Garden End of July

This spring was a rough start for my garden.  Right after I planted we had over a week of rain.  Many of the seeds must have just rotted in the ground.  I replanted the beans when only three sprouted and the second time got better results.  Slugs ate every one of my lettuce sprouts during the rain and something will not leave my basil alone.  Not sure if I will get any basil!

The mystery peas are doing the best of all the garden veggies.  The indian corn is also fairly happy with the frequent rain and hot days.  Lia is about 46″ tall.  The corn is well over her head and not tasseling yet.  Lia has discovered the joy of eating raw peas right off the vine.  She is very proud of the peas she helped plant.

Even the flowers I sowed in the garden did poorly this year.  I have a few zinnias and bachelor buttons, but not as good as previous years.  The rain was really hard on the seeds.  Beets and carrots suffered similarly.  The tomatoes are producing a few yummy fruits and the pumpkins that managed to sprout are coming along well.  The volunteers are all the sunflowers we have this year.  Not a single seed came up and I planted nearly 20.  Depressing.  Yet, the weeds always do so well.  Here are my first Early Girl tomatoes.

On a bright note, I saw a monarch butterfly on the 27th in the apple orchard when I was mowing.  Perhaps people’s efforts to plant milkweed are paying off.  This seems to be a good butterfly year, there are many varieties present in the gardens and on wild flowers.

Ancient Grains

Farro with dried cranberries and sunflower seeds

Recently I decided to try some of the specialty ancient grains available in local stores.  The term ancient grains refers to cereals that were discovered and eaten millenia ago by our ancestors.  Many have fallen from use in modern times, replaced by more factory-farming friendly plants.  Judging from the variety available even in such an outpost of civilization as central Maine, the ancient grain business is good.  The grains I tried were all organic, meaning non-GMO, no pesticides or herbicides used for growing, storing or processing.  I decided to try kamut and spelt in addition to farro, a grain I’ve been eating for a year or so.  In the future I will try others.

The three grains are relatives of modern wheat.  They were first gathered from wild plants over 8000 years ago.  Man (as in most likely–women) learned to plant the wild seeds they gathered and cultivated the grain.  This provided a more secure food source for early communities.  Farro originated in the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East and was eaten in Egypt.  It has a softer texture than some wheats, especially when it is pearled.  A semi-pearled grain has had some of the tough outer membrane, the bran, removed.  I use semi-pearled Italian farro because it cooks faster than the whole grain, yet still retains an impressive nutritional value.  A 1/4 dry cup serving of semi-pearled farro has 170 calories, 0 fat, 0 sodium, 35 g of carbs with 5 g of dietary fiber, 0 sugar and 7 g of protein and also some iron.  It is not a complete protein since it does not contain a full supply of lysine and should be paired with another lysine source.

Farro is delicious.  It is a very nutritious alternative to rice, especially white rice which is a nutrition wasteland.  Farro has a smooth, creamy, rice-like texture with a slightly nutty flavor from the retained bran coat and a wonderful fruity, sweet fragrance.  I like to cook it with a handful of dried cranberries and some raw sunflower seeds, simmer in three times its volume of water, covered, for 15 mins until al dente, drain before serving.  A perfect breakfast or side dish for pork, turkey or chicken.  For a more authentic and jaw-exercising experience, try whole grain farro which should be soaked before cooking to soften the bran layer.

Kamut with a soup spoon for size comparison

The next culinary adventure is kamut.  Enjoyed by the ancient Egyptians and originating around the Nile, kamut grains or berries are huge.  They are 3/8″ to 7/16″ long when cooked.  Kamut reminds me of tiny beans.  It has the same combination of snappy hull with soft insides and enough size to make its presence known in your mouth.  The taste is more wheat-like for sweetness, but starchy and similar to beans.  The kamut I tried is whole grain, with the full bran coat retained.

Cooking whole grain cereals requires more time.  The berries are soaked overnight in at least twice their volume of water.  I place them in the fridge to soak.  In the old days before refrigeration, I suspect our forebears discovered alcohol through this soaking of the grain.  I imagine some slacking hut-wife left the grain to soak too long, (several days at hut temperature) and it fermented.  The woman probably drained off the water with the alcohol content into another container and, because she was so lazy, just left the liquid sitting around the fire.  Then the hut-husband arrived home from hunting rabbits and birds, an activity that apparently can lead to a powerful thirst, he grabbed the jug of fermentation water for a drink and became the first man to fall in love with home brew.

After soaking the grains overnight, drain the liquid and use it to water something, then add the grain to three times its volume of water and simmer, covered for 30-40 minutes until it is al dente.  Drain excess liquid before serving.  I tried kamut with a little salt and butter, yummy!  The whole bran definitely provides chewing exercise.  I would substitute this grain for any bean recipe or serve it as a side dish sweetened up by cooking with any dried fruit, including tomatoes.  A serving of kamut provided an excellent nutritional source for ancient Egyptians.  A dry 1/4 cup has 160 calories, 1 g fat (not saturated or trans fat,) 0 sodium, 32 g of carbs with 4 g being dietary fiber and 4 g sugars, and 7 g of protein.  Again, this grain is lacking in lysine and should be paired with an appropriate amino acid source to form a complete protein for vegetarians.  It is also a source of thiamine and niacin.

Piping hot spelt with a bit of salt and a pat of melted butter

Finally, I tried spelt.  This is a better known type of wheat, at least to me since I’d heard of it.  Spelt is related to durum wheat and came from the Middle East.  Its use spread to Europe and was especially popular in Germany where it fed the population during the Middle Ages and is still grown today.  The berries are smaller than either kamut or farro, very nutty and sweet and lead to plenty of chewing with the bran of the whole grain.

Spelt is prepared in the same fashion as kamut, soaked overnight in twice its volume of water for best results, drained then simmered, covered in three times the volume of water for 40-60 minutes to al dente.  Drain the excess liquid.  The grain is delicious served warm with some salt and melted butter.  The sweetness pairs well with fruits and light meats.  I even tried it with melted cheddar and loved it.  Mixed with cinnamon, a bowl of spelt did not last long when given to my two granddaughters aged 5 and 2.  They gobbled it up and wanted more!

This ancient grain, like the other two, is nutritionally superior to most modern starchy side dishes.  A 1/4 dry cup serving has 180 calories, 2 g fat ( not saturated or trans,) 0 sodium, 38 g of carbs with 5 g dietary fiber and 2 g sugars and 7 g protein.  Spelt is also low on lysine but is higher in many minerals than the other two grains I tried.  It is a good source of calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, zinc, copper and manganese, among others.

Since all three of these grains are related to wheat, they contain gluten and are not for gluten intolerant diets.  I pity the ancestors with celiac disease who had to try and survive on wheat grains.  I wonder if they figured out what made their guts hurt and tried alternate foods?  Luckily, I love gluten and can digest it, so will be adding these heirloom wheat varieties to my diet.

New Pup Max

We found a puppy!  Picked him up yesterday, an early birthday present for me!  Max is a 4.5 month old male German Shepherd from very good bloodlines.  His grandfather was imported from Germany.  His parents had their hips and elbows certified and were genetically tested for the major inherited breed conditions.  Such a sweet, calm and smart boy.  He already loves his new people, and new best buddy Otto.

Max and Otto

Max was not house or leash trained, but is picking both up very quickly.  He knows his name after one day!  He loves his new farm home and acts like he was born here.  The cats aren’t quite sure what to make of him, but I think they will come around.  They lost a lot of trust in strange dogs after the recent episode with Becky.  When the pup barks at them, the cats scatter.  They come back sooner each time and Max is trying very hard to learn not to bark or whine at cats.  Yesterday was the first time he ever saw a cat.

Although he was never crate trained, he did perfectly last night in his crate.  No whining, and he slept all night with no accidents.  He was ready to go out in the morning!  Luckily, Tim wakes up early and took him to do his duty before 5 am.  Nine-thirty pm to five am is a long time for such a young pup to hold it, but he had no accidents.  So Max is learning and experiencing all sorts of new things.  He is a bit afraid of chickens, the flapping and squawking disorients him.  The horses must look like giants.  He maintains a respectful distance.

Max should grow into his ears one day, his dad weighs over 100 lbs.  He will be black and tan with lots of silver, a very nice color.  Right now the pup is in the middle of teething.  His gums are sore and his eyes run occasionally from the trauma of erupting teeth.  Although I did not want to get another German Shepherd after we lost Holly, I realized after looking at many breeds of dogs that this breed is my favorite.  The massive amount of shedding is a pain to deal with.  I’m devising strategies to better handle the hair including more frequent brushing and also periodic application of the high power air dog blower.

It is really fun to have a puppy again.  Almost like having another kid!

We Tried

Here is Becky, a nine-year-old foxhound-type who came to our farm as a foster-to-adopt candidate.  Amazingly, for an old dog, she has tons of energy, a great body condition and seemed to be fitting in.  After the loss of Holly, our older German Shepherd, we felt ready for a new companion and a friend for Otto.  Maybe an older, harder to home, shelter dog could find a place with us.  We decided to try.

Our style of keeping dogs involves off leash and under voice command outside, movement restricted to the dog area inside.  Becky quickly adapted from having the run of a house to staying in the dog area inside.  For an old dog with minimal leash training, she was making strides in responding to voice commands on the leash in preparation for off-lead.  She and Otto quickly became pals.

The first day she was here, she charged at a cat who came to investigate the new arrival.  At our house, the cats and dogs must get along.  Our tiger cat Toby, who is sixteen, Chloe the tuxedo kitty and the two brother cats, Kai and Cary who came to us as newborns from the shelter, all enjoy being with dogs.  After a few days, the cats had forgiven Becky’s early poor manners and returned to try and make friends.  Things seemed ok.  Becky would lie down and tolerate a cat within a foot of her with no aggression.  Everyone thought things would be wonderful.

Then, two nights ago, as I worked on the computer and the dogs rested in their area, all the cats came to visit me.  As is their furry wont, kitties sat beside me on the desk, curled behind me to look over my shoulder and settled nearby to observe.  All was quiet and content.  Toby had climbed on a bench and curled up for a nap.  After about ten minutes, for no reason I could discern, Becky suddenly jumped up and rushed at Toby, sending him, and the other cats, scattering for the hills.

Maybe it was a game for her; jump the cats and see them run, perhaps she just got sick of a feline relaxing bold as brass six feet away from her, who know why she did it.  She ruined her chances of living at the farm.  We cannot trust her with the cats so she must go.  Since then the cats have stayed clear of Becky.  I’m hoping that continues until Tuesday when I return her to the shelter’s foster home an hour away.  Too bad, she is a nice dog otherwise.

I’m thinking now that the easiest way for us to get the sort of dog that can coexist with our menagerie of cats, horses, rabbits and free-range chickens is to start with a puppy and train it ourselves.  The strategy has always worked in the past, guess we should stick with it.

Maple Syrup Season

Finally, maple season has started here at the farm.  Last week we tapped the maples and have 25 buckets collecting sap.  So far we got enough sap to make about 1.5 gallons of syrup.  The first batch is in the house ready to finish.

We do the majority of boiling outside, down in the woods where the sap is collected.  The evaporating pan sits on a wood fired stove.  This way most of the 39 gallons of water that must be boiled off to get one gallon of syrup will go into the atmosphere and not into our house.  When the syrup is reduced to about 4 gallons we carry it to the house and reduce it to syrup on the stove where the temperature can be better controlled.

I drill each tap hole with my antique hand drill, making a 7/16″ hole for the spile.  The sap runs out the spile and into the bucket.  On a good run day when the temperature is in the 40sF and it’s not too windy, a tree will nearly fill a 2 gallon bucket.  Older trees that are over two feet in diameter can have more than one tap in them.

When the sap is running well, the sound of drops plinking into buckets fills the maple sugar bush.  This time of running sap and early spring work passes quickly.  In a blink the snow will be melted away and the temperatures stay above freezing at night.  The trees start to open their leaf buds and sap season is over.

Neanderthal Among Us

I’m a little bit Neanderthal

For Christmas my brother gave me a genetic test kit.  You send in a sample to a company and they determine your genetic heritage and health profile.  I carefully followed the directions and dutifully filled the sample tube with saliva.  It took me nearly five minutes to produce enough spit.  That was the most disagreeable part of the test.

Several weeks later the results were posted to my personal site online.  Most of the information was similar to my brother’s and, of course, 50% similar to my mother’s, both family members having completed earlier tests.

There were a couple surprises.  One is that there is no Native American DNA showing up on my father’s side.  The family lore holds that my dad was 1/64th Abanaki.  No such relationship was evident.  On the contrary, the only possible Native American blood came from my mother’s side, and it was merely a trace.  Most likely this DNA came into the family while my mother’s ancestors lived in the Ukraine during the middle of the 1800s.  Someone might have mated with a Russian of Siberian heritage.  My mother’s family is almost exclusively of German ancestry that moved to the Ukraine at the invitation of Catherine the Great, then onto the plains of America at the turn of the last century.  They were all farmers.

The most surprising revelation to me was the relatively high level of Neanderthal variation in my DNA.  The Neanderthals are often called a species of human that came out of Africa, moved into Europe and went extinct with the advance of modern humans.  Turns out that picture is not as clear as once supposed.  Neanderthal DNA seems to be turning up regularly in individuals of European descent.  My own DNA has 299 variants, greater than 81% of people who have been tested by this company.

Neanderthals can not have been a separate species from human or they would not have been able to interbreed and produce viable offspring.  Neanderthals were actual humans.  Research into their caves and burial sites is showing that these people were not the brutish, stupid cavemen once imagined.  They had sophisticated societies with weaponry and knowledge of animals and plants including medicinal plants.  They cared for their old and infirm.  When an individual died, the others provided a decent burial.  There is also evidence of cannibalism, so I guess not everyone was treated the same.  Perhaps they ate their enemies or their particularly venerated elders?

So DNA testing has shown that Neanderthals did not go extinct, they became us.  Many of us would not exist without their genes.  Somewhere in the dark and misty past, Neanderthals combined with what is considered modern humans to produce us; ultra-modern humans, I suppose.  Or perhaps we are merely glorified cavemen coping in the modern world we have constructed?

Cueva de Nerja–Nerja Cave on the Sun Coast of Spain


As I contemplate another gray, chilly day in Maine and gaze out across the snow-covered fields, my thoughts wander to the sunny coast of Spain.  In February of 2011, my mother and I traveled to Torrox on the Spanish Sun Coast to escape England’s dreary winter for a week.  While there we took a local bus to Nerja, (pronounced Nair-ha) just up the coast, to visit a natural wonder of the Andalusia region, the Caves of Nerja.  This underground formation hosts over 450,000 visitors per year.  The photo above was taken from the Balcon de Europa, a vantage point in Nerja, toward the Sierra Almijara, the mountain housing the cave system.c3The mountain range consists primarily of dolomite marble formed on the floor of the Mediterranean during the Triassic period.  Tectonic forces drove the rock seabed into the sky, creating mountains.  Calcium carbonate is a porous stone subject to being dissolved by the corrosive effects of acidic rainwater.  Since the formation of the mountains about 5 million years ago, rainwater has been seeping into cracks in the marble.  Slowly, the water eats away at the rock until great caverns result.  The drip formations (called speleothems) began to take shape in Nerja Cave about 800,000 years ago.


Performing stage erected within the cave

The cave system is comprised of three main galleries that run nearly horizontally for about one-half mile within the southern side of  Almijara Mountain.  The tourist entrance is located 518 feet above sea level.  The interior hollows are between 627-404 f.a.s.l.  One gallery is open to tourists and the drop from the entrance to the lowest floor is about 115 ft.  The ambient air temperature inside the caves averages 64F.  The constant flow of water makes the environment humid.  The cave even boasts a World Record:  the widest naturally formed column, a speleothem 105 ft high and 42.6 ft x 23 ft at the base, and getting bigger every day!  The caves are currently situated well above the water table so there are no lakes inside.  The galleries are divided into halls.  Some of the halls are impressively huge with soaring cathedral ceilings.  One hall has been fitted with stadium seating and a stage where a music and dance festival is held every year.  The hall provides great acoustics.

The caves were discovered in 1959 by five boys who were trying to observe bats.  They had seen the bats exit from a sinkhole, so they crawled inside.  The sinkhole was one of two natural openings into the caves.  The kids explored a bit until they stumbled across two skeletons.  Frightened, they rushed home to tell the rest of the town about the find.  Since then, Nerja Cave has been extensively studied.


View of the Mediterranean Sea from Nerja Caves parking lot

Excavations showed humans began to inhabit the caves about 25,000 years ago.  At first they were part-time residents during the fall and winter.  They subsisted on locally hunted prey such as wild horses, cattle and goats.  When humans were not present, hyenas, lynx, birds and bats lived in the caves.  Paintings on some of the walls have been dated to as far back as 20,000 years.  They were etched or painted mostly in black and red and depict the fauna of the times and also geometric designs and symbols that likely had great significance to the artists.  About 21,000 years ago, humans took up permanent residence.  Since the caves are located within two-thirds of a mile of the sea, much of the cave dwellers’ diet consisted of fish and seafood.  They supplemented their meals with rabbit and plants.

Around 4500 BC pottery production began in the caves.  Later, the unique shelter was used to house cattle and as a necropolis.  Neolithic burials, such as the bodies found by the boys, have provided DNA that allows researchers to trace some individuals to an African origin.  The skeletal remains are considered a rich funeral record of Andalusian prehistory.  Many other artifacts such as beads, arrows, fish hooks, other tools, loom weights and pottery have been recovered from the living spaces of the cave.  Around 4000 years ago, the cave was sealed by rocks and sediment, likely from flooding.  All its treasures were conserved until modern times.c7

My mother and I visited on what was for Spain a sunny, warm early spring day.  There were plenty of other tourists around, although the place was not crowded.  The administrators limit the number of people allowed in the caves at any one time.  Because people produce CO2 and moisture as they breathe, their numbers must be within the capacity of the air conditioning system installed in the caves, or their simple breathing would damage the caverns.

There was a soft flow of air at all times when we were inside.  The sound of dripping water was constant.  Flash photography is not allowed in the cave, but lighting has been set up to showcase the lovely colors and forms of the rock flows.  The formation shapes are given names such as macaroni, pineapple, cauliflower, nails, flag or pearls in addition to stalagmites, stalactites and columns.  A substance called moonmilk forms from the detritus carried in the dripping water.  This material builds up in sheltered pockets into a whitish powder deposit that has a pudding consistency when saturated.  Moonmilk has sometimes been used in cosmetics.  Tiny rivulets flow alongside and beneath the walkways in many places.  In several areas, my mom and I both noticed significant changes in air pressure causing popping in the ears and heaviness in the sinuses.  There were many staircases to climb and descend, giving us a thorough workout.

As I reviewed the photos for this article, I noticed several orbs present in some shots.  My understanding of these photographic artifacts is that they occur when a bit of dust is caught in the camera flash, causing a circular burst of light to be recorded.  What I don’t understand is why there are orbs in my photos since I did not use a flash, it was prohibited.  I have enhanced most of the pictures here by lightening them to simulate the flash.  Here is an example of a before-editing and after-editing picture.  The editing program brightened the scene and emphasized the colors present in the rock.c10
c8Here is a photo with several orbs evident.  In the brightest one I can almost imagine a face, with the eyes and nose.  It looks a bit intimidating.  Are these artifacts merely a reflection in a low-light environment somehow generated off specks of dust or are they something different?  Are there energy orbs present?  Only a psychic would know if the spirits of the ancients linger in the caves.  Would it be surprising to find such presences in a place inhabited by so many generations of humans; an underground repository for the dead, no less?  After all, we modern visitors are tramping through their cemetery.  No wonder the orb looks angry!c6

All psychic phenomena aside, the caves truly are an amazing, even spectacular, sight.  They and the nearby town of Nerja with the Balcon de Europa, and the narrow streets lined with quaint shops and tiny eateries are well worth a day trip for any visitor to the Sun Coast.  Here is one last shot, the delicious lunch I enjoyed with my mum after touring the caves.  My meal was a toasted sandwich made with the prized regional dry-cured Iberian ham, olive oil, fresh roasted asparagus, herbs, and tiny quail eggs, with a glass of local rose.  Mums had a fresh tomato and melted cheese sandwich with mango juice.  Delicious!c12

Links to information about Nerja Cave: