never got around to the fascinating study of harvesters, and in the end, it all boiled down, if you'll pardon the pun, to the pumpkin.

"With the butcher knife Ma cut the big, orange -colored pumpkins into halves. She cleaned the seeds out of the center and cut the pumpkin into long slices, from which she pared the rind. Laura helped her cut the slices into cubes."

It was a sad day for my pumpkin, but it had to be done.

"All the water and juice must be boiled away, and the pumpkin must never burn."

I put the cubed pumpkin chunks in water to boil, then went back to cooking and eating lunch. The pumpkin boiled merrily away, and kept right on going! Before I knew it, the water was all gone, and my golden chunks were sticking to the bottom of the kettle with an odor suspiciously similar to char. Well, maybe it wouldn't hurt if the pumpkin burned a little...

After the pumpkin was cooked, I mashed it and began the process of boiling it down. I tried to gain clues from a careful reading of the text--"thick, dark, good-smelling mass", "rich brown stewed pumpkin", that sort of thing. Not exactly a precise recipe! How thick was thick? How dark was dark? And did it count if some of the darkness was from the charcoal?

At long last, I decided the pumpkin must be done. If I boiled out any more moisture, I'd be spraying pumpkin dust when I took the first bite. Now, oh joy, it was time to taste this delectable treat.

"Ma never allowed them to play with their food at table; they must always eat nicely everything that was set before them, leaving nothing on their plates. But she did let them make the rich, brown stewed pumpkin into pretty shapes before they ate it."

Ah! A reprieve! I set to work sculpting. And sculpting. And sculpting. At last, everything that could be sculpted was sculpted.

There remained but to try it. I will draw the veil over the next few moments. Mainly because the one picture I took of me eating it was ridiculously unflattering (at least I know what I'll look like at 50!), and there was no way I was doing a do-over for a better shot. One bite. That was it. No clean plate, no matter what Ma would say about that. I don't know what her version tasted like, but if it tasted anything like mine, treats have improved in the intervening years. I could market that stuff as a dietary aid. Taste it and your appetite leaves you. But Laura was right about one thing, you can make pretty pictures out of it.

A Rare Literary Find

The lost chapter

It's been quite a while since my last Little House post due to a very exciting event in the literary community....the discovery of a lost chapter of Laura Ingalls Wilder. Recently, the Laura Ingalls Wilder Preservation Society has been renovating the recreated cabin from Little House in the Big Woods. Buried in the right-hand corner, under the concrete foundation, was an old-looking package wrapped in brittle duct tape.

The contents were 5 typed pages that, after rigorous examination by a panel of experts, have been determined to be hand-written by Pa Ingalls himself. It details a previously unknown period of time in the Ingalls saga.

It seems that one fall a tragedy occurred that could have brought an early end to Laura's tales. Late one September, Pa suddenly realized that he had done no winterizing to the cabin all summer long. Winter was rapidly approaching, and without dramatic intervention, the family would freeze to death.

Undaunted by this seemingly insurmountable circumstance, Pa devoted the next month and a half to unceasing labor. His job was made harder by the fact that most of what he needed hadn't been invented yet. So Pa set to work creating a primitive oil refinery to develop the petroleum products he needed for covering the windows with plastic, a loom to create the first duct tape recorded, and a furnace to spin glass fibers for basic fiberglass insulation.

After invention came installation, and Pa spent many, MANY hours putting all of his clever devices into use. Of course, Ma was right by his side, and being gifted with truly hardy pioneer spirit, refrained from pointing out that if Pa had done it when he was supposed to, he wouldn't be in such a rush now.

When I learned of this stunning lost chapter, I simply had to include it in my blog. I have followed Pa's account as closely as possible, though of course all the products are already available to me. I don't have to invent them, thank goodness, because just installing them has proven to be enough of a project! It has been a truly unforgettable experience, but I am glad to be finished and ready to pick up the less strenuous "known chapters."

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Chapter 11: Harvest

"Pa and Uncle Henry were out in the field, cutting the oats with cradles. A cradle was a sharp steel blade fastened to a framework of wooden slats that caught and held the stalks of grain when the blade cut them. Pa and Uncle Henry carried the cradles by their long, curved handles, and swung the blades into the standing oats. When they had cut enough to make a pile, they slid the cut stalks off the slats, into neat heaps on the ground....It was very hard work, walking around and around the field in the hot sun."

Harvest has come to the Big Woods. To make the work lighter, the families trade labor; Uncle Henry helps at Pa's and Pa helps Uncle Henry. The wives work in the house and the children have a wonderful time playing in the yard.

It's a wonderful system that everyone enjoys but the men working in the field...until it develops a fatal flaw for one selfish boy. There is a storm threatening, and Cousin Charley is told he must leave the frolicking children and help the men in the fields. He can fetch them water and bring the whetstone when the blade needs sharpening. Charley is not pleased.

Out in the field, Charley gets in the way as much as possible. He hides the whetstone so they can't find it, and doesn't bring the water jug until his father shouts several times for him. But then he gets an even better idea on how to punish his father. He goes across the field and screams loudly.

Pa and Uncle Henry drop everything and sprint across the oats to where they heard his cries, only to find Charley laughing and saying, "I fooled you THAT time!" This was repeated three more times.

Then Charley screams one more time. Uncle Henry says to Pa, "Let 'im scream." But the screaming goes on and on. Charley jumps up and down and screams and screams. At last Uncle Henry decides to see if there is really something wrong.

Charley is covered in yellow jackets and has been stung from head to foot. Pa and Uncle Henry help him get the yellow jackets off, then send him back to the house for some first aid from Ma and Aunty Polly.

This was a very enjoyable chapter for me. At last we find out that not all of the sturdy pioneer children were complete angels (even if none of the naughty ones lived in the cabin with Pa and Ma). In fact, some of them acted a lot like naughty children I happen to know personally! How refreshing.

For this chapter, I have chosen to bring in a guest blog participant. For no particular reason. I just randomly thought of him as someone who could fill the roll of Charley as I recreated the frontier remedy for acute wasp stings. I invited Young Devon out to my house to be the first featured guest in my blog!

When he arrived, he strode through the door, singing out, "Oh, Aunty! I have come to model for your blo-og!"

We drove down to the nearest slough where I was sure to find a plethora of mud just ready for any wasp sting victims that might happen by. Devon was still a little puzzled as to what his role would be. Just to add spice to his life, I didn't tell him ahead of time, nor did I tell him why I was doing it when I started. "You will get to read the blog and be surprised."

We walked down to the water and chose a nice swampy spot. "What are you doing, Aunty?"


"Never mind, Aunty, I've changed my mind!" Devon tried to hurtle to freedom, but wasn't quite fast enough to escape his destiny.

"But Devon, think of the honor! You are the first guest in the whole blog!"

Devon was unimpressed by the honor. I was unimpressed with Devon's lack of impression and went to work with a will, though in the interests of hygiene and kindness, I did leave his face free of muck.

After a thorough coating of mud to take the poisons out, it was time to wrap the squirmy little bundle. I think the real Charley was in too much pain to hop around and squeal quite as much as Devon. Plus he kept trying to tip over backward every time we wrapped a little too vigorously.

Tempting as it would have been to leave him for several days until the "poisons" were completely gone, Laura and I set him free after taking his picture. Then it was time for the fun least, the fun part for Devon. My fun part had happened several moments before!

I'm not sure that Devon would appreciate this as a treatment for bee or wasp stings, but when there's no ER or antihistamines for, oh, a hundred more years or so, it's a better alternative than dying. The chapter ends before we find out if Charley learned his lesson, but let's hope so. I'd hate to see what it would take to get his attention of this experience failed to do so.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Chapter 10: Summertime

"Now it was summertime, and people went visiting. Sometimes Uncle Henry, or Uncle George, or Grandpa came riding out of the Big Woods to see Pa...Sometimes a neighbor sent word that the family was coming to spend the day. Then Ma did extra cleaning and cooking, and opened the package of store sugar. And on the day set, a wagon would come driving up to the gate in the morning and there would be strange children to play with."

Summer is a pleasant time in the Big Woods. The grass is long and thick, the breezes soft and refreshing, and the days long and warm. It is the perfect time for visiting back and forth and Laura and Mary enjoy having friends to play with. Of course Mary is much better behaved and angelic with her long blond hair.

It is the difference in hair color in fact, that leads to a sad moment in Laura's day. After a special visit from their aunt, who prudently declares she loves BOTH blond and brown hair best, Mary whispers to Laura, "Aunt Lottie likes my hair best anyway. Golden hair is lots prettier than brown."

Laura is so filled with indignation that she slaps Mary right on her angelic little face. Pa sees what happens (not that Mary wouldn't have told!) and gives Laura a whipping, after which Laura must sit in a chair. Laura feels very sorry for herself, but deep down is somewhat comforted by the knowledge that Mary now has to fill the chip bucket all by herself.

Summer days and good fresh feed for the cows means that it's time for making cheese. First a calf must be killed, one that has never had any other feed but milk. Laura is relieved to hear that Uncle Henry is going to kill one of HIS cows and will share enough of the stomach for Ma to get the rennet she needs to make cheese.

Cheese making is a complicated process, and Ma works for many days making a wheel each day until her pantry is full of enough cheese to last another year. Meanwhile, Pa has an adventure of his own when he finds a honey tree and brings back tubs and buckets full of sweet, sticky comb, plenty of honey for the family to enjoy during the long, cold winter to come.

It has taken me quite some time to get this chapter done. I decided early on that I wanted to make cheese, but had some difficulty finding the ingredients, and once I had what I needed, had difficulty finding a two day stretch where I had the time. As it turned out, cheese making was a much shorter process than I anticipated.

"Pa went again to Uncle Henry's, and came back with a piece of the little calf's stomach. It was like a piece of soft, grayish-white leather, all ridged and rough on one side."

I tried to find a calf's stomach, but nobody around here butchers their calves. If I'd been on this chapter a couple weeks earlier when we had the late blizzard, I could have found calves a-plenty since so many of them died in the storm. But now there was none available, and perhaps that is just as well. I think I am developing a weird enough reputation in the town as it is.

Certain well-intentioned family members suggested the stomach of a full-grown cow, but that was quickly rejected by me. Not even I want to tackle such a large and unwieldy organ. Especially since the preserving instructions require inflating it, salting it, then hanging it in a dark closet for about three months.

I searched for rennet tabs to no avail, but my mom finally found some in Plentywood. No one had recognized them by the term "rennet" because the brand name is "Junket". Now I was set and only needed to find the time. Last night, I found it.

The first step in making cheese is to inoculate your milk with live cultures. This is done by heating it to room temperature, pouring in a bit of buttermilk, then leaving it to sit out overnight. At 11:00 last night, I was sterilizing a pot and preparing to add culture to my hitherto uncouth Vitamin D milk.

Wrapping the lid with plastic to keep the flies out, I went to bed mildly disgusted by a food that required rotting in order to produce it. I didn't wake up until 9:00, in part because of my late bedtime the night before and in part due to it being the first night home for our new kitten, who decided to cry at various intervals. When he wasn't sneaking up on me and poking me with his cold nose to see if I was dead.

"A bit of rennet, tied in a cloth, was soaking in warm water."

The next step in making cheese is to gently heat the milk and pour in the rennet, which has been dissolved in water. I did this, noting with pleasure that the buttermilk had definitely made a difference in the milk, which was showing signs of curdling already, even before adding the rennet.

When the milk was just the right temperature (about 86 degrees), I added the rennet and left the milk to sit. It is critical that the milk not be jostled at this stage in order to achieve that Shangri-la state known as "a clean break". This is where the milk solidifies into a jelly-like mass of curds ready for cutting. I left it extra long to make sure it had plenty of time for the magic to work.

"When the milk was heated enough, Ma squeezed every drop of water from the rennet in the cloth, and she poured the water into the milk. She stirred it well and left it in a warm place by the stove. In a little while it thickened into a smooth, quivery mass."

At the end of the time, it didn't look quite right to me, but I cut it anyway and then plunged my unwilling hand into mix the curds like the instructions said. The mass disintegrated into a sodden pot of soured milk. This was not looking good, and I did what any pioneer woman would in that situation. I rushed to my computer and looked up cheese making articles.

What I found was the death-knell to any hopes that there was a fix to this. On a page devoted to the problems associated with getting that clean break, I read that "If you add too little starter, the milk will not be acid enough for the rennet to work. If you add too much, the milk may get over acidified and curdle. Over acidified milk is recognize the by a slight thickening (clabbering) of the milk. The milk should look exactly like regular milk when the rennet is added. If the milk is even slightly clabbered, you will NEVER get a clean break." I remembered the slight curdling of the milk before the rennet was added and I knew my buttermilk must have been too acidic for the job.

Like so many traditional tasks of the home-maker of yore, cheese-making is one that is simple if you know how and have been taught the mysterious sense of rightness that only experience can give. How am I supposed to know how acidic my buttermilk is? Send it to therapy? But the accomplished farm wife would simply "know".

"Then Ma wrapped each cheese in paper and laid it away on the high shelf. There was nothing more to do with it but eat it."

Alas, there was nothing left for me to do but throw the batch out. Perhaps I will try again someday, since I am ever loathe to let anything defeat me, but it will have to be a task for another day. For now, I am content to admire the skill of the farm wife and acknowledge her superiority over her modern sisters.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Chapter 9: Going to Town

"After the sugar snow had gone, spring came. Birds sang in the leafing hazel bushes along the crooked rail fence. The grass grew green again and the woods were full of wild flowers. Buttercups and violets, thimble flowers and tiny starry grassflowers were everywhere.

Pa said that as soon as he had the crops in, they would all go to town. Laura and Mary could go, too. They were old enough now.

They were very much excited, and next day they tried hard to play going to town. The could not do it very well, because they were not quite sure what a town was like. They knew there was a store in town, but they had never seen a store.

Once Laura and Mary find out they're finally going to town, they spend their days telling their little dolls that they are MUCH to young to go to town. Maybe next year. If they're good. At last the day arrives when Pa says they will go to town tomorrow. Even though it's the middle of the week, Laura and Mary have another bath and afterward Ma puts their hair up in rags.

The next morning the whole family dresses in their best and climbs into the wagon for the long trip into Pepin. There is lots to see in the forest during the spring, but at last the road gets sandy and Laura can see glimpses of blue water through the trees. Then Laura sees Lake Pepin for the first time. It is so big it looks like it goes to the edge of the world. By the shores of the lake sits the town of Pepin, so wonderful Laura can barely breathe.

Pa leaves the wagon at the edge of the lake and ties the horses to each side. Then it is time for the store! It is full of calico, plows, sugar, axes, shoes of all sizes, and everything else in the world! And the most wonderful part of all is when the storekeeper gives Mary and Laura each little candy heart. Laura takes hers home; it is much too pretty to eat.

After a picnic at the lake, Pa goes back to visit with the other farmers at the store, Carrie takes a nap on Ma's lap, and Laura and Mary run up and down the lake shore picking up pretty pebbles. Laura puts so many in her pocket that the seams rip, but Ma can fix it, so the day ends all right after all.

Even to this hardy pioneer, it is a little early for lake sports, especially since the weather has tended towards the rainy/windy side of things. But I had another project that would just fit the bill for this chapter. There is a little "everything" store in town that I've wanted to go to since I first saw it last summer. The problem is that it is always closed; the proprietress got tired of staying down there all the time, so you have to call for an appointment.

"Laura could have looked for weeks and not seen all the things that were in that store. She had not known there were so many things in the world."

In a serendipitous arrangement of circumstances, the same rain that kept me off of any lake also kept the farmer that owns the store out of his fields. So he had nothing better to do than to come down and let me explore his shop. It was a lovely place, full of everything a hardy pioneer might want, and quite a bit a hardy pioneer wouldn't have a clue what to do with. I saw a number of things I could use for Pioneer Immersion Week, but I didn't get them yet (just in case I chicken out).

I did get a couple of inexpensive things for PIW. They had a lovely matching set of easy chairs--only $1.00 each--for the discerning pioneer decorator, and a cordless toaster/roaster oven for only $1.00, too.

There were so many treasures to choose from that I had a hard time making up my mind. But I couldn't take everything home with me! A genuine pioneer is frugal and remembers to save for a rainy day. And around here, there are a LOT of rainy days.

"Pa got enough calico to make Ma a new apron. Ma said, 'Oh, no, Charles, I don't really need it.'
But Pa laughed and said she must pick it out, or he would get her the turkey red piece with the big yellow pattern. Ma smiled and flushed pink, and she picked out a pattern of rosebuds and leaves on a soft, fawn-colored ground."

Besides the Pioneer Immersion Week items, I picked up a bird cage and a wicker handbag for $1.00 each, and a birdwatching sign, also for $1.00 (that was pretty much my price limit!)I also got Laura a jump-rope and a scooter, plus the proprietor gave her a reading pillow.

For my kitchen, I picked up a woven tray, a rolling pin, a cherry-red tea pot, and a mama chicken and two baby chicks. All together, I spent the jaw-dropping total of $15.00. Back in Laura Ingalls Wilder's day, that would have been quite a sum, indeed!

But I have my eye on that wringer, a washboard, a sad iron, a scythe, and a few other things I might need to survive on the frontiers of North Dakota. Maybe I could install that beautiful pump on my kitchen counter so I can have running water in the house.....Just kidding. I actually do have running water--for the moment anyway.

After we finished browsing, I wandered around back and took a few pictures of the spring colors. Such a relief to the eyes after winter. I've learned that you can't appreciate springs until you've been through a real winter. Maybe that's why God sends us so many "winters" in our lives.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Chapter 8: Dance at Grandpa's

"People had begun to come. They were coming on foot through the snowy woods, with their lanterns, and they were driving up to the door in sleds and in wagons. Sleigh bells were jingling all the time.

The big room filled with tall boots and swishing skirts, and ever so many babies were lying in rows on Grandma's bed. Then Pa took his fiddle out of its box and began to play, and all the couples stood in squares on the floor and began to dance when Pa called the figures."

After a wonderful run of maple syrup sap, Grandpa and Grandma decide to celebrate with a dance at their house. Everyone is so excited; Ma will get to wear the special delaine dress she keeps wrapped in tissue paper. Laura and Mary have never been to a dance, so they are filled with anticipation.

The day arrives and they all pile in the wagon for the trip to Grandma and Grandpa's house. Pa helps Grandpa in the woods all day and Ma helps Grandma, Aunt Docia, and Aunt Ruby prepare for the party. At last it is time and Uncle George goes out on the porch and blows his horn to summon the neighbors.

So many people come the house is filled with laughing, shouting guests. Pa plays his fiddle and the crowd dances the complicated patterns of the square dance until they can't dance anymore. Than it is time for maple syrup on snow, and after that a groaning table loaded with pies, cookies, cakes, bread, cold boiled pork, and sour pickles. By that time the syrup is graining and everyone gets a little dish of maple sugar candy to top it all off.

The music and dancing went on and on and before Laura knew it, it was morning and she was waking up in Grandma's bed. Time to go home and take care of the animals, but what a fun, fun time they had to remember!


This week was a perfect juxtaposition for me; I needed to host an end-of-the-year party for my preschoolers and I needed to try square dancing. Voila! Square dancing preschoolers were the answer. Of course, since we had it on a Sunday, other family members were invited, so it wasn't just preschoolers. But we all had one thing in common---we had no idea how to square dance.

The square dance originated in 17th century England with various other European influences. However, it developed so strongly in North America that it is thought of almost wholly as an American dance form. There are two main types of square dance, Traditional and Modern Western. Modern Western is a standardized form where you are expected to be at least functionally proficient with the moves before joining a dance. As it turns out, I'm really more a traditional square dancer.

I went to the local library figuring, "I'm in the country now. There will be a whole section of how-to books on square dancing. Probably some videos and sound tracks, too." There were two books. In the basement. The lovely, helpful librarian had to go down there and fish them out for me. One was a serious tome on the subject. It had phrases such as:

"A caller must be a teacher and a leader, and very capable in both roles. No one can call for a teacher and no one can teach for a caller. Leadership is all-important. You are working with something alive and vibrant; a thing of motion, a constantly changing pattern. The Square Dance has lived and breathed for over three hundred years. It lives and breathes, changes and grows, as does any living organism."

Come again?

Needless to say, the other book was much more help. It had simple "games and mixers" which were just about all we could handle. In all honesty, it turned out they were all we could handle, and then some more complicated routines in the back. Each dance had the page music to go with it, though in retrospect, I should have copied the calls so the caller didn't have to squint over the pianist's shoulder, all stuck back in the corner where no one could hear her. And I could have used a copy of the movements to refer to!

"Aunt Docia and Aunt Ruby helped each other with their corsets. Aunt Docia pulled as hard as she could on Aunt Ruby's corset strings, and then Aunt Docia hung on to the foot of the bed while Aunt Ruby pulled on hers.

'Pull, Ruby, pull!' Aunt Docia said, breathless. 'Pull harder.' So Aunt Ruby braced her feet and pulled harder."

There were no corsets to don, but there was a pleasant, panicked flurry to get ready for the party. Just as Aunt Ruby and Aunt Docia styled their hair, all the ladies had to have appropriate pioneer hairstyles. Sadly, some of us had our pioneer locks chopped off a short time ago due to the fever, so we had to content ourselves with our best approximation.

After the usual preschool preliminaries it was time for our square dance tutorial. I chose the "Irish Washerwoman Mixer" due to its simplicity and the fact it was first in the book. It went like this:

All join hands and go to the middle. (All walk 4 steps to the center of the circle)
And with your big foot keep time to the fiddle. (Stamp foot four times)
And when you get back remember my call. (Take four steps back to place)
Swing on the corner and promenade all. (Each leader swings the partner on the left around, places her on his arm, and promenades around the circle for the chorus)

We would have struggled anyway, but it was made especially challenging by the fact that a large percentage of our group was none to clear on terms like "left" and "counterclockwise". In fact, some of them seemed a little confused about "in a circle", as in our practice couples wandered off in all directions, some of the pairs led by high schoolers! Nevertheless, I felt us least as ready as we were likely to get. Here is a video of our professional-quality performance.....

It didn't go as badly as it could have, and after a few tries, an 'elite' team of eight dancers decided to try the more complicated routine. To the tune of "Turkey in the Straw", we were to perform these movements:

First Pa and Ma go straight uptown, (first couple walk across set to couple #3)
Bring that opposite couple down, bring them down. (first couple walks backward with couple #3 following)
And push them back. (couple #3 walks backward to place with first couple following)
Separate, go round the track, lady go gee, gent go haw (couple #3 steps apart and lets first couple go between them)
Right allemande just Pa and Ma. (when first couple meet back again, they take right hands and turn once)
All swing on the corner like swingin' on a gate. (All swing the lady on the left)
Promenade corners and don't be late. (promenade new partners round the room)

You're supposed to keep this up until everyone has had a turn and you're back with your original partners. If it sounds complicated and hard to follow, that's because it is. Particularly when one must remember whether one is a gentleman or a lady for that particular go-round. Within one try things had devolved into a sort of line dance that very shortly ended in chaos. But everyone enjoyed themselves, so like Laura's somewhat more traditional square dance, it was a resounding success! Here is the video of our second dance. It looks much better on tape than it did in person.

Then it was time for refreshments. We had old-fashioned kettle corn from the microwave, old-fashioned ginger snaps from the bag, chips and salsa for a international flair, old-fashioned apple pie from a box in the freezer, and of course, a piece of maple sugar candy to top it all off. That at least had some faint flavor of authenticity, since it was left over from last week's experiment.

It was fun to try something new, even though it was something I'm absolutely not good at. I have never had grace or flair; my talents lie in a sturdier direction, but no one was worried about how they looked or how they performed. That's the beauty of childhood, and an attitude we lose all to quickly as we age. I enjoyed stepping back into it for a little while. In fact, I was so loosened up that I even had a "Sound of Music" moment in the field out back after the party. You'll have to admit, that's pretty doggone loosened up!

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Chapter 7: Sugar Snow

"In the morning the house was warm from the stove, but when Laura looked out of the window she saw that the ground was covered with soft, thick snow. All along the branches of the trees the snow was piled like feathers, and it lay in mounds along the top of the rail fence, and stood up in great, white balls on top of the gate-posts.

Pa came in, shaking the soft snow from his shoulders and stamping it from his boots. "It's a sugar snow," he said.

Laura put her tongue quickly to a little bit of the white snow that lay in a fold of his sleeve. It was nothing but wet on her tongue, like any snow. She was glad that nobody had seen her taste it."

Signs of spring are everywhere in the Big Woods. The sun is shining and the snow has all melted from the yard, leaving a sea of mud. Tomorrow Laura gets to go out and play, but that night a storm blows through and covers everything back up with snow. Pa calls it a "sugar snow", but Laura doesn't know what that means. Pa can't explain at the moment because he is hurrying off to Grandpa's house.

That evening Pa returns with a package and a big wooden bucket. The bucket is full to the brim with maple syrup and the package holds two big cakes of maple sugar, plus two little cakes for Laura and Mary from Pa's pocket. Grandpa has been making maple syrup.

Laura learns that snow this time of year is called a sugar snow because it keeps the trees from leafing out as soon and that means the maple sap will run longer. And THAT means more sap in the buckets and more syrup for the table. Yum!

Maple syrup making is a long-standing family tradition of mine. Of course, I've never actually made any myself, but I am VERY professional at dispatching the results of our Wisconsin relatives' labors. So I expected to be a natural at this chapter.

The snow has actually melted at last, so there would be no snow candy (something I've always wanted to do. That is where you take boiling molasses or maple syrup and drizzle it on the snow to make fine strands of hard candy. Pretty easy, but since there was no snow, I decided to try my hand at maple sugar.

There are no maple trees out here, and the time for tapping them is long since past anyway, so I had to use store-bought maple syrup for my base. If you ask me, that is a lot easier anyway, but considerably more expensive, so I diluted it half and half with plain white sugar syrup.

It was still early in the morning before the prairie wind could really get going, but there was still enough of a breeze to interfere with the fire so I set up on the lee side of the house. There is quite a trick to laying a good fire, and as you can see from the picture, I am an expert.

Once the fire was going, I prepared the sugar mix (should have done that before) while Laura watched the fire. When I came back out, she'd set up a whole hobo camp there and was looking quite disreputable. Her improvements did make things more convenient, though.

Once the fire was going, I set the pot on the bricks and began to stir. And stir and stir and stir and stir. It was rather smokey work, and certain unflattering comparisons were raised that rhyme with "itches", but I chose to rise above those mundane and petty distractions to concentrate on my higher task, that of wondering how long it would take this stuff to boil. Besides, Laura had to take her turn, too, and as you can see, the comparisons were just as applicable.

(You can understand why I never had a career in radio...Stupid mouse voice.)

"The instant the sap is graining, Grandpa jumps to the fire and rakes it all out from beneath the kettle. Then as fast as he can, he ladles the thick syrup into the milk pans that are ready. In the pans the syrup turns to cakes of hard, brown maple sugar."

Once it started to boil I began to worry that it would get too hot. I had never made anything like this before, and I deliberately chose not to look up instructions online---I wanted to do it just from the book this time. Let me tell you, the Little House books are not intended to be recipe books! I knew that crystals should start to form, but when? And what did they look like?

The syrup was bubbling away, constantly being stirred, and I knew enough about candy making to know sugar does certain things at certain temperatures, and you NEVER want to go past the right stage for your candy. But what was the right stage? I never did see any crystals, but when I took some syrup out, it showed signs of hardening as it cooled so I decided it was time.

Laura watched as I poured the thick, bubbling syrup into the muffin cups. I was pretty sure it was going to be hard, but would it have any crystallization like real maple sugar? I had two big variables---did I boil it long enough or too long, and did adding the white sugar syrup change its reaction? After peeking into the fridge every few minutes, the candy was cooled enough and ready to come out.

"Each bit off one little crinkle, and it was sweet. It crumbled in their mouths. It was better even than their Christmas candy."

Wonder of wonders, it actually turned out. Now I can't swear this is the maple sugariest of maple sugars, but it does have crystallization and is curiously addicting. I would definitely say this one was a success. Even though Laura and I smell like we were smoked in Pa's hickory stump now!

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Chapter 6: Two Big Bears

"The nearest town was far away. Laura and Mary had never seen a town. They had never seen a store. They had never seen even two houses standing together. But they knew that in a town there were many houses, and a store full of candy and calico and other wonderful things--powder, and shot, and salt, and store sugar.

They knew that Pa would trade his furs to the storekeeper for beautiful things from town, and all day they were expecting the presents he would bring them. When the sun sank low above the treetops and no more drops fell from the tips of the icicles they began to watch eagerly for Pa."

The winter is almost over and Pa bundles his fur catch together for the long hike into town. He is carrying so much weight that he has to leave his gun behind. But he plans to walk fast, do his trading quickly, and get back before dark.

But something goes wrong and Pa doesn't return. Time for chores and Pa is still not back. Ma and Laura go out to milk the cow and find her in the barnyard instead of the barn. Ma gives Sukey a slap, only to realize the next moment that it is actually a bear in the barnyard, not Sukey. The bear is just as startled as they are, and they're able to get back to the house in safety.

The next morning Pa is home and is able to tell of his adventures. He was delayed by the wet, heavy snow and got to town late so there were many men in line ahead of him. By the time he finished his trading it was almost sundown, and the last light faded after he'd gone only a mile.

Pa walked by the light of the stars until he reached an open place and saw a big bear in the middle of the road, standing up on its hind legs. Pa tried to scare it, but the bear refused to budge and Pa finally had to attack it with a sturdy tree branch. It was then he discovered the bear was an old, burnt-out tree stub.

How Mary and Laura laugh to hear of Pa's adventures the night before, and how happy Ma and the girls are to have Pa back safely. They love the new fabric Pa has brought for each one to have a beautiful new dress.

Bears are in somewhat short supply in North Dakota these days, and even if they were still here, they'd be Grizzly bears and not friendlier black bears. So bear slapping was definitely out as a possibility, even though I love that in this chapter it is Ma who has the adventure while Pa is out beating shrubbery with a club.

I was interested in the fact that Mary and Laura had never been to town--that they could remember--and the town was only 7 miles away. Granted, this was 7 miles in the thick, dark woods, not on the prairie where you can see til next Tuesday, but still... And that probably meant it had been a long, LONG time since Ma had been to town either. So in sympathy with their lack of transportation, I decided to walk from my house to town.

"Pa said that by starting before sun-up and walking very fast all day he could get home before dark."

The nearest town is only 10 miles away; I can see the town's grain elevator from my house. I've walked longer distances than that before and I wouldn't even have to wade through melting snow to get there. I planned to walk in, rest for a while, and then walk back. Since I had no furs to pack, I brought furry animals, which is almost the same thing. Laura and I left about 6:15 in the morning, not quite still dark, but the sun wasn't up yet and the whole prairie was covered with a soft mist.

I had to return to the house several times to grab items I forgot, including my cell phone---somehow I doubt Pa had that problem. Finally, it was off to Westby, Laura and I walking and the dogs running in circles around us. The sun rose shortly after we left and bathed the prairie in a beautiful light. It was a gorgeous morning and I felt lucky to be out in it. Laura felt whiny.

After about two miles, someone who shall remain anonymous became acutely interested in the physical processes of friction and what happens when you start out on a 10 mile walk in borrowed hiking boots that go past your ankle with paper-thin socks that don't go past your ankle. Mother-love was seriously strained, but I traded socks with this someone because I was wearing lower shoes.

We had walked for a very long way before I remembered one other item I forgot to bring. A roll of Sears Roebuck Catalog. And it would have been nice to have right about then. But we were passing an old, collapsed farm building, so while Laura sat on the rock pile and tried to pretend she didn't exist, I--ahem--admired the scenery on the other side of the building.

When I was finished, I walked along the building to the front where Laura was. I like to poke around in old things, so I was bending down to get a better look at the inside when something, I have no idea what, alerted my senses to a life form in the grass and debris about 8 feet away. It was black. And white. In the same instance this peculiar fact penetrated my brain, I also became aware of a particularly familiar musky smell. From here the two eye-witness accounts vary slightly, but Laura is a flighty person given to exaggeration, so I feel comfortable that my account is the one with greater accuracy.

Calmly, with a voice soft and low as gentle breeze, I told Laura, "Laura, do not be alarmed. There is a skunk. Let us move quickly and quietly to the road." At the same time, I backed in a non-threatening and orderly fashion far enough away from the skunk that I could turn and saunter up to the road.

Laura says, "Mom, I was about to tell you to look at the cat. I didn't even know it was a skunk until I heard you yelling and saw you running away. THEN I ran." A likely story, but since I had to creep down there and retrieve the glove I left in my hasty exit, I think there might be some truth to her version of events.

I'm sure God was blessing us because even though the dogs were running freely through the area and all around the building, they never saw the skunk. If they had, ALL of us would have been very sad, especially those of us engaged in activities that would have prevented hasty retreats.

Laura thought it would have been hilarious if the skunk had sprayed me, but I was at one corner of the house, she was on the large rock in the middle, and the skunk was at the other corner. The maximum effective range for skunk spray is 20 feet, so as you can see from the picture, Laura wouldn't have found it quite so funny if it had actually happened.

Not too long after this, one of my dogs, Anika, ran out of energy. Finley was still determinedly leaping through the fields, but Anika has a health problem and she was finished. I sent out an emergency call on my pioneer cell phone, and not long after my dad showed up to pick her up. Only he brought his Beautiful Border Collie Baby Jackie, so we still had two dogs. SHE had all her energy and we were almost to the main road, so I let her off her leash to get the wiggles out. And how! Afterward she came, collapsed in a small snow pile, and took a snow bath to cool off.

Westby came into full view at last and only 3 miles to go. These were by far the longest miles of the trip. One sad trick of the prairie is to make things look much closer than they are, so even though we could see the finish line so clearly, it still took forever to get there. But all good things must come to an end, and at last we reached our destination.

However, my suffering was not yet over because now I had to endure comments like, "I bet Pa didn't collapse on the couch when he got to town." And the plan to walk back home was cast off without regret. I'm sure Pa would have done the same thing if he had a Bad Knee from an Old Injury.

So in the end, Pa, Ma, and I each had our own wild animal encounters. I guess I'd rather meet a skunk than a bear, but what a choice! I'm feeling much more grateful for modern methods of transportation that allow us to make a trip, without a second's thought, that once was the event of the whole year. I think my Laura is a little more grateful now, too!

Journey's End---Almost!