Saturday, March 26, 2011

Little House in the Big Woods: Chapter 1

Chapter 1

"Once upon a time, sixty years ago, a little girl lived in the Big Woods of Wisconsin, in a little gray house made of logs."

So begins the first book in the series. The forests of frontier Wisconsin where Laura and her sisters live are vast, almost wholly trackless, and filled with wild animals. Laura is a young girl living in a very frightening and overwhelming world, but it doesn't seem so to her because she has Ma, and the very strong and capable Pa, to protect her.

Winter is coming and every creature, both wild and tame, works towards one purpose--survival in the coming winter. Pa is busy hunting and butchering the animals and Ma works hard to get the garden in and preserve the meat that Pa brings her. Laura and Mary work hard, too, because in those days helping the family get by was everybody's job. But there are also times for fun and games, especially in the evenings when Pa gets out his fiddle.

The iconic scene from this book, and one that thrilled my soul with fascinated horror when I read it as a little girl, was the butchering of the pig. Those were not the days when uninformed activists, decrying animal abuse by hunters, asked, "Why don't people just eat the meat from the stores so no animals would have to suffer?" Back in pioneer days you knew your bacon by its first name.

Mary and Laura waited eagerly during the butchering for the exciting treats they had coming their way. The wonderful sizzling of the pig's tail over an open fire and the fun they had playing with their new "balloon", the bladder of the pig, blown up and tied shut.

Now, I've been a vegetarian all my life, so I'm not very familiar with any pig parts, but the whole playing-with-the-body part-of-a-pig thing seemed particularly gross. So of course that is what I chose for my first experience. Oh, yes. I did. I had to wait a couple weeks for the local market to get their hogs in to butcher, but yesterday I received the word. The pig bladder was waiting for me.

Suddenly it didn't seem like such a good idea!

I went to pick it up, all tucked in its little ziplock baggie, and took it home. Turns out that in their excitement over my interest in a normally-discarded body part they'd been more than generous with how much they'd included. I had to play butcher myself.

After the bladder was trimmed and cleaned up a bit, it wasn't quite as intimidating, but I still was not about to blow it up the old-fashioned way like Pa did. Thank goodness, they've invented air compressors since then!

It was very windy, so Laura wanted to do it inside.
"Of course not! I don't know if this will work. It might explode if the air pressure is too high. We are doing it outside!"

After that, Laura wasn't too keen on standing close, but she was the cameraman, so she was right there as I fitted the end over my compressor nozzle and pressed down on the lever.

Pshhhhhtttttt! The noise was unexpected and deafening as the bladder slipped from my hands and shot onto the ground. But not as deafening as Laura's screams. I picked it up, dusted it off and got ready for Round 2, only this time I was holding on a little better.

Laura and I watched in amazement as the bladder expanded. What do you know? This actually works! I still don't know that I'd want to toss it around like a ball, but I suppose after a while you get desperate enough for anything to play with.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011


I've loved history and old-fashioned things for as long as I can remember. I was permanently warped in my middle-school years by an obsession with authors like Lucy Maud Montgomery, Gene Stratton Porter, and Maude Hart Lovelace. But somehow, I never read that premier of American women authors, Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote the Little House books to record her experiences as a pioneer child. She was born near Pepin, Wisconsin in 1867, but before long her father had packed up the whole family and moved to Indian Country in Kansas. There were a series of moves that took them to Iowa, Minnesota, and South Dakota where her parents finally settled.

Laura grew up, married Almanzo, and began a lifetime of moving around herself before settling in Mansfield, Missouri in the later years of her life. It was there she first published Little House in the Big Woods in 1931. She went on to publish 9 books in the series, plus many other works including Let the Hurricane Roar (1932) and Free Land (1938 which told the story of her pioneer childhood in an adult format.

I don't know exactly why I never read her books. I think it might be because I was given Little House in the Big Woods as a present when I was too young for it. I read it anyway and maybe that turned me off the series. I've always intended to read them as an adult, but never got around to it. Now, after a lifetime of living in crowded California, I've moved half-way across the country to North Dakota. I live on far edge of the same wind-swept prairie that Laura and her family settled. There's no way I'm not going to read the books now!

My new home state is located between Montana and Minnesota. It is the 19th largest state, but is the third least populated in the union. It had 680,000 people in 1930 before the Dust Bowl, but in 2008 had only 641,481 residents. However, the American Lung Association gives it high marks for clean air, and there's lots of room to stretch your arms and legs. It's a big change from California, that's for sure!

When I first moved out here last spring the land seemed very wide, very empty, and a little bit scary. I was very glad that I hadn't come back when there were no roads, markers, trees, or towns. Just prairie stretching as far as the eye could see, and of course the wind always blowing with nothing to slow it down. Now I'm used to the wide open spaces and find it too crowded and cluttered when I travel back to California, the land of fences, billboards, houses, and trash.

So come join me as I discover what it's like to be a 21st century emigrant (without the hassle of actually leaving my country). At the same time, I'll be learning about Laura's experiences as a pioneer back when the land was wild and untamed. And of course, I'll be experimenting with some of the "old" ways in a modern form.