Part 18: That Fork Wasn’t Marked on the Map
The road of life can only reveal itself as it is traveled;
each turn in the road reveals a surprise. - Unknown
The silence was comforting when our guests first took their leave, but when Mateo also left earlier than usual to go check some of the traps he had set the lack of human voices became a little unnerving and oppressive. The children were also more quiet than usual, missing their new friends. I couldn’t have been the only one to sense the change because Genty the furry, gentle giant objected to the children going too far away from where he was. I have to admit that despite my mood his antics made me smile when I realized he was herding the children as much as he was herding the goats. The geese and ducks weren’t quite sure they approved of the dog or the goats as their new neighbors and seemed to intentionally snub the whole lot as they waddled to the pond for their morning constitutional adding a little more humor to the situation.
My smile was quick to melt however. I looked around at all that had been here before Tag’s people had arrived and what had been added since with their help and my chest felt weighted with anxiety. I was torn. I felt blessed to be in the shape we were in. I never dared to imagine when I first started the covered gardens experiment that I would ever have this many to tend. On the other hand having this many to tend was a good part of the anxiety. I was alone once again in taking care of everything and wondered if I would be able to manage all of the raised beds, trees, bushes, fruiting vines, and animals by myself. I already missed Liz and Dog’s camaraderie that eased my load and made the day go more quickly even when Mateo was away. I really missed playing teacher to Juliet and Joseph even if it did add to my work somewhat. They were like sponges, absorbing not only the agricultural lessons I gave, but the history and science that I included with them. They made me remember how much I missed teaching my highschool students even if about three-quarters of them preferred to act like brain dead zombies most of the time.
Noticing that the goats were beginning to eat the grass too short right behind the house in the only small patch of lawn that remained, I decided to move their picket lines to the area in front of Gerald’s house. Actually I needed to stop calling it that. Gerald was never coming back; the man was dead due to his own deeds and there was no sense in memorializing him. We’d never been friends and it was rather macabre and hypocritical to make him out to be something he was not just because the man no longer had Earth as an address.
While I moved the pickets I began to seriously consider the plans Mateo had for our long term security. The first stage was to build a tall fence that encompassed our yard and the yards on either side of us as well as a portion of the orange grove. The work we had already done on our yard would be the “inner courtyard” of the compound. The walls that we raised around the outside would act as a curtain wall or palisade. But the first task of the first stage would be to increase the security of our primary entrance gate. Rather than a swing gate we were going to install a track gate which would be much more difficult to push through. A house around the bend of our road has that very system so we are going to salvage it and move our current swing gate someplace else. That project is easier than it sounds, certainly easier than building the walls will be.
Lucky for us all of the upright posts are already in place for a tall fence. The ones from our yard are concrete block pillars that we poured solid. Two-thirds of the remaining posts are also concrete pillars including the ones around the portion of the orange grove that we intend on enclosing except unlike ours they are hollow. I’m fairly certain that it is possible to pop off the capping stones; it is just going to be a question of what to fill the exposed cells with. I’m thinking tightly packed sand will be the best option. Gerald’s yard – no, the goat’s yard – is the remaining third that we plan on enclosing and it is surrounded by a vinyl fence that looks really bad. The fence used to be one of the most expensive and well-maintained in the neighborhood but expensive or not in the beginning it looks terrible now. The vinyl will definitely have to go, but the uprights are more than just decorative as they actually cover heavy duty, metal fence posts sunk in concrete left over from the old fence the vinyl fence replaced. The uprights therefore aren’t the problem, it is what to put between them.
Mateo thinks to start with using wooden decking off of the roofs of some of the partially destroyed houses along the road. The collapsed roofs will be easiest to cut sections from … shingles, tar paper, and all. We’ll be forced to hook up the Saws-all for this but I don’t see any other viable choice. Good thing Mateo found all of those extra batteries. Transporting the sections will be further work but we’ll have to manage it. One of the things that Mateo brought back with our visitors’ assistance was a rolling pallet jack and it should definitely help. We’ll hang a section of roof decking on either side of a pair of posts and then we’ll fill the void between with sand, broken blocks and bricks, and whatever else we can find. It’s going to be far from perfect but better than nothing; more importantly no one will be able to crash through them with impunity and they should deflect bullets somewhat … or at least stop them from coming through at full velocity.
The main problem isn’t the lack of ideas nor even the lack of raw materials to work with; it is the costly work hours involved. Most of my time still needs to be dedicated to growing and preserving our food; however, Mateo cannot build the fence by himself. What a quandary. Do we stop growing food, risk the disaster of hunger this winter, to build the fence to protect crops we had to stop growing? Or, do we grow food to prevent winter hunger and risk the disaster of theft and vandalism because we didn’t build the fence? If only Greg … but there’s no profit in saying if only.
The time problem was being compounded by the fact that August was sliding into September and already the nights were taking on a very different feel to them. The humidity level is dropping; not precipitously but it is dropping which makes for cooler days and nights. During the day I’m still in sleeveless T’s and have a bandana to wipe the sweat from my brow, but at night I usually throw on a long sleeved cover up and it isn’t just to keep from being eaten alive by the mosquitoes and no-see-ums. During the day I can run around barefoot if I choose and can even get overheated working the garden … at night I have to wear socks or slippers in the house or risk a chill.
Unbelievably the governor’s plums made despite my expectation that the bushes had been ruined. I will be giving them protection for this coming winter because I’m finding I grow weary of only having citrus and tropical fruits on the menu. The next crop of pineapples are almost large enough to harvest as well. Most of them are about half the size of the ones that I would have bought at the grocery store in times past but they are twice as sweet so there is a real trade off; with more taste you have to lose less to get the same flavor. I’ll save the tops from the pineapples and pot them to make an even larger patch in the future. The limes and lemons are almost ready to pick as well as are the mangoes, papayas, and the fruit from my potted guava tree.
I’m sad that my hurricane lilies don’t look like they are going to bloom. I loved the bright dancing heads; the spider lilies didn’t either. My daylilies have been blooming but are about finished and I’ll probably pick the last of the buds and pickle them instead of letting the cold kill the flowers when it arrives. But the marigolds and calendula continue to bloom and I’ve learned to take note of the squash and pea blossoms in the garden to replace the perennials and annuals that I used to plant in abundance around the house. It is cool enough at night that I may start planting some of the cold tolerant greens like collards and kale but I’ll keep a sunshade handy just in case I’m wrong.
For lunch – a meal that Mateo barely sat still long enough to eat before heading right back out – I used a cooked but cool mixture of grains leftover from dinner last night and did a funny kind of pilaf with a minty side salad. Even after splitting some of my mints and other herbs to send back with Liz and company, I’ve got so many that some are starting to go woody and I need a way to including them more often in our meals. At lunch Mateo told me there would be no fresh fish or crawdads for dinner since the traps were empty which they are on occasion, well more often than not to be honest but he said it looked like someone had been checking them out though because of the closures he uses on the traps he could tell it hadn’t been to take anything out of them. That means people. We know that people come through the area, we’d have to be blind as bats not to see some of the evidence -not to mention the two raids we’ve endured - but I’m not sure I like the idea of anyone being so nosey that they would actually discover where the traps were; it isn’t like Mateo hangs a sign that says, “Hey, here’s a trap.”
I wanted Mateo to take Genty with him when he went out in the afternoon but Mateo said he felt better with the dog staying with us and doing his job to protect the livestock. At first I wouldn’t have known what to do with one dog and now I want two. What I would feed another dog the size of Genty I have no idea but I’d be willing to figure something out if it keeps Mateo safe.
After lunch and after I had put away all of the morning harvest I decided to look at the clumps of bamboo in the area. I had more than one reason for doing so as I do with just about everything I do these days. I put on gloves and rubber waders which made Neeno laugh and want to “play dress up” too. Nydia, by contrast was not pleased; she does not care for the swamp because it scares her. Since she was getting a particularly mulish look on her face I decided to give her a choice; she and Neeno could stay home as long as they stayed inside with the house locked up or they could come with me. Nydia chose the house as I knew she would and said they would play upstairs in the hidden room; even better.
I could have waited for Mateo to come home and give me a break from the children but I wanted to find answers to some of the questions he had put to me when we were talking about security measures. Mateo thought we could create a barrier in the swamp by transplanting some of the water-loving bamboo that grows in the conservation areas; however thinking something and it really being an option is two totally different things. I know the clumps grow quickly and are impenetrable in short order because of throwing a half dead pot of bamboo out into the swamp. It had been tossed on my parents’ graves by someone cleaning out a mausoleum near their plots. I have no idea what possessed me to bring it back with me that day but I did. When what I had done finally penetrated, I quickly disposed of the tangled mess. That half dead bit of trash is now its own ecosystem and sends out runners all over the place. So that little accidental experiment told me that Mateo’s idea was possible, just that we’d need to be careful about intentionally introducing an invasive species to a new location.
Now onto the next reason for my traipsing around looking at the different types of bamboo in the neighborhood; as a food source. No, I’m not kidding. I know a lot of people think of bamboo just like they think of banana foliage - as trees - but both are actually just oversized grasses. In addition to the water-loving varieties some people in the neighborhood planted bamboo that preferred drier land and used it as a type of privacy hedge or as an ornamental landscape element. One house in particular had a well established mini-forest of a type of bamboo I had identified as phyllostachys nuda … not that the name is all that important, just that I had properly identified it as a type of bamboo that you could eat using my handy dandy field guide book.
It isn’t the “woody” parts or the leaf parts of the bamboo that is edible but the new shoots. These shoots are edible in the same way that palmetto shoots are edible. The bombing runs combined with the unusually cool season had disrupted or partially destroyed the normally fast growing palmetto stands in the area and I’d used up a lot of the new shoots of those plants while Tag’s people were visiting. But lucky for me I thought of the bamboo that I enjoyed with the Asian dishes Mateo would occasionally bring home when he was “courting” me after our marriage.
The harvesting of bamboo shoots is pretty straight forward, similar to harvesting other types of “shoots.” You don’t want anything that is damaged or soft, moldy, cracked, or that looks like an animal has either used it as a latrine area or nibbled on it. The best bamboo shoots are short with a wide base and are solid and heavy for their size. I suppose they look a bit like a small cypress knee. The bamboo hedge where I looked had a pretty good number in all stages of growth. I’m not sure if that is normal but it meant I had a variety to choose from, even some that hadn’t broken the surface yet.
To prepare them my Asian cookbook said to peel the brownish husk off the outside of the shoot. Good thing that my ceramic knives are still my go-to tool for this type of work as a dull knife just won’t cut it … literally. I slit the shoot up the side and then peeled off the layers of husks a bit like you would an onion. Once I had exposed the pale section I cut off the pointy top and the fibrous base, neither of which are edible. It takes at least two boils to make the shoots edible. The first one is for twenty minutes to remove the hydrocyanic acid and the second one is a boil-until-tender effort. If the shoots are still bitter after that, boil them for five minute intervals until you get the flavor you are seeking; you can even put a little salt in the water if you want to. My book says that bamboo shoots are ninety-four percent water but they are rich in Vitamin B and phosphorus which I worry that Mateo isn’t getting enough of.
I was drying my hands from cleaning the small batch that I had brought home and thinking how to fix the bamboo shoots for dinner when Nydia came up with a bucket of what I realized was milk.
“Nydia! We are supposed to milk them on a schedule,” I told her, appalled that she would do something like that without my permission.
“Daisy was um-com-for-bull. She was making a lot of noise and getting cranky. She stopped making a fuss when I milked her.” Well, done is done but now I was rather stuck what to do with not one but two pails of milk; I had nearly three-quarters of a gallon of it now and had hoped to have a little more time to figure out what I was doing. “Well, we need to save some for the kid and …”
“I fed her already just like Juliet showed me.”
“Ok.” My little girl seemed to be a lot more in tune with the horned beasties than I was. I told her, “Let me mark it down on the calendar so that we know what time …”
“I already did Nonny,” she told me with slightly exaggerated patience, like I was a dense child. “I remember what Miss Liz and Miss Juliet said we had to do and I know how to read the big clock in the house.” Ah … she was a little offended that I thought she couldn’t tell time. I decided to let her get away with her sass this time but a look from me told her she was skirting a little close to the line. I took the pail of milk while the Little Dickens scampered away leaving me holding the bag … or in this case bucket. Shaking my head at my own foolishness, I let her get away with it again and then took the milk over to my food prep area.
There were so many things that we missed having ready access to but two that I personally missed the most were fresh cheese and butter. My mother had given me a copy of the Encyclopedia of Country Living (ECL) when I graduated from highschool. At the time I thought it was a sweet but eccentric gift, the kind my mother was prone to give me to put into my hope chest, but the blasted door-stopper sized block of paper was something I referred to practically every day now and I’d give a whole lot to be able to tell her I was sorry for not being more appreciative of her thoughtfulness. It wasn’t the only book either my mother had given me that was now dog-eared with use. The only problem with the ECL is that it really wasn’t designed for our specific geographic region; but, there was enough information and wisdom in that book that I used it as a spring board for things and other books that did apply more directly. And in the ECL were some directions for caring for goats and dealing with what they produced.
According to everything that I had read in the ECL and in other books on the subject goat milk is rich in calcium, Vitamin A, Vitamin B6, Vitamin B12 potassium, niacin, copper, antioxidant selenium, and folic acid … more in fact than the cows’ milk has … and all are vitamins and minerals that I’ve been worried that we aren’t getting enough of in our diets. Since much of our food now consists of bulk staple items, food from our own garden, or the remaining storage items that Mateo and I were able to squirrel away before everything fell apart I’m having a difficult time judging whether Mateo and the children are getting enough of what their body’s need. While it is true that they are healthy and growing I’ve noticed on the growth chart neither of the children are measuring quite to the fifty percentile on the growth charts from the baby books I have. I know for a fact that Nydia used to measure way into the eighty percentiles in height and weight. Kids do grow in fits and spurts but I also know that when someone grows up during times of war and economic stress they tend to be on the shorter side compared with a generation that grew up in times of plenty. Add into this the lack of direct medical care and it is scaring me plenty that my children will have deficits in areas I can’t even imagine yet.
So the addition of the goats to our livestock is a blessing. By looking at them I think they are Nubians. I don’t mean they come from Egypt or anything like that, just that is what the breed is called. From what I’ve read they seem like a real package deal when it comes to goat breeds. The does are friendly, it is just our lone male goat that is a pistol; he’s not ornery, just determined to do what he wants when he wants. Of course he minds Genty and strangely enough he listens to Nydia more than he listens to me which sent Mateo off into an fit of laughter when I complained about it. Nubian goats are supposed to be good for both dairy and meat. While I might be aching for BBQ – especially if the Billy decides to go after my laundry again – I hope it is a while before it comes to that; we want to grow the herd so long as we can provide for them and care for them adequately.
I decided that I had time for one more experiment before I had to see to starting dinner; I was going to make a soft goat cheese, or give it my best shot. I took a half-gallon of the unpasteurized milk and heated it on medium heat until it was one hundred and eight-five degrees using a candy thermometer. Then I took it off the heat and stirred in the juice of two lemons and stirred that around until the milk curdled. Once it curdled I added one-half teaspoon of sea salt, stirred it a little more to distribute the salt, and then strained it all through a cheesecloth-lined colander. I pulled the cheesecloth up by its edges and clipped them together with a couple of clothes pins and hung it to drip for a few hours where the flies couldn’t get to it. I was hoping that we would be able to have cheese and crackers for dessert tonight.
Feeling pretty good about what I had accomplished and looking forward to surprising Mateo and the children, I headed around to the front of the house and saw Mateo coming. He was close enough that I could make out that he was smiling and the wave of his arm was pretty jaunty as well. Problem. Big problem. He wasn’t alone. Looked like I was the one in for a surprise.