Sunday, June 3, 2018

Tales: Flat Broke with Two Goats

Tales: Flat Broke with Two Goats
I finished reading Flat Broke with Two Goats several weeks ago. I wanted to review the book immediately as it brought up strong feelings but I wasn't sure how to put my thoughts into words. I think I'm ready now. 

Despite mixed feelings about this memoir, both good and bad, the book kept me engrossed. In fact, I'll likely read it again.

I borrowed Flat Broke with Two Goats from the library and was very excited to find it. I hadn't seen it advertised previously and at first glance I thought it was a memoir about transitioning to a homestead while flat broke - a similar story to mine. However, it turns out that it was not quite a story like mine. In fact, parts of her story are very different than mine.

Flat Broke with Two Goats is a memoir written by Jennifer McGaha. It is not a "how-to" transition to a homestead when you want to. It is a life story about not planning, taking money for granted, and ending up in a run down cabin. And I came to think of it as a "how-not-to".

McGaha and her husband were living the American dream; buying a house in suburbia, raising kids, and apparently over-spending. A kid in college and kids in private schools. She's very honest that during her childhood, money was available and she can to think of money as always there. The Great Recession hits in the same time range they caught owing years of back taxes. Her accountant husband had less work due to the economy and while he wasn't really keeping them afloat financially to begin with (e.g. not able to pay taxes) they really began to flounder with the electricity being shut off and cars being repossessed. Finally, the home was in foreclosure. 

Throughout the book, McGaha is unhappy. Unhappy that her husband didn't tell her about the back taxes, unhappy that they ended up moving to a rickety old cabin infested with snakes, and unhappy that so many things happened to her. At one point, she moves out to take an adjunct teaching job. Then she moves back to the rickety cabin, her dogs, and her husband. 

And they begin to buy chickens and goats.

At first I was irritated that the story wasn't more about chickens, goats, and homesteading. I felt the advertising that it was about the traditions of Appalachia was false advertising. I was irritated that they got goats when they didn't seem prepared for goats. I was worried about the dogs. I was annoyed that the author was committing to lives that she couldn't afford to commit to. 

But the story grew on me. And McGaha has an interesting writing style. 

While I've never, ever been able to take money for granted, I have tried to run from problems I've helped create. There have been times I haven't faced my responsibilities. And there have been MANY occasions that the grass looked greener on the other side. I have jumped in to situations I wasn't prepared for.  I have lived in denial. Haven't we all? That's life. And in that way, she writes an unflinching story about life and what it is to be human.

Flat Broke with Two Goats is an interesting how-not-to. How-not-to take a six figure household income for granted. How-not-to keep spending when times get tough and bury your head in the sand when the repo man becomes a familiar person. 

It is also a story of a mom who wanted the good life for her human kids and who was wondrous at the birth of the goat kids. McGaha learns to make soap and cheese, and shares relevant recipes at the end of the chapters. In her quiet moments, she thinks of her connection with relatives long ago who worked hard in Appalachia. 

You may like her or you may hate her, but McGaha knows how to write and how to tell an entertaining story.

*This article may contain affiliate links. If you shop via one of the affiliate links, I may earn a small commission - at no additional cost to you. I am very appreciative of every reader who visits my articles. Thank you.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Bird Journal: Tree Swallow

The beautiful Tree Swallow.
It seems that with every visit to The Shack I see birds that I've never seen before. As I try to become better at identifying birds, I am super excited to be able to add new species to my personal bird watching list. With some help from my son during my last trip up to my spot on a West Virginia ridge, I am now able to add the Tree Swallow to bird 
watching list.

As I was driving away from The Shack during a recent visit, a bird with bright iridescent blue color caught my eye. A neighbor has many bird boxes, fruit trees, and bird feeders - an almost heaven for birds.  I always see Eastern Bluebirds in his yard. But this flash of blue was different - more vibrant. I snapped a quick photo before the bird flew off. I texted my son (I am not able to access the internet while in that area so I could not do my own internet search) and he helped me identify that it was a Tree Swallow.

My quick photo of the neighbor's yard and Tree Swallow

Tree Swallows

Tree Swallows are listed on the Cornell All About Birds page as small songbirds with pointed wings, a square tail, and a small bill. 

The map shows that West Virginia is included in their large breeding area (as much of the US and Canada). In the backyard they will utilize nest boxes. Providing properly placed and sized nest boxes will help attract these birds to your yard.
An important note from is that the Tree Swallow is declining in the north-eastern US (from Virginia to Maine) and they recommend providing nest boxes with a predator guard to protect the nest. 
Tree Swallows feed on insects and berries. Planting preferred plants (such as bayberry shrubs) will also help attract these gorgeous birds to your area.  

An interesting bit of information that I hadn't thought of previously is that like chickens, other birds need extra calcium when they are producing eggs. All About Birds reports that Tree Swallows may access compost piles looking for eggshells in order to supplement their calcium levels. Such a helpful bit of information. I hadn't thought of taking egg shells up to The Shack for the wild birds.

Barn Swallows

When I spotted these little birds, I wasn't sure what they were. Their flight was similar to the Barn Swallows of my  childhood but the square tail had me confused. Swallows have long, V-shaped tails don't they? I've learned that Tree Swallows do not have that familiar tail.

Barn Swallow in flight

I loved the Barn Swallows that lived in the large barn on the farm. Their flight was amazing. And they mud nests in the open aisle of the barn were fun to spot. Momma Barn Swallow often watched me from over the edge of that mud nest.

The Competition Between Bluebirds and Tree Swallows

During my beginning research about Tree Swallows, it seems that Bluebirds and Tree Swallows will use the same size nest boxes - sometimes competing for areas. The Tree Swallow Projects has provided a very informative article about Reducing Competition Between Bluebirds and Tree Swallows. They include information on the best placement of nest boxes for both Eastern Bluebirds and Tree Swallows. I'm glad I found that article, I had been planning on placing a 2nd bluebird nest box entirely too close to the one I have - which would have been too close to invite a 2nd bluebird family! Oh there is so much to learn. The good news is, it is possible (as the neighbor has done) to attract both Tree Swallows and Bluebirds to one backyard.

Helpful Birding Items

When I'm at the apartment and have access to a reliable internet connection, I rely on All About Birds to help identify birds and to learn about them. However, I don't have the resource available while at The Shack. I need to remember to take my copy of the DK Smithsonian Handbook Birds of North American Eastern Region to the Shack. It isn't the best field book because it is a very thick and heavy book. But it'll be great to leave up there as a reference book. The photos are large, in color, and very helpful to birding novices like myself. 

*This article may contain affiliate links. If you shop via one of the affiliate links, I may earn a small commission - at no additional cost to you. I am very appreciative of every reader who visits my articles. Thank you.

Photograph attribution:
Intro photo - from Wikimedia Creative Commons - Public Domain - photo by Ken Thomas
Barn Swallow photo - Wikimedia Creative Commons Share Alike 2.5 generic byThermos

Monday, April 16, 2018

Hugelkultur at The Shack

H├╝gelkultur - Zilker Botanical Garden - Austin, Texas
What is Hugelkultur? It is a type of no-till, raised bed gardening that I've only recently learned about.  I am NOT an expert gardener and I know next-to-nothing about Hugelkulture (pronounced HOO-gul-culture). But it is something that seems like it would make sense to use up at The Shack. Frankly, I'm mostly writing this so I can keep track of the name of the technique and when/where/how I'm trying to use it. And to spread the word to others who have not heard of this raised-bed gardening technique.


I belong to a homesteading group and on that group I was sharing that due to my very steep slope at The Shack, the raised bed I had been planning for berries was not going to work out quite like I had envisioned.  I asked for advice.

One person mentioned Hugelkultur. I had never heard of it. So I "Google'd" and "youtubed" that term for days. This is the summary of what I've learned so far:

  • Hugelkultur is German for "mound culture" or "hill mound"
  • A garden mound (biomass) is created using a pile of wood covered by soil
  • The resulting biomass retains warmth and water
  • The slowly decaying wood creates a richer soil via all of the processes that happen during composting

insert from photo above
Oh man, oh man... Hugelkultur, or using some of the aspects of it, might be just the thing for my rocky, compacted, DRY, ridge-top future homestead. 

The Land at The Shack

Half of my land is open "yard" and half is wooded area. My land was previously an apple orchard. So I know that it can grow fruit trees. The wooded section seems to have far better "soil" than the yard section. But there's not even really rich soil in the woods. 

There are MANY things that make my land an unlikely choice for gardening.  The lack of an onsite water source, the extremely rocky/gravel terrain, steep slope, and the herds of deer that immediately try to eat every plant I put out are just a few of the things stacked against me at growing any of my own food.

Sufficient water is one of my main concerns. While camping at The Shack, I sit on my deck and look across the valley, watching it rain below. But it seems that little of the rain falls on my yard. For that reason alone, Hugelkultur was a very exciting idea.

Rain clouds moving across the valley

It will be years until I live up there full-time, and I intend to retire up there and happily putter around my yard and gardens rather than raise huge amounts of food. So I've got some time to start several small gardens, try a variety of plants and ways to plant them.  

The Berry Patch

Using a combination of Hugelkulture and Back-to-Eden gardening, I started a berry patch during my last visit to The Shack.  Later, I will write a separate post about the berries and the berry patch; how it came to be and how it's growing.  Right now I will share that I used "green" wood (sticks and chunks of green firewood) that I had gathered around the yard. I filled the hole first with cardboard (from Back-to-Eden gardening). I covered the cardboard with the sticks and firewood chunks (Hugelkultur) and made a mound. Then I covered the wood with hardwood mulch (Back-to-Eden gardening).  

My little berry patch is not as raised as other Hugelkultur beds are. Frankly, I started in a hole... filling a low spot in the yard. But I am optimistic about the decaying wood that is going to be composting and retaining moisture in my horribly rocky and dry "soil". I have seen some videos in which people claim that Hugelkultur was not helpful.  But I noted that it seemed those folks used a combination of what looked like dried/old barn timbers and very poor soil.  I made sure to start with very green wood from recently fallen trees.  

The photo below is my little Hugelkultur-esque berry bed in process.  I know, it looks a mess but it is at that point in the process that you can see the layers.

black berry patch at The Shack in process

*This article may contain affiliate links. If you shop via one of the affiliate links, I may earn a small commission - at no additional cost to you. I am very appreciative of every reader who visits my articles. Thank you. 

Photo Attribution: Hugelkultur - Zilker Botanical Garden - Austin, Texas - public domain CC.0

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Bird Journal: Cedar Waxwings

Cedar Waxwing with red tips
The Shack is a wonderful place to watch birds. There are many different species to watch. It is just a matter of me becoming more adept at identifying them. This past weekend, a large flock of birds was watching me while I worked in the yard, trying to make a berry patch and plant some thornless blackberries. I was nearly certain they were Cedar Waxwings. I snapped some photos and looked closely at the photos after I returned home. Yes indeed, they were Cedar Waxwings. And I was very excited about that sighting.

Cedar Waxwings

I am familiar with Cedar Waxwings from growing up in Indiana. I would see them in the woods, near small lakes. Then in Maryland, I would find them along river banks. I cannot describe their calls, but their sound catches my attention. When I hear them, I know there is a familiar bird in the area and I should look closely. That was what caught my attention this weekend - the familiar chirping sounds. As soon as I looked, a flash of narrow yellow stripe at the end of a tail caught my eye.

I was surprised to see a large flock of them at The Shack - not along a river but atop a ridge. They were sitting in the trees watching me work in the yard. My photos aren't the best quality, but they were good enough to verify that they were indeed Cedar Waxwings.

click to enlarge

Now that I know they are there, I want to continue to attract them to my yard. So I looked up their habitat information.

FoodAll About Birds advises planting of native, fruit-bearing trees and shrubs to attract Cedar Waxwings. This list of plants includes: dogwood, serviceberry, juniper, cedar, hawthorn, and winterberry. I'd imagine that the birds will be very pleased when the blackberries I planted bear fruit!

Note to self: buy some bird netting for the berry patch. 

According to Project Feeder Watch, they prefer platform feeders and fruit.

Nest BoxesSo far, it doesn't look as though bird nest boxes are helpful. Waxwings tend to build their nest in the crooks of trees.

Birdbaths. My research indicates that Cedar Waxwings enjoy birdbaths. That is good news since a really nice birdbath is on my wish list (I love the Stone Creation granite birdbaths and included a link to one below). 

Bohemian Waxwing (Cedar Waxwing Look-alike) 

I have trouble with "similar" birds and identification so I am trying to pay more attention to birds that could confuse me. The Bohemian Waxwing is very similar in appearance to the Cedar Waxwing.  The Bohemian Waxwing lives further north than my place in West Virginia. On the maps, it would be a "rare" sighting at my place.  But just in case, I want to be informed. 

The Bohemian Waxwing has a "rust" colored underside - under it's tail. And a bit of white on the wing. Otherwise, it is very similar in appearance to the Cedar Waxwing.

Bohemian Waxwing
*This article may contain affiliate links. If you shop via one of the affiliate links, I may earn a small commission - at no additional cost to you. I am very appreciative of every reader who visits my articles. Thank you.

Photograph attribution:
Intro photo - from Wikimedia Commons CC 2.0 - Dawn Huczek
Bohemian Waxwing photo - courtesy Wikimedia Commons CC 2.0 - Randen Pedersen

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Small Home Plans on Foundations

Small home plans
The Big Book of Small Home Plans was delivered to my doorstep recently and I can't stop looking at it. If you are planning on building a small home, or looking at house plans is one of your favorite pastimes, you might like this book as much as I do. With 360 home plans under 1200 square foot you are likely to find something that suits your needs.

The Big Book of Small Home Plans

I really like having 360 house plans under 1200 sq feet at my fingertips. In this book, each page is on glossy, thick pages. No flimsy newspaper print in black and white, and hard-to-read fonts. 

Each house plan includes the foot print dimensions and the heated square feet. Each major room has the dimensions listed. I have purchased house plan books and magazines that do not include that information - which defeats the entire purpose of looking at the plans, in my opinion. If you look at the The Big Book of Small Home Plans on Amazon, the "look inside" feature is very helpful.

The book is 288 pages. The vast majority of pages are the house plans. There are a smattering of pages with helpful design and organizing ideas.  Topics such as:

  • Dream Big While Living Small
  • No Excuses...It's Time to Get Organized
  • Bathroom Storage Solved
  • Banish Kitchen Clutter Forever
  • Pantry Organization 101
  • and more

The helpful tips pages are not distracting from the amount of home plan pages and are helpful in thinking about how small I can truly go (or not).  

Also, on page 142 there is a user's guide for downloading and using the 3D app they offer. With that app, you can view the home from all sides on your piece of land. This is available through Apple and Android app stores. I have not yet tried this app but I can imagine it would be very helpful to people who are app-savvy.

Why Small Home Plans Appeal to Me

After years of daydreaming and searching real estate websites, I purchased my land a couple of years ago. Now my daydreaming, planning, and researching has turned to house plans. I have very specific needs (passive solar, suitable for a steep lot, etc) and I want to stay small due to my plan to be debt-free in retirement. 

Searching the internet for house plans yields many house plan sites with many house plans. Although, after a bit it becomes cumbersome and overwhelming searching for a small home that is not on wheels and is under 1200 sq ft. 

Honestly, I'm looking to stay in the range of 600 - 900 square feet. With this book I can compare some of the layouts, exteriors, and orientations with just the flip of a page or two. 

*This article may contain affiliate links. If you shop via one of the affiliate links, I may earn a small commission - at no additional cost to you. I am very appreciative of every reader who visits my articles. Thank you.

Friday, March 2, 2018

Reviewing Flowers by the Dozen Crochet Pattern

I can crochet but only at an easy to moderate pattern level. I often want to crochet something that is beyond my ability (at this point) and become frustrated at my failures. My item often does not end up looking like the item in the pattern photo. It was exactly this problem that led me to this easy and adorable flower crochet pattern.

Yarnspirations - Flowers by the Dozen

I had tried multiple crochet flower patterns that were epic fails. And I was very close to giving up on the idea of crocheting a flower. But I really, really wanted to add a flower applique to the little hat that I had loom knitted for my granddaughter.  She would look adorable in a hat with a flower. So I tried "just one more time".

Yarnspirations has some really good patterns. Most of them free and downloadable with no tricks or gimmicks. It is their Flowers by the Dozen pattern that finally worked for me. 

(Click the photo to enlarge in order to see most of the crochet version pattern. Click this link for the Flowers by the Dozen knit and crochet instructions in it's entirety)

Their instructions are clear. The pattern is easy - with just 5 rounds of easy crochet to make the two layers of flower petals. You do have to know how to chain, single crochet, half double crochet, double crochet, and slip stitch. But if you are familiar with those basic stitches, you'll be able to make these flowers.

I like that I can choose to finish a flower with just one layer of petals or go on to finish with the two layers of petals. And clearly, this pattern works with a variety of sizes of yarn and of crochet hooks.

A single layer of petals - Peaches & Cream cotton yarn

I also like that the little flowers would look fine without any embellishment in the middle. For my granddaughter I chose a really big button (due to her young age and my concern about toddlers and choking hazards). However, I have also looked at a wide variety of stones, beads, and broaches that would look great sewn into the middle of these little flowers.

Related Link:

I only recently discovered round loom knitting and wrote about it immediately. See Creating Treasures with Round Loom Knitting - Hats to read about how I learned to create the little yellow hat in the photo above.

*This article may contain affiliate links. If you shop via one of the affiliate links, I may earn a small commission - at no additional cost to you. I am very appreciative of every reader who visits my articles. Thank you.

Monday, February 26, 2018

Using Prayer Beads, Meditation, and Prayer

I am a worrier. I have an exceedingly difficult time calming my mind. And what results is a grumpy, impatient, and judgemental attitude. Fortunately, people say they can't see it on the outside but I feel it on the inside. And it bothers me. I admire people who are calm and happy - who can let things go. As I continue to try to learn to let things go I have found that meditation, prayer, and prayer beads have helped me be more relaxed and more forgiving.

Why I Have Begun Using Prayer Beads, Meditation, and Prayer

I have known that being outside, being quiet, and meditating make me feel better. Yoga - both the physical aspect and the meditative aspect - leave me feeling great. Yoga classes are costly and cause me to arrive home much later than normal. Which creates a different kind of stress (I worry about the dogs). So I am again missing Yoga classes. And prayer... well, I've never really been the type to pray. Despite parts of my conservative religious childhood, I never felt I could pray right. 
Black onyx Mala Beads

I know that I benefit from guided meditation. I needed to find some way to move toward the quiet, calm, happy person I want to be.  When I dropped the yoga classes, I noted the huge impact losing that meditation time had on me. 

I bought Tibetan Prayer Beads (Mala Necklace) and have found them to be extremely helpful. Having the beads in my hand helps to keep my mind more "focused".  Focused isn't the best description, as what I am trying to do is relax and keep my mind from wandering to all of my worries. Chanting and moving one bead at a time with my fingers really helps keep my mind from thinking about other things.

Chants and Prayers

I have always loved things like Gregorian chants, Buddhist chants, and so forth. As soon as I received the beads, I found a meditative chant that fits me. OM SO HUM translates to something along the lines of "I am that". That I am a part of the universe. That I am a part of all of creation.  I feel best when I am feeling connected to the world (the earth, the weather, nature, etc) so I thought this would be a good chant to begin with.

However, worries stemming from some of my conservative religious childhood memories cropped up. "Thou shalt have no other gods before me." Was I violating that commandment by praying OM? Did I care?  Whether I cared or not, it made me worried (see why I need to relax?!).  As a result, I looked for a Christian prayer/mediation.

I found a simple Jesus prayer "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me".

the prayer starts at 3:03

As I sit with my mala necklace, and alternate between OM SO HUM and the Jesus Prayer, I am able to relax and let go of many of the constant worries and negative thoughts I carry with me constantly. I absolutely feel a difference when I mediate, calm myself, and connect myself with the good things. The two different prayers have two different impacts on me. How can I be impatient and judgemental when I am asking for mercy for myself? And praying "I am that" is celebratory; I feel good and connected with the movements of the natural world and others. 

*This article may contain affiliate links. If you shop via one of the affiliate links, I may earn a small commission - at no additional cost to you. I am very appreciative of every reader who visits my articles. Thank you.