Country Living, Organic Gardening . . .

Posted by admin on Wednesday Jun 23, 2010 Under Uncategorized

I didn’t just one day sit up in bed and say, I’m moving to the country. The seed had been planted long ago. I grew up in North Carolina in the fifties, back when it was mostly rural, when everyone bought their produce and eggs at the farmer’s markets, and it was no big whup. Just the way it was.

Back then summer seemed long, like a whole lifetime had passed by the time it was over. We spent the evenings catching fireflies and frogs and listening to the grownups tell stories on the screened porch in the lamplight. Until August. By August, the heat and humidity would be so bad anyone who could went to the beach, and so we’d pack up the station wagon head off for two weeks to the South Carolina shore.

One summer, July was just too much, too, and my parents said, we’re going to Maine for a week to visit friends. Maine might has well have been Mars for all I knew. I remember asking for grits in a café once we got there, and the waitress and my parents laughed. I remember learning what a cove was, that the ocean—a cool, blue grey color in Maine — could lap against the rocks of a cove as calmly as lake waves. Before that, I had only known the thundering waves of South Carolina beaches and the swell and fall of the inlets. In Maine, I learned that summer nights could require a sweater, of all things.

Anyway, the trip got my 10-year- old attention—narrow roads lined with huge evergreens, fields of Queen Anne’s lace (still my favorite wildflower) and those blue-grey coves.

Just past a cove and up a fir-lined dirt road, I saw the farmhouse where we’d be staying. Nothing like North Carolina—no Victorian turrets or wide, white painted verandas—just an old, weathered box of a house with a steep roof.

The people we were visiting seemed old, too, but they surprised me with their energy. No one had energy in the south in the summer except kids. They’d planned an excursion. Off we went in their truck to haul driftwood from the beach before dark. The hosts thought we might need a fire. A fire in July? Mars, definitely. Anyway, it was great for me. I was expecting the grown-ups to sit on the porch with iced tea and talk for hours. Instead, we were back at the cove—that word again—pulling driftwood over the rattling pebbles to the truck.

After that task was done, my brother and I were given pails and told to go pick blueberries. It all seemed weird to me. No one in the south expected their guests to do chores! But, we were free for however long it took to fill the pails. Not only that, I didn’t have to put on high boots because of copperheads. I wouldn’t even have to look down.

I remember the air smelled like the ocean even though I couldn’t see or hear the waves, only the wind through the deep green fir trees.

We filled our buckets, and then Helen — our hostess — said she needed help making blueberry pies. Now, I knew I was not in the south. I was a guest, working in the kitchen AND IT WAS FUN! Once the pies were in the oven, Helen said we needed to pick vegetables for the soup, and off we went again, trotting through the meadow and the Queen Anne’s Lace to the vegetable garden. I didn’t know you could live like that, going from one pleasant task to another, wearing old clothes, not having to make charming chit-chat.

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Cottage Living and Moving to the Mountains

Posted by admin on Wednesday Jun 16, 2010 Under Uncategorized

Anyway re: Fresno. Just to clear this up. Here’s what I’ve learned. It has lovely, old, tree-shaded neighborhoods, a beautiful Art-Deco Library, some great restaurants, a wonderful film series at a cool, nineteen-thirties movie palace, and a fantastic bunch of lefties at KPFK and Fresno Folklore Society and a fabulous creative writing program at Fresno State.

Fresno farmer's marketBelieve it or not, Fresno has a Whole Foods, a French pastry shop with croissants and brioche, a Trader Joe’s and a beautiful Farmer’s Market under a shady arbor. Now, I ask you where does Pioneer Woman shop? Somewhere in the middle of Oklahoma! And she wrote a whole cookbook. A best selling cookbook.

But, I digress.

Once Woolsey got to working on the foreman’s cabin, the problems we faced started to mount. First, we had to take down all the walls, then we had to pull up the floor. Next, we had to pour a new slab and spray the be-jezus out of the place for termites. And the fireplace—the one that had been hand laid with granite rocks from the National Park and the only thing in the house we decided to keep— was useless. Woolsey had to lie on his back inside the fireplace and chip away at the rocks up the chimney with a hand held jackhammer just so we could get a new flue in there and make it fire safe

Now fast forward a couple of years

Last evening we had a spring snow. From where I sat on my comfy sofa, I could see the firelight and look out the windows on either side of the stone fireplace at the big, flat snowflakes falling all around, sticking to the branches of the walnut tree and covering the early blooming daffodils. I had a soup bubbling on the stove—an old forties Wedgewood that I polish like a vintage Chevy— and bread in the oven. I don’t know what other peoples’ dreams are, but this is mine. Coziness.

Pioneer Woman says hers is the story of an accidental country girl. I’d have to say mine is the story of an intentional country girl. I always intended to do this. Still, the many accidents along the way have, like all things tinged with grace, startled me into gratitude. A night doesn’t go by that I don’t lie in the dark listening to the frogs or the crickets or the occasional coyote and say to the Great Spirit, Thank you for all this.

What about you? I guess I’d like to know what other people are doing at this stage in their lives. I wonder what you all had to give up to move into another phase. It’s not always easy, is it? What were the hardest parts and the best? I hope you’ll write and tell me.

Read Part 1 of this article

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We Bought a “Fixer-Upper” Country House

Posted by admin on Wednesday Jun 9, 2010 Under Uncategorized

One Sunday afternoon a week or so after we’d bought the ranch, Woolsey and his brother Chris–their black cowboy hats dusted and their boots polished–pulled up in a big, old pickup to have a look around. We showed them the future building site (see picture of view) and then headed down the hill to the old foreman’s cabin Dave planned to use as a guesthouse–the one I said should be bombed. The guys went in while I waited under the shade of an ancient walnut tree. “You think you can do anything with it?” I asked when they emerged. “I believe so,” Woolsey answered. “Why don’t you get me some pictures of what you want, and I’ll try and build it for you.”

We’d already bought the place, folks. I didn’t have much choice other than to believe him, did I? Basically—as sweaty as my palms were—there was no going back at that point.

My story isn’t too different from Pioneer Woman’s. She was young and fell in love with a cowboy. I was middle-aged, tired of the city, and my husband and I fell in love with a piece of land up a winding one lane road with its ancient oaks and ducks on the pond, with it’s view of the snow-capped Mineral Kings, with its red-bud trees and its buckeye, with its fields of baby-blue-eyes, and poppies and delicate fairy-lanterns. It wasn’t what I’d envisioned at all. But love never is. And here we are, hard as it all was—is—here we are.

I have to admit that my idea of country was all sort of hazy. It was Vermont or Maine in the summer (no snow) or North Carolina in the spring (no heat and humidity. No copperheads, either. Don’t forget that.) It was Colorado with warm enough nights to grow tomatoes. It was the South of France with all my friends and family nearby and no nine-hour flight to get there. See what I mean? Hazy, to say the least.

One thing it wasn’t was this.

Here’s a picture of a couple of friends checking out our new digs. Looking a bit dubious, wouldn’t you agree? And they had already left the Bay Area, bought a place up here, turned it into an artist residency. (link to Stonehouse) I mean they loved the mountains and the rolling, oak filled meadows that surround us. They were committed. They were even resigned to driving an hour and a half to Fresno for groceries.

This is when I can hear all my Bay Area pals start to howl. Fresno? Kind of rhymes with God. No.

If there were a map of California made by folks in the Bay Area, the world would end just past the last winery in Livermore where 580 hits 5. Instead of little gargoyle-y like creatures from medieval seafaring maps warning sailors they were about to fall off the edge of the earth into the mouths of sea serpents, there’d be a picture (taken by a i-phone) of a pickup with a McCain-Palin sticker. Frightening, I admit, but again—the only way out is through. And, in spite of the shouting fools in the Tea-Party, it is possible to have a civil conversation with (some of) these Republican folks. Maybe the way to change the world is to listen, as painful as it is. Then maybe they’ll listen to me or to you—about health care and global warming. I’ve seen it happen.

Read Part 2 of this article

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Adjusting to Life in the Country

Posted by admin on Wednesday Jun 2, 2010 Under Uncategorized

Dear friends, family and others who read this and may become friends or like family,

I should have done this from the very beginning. I know. I know. Frankly, Dave and I got slammed. There was so much work to do, so much we had to learn. There wasn’t any time to really think much less write. We just had to get the job done–dig wells, lay pipe, cut trees, build rock retaining walls, mend fences, fix the fireplace, plant some flowers and trees, try to make a nice, shady place to sit on a summer’s evening, deal with West Nile carrying mosquitoes, with meat bees, and with the rattlesnakes who’d called this place home for so many years. There was snow in the winter, something we hadn’t seen in the thirty-five years we’d lived in Berkeley; there was summer heat. In B-town the fog rolls in about five pm. Here, once the sun gets low, we move onto the patio with a gin and tonic in hand–Sierra foothill air-conditioning–and wait for the house to cool down so we can sleep. Okay, so it could be worse. Still, I wish I’d been like my new idol Pioneer Woman and taken pictures of all the before, because, believe me, it was a real challenge for a couple of academics from Berkeley to get this place up and running. Still is I guess, but the dust has settled a bit.

Above is a picture of our new home. We call it Blue Oak Hill—not to be confused with the other Blue Oak hill in Santa Barbara. The Sierra foothills have a lot of blue Blue Oak covered hills. We’re happy to be living on one of them!

But to begin at the beginning as Dickens said…

To the left, friends, is what it looked like when we bought the place—basically a pit, a dump. The real estate agent wouldn’t even come in the house. I said it should be bombed, and I still have no idea what gave me the courage to take on this project.

Maybe it was this–


The view. Or this–

The flowers.


Or the starry nights and the absolute quiet. Maybe Dave and I misplaced our minds as a southern family member says, but we did it. Sold the big house and moved to the ranch.

Look, my (cowboy) hat’s off to Pioneer Woman Ree Drummond. She plunged into a huge ranch in the middle of nowhere but, hey, her husband is a rancher from a ranching family. My guy Dave is an astrophysicist—a theoretical astrophysicist. He is now a chainsaw-wielding, cattle-herding, theoretical astrophysicist. Let us pray.

Anyway, after we signed our lives away at the funky, little real-estate agency double-wide near Dunlap and headed back up the mountain for a couple of celebratory bourbons (cowboy xanax, in other words), our friend Dottie told us about a builder, Dave Woolsey, who might be able to help us. “You’re lucky. He raises horses, but if a job interests him, he might take it. He has the ranch next to you—The Rising Star—Why don’t you give him a call?”

Folks, I do believe there is a God. If Woolsey hadn’t said yes, Dave and I would now be flatter than a run over cow-pie. Not that there haven’t been days when I pretty much resembled that. Gone are the $140 dollar haircuts on Maiden Lane in San Francisco. Gone are the makeovers at the Chanel counter at Saks. Gone are the designer clothes. Gone, gone, gone. But, here’s a little secret—I don’t really miss ‘em. If you are the kind of girl who reads Country Living in the supermarket line and—like me—loves hanging your sheets outside to dry in the sun, if you’re the kind who fills mason jars with wildflowers and wants to pick your own dinner from your garden, you won’t miss your city life either. You just have to be brave enough to try.

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