Tuesday, October 2, 2007

The Challenge of Momentum

An object at rest tends to remain at rest; an object in motion tends to remain in motion.

Lately (as you may have noticed) I've been having a hard time getting blog entries written. Since I'm generally pretty obsessive when it comes to writing, I've been wondering what's up with that. Just sort of sitting back and watching the patterns of my daily life shift and change, curious about what this will all look like in hindsight someday.

Have I burned out on blogging already?

Am I allowing myself to be unproductively distracted from important things by the cheerful presence of so many other people at the farm? Am I spending too much time admiring Emily's cat Hamlet's velvet tummy, or giggling at the potato Ann Marie found that looks like a smiling hippopotamus,or just relaxing and listening to the ordinary chat of my housemates?

Am I burning the candle at both ends too much still, honestly not having time to write?

As I sit down tonight, determined to write SOMETHING, I realize my biggest problem is that there is just so much to write about, I don't know where to start....


My parent's dog Scout, Toss's 8-year-old daughter, has been staying with us for 10 days. It's always a joy to spend time with Toss's children, and see their various sweet personalities and peculiarities. Scout is normally very obedient in her sheep-free home, but is totally mesmersized by my sheep...I felt obliged to share the gift that my parents made in return for her care with the other farm residents, just for so frequently putting up with listening to me holler her name louder and louder until I could finally wrest her attention away from those fascinating woolies. Hm... I think I remember Mom using the same technique to get my attention when I was reading a good book or engrossed in a project, when I was in high school. They say people come to resemble their pets, but I think it more likely that people somehow end up being drawn to the animals they most resemble.


Ann Marie and I have been digging potatoes and planting fall vegetables, a bed every few days. Carrots, green onions, lettuce, spinach, turnips, radishes, tatsoi, mizuna, beets, chard, etc. With generous recent rains, things are coming up and growing like...well...weeds. So are the weeds. I see that Ann Marie is poised in that ephemeral time of innocence, where she (a very novice but enthusiatic gardener) is in awe of the miracle of seeds sprouting up through the mulch just a couple days after she put them into dry ground, delighted by houw easy it is...and as yet has no clue of the work to come in weeding and thinning. I could disillusion her, but am content not to. Let me instead be refreshed by her reminding me that seeds ARE such miracles, and try to dwell with her in that state of amazement and wonder!


A friend and I went to this month's Growing Growers workshop at Karbaumer Farm in Platte City, MO, this afternoon. It was a perfect October day...glowing sunlight, hardly a bit of breeze, a balmy temperature, a few trees just starting to show fall colors amid the lush green. Idyllic farm, big red wooden barn, chickens roaming at large, draft horses placidly flicking their flaxen tails as they alternately grazed and hung over the fence to watch us, the aging three-legged dog tagging along with the drifing group of market gardeners and wannabes.

This 60-year-old German farmer affirmed so many aspects of my own beliefs about farming: the importance of livestock on a farm, the unsustainability of extensive irrigation, the value of mulch, the need to accept limitations and work within them to find the things that grow well where we are trying to grow them. The philosophy that keeping overhead (equipment costs, etc.) low is a key to developing an economically viable operation. The critical importance of local food production.

Above all (from my point of view) he affirmed that it is possible for a novice to learn to farm with horses. Despite very limited experience with horses, I've felt drawn to them all my life (starting out as a toddler escaping the yard to run and hang over the fence by the neighbor's horse), and have always felt they would one day be an important part of Pinwheel's farming system. The key, he says, is to begin by knowing that you know nothing, start with a older team of horses that knows what they are doing, and let them teach you. Essentially, this is how I learned to handle a Border Collie for sheep herding: Toss taught me, patiently waiting until I could figure out the correct command for her to do the action she knew I wanted, ignoring all the mistaken commands that Itried to give.

Don't hold your breath--one of my lessons from beginning with sheep was that "right ordering" is to build the barn first, THEN get the livestock. But, today I feel like I'm one little baby step closer to living out my dream of farming with horses.


Ruhamah and I made a batch of soap last night, the first I've made in probably 4 years. I'm still using the last few bars from the last batch. This is one reason that most soapmakers, even those without vegetarian sympathies, make vegetable oil soaps: a bar of soap made from animal fat will generally last much longer than a bar made from veggie oil, so the soapmaker doesn't have many regular customers. What a statement about our culture: if something works well and lasts a long time, people don't make it because other people won't buy it!

My soap is very simple: rendered sheep fat, sheep milk, and "Red Devil" lye. In this case, both the fat and the soap have been in the freezer for the past 3+ years. I was skeptical as to whether the milk would work: it seemed to separate as it thawed. But I went ahead with the process, and it certainly went through the normal textural transition of the initial saponification process.

One of the challenges of making a milk-based soap is to keep the reaction heat of the lye, as it combines with the liquid, from scorching the milk. This darkens the soap, which is normally a pale creamy color. Also, there can be small lumps in the granular lye that don't dissolve well in the milk. They are hard to see in the murky milk solution, and hard to break up without the risk of splashing the caustic solution in the process.

I solve all these challenges at once, by putting the mostly-frozen milk in a sturdy slide-opener plastic freezer bag, and opening the bag now and then to add a small amount of the granular lye at a time. Meanwhile, the bag is mostly submerged in a dishpan full of ice water. When the bag is closed, I massage it to mix the milk with the lye and feel for lumps, pressing them between my fingers to break them up. When pouring, the lye/milk solution trickles slowly out the end of the "zipper", right against the side of the stainless steel pot to avoid spashing, and any remaining lumps are retained in the bag. Of course, since lye is highly caustic, the first thing I do when preparing to mix the lye and milk is to don eye goggles, neoprene gloves, and lab coat, make sure the area is well ventilated, and protect all surrounding surfaces with newspaper.

The ice bath worked so well that instead of waiting for the lye to cool to the designated temperature of 95 degrees, I was hoping that 89 degrees would be warm enough. The fat, on the other hand, was nearly 140 when I combined them...a bit warmer than the target 130. After perhaps 20 minutes of stirring, doubting and praying, I could feel the mixture begin to thicken, and soon it began to "trace" leaving a faint indented channel behind the stirring stick--a custard-like texture. I learned the hard way on my first batch not to doubt my assessment of the "trace", by waiting until it was REALLY thick...too thick to level itself in the mold, resulting in a lumpy surface. Last night I poured at nearly the right stage, only the last few drops remain visible on the smooth surface.


So, after all that thinking and writing about the soap, I had to dash off from the computer to go check it out, 24 hours later. Still a lovely pale creamy color, about the color of masking tape. It's quite hard, so I realize that I'd better turn my thoughts to the next stage of cutting the slab (18" x 25", about 3/4" thick) into bars. If you think this is easy, go grab a bar of soap and a steak knife and try to cut the soap into nice neat pieces! Years back, I had limited success with a pizza cutter. The time-honored method is a wire used cheese-cutter fashion, but it's hard to cut a straight line this way.

This time, laying hands on whatever was nearby in the garage, I came up with a method that worked well. I used the pizza cutter and a yard stick to mark the top of the slab (turned out of its cloth-lined plywood box onto a piece of cardboard) into 72 bars about 2" x 3" (just how the numbers divided out easily). Then I took the 30" bow saw that I use for cutting firewood and aligned the teeth along a scored line. A rubber mallet--and more elbow grease than I expected--handily tapped the blade through the slab of soap without undue chipping, leaving a partly cut, partly scored incision that breaks easily into neat bars with rustic edges.

The soap will need to cure for a week or two before use, since the saponification process (the chemical union of water and fat through the chemical aid of the lye, resulting in a miraculous cleaning agent that bonds to both greasy and watery substances) is generally only mostly completed during the initial mixing and hardening. Without proper curing (or with imbalanced amounts of the various ingredients), unbonded lye can remain, creating a harsh soap.

After curing, this Simple Sheep Soap can be used for many things. I wash my hands, body and hair with it, using a plain vinegar rinse on my hair for a "squeaky clean" tangle-free finish. I also use it for dish washing by putting a few chips in a small bag (usually the well-bleached 5-inch chunk of the toe of a cotton sock whose heel wore out) and using the sock to wipe the dishes.


....And the other hard thing about writing this blog is knowing when and how to STOP writing, once I get going....

No comments: