Sunday, February 26, 2012

Chapter 5: The House on the Prairie

"Here we are, Caroline!" Pa said. "Right here we'll build our house." Right away, he and Ma began to unload the wagon. They took out everything and piled it on the ground. Then they took off the wagon cover and put it over the pile. Then they took even the wagon box off, while Laura and Mary and Jack watched.

The wagon had been home for a long time. Now there was nothing left of it but the four wheels and the parts that connected them. Pet and Patty were still hitched to the tongue. Pa took a bucket and his ax, and sitting on this skeleton wagon, he drove away. He drove right down into the prairie and out of sight.

"Where's Pa going?" Laura asked, and Ma said, "He's going to get a load of logs from the creek bottoms."

Pa drives one more day across the prairie before he stops the wagon and tells Ma, "Here we are, Caroline. This is where we'll build our house." Laura can look across the prairie to the creek bottoms, very near them to the north, and then far away to the east she can see the trees along the Verdigris River. It is a nice spot for a new home.

Pa gets busy right away, chopping trees and bringing them up from the creek bottom to make a nice, snug cabin. Ma helps Pa to lift the logs higher and higher until one big log tumbles down onto Ma's foot. Her foot is sprained badly and Pa says she cannot help with the log cabin until her foot is well again. Ma tries to bear up under her loss.

One afternoon, Pa returns early from the creek bottom with the good news that they have a new neighbor living just across the creek. His name is Mr. Edwards and he is a bachelor. That means he has time to help Pa build the log cabin. In one afternoon, the two men have the walls built up as tall as Pa wants. They put poles across the roof and cut a door and two windows.

After working hard all day, Mr. Edwards stays for supper. Ma has cooked a delicious stew of jack rabbit with dumplings and gravy. For dessert, there is a big piece of tasty cornbread with molasses. After supper, Pa plays the fiddle while Mr. Edwards dances and all the girls clap and laugh. It has been a good day.

I must give credit where credit is due; there were many men who would not have cared if their wives were injured; they would expect them to work without complaining anyway. So Pa was rather considerate for his day and age. But I wonder how dedicated Ma really felt to getting her ankle well enough to haul logs again. Bet she was glad when Mr. Edwards showed up and all she had to do was the cooking.

"For days Pa hauled logs. He made two piles of them, one for the house and one for the stable. There began to be a road where he drove back and forth to the creek bottoms."

Nothing else would do for this chapter than to experience that most iconic of pioneer tasks, the chopping down of a tree. Behold, the hardy pioneer man, striding off to conquer the wilderness with nothing more than his trusty ax and a steely determination. Oh, yes. That will be me.

If I could only get someone to loan me an ax.

My dad doesn't loan out his axes without their use being personally supervised; I don't see why! My brother-in-law had one he generously allowed me to borrow---I think some of his willingness stemmed from the fact that it was duller than a butter knife---there was a limit to the damage I could inflict on it when it started out in such bad condition.

Ax in hand, I headed out to choose my first victim. The weather was a tad nippy since we'd had a blizzard-let the day before. In fact, the wind was still blowing with convincing fierceness. I bundled up plenty warm to keep out the piercing cold.

My back forty was clogged with snow and most of the windfall trees were covered up. I sure wasn't about to chop down one of my good trees (are you kidding!?), but fortunately, I found a dead snag that wouldn't be any trouble at all to chop down. After all, no sense in choosing a difficult tree for my very first one---better to start with something nice and easy.

3:37: I check the time and head out to my already chosen tree. With confidence and strength, I swing mightily and sink the ax deep into the wood. For about 1/16th of an inch. Hmmmmm. This might take a while.

3:40: The woods echo with the rhythmic ring of ax striking tree trunk. Little by little, I chip away at the trunk. I feel a slight burn in my muscles, but the air is fresh and clear. I feel flushed with vigor---I could go on for hours!

3:44: I check my clock for the first time. Surely it's been an hour, at least. 3:44! I've only been swinging this implement of pioneer torture for 7 MINUTES!!!!!!!! I am going to die.

3:50: Must keep going. I can see some faint progress. Any self-respecting beaver could have done this in under a minute. Why, oh why aren't my front teeth bigger?

3:52: This is it, I can't go on any longer. Death is imminent. Caleb has been begging to get a turn with the ax. I decide to humor the boy for a few minutes. I'll let him know as soon as I can gasp out the words. I scrape the wood shavings off my tongue with limp fingers.

"Caleb----------gaaaaaaaaaaaaaaassssp, wheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeze--------I've decided to let you have a turn."

3:59: Rested and refreshed from my break, I grasp the ax with renewed strength. Yeah, right. I crawl over to the ax and swing at the trunk while still kneeling down.

4:05: I think it would take a beaver at least 5 minutes to accomplish this much. Maybe. If he had dental issues. Still, I am encouraged. I can't last much longer, but neither can this tree I think.

4:15: In desperation, I grab the tree and try to pull it over. Gasp! Heave! It quivers up top, but doesn't budge down below.

I try to push it over. Nothing.

I give it my best kick with all the force of leg muscles made of jello. Like the Rock of Gibralter.

4:20:That's it----forget pioneer pride. Caleb, get in here and help me pull this over. It's got to be ready to snap. I mean the thing is so old and rotten it's got dentures. With both of us working, the tree finally gives, and with a mighty snap breaks off----a foot below where I was chopping. What?! After all that work!!!! (Note: In the photo below you can see the breaking point more clearly. You can't miss it---it's about 12 inches under the ax chops.)

Well, this pioneer gal has learned a few things......

Lesson 1: Chopping down trees is good exercise. It works shoulders, arms, chest, back, legs, elbows, teeth, spleen, get the idea. I will not be able to move tomorrow. It even hurts to type.

Lesson 2: I would have perished in the wilderness before I got my house built. I guess all those men-folk were good for something. At least I wouldn't have had to be the one chopping all those trees down.

Lesson 3: Sharpened axes are good things. Very good things.

Lesson 4: Chain saws are even better good things. Much better good things.

Lesson 5: Don't judge a person too harshly until you have walked the proverbial mile in their shoes. Sometimes jobs are harder than they look.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Chapter 4: Prairie Day

"There was only the enormous, empty prairie, with grasses blowing in waves of light and shadow across it, and the great blue sky above it, and birds flying up from it and singing with joy because the sun was rising. And on the whole enormous prairie there was no sign that any other human being had ever been there.

In all that space of land and sky stood the lonely, small, covered wagon. And close to it sat Pa and Ma and Laura and Mary and Baby Carrie eating their breakfasts....Rabbits were everywhere in the grass, and thousands of prairie chickens, but Jack could not hunt his breakfast that day. Pa was going hunting, and Jack must guard the camp."

Pa readies all his supplies and brings a large tub of water up from the creek. Then he walks across the prairie, finally disappearing from view in the tall grass. Ma makes the beds in the wagon while the girls begin their prairie day by washing all the dishes in the fresh, clean water.

After the dishes are washed, Ma uses the water to wash the laundry in. She swishes the bedding, the dresses, the shirts, the underthings round and round in the water before spreading them on the clean grass to dry.

Laura and Mary are free to explore the prairie around the wagon while Ma works. They play with the gophers, trying all morning to catch one. The gophers are much too quick, so the girls catch wildflowers instead and bring them back to Ma at lunchtime. After eating a corn cake spread with molasses Laura falls asleep on the grass next to the wagon while Ma uses her sadiron and presses the wrinkles out of the clean clothes.

When Laura wakes up, the sun is low in the sky and Pa is coming back across the prairie. He has caught a rabbit and two plump prairie hens. They have a wonderful supper of fresh game as the sun sets on the horizon. Pa brings out his fiddle and fills the air with music.

What an idyllic setting for this chapter! And don't get me wrong; I like idyllic views just as much as the next person--gritty realism can be a real drag sometimes. But Pa probably came back crawling with ticks and I'm sure Ma's day washing clothes that had been worn for weeks, and then ironing them with an iron heated over the fire, wasn't a picture of prairie peacefulness.

Still, it probably was a nice change of pace to hold still for a day and get at some of the chores that traveling didn't allow. There's no question that the girls had fun running around after weeks of sitting in the wagon. Spring on the prairie is a very pretty time of year, and what fun to have an entire state's worth of land as your campground.

It's turning out to be a little awkward to tackle this section of the story in the middle of winter. I'll probably have to slog through The Long Winter in August, too! So many of the things they did and saw are not the sort of things one tackles in February. Nevertheless, I decided to try hand washing some laundry. Thankfully, the day I chose for the project was a nice warm day in the high 30's.

"Ma brought the wooden pannikin of soft soap from the wagon. She kilted up her skirts and rolled up her sleeves, and she knelt by the tub on the grass."

Tiggy was assisting me for this activity, and she felt that authenticity demanded hauling wild water and heating it on a fire outside. I had a differing view, and whaddya know, my view won. Running water from the faucet and heating it on the stove was plenty authentic for me. While it was warming, we fixed up a clothesline from twine. I only had three things to wash so that was plenty strong enough for the job. Meanwhile, Caleb did his best impression of Pa-ful manliness and climbed trees while the women worked.

I made the water super hot, assuming that it would cool rapidly in the temperatures outside. Whoo-eee! Not rapidly enough, let me tell you! I had bundled up against the cold and expected my hands to be freezing by the time I finished, but no, they stayed plenty warm in that wash water.

The sun was dropping low on the horizon as I swished the clothes around in their hot, soapy bath. Ceecee decided to supervise the process, but didn't actually offer to help. Typical. I wouldn't like to have to do this all the time (my mom's space-age washer is much better, in my opinion), but it was peaceful out there, watching the sun set---there were a few compensations for the harsh life of a pioneer woman. If you still had the energy to lift your head and look at them!

After washing the clothes, I wrung them out.....

And hung them attractively on my clothes line.....

Then remembered that I hadn't rinsed them, so I frantically took them off and swished them in clean water....

Re-hanging them just as the sun set.

"Then Ma took the sadiron out of the wagon and heated it by the fire. She sprinkled a dress for Mary and a dress for Laura and a little dress for Baby Carrie, and her own sprigged calico. She spread a blanket and a sheet on the wagon seat, and she ironed those dresses."

I've always wanted to try this! The days may be warm, but the nights are still nippy. Never fear, when wet clothes are hung out in sub-freezing temps, there is no need for starching or that pesky sadiron. My clothes could have walked inside by themselves if they'd had legs.

There's something refreshingly natural about doing washing by hand and hanging it out to dry in the crisp, fresh air. That is, as long as you're doing it by choice and not because it's the inevitable drudgery of your life. I'm thankful for my modern conveniences and for the generations of women that trudged along with perseverance so that their modern sisters could have a better life. Long live the washing machine! Nostalgia can only carry a person so far!

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Chapter 3: High Prairie

"Pa said, 'Wolves. Half a mile away, I'd judge. Well, where there's deer there will be wolves. I wish....'

Pa didn't say what he wished, but Laura knew. He wished Jack were there. When wolves howled in the Big Woods, Laura had always known that Jack would not let them hurt her. A lump swelled hard in her throat and her nose smarted. She winked fast and did not cry. That wolf, or perhaps another wolf, howled again.

'Bedtime for little girls!' Ma said, cheerfully."

After leaving the rich bottom lands and climbing high onto the prairie, Pa, Ma, and the girls make camp for the night. Pa lets the horses out onto their picket lines. Pet and Patty are so happy to be free of the harness that they roll back and forth in the long, soft grass.

Pa carefully starts a campfire for Ma to make supper on. Mary and Laura help Ma make little cornmeal cakes and fry fat salt pork. Everyone is hungry after such a long day and enjoys the delicious meal.

At bedtime the wolves begin to howl and Laura is afraid. Jack is not there anymore to keep the wolves away. Ma calls Laura and Mary to bed, but Laura doesn't come. She sees something staring out in the grass, eyes glowing in the firelight. "Pa!" Laura calls.

Pa grabs his gun and watches the strange animal. He throws sticks to scare it away, but it doesn't leave. Pa slowly walks toward the creature and the creature crawls slowly towards Pa. Suddenly Pa shouts and Laura screams.

It is Jack! He is safe and he has found them again.

Well, it's a good thing I didn't drown Finley last week! That would have been awkward. "Oooops, sorry Finley. I guess you were supposed to survive after all." Reading this chapter, I had the perfect activity to go along with it....Getting a new puppy. What better way to experience the joys of being reunited with a pet you'd feared dead than getting a new furry family friend!

Only one problem. There are no puppies here. We live in a rural area where puppy litters seem to be few and far between simply because people are few and far between. And there are no puppies right now.

Unwilling to wait until puppy season to complete this chapter, I went with something a easier to accomplish. I decided to make a little Jack the Brindle Bulldog pet using a pattern copied out of Pet Crafts by Heidi Boyd, a book I borrowed from the library.

I found some brindled flannel at our local fabric emporium, an establishment at the back of the town barber shop, and got busy cutting out the pieces. I traced the patterns free-hand as I had no way of enlarging them and modified them to make them a little more like a brindled bulldog. I also scaled it a lot smaller to better suit my purposes for the completed project.

With right sides together, I stitched the fabric pieces, leaving openings for turning (I never make them big enough and have to snip stitches when it comes time to turn the stuff right side out).

After turning everything right side out, I stuffed the pieces with polyester stuffing and my secret ingredient.

I hand stitched the ears into their holes and closed up the body of the dog by stitching the tail into the opening. Then I embroidered the facial features; I should have done that before I ever sewed any of the pieces together, but I didn't want to mess with it at the time. Of course it was much more difficult doing it later. I do that a lot.

Behold, the completed Jack the Brindle Bulldog. Now to find his destiny.

"Jack was perfectly well. But soon he lay down close to Laura and sighed a long sigh. His eyes were red with tiredness, and all the under part of him was caked with mud. Ma gave him a cornmeal cake and he licked it and wagged politely, but he could not eat. He was too tired."

Poor, POOR Jack, forced to swim for miles before he could break free of the killer current and reach shore. Then he had to make his way for miles through empty prairie filled with wolves, coyotes, and wild cats. How glad he must have been to be safe with his family again. But MY little Jack would not be so lucky, not so lucky, indeed.

Jack the Brindle Bulldog's secret ingredient. I think he looks a little worried, don't you?

Snickers began the hunt before poor Jack was even out of the bag I carried him home in. For a minute I couldn't understand why he was so obsessed with my shopping bag!

"Under the wagon Jack wearily turned around three times, and lay down to sleep."

No rest for our Jack. I set him out on the living room floor and called the cats. Warning: the following scenes are extremely graphic. They may not be suitable for small children or people with sensitive stomachs.

It was AWFUL! Poor Jack will never be the same again. He's been chewed on, rolled on, gnawed on, and licked on by every cat but Hobbes, who can't smell him because of his nose condition. But bulldogs are a tough breed, and Jack is doing OK, even though he has a bit of a nervous twitch. So I guess our story had a happy ending, too.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Chapter 2: Crossing the Creek

"The rushing sound of water filled the still air. All along the creek banks the trees hung over it and make it dark with shadows. In the middle it ran swiftly, sparkling silver and blue.

'This creek's pretty high,' Pa said. 'But I guess we can make it all right. You can see this is a ford, by the old wheel ruts. What do you say, Caroline?'

'Whatever you say, Charles,' Ma answered."

Pa, Ma, and the girls have traveled for days and days across the Kansas prairie. Now they are approaching a creek down at the bottom of a valley. It is quiet and still in the bottom lands where the blowing wind doesn't reach, but the creek is rushing and gushing along. Pa wonders if it is safe to cross.

Laura wants Jack, their bulldog, to ride in the wagon with them, but Pa says he will be able to swim the creek just fine. They start across the creek, but when they are out in the middle the water suddenly starts to rise. Pa jumps into the creek to lead the swimming ponies across and Ma must take the reins. Ma tells Laura and Mary to lie still in the wagon, then covers them up with a thick, heavy quilt so they can't see and become frightened.

For many minutes the wagon sways in the water and the ponies swim, fighting to keep from being swept away by the flood. At last their wagon scrapes the bottom on the far side of the creek and they pull out of the swift current. Pa is glad they are safe and Ma's face starts to lose its scared look, but where is Jack?

Jack was swimming behind them when the flood hit, but now he is nowhere to be seen. Pa walks up and down the creek bank calling and calling for him, but there is no answer. Pa is sorry that he didn't let Jack ride in the wagon. Now the family must move on, climbing up, up, up out of the bottom lands and onto the high prairie.


Well, this is a challenging chapter. What to do....what to do? Finley's been looking a little nervous ever since I completed the chapter, but I don't think I'm ready to drown him, even for an authentic Little House experience. I could take him swimming, but there is no liquid water in its natural habitat at this time of year. And giving him a bath in the tub, while it does involve intense canine suffering, doesn't seem like a very good comparison. So I guess Finley is safe...for now.

It may not be the most exciting of all the activities I've tried, but overall, I find making a salt dough map of Laura's journey to be much preferable to offing my faithful companion. My first step was to look up a recipe for salt dough on the internet---really, I don't know what pioneers did before the internet was invented. It is as follows:

Salt Dough

1 cup flour
1 cup salt
1/2 cup water.

You can change the ratio of salt to flour, with more flour giving you a smoother dough and more salt giving a grainy, rough texture. Mix it up, form your creations, then bake in the oven at a low temperature until done. This takes approximately forever, but baking them too fast causes bubbling, warping, and cracking.

Following this recipe will give you a dough that looks somewhat like biscuit or sugar cookie dough. Do not be fooled; it tastes like eating the ocean. Of course, it does open up certain possibilities to the practical joke-inclined person, but *I* would never be so cruel. As it turns out, I don't even have to be cruel if I hang around greedy, disobedient people.

See, it happened this way. My bowl of innocent-appearing dough was sitting on the counter when my sister came over. I happened to look up just as she reached in and pinched off a bite.

"NOOOOOOOOOOOOO!" I screeched, stopping her in her tracks. She looked at me, eyes wide and startled. For a split second we both stood frozen, then moving with lightning speed she grabbed a piece and popped it into her mouth.

Oh, well. I tried. Now there was nothing left to do but sit back and enjoy the show.

Almost immediately her triumphant expression melted into one of horrified disgust. She raced for the trash can, wiping her tongue and spitting all at the same time. Over the sounds of my hysterical laughter I heard her plaintive wail, "I thought you were just trying to keep all the good stuff for yourself...."

So, like I said, there are possibilities for someone if they are so inclined.

Anyhoo, after the dough was mixed, I carefully rolled it out, transferred it to the pan, then traced out the shape from a map I got from---where else---the internet. I labored over it with love and care, working in the basic state shapes while my mom looked up topographical information. Just as I was finishing she handed me the first print out, for Wisconsin. Let's see, where is Wisconsin? WHERE IS WISCONSIN?!

I had completely forgotten to include Wisconsin. Thankfully, there was a little border left around the edges that I was planning to cut off, and since the Big Woods were in the bottom left region of the state, I was able to extend my map just a little. Except my mom, Wisconsin born and bred, seemed to feel that her state was being slighted somehow. Just because there's only a sliver of it showing!

Then it was time to paint it, something that I always enjoy. It is easy to make a painting of a large section of the earth look good; all you have to do is blend some colors together and it looks like it's supposed to. Adding the details was fun, and if the map lasts, I'll paint more as the tales progress. In fact, I had such a good time that I might make a more lasting and detailed one on paper sometime and offer it on the blog. We'll see.

Voila! The finished map of Laura's journey---much faster and less work than riding to Kansas in a covered wagon. Note: The first picture says "Big Woods" not "Bic Woods". That is a 'G' even if it doesn't look like one in the picture.

Of course, I don't think Laura and her family had to worry about giant, marauding kittens eating their settlement, so you can see we don't have everything easy!