Friday, November 18, 2016

Tears on the Mountain (And Black Helicopters)

Wow. Trust us, this helicopter was very close to our cabin.
Luckily, the nearby fire is at least a couple of miles away.

Emotions have been running high here on Flat Top ever since The Tuesday Our Nation Went Bat-Shit Crazy.  But politics aren’t the only reason for our tears. (And no, Mason didn’t really cry; Mason rants, and oh, how it has been nonstop.)

Our eyes are also watery because wildfires keep popping up nearby and we’ve been under a cloud of acrid smoke for nearly a week now. (Hmmm, ever since That Tuesday – coincidence?)  Today a military helicopter zoomed just 200-300 feet over our cabin with a bucket loaded with water that it fetched out of our little lake. Two minutes later it was circling back for more water. It must have made about 10-12 trips in a matter of an hour.

Just to remind those who aren’t familiar with our living situation: We live in a wood cabin, in the woods, with only one long road in and out, where we haven’t had rain in months and where the nearest fire station is NOT near and relies on volunteers.

To no surprise, I had a nightmare last night about the cabin catching fire.

Mason feels like a man again.
The other reason for my tears?  I have become a truck widow. A few days after That Tuesday, we finally found a used pickup we really liked, and we really needed a pickup Pick-Me-Up, so we spent a tad more than we wanted; Mason has been “playing with it” every day since. OK, OK, I guess new brakes, a full tune-up and changing all the lubrication fluids (it's four-wheel-drive; there are a LOT of fluids) isn’t really playing. But it's made a dramatic improvement in his mood.

She’s a lovely 1988 Ford F150 Lariat XLT. Cream with a fat red stripe and black trim – my old high school colors. And she’s got big fat tires, and I have to climb up just to get in the seat. Oh, and get this: It has a cassette player. Anyone out there still own any mixed tapes? We got rid of ours just a few years ago. Damn.

I haven’t asked Mason yet, but I’m just gonna start calling her Hillary. (After all, she was the actual winner, yet the Electoral College is going to give the job to the second-place finisher, i.e. Loser.)


Monday, November 7, 2016

The Sky Ain't Gonna Rain Any More, Methinks

Our hickory trees turn a great yellow.
 Two months later, and still no measurable rain. We have been taunted by exactly two brief showers. The rain gauge crept up to 1/8 of an inch after one of them.

 I feel as if this drought is sucking me dry of my personality, or at least the better parts of it.

So what’s a garden girl to do in what’s now been labeled an extreme drought by the weather guy?  I reseeded my dead lawns. Brilliant. For 10 days, I was a slave to the water hose, moistening the seeds every two hours in unseasonably warm 85-degree heat. When I’m not watering the lawns, I’m trying to sustain the plants. The arugula and lettuce have fared better than some of the shrubs.

Gardening is hard on the soul. And the increasing masses of hungry deer only aggravate the situation. Every morning I wake soon after sunrise to count how many there are. I watched them chew on this and that for a while, but when they start feasting on my new lawns, I rap on the window and send them on down the road. Then I climb back into bed to wait for a more decent hour to rise.

Mason put up this sign a few months ago. He likes to think it keeps out the lookie-loos.
A cool front came through two days ago and finally we dropped back down into the 70s. In a normal year, I’d be celebrating the extra warm fall; but in a normal year, we would have had 6 inches of rain last month.

Adding to our gloom, the other day we noticed the screen atop one of our rain barrels had fallen into the barrel, and something furry -- and clearly dead -- was floating in it. A squirrel. Mason was quickly called in for burial rites. A few days later, after a trip to town to get some new screen, Mason emptied out the barrel to clean it up a bit before the new screen installation. It quickly drained of water, but not of squirrels. Three more drownings. Felt bad for the poor fellas.

The only thing that’s coming easy on the mountain these days is drowning our sorrows in Mason’s homebrew beer. A new one called Fresh Squished is all the rage with all two resident imbibers. We’ll be sure to have plenty on ice for Tuesday.

Nick, on an evening walk.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Sick Of This Hot-and-Dry Summer

Drooping leaves of my Shasta viburnum.
See those leaves up there? They look more like clothes drying on the line. They look how I feel: defeated. August came and went with barely an inch of rain and a whole lot of 90-degree days. We're now well into September and rarely have we seen even a cloud in the sky.

The average high for this day in Chattanooga? Mid-80s. I could handle mid-80s. Hell, I'd have a bonfire to celebrate mid-80s. But today? Back up to 91 -- again. Wait, hold on: The digital thermometer just hit 92. And that's up here on the mountain; Chattanooga runs about 5-8 degrees warmer. Poor Mom, down in the valley -- with her TWO air conditioners!

I have about a half-acre of landscaping that I must water by hand. In a normal year, Chattanooga's annual rainfall of 54 inches makes it all wet pretty easy. But not this year. I've only lost one thing so far, unless you count my sanity. Every morning and night, I must water two of the yard's six sections. Drag hose, turn on generator to top up well, turn off generator when the tank is full. About 6 minutes later, I'm out of water and back at the generator. In the winter, a tankful of water will last us 24 hours. In this drought, we must fill that tank maybe seven or eight times a day. At least it keeps on filling; we've heard some folks' wells are drying up.

The routine gets old. I'm getting old. Good god, when will we get rain? The forecast says maybe next Wednesday. Or maybe not.

The grass crunches under my feet. Like I'm back in Minnesota, except it's not the ice crunching. It's just the grass, dying off into dormacy. I don't water the grass; this ain't no suburb.

A few days ago Mason and I worked all day digging ditches on the side of our road for water drainage management. So if it does ever rain again, we'll hopefully watch rivers of runoff on either side of the drive, rather than right down the middle, which tore up our road last winter.

Yesterday I worked again all day in the heat, dethatching the lawn to get ready for overseeding. I'm paying for it today. I'm listless. As listless as those viburnum leaves up there. 

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Sticky August Eve

Just some photos from a sticky August evening...

The front garden is finally coming together... Just give me a few more years.

This Japanese Forest Grass has been a real success, even during our dry spells.

Remember all those annual seeds I planted? The deer ate most of them...

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Hummingbirds Are Bitches

My begonias, which I overwintered inside last winter. Love 'em!
When the humidity is on a mission to match the summer heat, we spend hours simply marveling at the unbearableness of it all. And when we get tired of that, we turn on NPR to hear the latest in the Presidential Election From Hell. It doesn't take long to tire of that nonsense. So the final source of entertainment on Flat Top in August is watching our hummingbirds. And lemme tell you, if you think presidential elections are vicious, you should watch hummingbirds in action.

We have your basic red-and-yellow feeder hanging from the underside of the upper deck, so I can watch these amazing birds whenever I cook. (Which is three times a day, if not more if you count pesto-making and tomato roasting, but I digress.) We have a staple of about six hummingbirds who frequent our sugary waters -- one day I swear there were at least 10 of them --  and apparently there is a clear pecking order in the hummingbird world of who has a right to belly-up to the feeder. The problem is that every bird seems to think that she or he is at the top of the pecking order and we witness fierce, ugly battles among the birds as they dive-bomb one another and chase each other away from the feeder.

Crappy photo quality, but ...
Then there's this one bird, let's call her Miss Bitchy, that hangs out in a dwarf tree I have planted nearby. Whenever a rival lands on the feeder, Miss Bitchy buzzes over and chases the rival off.  Or when two rivals chase one another away from the feeder, Miss Bitchy swoops in to get a good long uninterrupted drink.

Maybe it's because I grew up in L.A., but I never knew hummingbirds' true nature. It's worse than human nature, I tell ya! And the hummingbirds do this all day long. And we waste hours, OK maybe just many minutes at a time, watching them. Yes, this is what our lives have come to.

OK, we HAVE been busy doing a few other things, too. Mason has been up to his eyeballs in car repairs. The sunroof died on the Jeep, and because it died in an unlocked position, he had to do something about it. So off for a 2-hour ride to the junkyard, then a 6-hour operation where Mason had to completely dismantle the Jeep's headliner to install the new/used sunroof. The day that got fixed, the driver side window motor died. Then the passenger side window fell into the door. Mason's chores never end.

How cool are these Calypso dry beans? Can't wait to eat them!
Me? The dry bush bean harvest has begun. My Juliet tomato bush continues to produce. I'm up to my eyeballs in squash, and squash bugs. Two dozen jalapenos are awaiting pickling. And the fall seeds have been sown.

Nick? He loves that we've been running the ceiling fan all day long.

Spores on the underside of my new fern, a Japanese holly fern that the deer supposedly won't eat.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Produce and Sweat

My tomato ripening table has overflowed.
Our goal on Flat Top these days is staying cool, or at least properly timing our sweatier activities. But for the most part, any activity is sweaty. Too much information? Let's just say. ... Nope, anything I say will be too much information. Let's just confirm that it's been damn hot here.

The vegetable garden has officially won the race to wear me out. After the first few batches of pickles, the cucumbers got away from me. So far, I'm staying on top of the tomatoes and basil. The highlight so far was yesterday's homemade pizza, with kick-ass homemade sauce from my Juliet paste tomatoes and a few Black Krim thrown in for kicks. The Yukon Gold potatoes are like buried treasure; I love digging them up! I've also been a pesto machine; I freeze it and enjoy it all winter. And tomato salads of every kind -- for me, not Mason, of course. Tonight, though, Mason will get a debut of my first attempt at salsa. I expect great accolades!

Mason has been busy rebuilding the front porch, which was slowly rotting away. And now he's tackling the upper deck off the loft. If it involves a saw, he's pretty damn productive. He's also tackling Robert Caro's latest LBJ book, so there are lots of afternoons on the porch. (I just finished Robert Gates' memoir; now onto lighter fare ...)

Meanwhile, my main task every day has been watering. Watering. Watering. And watering some more. (Oh, and pissing and moaning about the deer, which have been exceptionally pesky this summer.) But the past few days have finally brought some relief from our extreme drought. Just now, we had a hell of a storm that dropped 2 inches of rain in about an hour.

What 2 inches in one hour look like.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Dog Days of Not Quite Summer

Sometimes, just before sunset, the whole forest glows in a wash of gold. I took this at 9 p.m.

It's become an almost embarrassing routine up here on Flat Top: Water plants, eat breakfast, do dishes, make bed, walk dog, take on the Project of the Day. Lunch, dishes, upstairs to read. OK maybe nap a bit. Then back to the projects till 6 p.m., when we walk Nick again. Shower, dinner, dishes and feet up with a cold beer. OK, maybe the cold beer starts a bit earlier. Never underestimate the value of a cold beer in the shower.

Don't judge too harshly. He was a labor of love.
The latest project was building a 5-foot-tall, moss-stuffed bear. He sits outside the guestroom, welcoming all who come see our corner of the world. As soon as I put his head on, I had great regret that my silly little project was just a bit too over the top. Then he grew on me, so he's here to stay, assuming he can weather the storms.

We broke up the routine the other day just slightly, adding a 3-foot-long rattlesnake to spice things up. I was watering the bear-adjacent plants, back and forth, back and forth over my little wooden "bridge" on my mulched pathway when I noticed something under the bridge. Yup. Mr. Rattler was curled up underneath, and we suspect he was taking a nap with a full belly, because he hardly moved when we gently removed the bridge and shot his ass. We also suspect he had a full belly, because our neighborhood chipmunk who lived nearby has not been seen since. A few days earlier, Mason and I had watched that chipmunk for at least an hour as he ran out to the bird feeder, stuffed his cheeks, and hopped back to his bear-adjacent hole in the ground. It was hot out and watching him for a good hour was the highlight of our day. Damn snake!

Native azalea Gregory Bald.
Well look at that. It's time for that second walk. Nick's staring at me with intent. Not sure where he hides his watch, but that boy knows the schedule. It's a grueling routine, but someone's gotta do it.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Farewell to a Fine Friend

We didn't let her see the sign that said "Cash for Junk Cars."
Pretty certain I saw some glistening in Mason's eyes today when we had to say goodbye to an old friend. Our 1992 Dodge truck hadn't run at all for a month or so. Last week, Mason made one last effort to rescue her, but it failed. So we made the call. On the bright side, we scored $200 for our pain and suffering. So, cheers, old truck! You had a very, very productive 10-year run with us. I suspect we won't replace you anytime soon, unless someone's got a really good deal for us.

In other news, after an exceptionally dry spring, it finally rained here today. All afternoon. Yup, you saw it coming: another nap! When I woke up, I whipped up some homemade beer cheese soup that could break all records for fat content.

I'm still not making any new friends, am I?

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Just Hanging

The clematis finally took off this year. Yippee!
 So, over the weekend, we invited my former garden nursery colleagues to brave a full-moon bonfire in the backwoods of Flat Top. Three came. Three really cool people, who brought two more suckers, who are really cool people, too. And we had a lovely time.

While here, one asked us: So how do we spend our days? Under the influence of a few homebrews, I'm not sure I answered properly. But I can't tell you how easy it is to be a bum.

Today, for example: Lie in bed for a hour or so in the morning, reading the news on the smartphone and listening to NPR.  Then, homemade pancakes and breakfast tacos with spinach from the garden. Wash dishes, water the veggie garden and new grass-seed patches. Walk the dog. Then I launched into weeding the veggie garden, while Mason began all the prep work for bottling beer. Then we bottled beer. Made lunch, ate lunch and did lunch dishes. Hmmm, kinda tired by then, so up to the loft to lie down with a book and maybe, OK, yes, catch a little nap. Then it's up again to do some garden pruning and hand-watering plants with collected rainwater, while Mason worked on the tractor motor. Then Dog Walk No. 2, on which we brought loppers and trimmed up some of the trees leaning into our walking paths and roadway. Hot shower, "Jeopardy" -- don't call us at 7:30-8 p.m. -- then make dinner.

See? And we just repeat it the next day, and the next ...  Hmm, I'm not making any new friends with this post, am I?

A Scarlett Something Itoh peony. I need to write these names down.
I'm working on building a 6-foot bear like I had in Minnesota. It's a work in progress. Need more moss.

Monday, May 2, 2016

A Blur of Spring

Siberian Iris, my all-time favorite for spring.
A blur of springtime activity has sprung on Flat Top. Most important, everything’s green! Two days ago, I woke up and it was as if someone had popped open an umbrella of a million leaves overhead.  Gorgeous. And we’ve been graced with baptisia, iris and hardy geranium blooms, and my favorite: new plumes of needles on all of the conifers! Love me some conifers …

The former maple 5 feet from our cabin. I have an art project planned for that stump.
Mason woke up with a burst of energy that same day, and we launched into the last tree harvest for the season. We saved the hardest, or at least the most nerve-racking, for last: a 65-foot maple that was leaning over the cabin.

But first the 70-foot pine tree blocking its path to the ground had to go. And the pine’s first limb was way, way up there. So Mason tried to slingshot a golfball, tied to a “Twisted Mason Line,” aka string, over that lowest limb. But it wasn’t powerful enough to launch the ball high enough, so he just went with his manly brute strength: He flung it up there; it took a few throws (maybe 11). We use the string to tie to a stronger rope, which attaches to a steel cable, and then the Jeep (used to be the truck, but she died last month) puts tension on the cable, so that -- hopefully -- the tree falls away from the house.(They did.)

Before lunch, we had the pine down and cut up. By dinner time, the maple was down and sectioned, too. Phew. Several trees are still within striking distance of the cabin, but at least they aren’t leaning toward the place. And so ends the Winter 2016/17 firewood harvest.

Things are also hopping in the vegetable garden, with spinach, lettuce and arugula already on the dinner table. Each day starts with a list of my garden chores; I rarely get to all of them. One recent task was planting a ton of annual flower seeds, the frugal gardener’s best friend. Zinnias and cosmos, make my summer!
My pal Terry gave me all these irises. Above them is my wisteria.
A hardy geranium, called Espresso.

I've got columbine coming out of my ears.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Why We're Sore

One red oak plus two white oaks equal warmth next winter.

If you wonder how Mason stays so thin, the answer is genetics. But the photo above also explains it all, too. Yup, it's firewood season. And we're hurting for it.

Yesterday Mason took down three oak trees; the last one was pushing 70 feet tall, with a trunk at least 18 inches in diameter -- all the way toward the top. It came down with a serious earth-shaking thud.

Just getting the tree ready to come down is a chore: clearing small trees and brush so Mason has a clear path to flee once the tree starts falling, and getting a cable rigged high up so we can use Mason's trusty old truck to pull it in the direction we want it to fall. Once a tree is down, we have to clear off all the little branches and pile them up for backyard burning once they've dried a bit.

Then Mason hauls out two chainsaws and slices the trunks into 16-inch-long pieces. We stack them in a pile, so that when we've recovered from taking them down, we can then split and stack them all. When we're all done, we strip down and do the tick check: four on me yesterday, just two on Mason. Then we collapse with cold beers.

Oh, did I mention I did all that on a black-and-blue ankle? (No, not a drinking accident; just a spill off the front stairs while trying to hoist an inherited antique bookcase into the house.)

Yesterday's 6-hour haul should bring us close to what we need for next winter. We think. So the question is, as soon as we're done, what will be the next project?

Two of the trees we took down will give us more morning sunshine on the veggie garden, and make room for maybe four more fruit trees. That's my nectarine tree, above.
Apple blossoms!!! My espalier tree survived a winter attack by a root-chewing creature. Bunnies wiped out my first batch of spinach, and the deer are fat on all my blueberry blossoms.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Highway to Heaven

This stretch used to resemble the craters on Mars. Sweet, sweet gravel.

The one and only thing we wish we could change about living in the backwoods of Flat Top Mountain is the 2.5-mile-long dirt road leading to our house. Well, this week 0.75 miles of our wish list came true, and we are celebrating beyond belief. Just look at that photo above!! Spectacular.

Here's the story. We've been writing every government official possible for the past several months. We knew we were tilting at windmills, and indeed, the two officials who bothered to get back to us both let us know it was considered a private road and we were on our own. (Whatever happened to "No taxation without representation"?) It was up to the landowners on either side of the private road to fix it. At this point we should mention that one stretch had gotten so bad, that we took to dumping bags of quick-set concrete into potholes that were swallowing up our Jeep's front end.

For several weeks, we pursued an alleged process to request that the county take over the road. But after three weeks of un-returned phone calls, we had basically given up.

Then came last Monday. HOLY HEAVY EQUIPMENT!!! Apparently the wealthy landowner who owns both sides of the first stretch owned up that he was responsible for it. A dozer, a grader and truckloads of gravel later, WE COULD NOT BE HAPPIER!

Now, warning to all those considering a visit, you'll still do some rock-climbing to get here. But man, that first 0.75 mile is lovely.

Nick the Dog, loving the spring sunshine.
Mr. Daffodil says it's spring.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Waking Up to Spring

Signs of spring, until the deer ate every last one.

We are slowly shaking off our winter coma and coming to life again here on Flat Top. After two months of daily afternoon naps and long stints reading, it was almost hard to break the habit. But our first 70-degree days have helped.

Mason's first burst of spring energy was spent in the bedroom. Get your mind out of the gutter -- and into our closet! Finally, after five years of hanging our clothes on a piece of electrical conduit, Mason installed honest-to-god closet rods. Soon we'll have the whole closet area walled off with curtains, so our unmentionables will no longer have to be mentioned on our home tours.

My energy was spent in the garden, of course. The cold-weather seeds (carrots, greens and peas) are already in, as are the onion sets, and just today the arugula pushed out of the ground! Next winter I vow to get a cold frame set up so I can have fresh greens throughout the winter. Supermarket greens are officially appalling; I thought I'd have spinach this winter, but the bunnies living under our shed had other ideas.

Speaking of wildlife, we've become a deer haven. No plant has been left untouched, and the lawn may not need mowing for quite a while.  They come just as the sun sets. Front yard. Back yard. They're adorable, but ... One day we had 11 visit us at once!

Somewhere in there I also found time to do some painting. The kitchen chairs are now a muted yellow (Mason said, "It doesn't look nearly as horrendous as I thought it would"), and the ceiling of the guest room is white, in a bid to lighten up that room a bit. And while not returning to the three-day grind at the garden nursery, I've picked up a few landscape design jobs and hope to pick up a few more.

I wish I had more secrets of the woods to share. Spotted a whippoorwill today; Mason threatened to shoot it (he REALLY hates those things). Luckily it should be at least another month or so before they start their mating song.


Sunday, January 24, 2016

Just Us and the Deer

This night, 11 deer came into our yard at dusk after we put out beer grains for them.
At the start of this coldest season, Mason and I were pretty restless. You may have noticed, but we aren't too good at doing nothing. I feel guilty if I'm not getting something constructive done. So I painted the stairs. I cleaned out my "closet" (which is really just hangers on an electrical pipe). I tried new recipes. I mended torn clothes. Cleaned the shower. I even started to workout, just a little.

Well, that was the start of the season. Now, after a good stretch when the high for the day never broke above freezing, we've become expert slackers. Most days we manage to get out of the cabin twice for Nick's daily walks, but in between? The warm cozy loft has lured us to no end. There have been novels upon novels. (Thank you, my incredible book fairy, you spoil us so!!)
A new batch from our book fairy, who we cannot thank enough!
Beer-making duties have been our only chore, and Mason handles all of that. I just help him drink it. And Nick and the neighborhood deer also score: Nick gets homemade dog treats and the deer have taken a liking to the leftover grains.

So, in summary: We are well-read, well-fed and occasionally slightly tipsy lazy asses.

But it's supposed to push 50 degrees in the coming days, so the question is: Will we be able to reverse this lazy trend? 

Making dog treats for Nick. A friend gave me some bone-shaped cookie cutters, so they're extra cute now!

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Deer Update

Remember that lone camellia bud that the deer left for me? Yup, it's gone, along with the last few leaves left on the plant.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Forced Inside

Our lake,  on a really still recent day.
Winter finally turned cold on Flat Top, forcing us to slow down a bit and find things to do inside the cabin. I won't lie: There have been naps. And days when the bed never got made. And books have been finished, and others started. (For the record, 40 degrees and above and I must work outside. In the 30s? No can do.)

Sparging. Don't ask. But isn't all that natural light divine?
After several days of such egregious behavior, Mason finally found some energy today and launched into brewing some beer using the more time-consuming all-grain process (which heated up the cabin quite nicely, I might add.) Beer, yummm.

The view from my chair. I'm working on perspective.
After hitting the wall on reading, I picked up a pen and paper and started testing my drawing skills. I know, still pretty cartoony. I'm working on it.

Oh, and remember that gorgeous camilla from last week? A hungry deer (or four?) ate nearly every single leaf off the damn plant. I nearly cried. They were kind enough to leave me with one bud. Bastards! Good thing they're cute, or they'd have killing coming to 'em.

 The deer are on my shit list.