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Saturday, December 28, 2013

American Beechnut

Here is a poem I've been working on, feel free to comment:

Little Brown Token

This one triangular kernel is from the spiny husk of an American Beech,

a good year has clattered down.

Fall's promise of rebirth 

is written in abundance

on the forest floor,

and I hold the seasons 

together with this nut-seed notion

clasping winter's cloak around me

In my old age as in autumn's maturity

I can have hope for rebirth, either to live 

long enough to plant another garden or

to die and be the soil nurturing new life.

In my hand a nut-seed


So it goes in the garden

same as in the wilderness

the seed represents the beginning

it's the first thing you think of in spring.

Something to hold on to

through winter's cake of doubt


The nut-seed that is ours, yes ours,

to eat or to plant, to love and admire

the people of earth need this food and are 

happy to share with fellow creatures.



Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Know your local-i-tea

With wild or cultivated Vermont herbs, you can create an array of locally-grown teas.

by Alice Eckles

This article is published in a slightly different version in Vermont's Local Banquet, winter 2013

What's the secret to staying warm and healthy through a long, cold Vermont winter? Many gardeners and herbalists would agree that teas made from our local wild and garden herbs are the soothing secret to health and happiness, especially in winter. 

For centuries people have enjoyed the art of tea and the ritual of tea drinking as a spiritual practice, as a morning ritual, as a medicine, and as a compliment to social occasions. Enjoying tea on any of these occasions will always benefit the drinker holistically. What's more, the ceremony of tea is a venerable tradition, a universal way of sharing a calm and mindful space so that those present can contemplate and enjoy the moment. In the process of preparing tea, the medicine of a peaceful mind is already at work, even before the medicinal herbs reach out to support us.

We are so rich here in Vermont with wild herbs that are useful for making delicious and healthy herbal teas. There's yellow St. Johns-wort flowers, tall mullein with its its furry leaves and tall, flowered spikes, and yarrow's tiny white or pink flowers, and many other wild herbs, all of which are easily located in the Green Mountain state. This abundance of wild herbs is an inspiration to Vermont herbalists and herbal tea drinkers. 

We Vermonters also enjoy growing “garden herbs” that can be used for tea. Try starting an herb garden with a few of your favorites, perhaps little plugs of thyme, chamomile, or bee balm. Or maybe you already have an herb garden but haven't started making your own tea yet. Whether you forage, garden, make your own teas, or buy herbal teas, you can develop a closer connection with these little green friends that can teach us how to live and be happy just by how they smell. 

Two excellent books I recommend for getting to know herbs are by Vermont authors: Rosemary Gladstar's Family Herbal: A Guide to Living Life with Energy, Health, and Vitality, and Herbs: Partners in Life by Adele Dawson, my grandmother. Herbalism is also built through people sharing their plant knowledge and experience with each other. In Vermont and beyond, there is a strong community of herbalists, their roots networked intricately together like the plants they study. Becoming a bit of an herbalist will help you appreciate herbal teas and guide you in the art of making them. 

Growing herbs:To grow and be around herbs such as chamomile, sage, thyme, lemon balm, comfrey, calendula, and peppermint (all ideal herbs for tea) is a way to connect with nature. If you are new to herb growing, beware that herbs are hardy and vigorous and may spread further than you intended. A small plug of this or that will go a long way to starting your tea garden. To contain spreading, you can plant herbs in a bottomless basket or bucket sunk into the ground. Your herbs will grow happily in a sunny location with ordinary soil and good drainage. Winter is the time to dream, research, and plan for the garden.

Foraging for tea:Foraging for tea is an opportunity for peaceful communion with the natural world. Not only is it fun, but its free, just as nature intended all medicine to be. You can also make tea from trees. For example, I like to forage for chaga to make my morning tea. Chaga is a fungus that grows on birch trees. It looks like a rough, black chunk of charcoal growing from the side of a birch tree trunk. You can read more about this earthy medicinal mushroom in Chaga: King of the Medicinal Mushrooms by David Wolfe. The color pictures and descriptions will help you recognize it; just be sure you identify it correctly. I dry the mushroom on the woodstove, then grind it to a chunky powder with a mortar and pestle. Then I simmer this powder in water for at least thirty 30 minutes to brew. I like to have my morning cup with fresh raw milk from my neighbor's farm and raw unfiltered honey from my own beehives. It's dark, and tastes rich like coffee, but without the jittery caffeine effect. 

The thin sarsaparilla-smelling bark of the black birch also makes a nice tea, alone or mixed with other herbs. It has a sort of root beer taste and is known to be an anti-inflammatory. Whenever we are clearing saplings and I smell that black birch smell, I like to chew on a piece of the bark while harvesting some for making tea later.

Rosehip, like chaga and black birch, is not an herb, but can easily be foraged. It can often be found wild, but public gardens are another good source, if you don't take too much or can get permission. Rosehips, an excellent source of vitamin C, are bright orange and red; the seed bulb left after the rose is gone is soft when ripe. You can carefully chew off the outer skin, leaving the seeds in the middle. If it tastes good and the skin is soft enough to do this you are on the right track. If in doubt ask someone who can identify the plant, it is always a good idea to know what you are eating, though in this case I dont know of any harmful look-alikes. 

Dandelion root also makes a fine tea, and its good for the liver. I discovered dandelion when I was digging potatoes and found that there were more dandelions than potatoes. Their roots are very impressive. I made make some into a tincture and the rest I sliced and dried for tea. Dandelion tea also has an earthy coffee-like taste. 

Chaga, birch, and rosehips are just the beginning. Which herbs should you use? Use the ones you know. If you buy a commercial herbal tea, check the ingredients and see if you are already growing them! 

Last, ever notice raspberry tea on the shelves at the store, recommended for easing womens cycles? Well, if there is a raspberry bush that you need to trim back, why not dry some of the leaves and make your own tea with those? Iv'e done this and it works quite well. The tea is just as good as the store-bought kind and you can save money. Thanks to raspberries, I have a greater appreciation of what goes into a tea bag, too… it takes a lot of time to pick each leaf off the prickly raspberry branch! 

Harvesting and preparing herbs for tea:  You can buy bulk herbs from a natural foods store or co-op, or you can grow and forage your own. If you pick your herbs fresh from where they are growing, you can make tea from the fresh leaves and flowers, or dry the herbs for later use. Harvest herbs earlier in the day just after the dew has evaporated for peak freshness. You can encourage the plant to bush out by not removing more than the second set of leaves. Avoid using any herbs for tea that may have residues of pesticides, herbicides or fertilizers. If you choose herbs from the wild be sure you know what you are youre picking. As a general rule, in Vermont, its best to stop harvesting herbs by mid-August, giving perennials time to build up their reserves for winter. 

To dry herbs for later use, simply cut some branches of the herb, tie the bouquet together with a string, and hang it up to dry. A warm, dark place with good ventilation is best. You can also air dry herbs on a screen. When the leaves are dry and crackly, it's time to strip the leaves off the stems and crumble them into a jar for storage. Keep your tea closeted from sunlight, and it should keep for up to a year. Label the jar with its contents and date so you will you'll know what kind of tea you are offering your guests. 

Brewing tea:Dont take water for granted; its the main ingredient in your tea. I say that because I hope there are as many advocates for clean, pure, safe drinking water as there are tea drinkers. The quality of the water in your tea is the quality of your tea. There is no need to bring the water all the way up to boiling to make tea, and some would say this kills some of the flavor of the tea and the water. Simply steep your fresh or dried herbs in steaming hot water for a few or many minutes. How many minutes? That depends on how strong you like your tea. If it is a medicinal tea you may need to steep it longer to get the maximum effect. Brewing should be at least three minutes, and at most thirty 30 minutes. You can try mixing up different herbs together for batches of mixed herb teas. For inspiration try some mixed teas made by local herbalists and farmers. 

Where to buy Vermont grown tea:Currently, Zack Woods Herb Farm is the only Vermont herbal tea producer of any significant scale. Zack Woods herbal tea comes in two varieties, Mountain Tulsi Tea and Rejuvenation Tea; these are available at Hunger Mountain Co-op, Plainfield Co-op, and Brattleboro Co-op, as well as from Zack Wood's website. The teas are grown and processed at Zack Woods Herb Farm, 278 Mead Road, in Hyde Park, Vermont, where you can also buy herbs growing in the pot to start your own tea garden. "We believe there should be an herb farm in every community," says Melanie Carpenter, co-owner of Zack Woods with her husband, Jeff. All of their herbs are certified organically grown or ethically wild-crafted. Zack Woods farm also hosts numerous educational tours and offers internships on the cultivation and preservation of medicinal plant populations. Learn more online at

Gillian Kapteyn Comstock of Metta Earth Institute, located at 334 Geary Road South, in Lincoln, Vermont, has created Metta Tea, an herbal blend made from organically grown and wild-crafted herbs from the Institutes gardens and meadows. This tea can be purchased at the Metta Earth Institute farm store (downstairs, backdoor). Metta Earth also hosts regular tea ceremonies that are open to the public, usually at “tea time” from about 4 pm to 5 pm. Tea times can be found online at, on the calendar page. 

For people who like a black caffeinated breakfast tea, I'm not aware that it can be grown in Vermont, but it can be grown in Charleston, South Carolina. For black tea from America's only tea garden order, or find stores on-line at

Adele Dawson, (1905-1992), was an artist more than an herbalist before coming to Vermont. Once here, she found the people involved in herbs irresistible. Author Rosemary Gladstar and Adele became friends, as ties of friendship seem to permeate this field. Adele passed away at the age of 85 though she often gets credit for having lived a longer life. She was healthy and strong in her later years but died suddenly of an asthma attack. For her part, Rosemary likes to say that “Herbalism honors its elders.” You can learn about herbs from Rosemary at Sage Mountain Retreat Center in Barre, Vermont. She also offers a home study in herbology, (see for details). Dream of one day owning and running your own retreat center? On her website Rosemary asks that anyone interested in such a dream contact her. Rosemary will be 65 this year and hopes to do less and be more. Sounds like a very interesting opportunity for someone with the energy and financial resources to carry on this rewarding work. 

Adele Dawson herbalist, artist, and author shares this herbal tea recipe in her book Herbs: Partners in Life: one part chamomile, one part costmary, two parts red clover, two parts stinging nettle, two parts thyme, a grating of fresh ginger and a whole nutmeg. I've found that this tasty tea really warms you up when you come in from the cold.

Adele Dawson on her porch Marshfield, Vermont.

Monday, November 4, 2013


Donate. Crowd fund, support, become a patron.

I woke up this morning thinking I should add a "donate" button to my blog. Instead this post is about why you should support my work and how you can do it.

First let me define the "you" in the previous sentence: You might not always have time to read my posts but when you do sometimes my writing touches you or maybe you learn something new. Maybe it's the  homesteader reports that interest you. Or maybe it's the essays, poems, and my literary artswomanship that you admire. Who knows maybe it's my pictures, or even my politics. Why you  like my blog and the life behind it may be somewhat mysterious.

I would like to offer the opportunity to fund this blog and the life of the artist behind it to anyone who has a few extra dollars they'd like to experiment with. Artists love to experiment. We pour our time, money and soul into things we cannot know the outcome of. We give it our magical touch, our good intentions and hope for the best as we correspond with mystery. I am skilled, educated, and experienced in my field. The experiment is a bit more than luck. I get paid for some of my work some of the time but ultimately art is not a business, it is an expression of humanity. More than ever our humanity needs to be nurtured, and we need to affirm ourselves by supporting the self in others. That's people power, lots of people doing random acts of kindness with their money, and that's why crowd funding is on the map right now. It is a way to "occupy".

You can donate, help crowd fund, support, or become a patron of my arts by Pay Pal: aleckles at gmail dot com, or sending a check to p.o. box 443 Middlebury Vt 05753, or you can buy things from me using the links on my website . It would be great if you could let me know what aspect of what I'm doing you would like to support. Also if you would like to buy one of my "million dollar ideas" for only $10.00  just send a good check with a phone number and I will mail you one right away. Ha! I just thought of that. I have million dollar ideas everyday I'm just not the right person to manifest them.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The day my face came off

I was just washing my face, I put on this nice honey lavender lotion and rubbed it into my skin, then I took a  steaming hot washrag, and as I was washing my face I felt a disturbing sense of it loosening. Looking closely at my pores and familiar wrinkles I began to notice my nose was off to one side. I tried to push it back and my nose over-responded as if it were made of clay and seemed now too far to the other side. I realized I better have a very delicate touch if I am to get things back the way they were. Once I realized how plastic my face had become I tried to pinch, prod and smooth it into perfection. My skin was so sensitive and responsive that it was just as easy to make things worse as it was to fix my imperfections. After a few hours of fiddling with little bumps, smoothing wrinkles, and defining my lips, I was satisfied. I was afraid though, my face with this new plasticity seemed unstable, a fragile work of art. Everything so carefully arranged could just as easily fall and leave a mess. That mess would be my face.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The rocket stove: Produces less smoke and uses less wood!

This article, in a slightly different version was published by Back Home Magazine 

How we found out about the rocket stove and why we started using one:

I first learned about rocket stoves when my husband Ross Conrad and I were traveling in North Carolina to spread the gospel of organic beekeeping. Ross is the author of Natural Beekeeping now in it’s second edition. We were staying with some friends who knew about our primitive lifestyle, how we live in a yurt, off the grid, with no electricity or running water. When the conversation came around to cooking I explained that we cook over a simple campfire, a hole I had found, lined with stones, and stacked cinder blocks on either side to hold up a scavenged grill. Joe, our host was surprised we didn’t use a rocket stove, which he explained used much less wood and was less polluting. This captured our attention, especially Ross, as he is always very concerned with conserving wood and producing less pollution. I am just an out right fire lover. To me there is nothing wrong with fire, not it’s appetite for wood, nor it’s mosquito-repelling smoke. I saw no need for improvement. But I was intrigued to learn that the rocket stove was a simple technology that anyone one can put together and use to solve the problem of wood scarcity and a smoky environment. And also that several charities promote the rocket stove in Africa where these problems are serious issues for the health of people and the forests.  Apparently the rocket stove, with the help of these charities has established itself as a real winner for the kitchen both indoors and out. Why shouldn’t we be taking advantage of the same low-tech miraculous rocket stove that makes it possible to cook a meal with only a few twigs? Ross was getting excited about building one of these energy conserving, environmental rocket stoves for cooking. Immediately following that conversation we watched a few You Tube videos about how to make and use a rocket stove. 

Our rocket stove, and how we built it:

On our return home I went to our local wood stove store and bought twenty-one firebricks as specified by Ross for his new project. He leveled the ground, laid a slate slab down as a base, and stacked the firebricks to form two chimneys for a two-burner rocket stove. For structural support and thermal mass he added six cinder blocks around the outside.  We started using it immediately. There are fancier rocket stoves, some that are even quite pretty to have on the deck or in the yard, but since we are building our lives without any sort of back up infrastructure we tend to take quick easy solutions and this version of the rocket stove fit the bill. 

The benefits of using a rocket stove:

Ross loved it; because we could boil water and cook with a few sticks gathered from the woods we live in. We still had lots of extra cordwood around for the campfire pit, from clearing the woodpiles that we made while clearing the land for our house site, so I kept using the campfire and lots of logs more often than not. I just love sitting by the fire and piling the grill with skillets and kettles, letting things cook while I do other things, and stoking it up with more wood from time to time. But finally our campfire cordwood got used up and I found myself foraging in the woods for fallen branches, and scraps of birch bark. I started using the rocket stove and realizing that while it doesn’t have the ambiance of the campfire it is more efficient. Using a rocket stove saves the work of cutting down trees, drying and storing cordwood. Being able to gather enough wood, just a few fallen limbs, from the forest floor at anytime for cooking on the rocket stove is a clear benefit. Ross says that sometimes the stove makes a sound like a rocket taking off when the fire is going good. He thinks that may be why it’s called a rocket stove. I haven’t heard the sound and I’m not sure how it got its name. I suspect it’s the “L” shape of the chimney. At any rate it certainly puts out less smoke than a campfire and if we wanted to keep our outdoor cooking fires secret, without sending out smoke signals; the rocket stove would be key. 

The rocket stove was developed to aid people in poor countries where wood is scarce, or becoming scarcer because so many people are using so much wood for cooking. Currently many people living in Africa and parts of Asia use rocket stoves, to replace the open fires they previously cooked on, and these fires were usually inside the house. The practically smokeless rocket stove is much safer than an open fire in the house. Before use of the rocket stove many lives were lost to the continual inhalation of toxic smoke. There are now a number of charities operating in various countries training local people to make their own stoves from locally salvaged materials such as old food tins, clay, bricks, and rocks. This has led to a speedy proliferation of rocket stoves. The rocket stove has also spread to America and Europe as part of a developing ecological movement as they are understood to be a source of clean, sustainable, efficient heat.

The outdoor summer kitchen, and cooking on a rocket stove:

We have had to do some “reskilling”, that is learning how to do things in often old-fashioned ways. In the winter we cook on our woodstove, and in the summer we use an outdoor kitchen. Since eating is something you do everyday, three times usually, the process needs to be uncomplicated. Our outdoor kitchen consists of: Two picnic tables scavenged from an elementary school that was about to throw them away, the stone lined campfire pit with grill as described earlier, some portable outdoor chairs, the rocket stove, a metal can for rocket stove ash disposal, and a wood pile, ash shovel, and bellows kept under a tarp. 

While our yurt is too small to have more than two quests at a time comfortably, the outdoor kitchen is perfect for having larger gatherings. We also use a different set of pots and pans for cooking outside. The cookware gets very black after a few uses directly over the fire and it is easier to keep the house clean in the winter if we put the charcoal black stuff away. Occasionally if is rainy we use a Coleman camp stove under a canopy. It burns white gas that we have to buy so that is a last resort. A canopy over the rocket stove and woodpile would be an excellent addition. For a refrigerator we have a camp cooler. During the summer we exchange a defrosted ice pack from our cooler for a frozen one from a neighbor’s freezer each morning. But we have also learned that we can keep things cold by putting them in a bucket of cold water from the well. The water from the well is always ice-cold. Or sometimes I put a jar of milk in the creek to keep cold. We live close to town and shop for food often so we don’t need a big refrigerator. The rest of the kitchen stuff is inside and that does make it a bit more troublesome to cook a meal, going back and forth for ingredients. Sometimes we team up to cook, so that one person can be like the souse chef and keep bringing stove-ready ingredients out to the other person. There are many improvements we could make to our outdoor kitchen, and our to our rocket stove, and we will improve it as time goes on and keep an outdoor kitchen even after we build our cordwood house because it is fun and just seems right to cook outdoors.

To start up the rocket stove, have ready some dry sticks of wood: The largest diameter would be about 2 inches, next have some medium and very small diameter sticks and twigs. I also like to gather some birch bark as it makes getting the fire started easy, but you can also use paper for starter. In the bottom opening put your birch bark or paper down first, then the smallest sticks, with a couple of larger ones on top. Light the paper or birch bark and if everything was dry including the stove itself it should start burning nicely. Now you are ready to put your pot of what-have-you on to cook. We don’t have a trivet yet, but that would be the perfect thing to keep your pot above the flame without suffocating the fire. Instead we stack up broken pieces of slate to serve the same function. Now keeping the fire going and your stew stewing requires more attention than cooking over a campfire, because you have to keep adding more little sticks about every five or ten minutes. We have a two-burner rocket stove, but we don’t usually use both burners at once because it is too much work to keep two stoves going at the same time. Instead we use the second burner as a way to avoid cleaning out the ashes every time – just move on to the next burner. Then you have to clean them both out. You might be able to get away with not cleaning out the ashes once, but the fire won’t start well or keep burning well if the firebox is full of ashes. From these minor complaints you can see why I still use the campfire sometimes. The campfire is good for cooking more than one dish at a time and for dishes like beans that take a long time. Beans can take three hours or more to cook and I don’t want to babysit the fire for that long. I have other things to do. 

I like to use a cast iron skillet or Dutch oven over the fire because it heats slowly and evenly, which is what you want when there is no dial to turn the flame up or down. Of course you can still control the heat of the rocket stove somewhat. For boiling water you’ll want to put a lot of wood in, add some from the top too, so that flames actually hit the bottom of the pan. For sautéing all you need is some barely flaming sticks and coals in the bottom of the stove. We tend to cook simple meals on the rocket stove that work well with our simple kitchen. Mung Dal from Madhur Jaffrey’s World of the East Vegetarian Cooking is an easy red lentil soup; it only has a few ingredients so as long as you have a fresh ginger on hand and some spices it’s a simple dish to put together. When we make it we put all the ingredients in at once, then cover and simmer till done. Dal goes well with rice or potatoes. One pot cooking is what I look for in dinner ideas. 

Tempeh Rueben open face sandwiches:

These are another favorite of ours. Slice a piece of tempeh horizontally to make thinner slabs then cut into squares to fit your bread slices. Brown the tempeh in a hot oiled skillet. We use toasted sesame oil, olive oil, or coconut oil. Add a dash of hot sesame oil for extra spice and flavor. While the tempeh cooks add a dash of soy sauce or Bragg Liquid Aminos, ume plum vinegar, and brown rice vinegar on each side. Put the tempeh aside when browned on both sides and fry up some toast in the same skillet, it’ll be flavorful and salty that way. Or you can toast the bread by conventional means if you have them. Mix up a sauce using half ketchup and half mayonnaise, about one tablespoon of each for each sandwich you make. Spread the sauce on the toast and put the tempeh on top, then add more sauce on top of the tempeh and add a thick layer of kimchi. Enjoy.

A country omelet:

Another simple dish we often cook on the rocket stove for breakfast is a “country omelet.” To make this we heat up our largest cast iron skillet with two heaping tablespoons of coconut oil, add one chopped potato, one chopped onion, a handful of chopped shiitake mushrooms, a couple cloves of minced garlic, and a chopped chunk of ginger, cook this mixture until the potatoes are browned and cooked through. If you have kale on hand chop it up and toss that into the skillet as well after the potatoes cook. Stir up some eggs with a bit of milk, a dash of salt and pepper, and some chopped fresh herbs if you have any at your doorstep. Pour the eggs over the potatoes and cover. Have slices of cheese ready. Turn the omelet over when only slightly liquid on top, place the cheese slices on, cover the pan and peek in on it every other minute to see if the cheese is melted and it is done. Good Morning!

So you see the rocket stove can be inexpensive and easy to build, efficient to use, and can complete an outdoor kitchen. In times past it was very common to have the kitchen outdoors, less chance of the house catching fire, or overheating the indoor space. There may be some wisdom in this worth going back to. If you live in the woods like we do it is pleasure to be called outdoors to a kitchen where you can cook and commune with nature at the same time.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Open letter to a friend: such ongoing correspondence is part of my wellness plan.

Right after receiving your email I went outside under the canopy to attend to a shiitake potato and chard omelet cooking on the camp stove. It was lightly sprinkling outside. A loud chicken like sound came from the ridge and a turkey came swooping low and flew inches from my head. In Native American lore this could be read as good luck, as in winning the lottery or selling your house. Turkey is give away eagle.

Like Proust I go to bed early. It wards off bad thoughts and causes me to get up at 5:00 and write in the dark. I tried to continue with The Underground, thinking to myself it is not too long so I can get through it even if I don't enjoy it, and maybe I will find away to enjoy it. I read about three more pages and decided that at only six pages I was not a committed reader and could put the book back on the shelf. So I tried Proust. I'm somewhere around page 20 and enjoying it. I actually bought this book back when I was dealing books on the Internet. It has water damage. Someone once described the book as Proust's own bath water. That appealed to me. Not the worst thing someone could say about a work of art, used bath water. I'm doubting that remembrance of things past has a "main thrust" Anyway I think I've found some good reading for a while.

I had dreams last night that got me thinking about the theme of my book, crisis and suicide. The part of the dream that sort of woke me up is when I angrily threw a bag of books at an old woman that I was close to and admired. She was hurt and I was ashamed but still, for reasons mysterious to me, angry. There was a boy with some variant of Down's syndrome who I was also very close with, like a brother who I tried to talk this out with. We were like babies babbling about it. 

The best thing you can do for your loved ones is have a positive attitude, suicide is the worst. I hate to put it that way, because it seems harsh on my father. If like in the novel I was compelled to follow in his footsteps then any suicide attempt on my part would be foiled and failed. and my God, if my life now is difficult and complicated imagine how it would be after a failed suicide attempt.

Also in my novel Deb kills the boar. In real life I can't or haven't yet been able to bring myself to kill anything. Though I do on occasion eat meat. I am a realistic person I think. The blood and gore factor can not be erased in real life and therefore a person like myself is going to have a hard time killing a boar. And by the same token herself. My dad is not a realistic person. He doesn't have an aptitude it seems for a practical thinking of things through. This always annoys me. If he had thought things through in a practical way he would never have jumped out the window.

You know what though? What? I'll tell you what: anger is a great motivation for suicide, especially anger at God or Life. That's the seed I have. The seed of anger. Because I'm locked out. Locked out of my own apartment. Another dream image. There are other people in the building celebrating their apartments but I don't want to ask them to let me in.

And I don't have a positive practical vision of my old age. At 48 I still have a young person's goals: to publish my first novel, to build a house, build a career, see my children prosper. Our community here in Middlebury is held up by a few amazing people in their 60's and 70's. No one knows what the Town Hall Theater would do without Doug or what would happen to Maiden Vermont without Lindi. For myself it looks like I won't have enough money to stay alive past the time that I am physically able to work hard. But who knows I could get lucky. I saw a turkey yesterday.

I have been missing my old friend, poet and painter Marc. He also had an "attempt" in his history. No doubt about it, hitting bottom is tragic an should be avoided. He went to the loony bin, whole bit. I miss him now because of an old joke we had. I was going through a very hard time post second divorce when I met him. Then just when I thought things couldn't get any worse my car caught on fire with most of my possessions inside. I did have comprehensive insurance at the time and was making a lot of phone calls to the insurance agency. Their compassionate response was always, "I'm sorry to hear that Ms. Eckles" So from then on whenever I had a rather large complaint he would say, "I'm sorry to hear that Ms. Eckles" If he were still around I could tell him of my real estate "setback" and he could say you know what. Damn the guy used to even be a real estate agent, he could have helped me avoid this fiasco. But in truth we weren't talking so often that he would have known what was going on with me. We got together about once per year since I moved to Middlebury.

It's 7:00 a.m. and time for me to go. It looks like I have a new fan on my blog, she liked the "aggressive woman" post. So that's a nice way to start the day.

Xo A

Monday, September 16, 2013

The bright side

There is a big problem in my life, something that is really not going my way, and it's been getting me down. I'd rather be getting congradulations than condolences. It really doesn't help to talk about this giant obstacle, generally. So I am going to use this blog post to look on the bright side and advertise everything (or at least some of the things) that I am proud of, happy about, and happy to share:

We, my honey Ross Conrad and I, are going to The Common Ground Fair in Maine in a few days Sept 20-22. We will be selling our honey and other products from the hive, as well as  books about beekeeping,  Ross's Natural Beekeeping Second Edition, and my Phrase Book For Spiritusl Emergencies. 

I've been busy making candles for this event the past few days:
I've had articles published it he last two issues of this excellent homesteading how-to magazine and have more upcoming.
I'm looking to forward having an article on Vermont Herbal Teas in this fine local food magazine this Winter.
We, Dancing Bee Gardens have been having a very productive year growing beautiful Shiitake mushrooms for the Middlebury Natural Foods Coop.
And we will be trying the Middlebury Farmers Market as soon as we get back from the Common Ground Fair, through till Chrastmas.
I'll be using my house in North Hero as a writer's retreat. I'm also looking for someone to share offices there, perhaps another writer.
Our extra special products for the hive, books, and art are also for sale in our Dancing Bee Art shop on Etsy.
Lastly my novel which I have been working on for the past five years, is something I am proud and happy about. I am currently revising it just to tighten it up, getting rid of extra words.
You can see in the picture here these New Chapter StreesTake Care pills that I have been taking religiously since the stressfull event, which was really a non-event, having nothing to do with my writing or any of the other important things in my life. The set back was only about money. 

I've already mentioned Maiden Vermont several times in my blog before so I'll just say that it certainly cheers me to sing with this lovely group of women. For the next 20 or so days you can listen to us here: Classical Vermont

Something wonderful I have never mentioned before on this blog is how the community has come around me to help stop the Vermont frackedgas pipline
Oh! I almost forgot, we got a working lands enterprise grant to help us build our honey house for extracting honey and bottling etc. Yay! honey extraction will be so much easier next year.

Thanks for sharing the bright side with me.

Monday, September 2, 2013

How My Maiden Performance With Maiden Vermont Informs My Latest Edit Of My Novel, The Literature Preferred By Wild Boar

Something Lindi, our choral director, said during the dress rehearsal made sense to me not just for singing but for my writing. In barbershop groups it is all about the right balance of the different parts, lead, bass, tenor, and baritone. A smaller group was singing "Nevertheless" and she commented afterward that if she didn't know the song she might find it difficult to know where the song was going, therefore it needed more melody so the leads should sing out more. 

It helps me to think of melody and the lead part as being like the plot or the main character in my novel. One comment on the novel I have received I could paraphrase as: The writing is beautiful and certain threads interesting but one third the way through and I don't know where it's going. It occurs to me that I need to amplify the melody, let the lead voice sing out. I sing the lead in Maiden Vermont so that should be easy. But it is not easy when you are new at it and there is a tenor or a baritone singing in your ear.

Is singing well in a barbershop group difficult or easy? I was attracted to it at first because I thought it would be easy: familiar sing along type songs and I'd sing the melody. But I found that it took a lot of study and practice to master even a very short song. Many of the women in our group belong to other musical groups or bands, they play an instrument or act in plays. Later the fact that barbershop takes skill, talent, musicality, and learning also began to lure me in as I discovered it wasn't a piece of cake. At the same time there is something magically easy about singing because it's part of human nature, just like telling stories.

I'd been reading Debra Lynn's book The Bel Canto Buzz and practicing with her warm up CD in the days leading up to the performance at the Compass Music and Arts Center in Brandon. My husband wished me luck the day of the performance and I told him, "It's easy all you have to do is smile with the corners of your mouth up showing your front teeth, smile on the inside of your mouth too, then take a deep breath expanding and lifting your rib cage, now sing" We both did everything I said, as I said it, and a beautiful note Came out! I was stunned. 

I am hoping that I will find this ease in revising my good novel into a super good novel. I didn't want to use the word "great", that's too loaded. Ease is found when you take just the right guidance and commit to it. "Nailing it" in artistic endeavors is sort of like manually landing the Apollo 13. Mistakes in aim are magnified in outerspace. Without the aid of computers you just have to eye ball it, trust that little bit of guidance you have with you at the time and go for it. 

My guidance comes from my perceptions, my senses, my heart, my experience, my skills and talents, my research, and trusted friends in the field. Maybe some guidance comes from God, inspiration, meditation, and as gifts from ancestors.

At the Maiden Vermont concert I noticed that at some point in almost every song a waterfall of trembling nerves awakening in my neck let me know that we had reached a really good place. It writing I think it is more an upswept windy feeling that says, "go, go, go!" Just like in the song, Tuxedo Junction.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

My snubber turns friendly

I don't know if this happened the way I imagined it, or if I imagined the way it happened.

Remember "Gallery G" and how the owner snubbed me at her opening? I wrote all about it in a previous post if you want to refresh your memory. She plays a huge part in the following episode.

I was walking down the street and I had just come to the cross walk at route 7 by The Middlebury Inn. I stopped since there were some cars coming. A small navy blue car pulled up to the crosswalk. I met eyes with the driver, a woman I thought I recognized as the gallery owner, she gave me a little wave and drove on. 

Unlike last time at the gallery it seemed that she really saw me and acknowledged me. Maybe she even liked me. Reading her face, she seemed: shy, slightly panicked, friendly, and nice - even if not nice enough to stop at the cross walk. 

It was as if with her eyes she was apologizing for what she could not do. I am familiar with that feeling and gesture at crosswalks. I'm sure I've thrown the same look as I failed to give the right of way.

I was wearing a rather noticeable outfit that day: Navy blue skirt with white print, bright red shirt with white print, a white hat, and even sandals with heels. If I had been wearing something less noticeable she might have run me over instead of giving me a friendly wave.

Some people have trouble with faces and depend on clothes quite a bit. That could be her. We all have obstacles, sometimes social obstacles.

Certainly I have mine. Perhaps this person is someone I know, but don't know that I know. She could be someone from the context of my daily life and I'm just not putting it together, thinking she is a stranger. Just someone I met once at a gallery who snubbed me. 

This incident, somehow helps me forgive her, and let go of the whole incident of being ignored. The uncertainty of whether it was really her doesn't seem to matter. 

Organic cotton outfit screenprinted by Taproot Threads

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Mead Making Simplified

My latest brew, a small batch of sweet raspberry mead. We had an abundance of raspberries this year.



Making wine out of honey, a recipe for one of the simple joys of life


My mead making years began when my youngest daughter who I’ve shared many cooking adventures with wanted to make pumpkin wine, like in the Harry Potter books. It was autumn, and time for a family activity involving pumpkins. Part of our inspiration came from the last page recipe of an old cookbook called Pumpkin Happy by Erik Knud-Hansem with a forward by Pete Seeger. The recipe was for pumpkin wine or vinegar by Emilio Rodriguez Vazquez. The difference between making vinegar or wine is that for wine the fermentation MUST happen in an airtight container whereas for vinegar the container is NOT airtight.  


Being a creative just-do-it kind of person, who doesn’t worry about every little detail, I went straight to the local home brew store and asked what I needed to buy so I could make pumpkin wine and how to do it.


The first step to making anything is to gather supplies. To make my first brew I bought from my local homebrewing store: a general wine recipe pamphlet, a 5 gallon glass car boy, a fermentation water lock and stopper, a primary bucket (plastic fermenter), cheese cloth for straining any fruits added, a large food grade funnel, a hydrometer, thermometer, racking cane and tubing, GFS extract for a non-toxic sanitizer, a hand corker for corking the bottles, about 50 corks, 24 glass bottles, wine yeast. I then looked long and hard at some honey… thinking wouldn’t this whole thing be better with honey? I had just started beekeeping and didn’t have any surplus honey from my own hives just yet. A large stainless steel stockpot may also be useful for certain styles of mead. The supplies for getting started in mead making may run you $100 - $150.


You can enjoy creating various styles of honey wine. My first wine was not mead; it was made with sugar instead of honey. Pumpkin apparently has a lot of natural sugar of it’s own because that first wine came out very strong in alcohol content. It tasted pretty good to me though, enough to keep me trying improving and varying my batches each year: the raspberry-current wine of 2008, elderberry mead 2009, wild grape mead 2010, saffron mead 2011, and the lemon ginger mead in 2012. The pumpkin wine, my worst batch ever, was apparently quite drinkable and served to show me that wine and mead making is not that hard and can be a simple joy in life. Each year the seasons bring us something special. The honey, fruits, and flowers of the harvest are unique to their time and place, and in a bottle of mead the flavors of that particular year mature and ferment into something new, the spirits you have cultured from the place you live. It is very companionable to have a bubbling carboy of mysterious mead brewing in a corner of your home.


Types of mead

Mead making and wine making are basically the same process and it is just as easy to make mead as wine, in fact I would say it can be simpler with mead because you don’t have to add fruit or any kind of flavor, the honey itself gives the brew a fine flavor. I always like to try something new, so I’m always experimenting with different flavors and levels of sweetness. Traditionally wine and mead making were ways to use fruit and honey that would otherwise be wasted. If you have fruit trees or berry bushes that are giving you more than you can eat, that’s an opportunity for making melomel, a fruit mead. Mead made with grapes is called Pyment. The wild grapes I collected from the vines growing up the trees along our neighborhood road made an excellent Pyment. When mead includes spices it is called Metheglin. The saffron and the lemon ginger meads I have made are examples of this. I suppose my latest and still untried chamomile mead of 2013 would also be considered a Metheglin. Besides flavor another thing you can play around with is how sweet or dry or bubbly you want your mead to be. The more honey you add the sweeter it will be. For a five-gallon batch 10-11 lbs. of honey would be on the dry side. 12-14 lbs. of honey would be more medium, and 15-18 lbs. of honey would make a sweet mead. I’ve read a lot about how to make mead and it all sounds very complicated so instead of following any recipe I approach it the way I approach cooking generally. I read a lot of recipes, I get a general idea of the process, think about what sounds yummy and interesting, think about what I have that I can use, and then I pretty much do what I want. I’ve never made an undrinkable batch this way. In fact it seems to me my mead gets better every year. Actually the mead does get better as it ages. Be sure to save some of your bottles of mead from each year and you will be rewarded with the taste of time. Also it is fun to have a tasting with friends and family of some of the different varieties made over the years.


The “musts” of mead making: things you have to do and how I do them.


Sanitize your equipment: I don’t like bleach, which is often recommended for sanitizing, because it smells bad and is toxic. One tablespoon of regular bleach per gallon is the recommended solution for sanitizing. I have been using about 30 drops of grapefruit seed extract in five gallons of hot water to sanitize my equipment and that seems to work just fine. It is important in all stages of the process to work in a hygenic manner suitable for cooking for your family and friends. Common sense and courtesy rather than a phobia of microorganisms should be your guide, after all this is fermentation.


The fermentation lock: The purpose of the fermentation lock and stopper on the carboy is to keep oxygen out of the must as it ferments into mead. Some people fill the water lock with vodka, but I never have and find this unnecessary. It is very important that you at least put water in the water lock though. Failing to do this can cause extreme and definite mead failure. You also want the carboy to be filled up into the neck, not leaving too much air space. If you must clean out the water lock due to its becoming filled with sediment that has bubbled up do so at time when the mead is fermenting vigorously, so that the bubbles push out the oxygen that leaks in.


Temperature for your mead: Most mead making books will tell you that a consistent temperature of around seventy degrees is needed for fermentation. I have never had a place with such a consistent temperature to ferment my mead or wine, and so far my meads and wines have always come out fine. We heat with a woodstove and at night and when we are away it can get pretty cold, and sometimes in our small home a fire in the woodstove might be too much and bring the temperature up to eighty degrees. This seems not to hurt the mead. Cold temperatures will slow down or stop the fermentation, and too hot temperatures can kill the yeast or “cook” the flavor of the wine, or mead. It may be the type of wine yeasts that I choose to use allow for the variance of temperature that I have in my home 40°- 80° degrees. There are no temperature recommendations on the packages of the two types of yeast I have used:  Red Star Pasteur Champagne, and Red Star Pasteur Red. I can’t be sure how other yeasts would tolerate inconsistent temperatures.


Time: I put my mead together in the fall and let the must (the unfermented or fermenting blend of honey, water and other mead ingredients) ferment in the carboy until a convenient time in the summer for bottling, 6-9 months later. You can drink it at that point but it improves over time and a year later it will be even better.


The main ingredients: The most important and primary ingredients in your mead will be honey and water, the quality of both is very important. If your tap water tastes like chlorine you’ll want to find a source of pleasant tasting water to use for your mead. The honey you use will also give it’s own special flavor, so use honey from your own bees or pure honey from a source you trust that tastes good to you. Also I recommend NOT heating the honey. Heat destroys some of the subtle floral flavor and aroma of honey. If you must heat honey always use as low a heat as possible.



My recipe for Sweet Wild Grape Pyment:


Pick wild grapes stems and all and wash in cold water. Pick out any rotten or dried up grapes. Next, put grapes stems and all in an enamel pot and cover with water. Bring just barely to boiling. Let cool. Use an empty wine bottle to crush the grapes in the pot. Pour off grape juice to use later. Compost the pulp left behind.


Sterilize the utensils you plan to use in making the mead with GSE grapefruit seed liquid concentrate.



16-19 lbs of honey

4 gallons of water, approximately, or enough to top off the 5-gallon carboy

Red Star Pasteur Champagne yeast

Wild grapes, I used a few cups of these


Heat 1 gallon of water in large pot. Do not boil. Turn off heat. Add half of the honey to this and stir until dissolved. Pour this mixture into the primary (the big bucket with the water lock on it you bought from your local homebrew store) Add and stir in the rest of the honey now. Now add the juice from the wild grapes and some elderberry syrup for medicinal effect if you have any. Next add and stir in 3 more gallons of room temperature water. If you plan to use a Hydrometer to measure the alcohol content of your mead later you would take a starting hydrometer reading at this point. However the use of a hydrometer is optional and due to lack of space I will not go into further detail about the hydrometer. Measure the temperature of this mixture that is now in the primary fermenter with a candy thermometer. Rehydrate the yeast by heating about a cup or two of water to about 100° F pour this water into a small bowl and add the yeast. Let sit for 15 minutes, then stir thoroughly to mix. To Pitch the yeast, make sure the primary is about 70° then give the yeast a quick stir and pour it right into the center in the fermenter. Alternatively I sometimes skip rehydrating the yeast and simply scatter the Red Star Pasteur Champagne yeast into the primary and stir in to dissolve the yeast and tooxygenate the must. You’ll need a long handled spoon to stir the must. Stir vigorously for 5 minutes. Close the primary fermenter bucket and attach the water lock. Fill the water lock with water. Let must ferment in the primary for several weeks. Temperatures of 60° F top 75° F are ideal. Within days you should notice bubbling in your fermentation lock. About two to three weeks later the bubbling should slow down, now it is time forracking (the process of transferring the must from the primary fermenter to the carboy).Sanitize your empty 5-gallon carboy and its stopper, your siphon hose and racking cane. Have your carboy well below the fermenter. Attach the hose to the racking cane and fill completely with tap water. Crimp end of hose. Have a pan on the floor by the carboy to catch the tap water before the mead begins to flow. Put the cane into the full fermenter, being sure it never touches too near the bottom. Lower the hose end down to the pan on the floor next to the carboy, release the crimp in the tube end and let the water flow out into the pan until the you see mead starting to flow. Quickly crimp and move the tube end into the carboy. Now let the mead flow into the carboy. Be careful to keep the hose end below the surface of the liquid during this process. Keep the hose end well above the bottom of the fermenter to keep from siphoning up spent yeast and sediment – the idea is to leave this behind and discard, a step toward clarification. Your carboy should be filled up to the neck. If it is not you can top it off with water. Install the fermentation lock on your carboy and fill the fermentation lock with water to the fill line. About 6 to 9 months later when the bubbling has ceased you are ready to bottle. You can use the same process for bottling as you did for transferring the mead to the carboy from the primary. You can start the suction on the siphon by mouth instead of with tap water if you prefer.


The Complete Meadmaker by Ken Schramm is an excellent resource for getting an understanding of the mead making process. I also search online for recipes, ideas, and the experience of other mead makers. By comparing the online information I gather with my own experience and the understanding I’ve gained from The Complete Meadmaker I am able to come up with my own recipes and ways of making mead that work for me.


The pleasure of mead making is sharing the experience of changes in nature. Fermentation is essentially when a food goes bad yet turns out to be delicious. It’s culture, preservation, and a story about ourselves.


Pretty Fantastic to be a Bubble.


In my dream I was a bubble.

All that was me was the consciousness of the tiny bubble.

You were there too, a tiny bubble just beside me

And we were holding onto the bottom of a glass,

Our entire world.


We decided to let go and together we floated up

Among the floating stars of other bubbles

Glittering in the dark glass of sky.


We went straight up with the spirit of fermentation,

And I said to you just before we touched

The open surface of the horizon,

“We are about to be absorbed”


Our fun little ride was over, our identities would be no more, I knew.

We were only bubbles in a glass,

And now we would join Air,

Without borders, you and I, and the sky,

After our short ride together as little bubbles.


I didn’t have time to say all that and more to you,

Only that little warning,

“We are about to be absorbed.”


-Alice Eckles