Sunday, April 30, 2006

Bank Holiday Weekend

It is usual that when we have a bank holiday weekend, the weather will be awful. In a delightful change of precedent, we've had lovely, dry weather. It is almost a balmy 12 C without a single drop of rain.

We had a call from Cousin Ann this morning in Brisbane, Australia (not Brisbane Illinois). We were claiming how nice the weather is and she trumped our 12 C with her 27 C and its AUTUMN there! Nobody likes a show-off Ann.

12 C is roughly 53 F. 27 C is 82 F. I don't ever remember it being as warm as 27 C/82 F here in Scotland. I'm sure it has occurred in the last 12 years, but I don't remember it. Certainly I don't ever remember having to go in or seek the shade because the sun is a bit strong or even needing a cool drink because the heat is getting to me. I have become acclimatised. 12 C/52 F suits me. In fact, I think it could very well be perfect gardening weather. To check your conversion rates, here is a brilliant site: Conversion

I did some actual gardening in the past couple of days. The amount of work that I have done is small and will not strip me of my self-appointed title of Very Lazy Gardener. That lump of soil that needed to be evened out over the vegetable patch was smoothed and covered. I covered the remaining exposed soil to suppress weeds until I can plant seeds.

I must state at this point that I really hate to weed the garden. I love planting and all it entails. Raking the soil, marking where the rows will go and planting the seeds. I also like harvesting. Its the tending and weeding where I fall short. I have found a way to minimise the weeding process. Black plastic! It's hideous for most of the time. Big sheets of ground cover weighted down with crumbly frost damaged bricks aren't very pretty, however I think weeds look worse.

Have a look at why I use plastic to keep the garden weed free.

This is soil that has been covered with plastic since harvest last autumn. You can see that there isn't a weed to be seen. Sadly covering the soil will not remove stones. I get to do that by hand.

This is soil that has been uncovered for a couple of months and you can see that weeds have started to appear. I levelled this soil today and recovered it to kill these early weeds.

So, after all this levelling and covering, I got to do the fun stuff. Planting!

Every year, I take some bamboo garden canes and tie them into a sort of teepee. This supports one of my favourite flowers. The sweet pea. I have two teepees planted up this year. The first teepee has been planted with variety Blue Velvet with stunning purpley blue flowers (I think that I will call this teepee David Lynch). The second teepee has variety Air Warden, a lovely red variety planted in it. I think the name is evocative of wartime allotments.

You can see that I have kept the rest of the garden covered and weighted. This is due to the vigorous Whitelees weed. It will pop up seemingly overnight.

I also sprayed all the rose bushes that are scattered around the place. Our roses can be quite susceptible to black spot on the leaves. I may get around to planting garden peas tomorrow if the weather holds. Peas are quite frost hardy and I can get away with planting them now. We still have risk of frost until the very end of May. I have tried planting things out earlier, but a late frost or harsh spring winds knock my early efforts back.

Friday, April 28, 2006

Electives and homemade caramels

When I was a student at Holy Cross Elementary School in Minneapolis there was a period on Thursday afternoons called "Electives". In the 1970's Catholic school system the electives were shamelessly segregated into boys electives and girls electives. I think there was a co-ed bowling elective but my memory is fuzzy on that one. I don't know what the boys took for their electives. I suspect it was making birdhouses or something not too far off that. We girls had choices that included knitting, crochet, sewing and baking. Over the years I think I took every one of those junior homemaker electives. These are darned practical things to know how to do and have held me in good stead throughout my life.

I am forever grateful to them for the fact that I can sew. Not just hem trousers and replace a button on a shirt, but make actual garments, starting with how lay out pattern pieces on newly purchased and prepared fabric, pin it down, mark it and cut it out. We learned different seam finishes as well as a myriad of other stuff you've got to know so that your finished product is fit to be worn in public. I remember being taught how to make underwear one week complete with constructing the gusset and sewing on elastic. My first attempt at making underpants resulted in a pair that would have cut off the circulation to one of my legs because I didn't get the leg elastic quite right and it was very tight. Though I remember getting taught how to do this, I have forgotten the process. Forgetting the fine art of making your own knickers has doomed me to purchase underwear for the rest of my days.

My sister Sally has remembered everything from her knitting elective and has continued to run with it. She is a champion knitter these days, making stunning sweaters and hats. There isn't a niece or nephew that doesn't own at least one famous Aunt Sally sweater.

Most of the electives were run by the same nuns, the Teaching Sisters of St Joseph, that taught us in our normal day to day classes. From time to time parents were asked to volunteer to come in and run an elective. My mother volunteered to run the baking elective one year. Sally and I dutifully signed up to Mom's elective. It would have been so disloyal to do otherwise. Besides, our mom is a wonderful baker and a natural at instruction having been a teacher herself. The first lesson is always kitchen hygiene and safety. After that, she taught us how to follow a recipe, to measure dry and wet ingredients properly, prepare the pans and little tricks that nobody ever really has written down but will help you to turn out a better product.

At school we did simple things like rice krispy treats and chocolate chip cookies. Nothing too dangerous and the end result was popular. It was at home that she taught me trickier stuff, like candy making. She taught me first how to make chocolate fudge. Then it was on to homemade caramels!

I made a batch of caramels this week. George has had a craving for American style caramels. There isn't an easy way to get them out here in darkest Dumfriesshire so I said that I would make them. I had enough corn syrup left for a final batch. Corn syrup aka Karo Syrup cannot be purchased here. I have to have it imported or buy some when I am across in the US. Because I have just used up the last of the syrup, we won't be having another batch produced for a while.

This is a photo of the pot I use to make candy. This pan has a very heavy bottom and my candy thermometer in there. It is a European model thermometer with the centigrade scale on it. My mom was impressed because she initially thought that I would do a mental conversion to Fahrenheit while cooking. I don't have to do that because in addition to the temperature it has the different stages of hardness that candy goes through marked on the opposite side to the temperature. I also use the glass of cold water method of checking at what stage the candy has progressed. Belt and braces.

Making candy involves boiling your ingredients, mostly sugar, butter and cream for a long time over a low heat while stirring constantly. The temperature creeps up very slowly and you have to keep an eye on it. Life isn't over if you don't have a candy thermometer. If you lack a thermometer, then a glass of cold water will do in its place.

It goes like this: After you have been boiling your ingredients for a while, drip a bit of the mixture into a glass of cold water. What happens to the candy as it is rapidly cooled in the cold water indicates how far along it has come. If it plops to the bottom of the glass in a bit of a splat, then it is no where near being ready as candy. If you want caramels then naturally you've got to cook things for longer or until the candy forms a soft ball in the bottom of the glass. To get candy to that stage (soft ball) it takes about an hour. If you want something harder, then of course, you've got to cook it for longer.

I was thinking about Mom and electives all the while I was making caramels. I managed to get a really good batch of caramel too. I had removed it from the stove at just the right time. It can be tricky when it is coming to the end of being done because it is then that the risk of scorching and burning is at its highest.

It was about 9 pm by the time the candy was ready to be poured out. It really wasn't cool enough to cut into squares before I went to sleep but I tried anyway. I made a right mess of the corner of the pan of still warm candy but I really needed a small taste just to "make sure". It was pretty darned near perfect.

In the morning, I turned the cooled caramel lump out onto the big cutting board and with my biggest sharp knife, I cut it all into small squares. The messed up corner from the night before was very easily tidied up. I was going to wrap each piece as you are supposed to, but really. I had to go to work and life is too short. I dumped all those lovely caramel pieces into a big plastic container and sealed it all up.

The last of the pieces was eaten last night (by me). If a batch of candy lasts more than a day, we're doing pretty well. Its going to be a long while until another batch is produced. This is probably a good thing. I really don't need to be eating all that caramel. Look, its empty. No more candy.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Spring wildflowers

If we went to visit Grandma Carew in the spring, the trillium in the surrounding forests would be at their peak.

Dad would take some of us on one of his nature walks. I think my favourite walks are in the spring. We'd stroll down the railroad tracks to the woods to the north of town. Amongst others he'd point out Spring Beauty, Hepatica and Bloodroot. They were all so delicate in appearance but knowing how harsh the winters are up in that part of Wisconsin, they must have been tough little things. We always looked for the Showy Lady Slipper, an orchid but we never found one in the wild. In fact, I don't know what time of year that particular orchid blooms.

The spring wildflower that takes over the whole spring show is the Trillium. There were millions of them. Or as we said, "milliums of trilliums". On the drive from the Twin Cities across to Langlade County, I could tell that we were getting close to Grandma's house because we would see a sea of these white flowers covering the forest floors. I've seen some of these for sale in one of the rare flower catalogs that I get. I may order a few.

We never picked these flowers. Dad taught us early on, that wildflowers were just for looking at, not for picking and taking home. The only wildflowers that we ever picked were some roses that had once been in somebody's garden. The house had been knocked down decades before and the surrounding sheds and garden had gone back to the wild but the flowers remained. Wild roses have such a wonderful perfume. We used to try to get the longest possible stem when picking them. Do you know how hard it is to pick a rose with just your stubby little fingers? The stems are tough and have those thorns. If we managed a decent amount of stem then the flowers were put in a small vase. If there was just a bit of stem, then Grandma would take out her giant brandy snifter glass, put a few inches of water in it (this glass was really almost goldfish bowl size) and float our flowers.

The train tracks that ran across the street from Grandma's house run through my memories of her and the wonderful house she had there. When we were very small the train used to have an actual stop in Elcho. I have a very faint memory of my Aunt Penny and Cousin Mimi getting off the train to visit once and us walking down to meet them. It would have been in the very early 60's.

During a lightning storm, my sister Sally saw a ball of lightning travel down the tracks. I wish I had seen that.

The passenger trains stopped but the freight trains kept on using the lines all through my childhood. They'd have to honk the horn coming into town and as Grandma's house was where it was placed, it seemed that they always honked the horn when in front of the house. We thought it was just for us! When there were babies in the house, the trains would always wake them up from their afternoon naps and someone would have to dash up the stairs to soothe them.

When a train was coming through, we'd stop play and go and count the boxcars. Sioux Line, Burlington, and Rock Island were some of the names on the cars. There was always a red caboose at the end. We would wave like madmen at the guys in the caboose and if they saw us, they would always wave back. If nobody waved back at us, we were convinced it was because they didn't see us because who wouldn't wave?

The trains were always carrying coal and raw lumber for the mills. Sometimes the boxcars would be empty and the doors open.

Occasionally, we'd put a penny on the tracks. After the trains had gone through, we'd dash back to the place where we had put our penny to find how flat the train had squashed it. I wish I still had one of those flattened pennies.

We had to be careful when starting our nature walks if we were going along the tracks. I had visions of a situation like in the movies where your foot would be wedged and you'd be killed by the oncoming train. In all those years, we never had to get out of the way for a train during our walks. I suppose it was because as we got older, the trains became less and less frequent.

When Grandma passed away in 1986 the railway line was no longer in use. The house was quiet and the trains didn't run anymore. It was so sad. Some of my cousins and I made one last walk down to Jack's Lake. We were actually worse at balancing along the rail than we used to be. You can give your ankle a nasty knock when slipping off. Dad tells me that the track has been pulled up now, so I guess that the line will never be brought back into service. I wonder if those disused rail way spikes are still under the back porch?

With all the changes that happen to a small northern town, some things stay the same. The flowers still bloom in the spring. I am sure that the white trillium still carpets the forest floors with the very occasional red one stuck in just for punctuation.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Welcome Back Swallows and the Squirrel Has Returned

Back from their winter tour in South Africa, the swallows have returned. Our swallows aren't here yet, but some are. I saw one about 3 miles from Whitelees this morning. It was sitting on a phone wire as is traditional for swallows.

I am always relieved to see them. Its so quiet around here without their happy chatter.

The red squirrel has returned to the front garden too.

As I was looking at this pretty little animal, I noticed what lovely dark red fur he or she has and such distinct ear tufts. This squirrel could have come straight out of a Beatrix Potter book.

I know I am being very girly, but this is a particularly beautiful squirrel.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Mmmm Sauerkraut!

My family doesn't like sauerkraut. How can they not? It's great. Granted The Man of the Place is a vegetarian and sauerkraut is best with sausages. Perhaps that's why he doesn't like it. One of the best things about a summer fair are the grilled bratwurst in a bun with sauerkraut plopped on top. That and the made-while-you-wait lemonade are the best food items at a fair. Be warned however. If you have a bratwurst with sauerkraut with a lemonade and then go on The Scrambler, you'll be sick.I suppose growing up in North Dakota, Minnesota and Iowa we were always cheek by jowl with a large population of people of German, Polish and Czech descent. Mount Vernon's annual summer fair used to be called Kolache Days after the noble Czech pastry, the kolache. The summer fair is now called Heritage Days. I don't know what committee thought that one up but there was much more heritage in Kolache Days. I wish they'd go back to the original name.

These are kolaches. The can be filled with prune, apricot, apple, poppy seed or cheese fillings. I like the apple ones the best but the poppy seed run a tight second. Can you still get them in Mount Vernon?

The other thing about this particular demographic is that the music is still influenced. I thought it was normal that Sunday radio was taken over by polka music until I left the midwest. I still find it odd that I can't find a good polka on Sunday radio. Though, over here on a Saturday night, BBC Radio Scotland has Take the Floor (pronounced flair). It has almost the same feel to the Sunday polka hours.

I was talking about these things to our wonderful Jill and the fact that nobody else in the house likes sauerkraut. I don't buy it that often because I really can't eat a whole jar of the stuff and I hate to throw out good food. She recons that it is just a cultural thing and we women usually start out cooking like our mothers. I suppose that is true to a degree.

While I was pondering what my mother used to cook when I was small, a tiny memory flashed that I had forgotten about for decades. My mother used to save bacon fat in a can on the top of the stove. After every time she cooked bacon, she tipped the bacon fat that was left in the bottom of the pan into the can at the back of the stove. I can't remember when she stopped doing that. It must have been when we moved to Iowa.

I asked Mom about it this evening. She said that she saved bacon fat because her mother did it. I then asked if that was a hangover from the war years when everything was rationed. She didn't know about that but she said that cooking with bacon fat was quite tasty. I can't imagine doing that now. My arteries are growing new plaques just thinking about it. Besides, bacon over here in Scotland isn't like the bacon back home at all. You can't fry it in a pan. The bacon sticks to the frying pan and you get a sticky layer on the bottom of the pan. You get the best results with this different bacon by sticking it under the grill. The bacon fat would be hard to salvage from the bottom of a grill pan.

I suppose a weekend break to Prague via EasyJet would get me hooked up with a proper kolache. That or I could try my hand at making them myself. I think I'd rather go to Prague. I'd get in a few polkas too.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Jill, We Love You!

I am not the tidiest person in the world. (If The Man of the Place reads this he'll be thinking "too bloody right!") I am the eldest of four and when we were children, it was my room that was always the messiest. I struggle against messiness but for the most part, I fail.

I have found someone that has actually helped me out in this. Her name is Jill. She comes in to our house once a week and cleans! She cleans up our messy house and we pay her. She doesn't judge or make little comments. Jill takes us as she finds us in her own easy going way.

She arrives on Thursday mornings and works for up to three hours managing cobwebs and bathroom floors. If we don't mess things up too badly between Thursday evening and Friday after work, the house is in a presentable state for the start of the weekend.

Before Jill the first couple of hours of our precious weekend were spent vacuuming, dusting and forcing the house into some sort of order. I really resented doing this stuff. By the time Sunday evening rolls around, I am doing the ironing and we're ready for the onslaught of the upcoming week and not feeling particularly ready. Ironing still happens on a Sunday evening. That hasn't changed. In any case, there is something satisfying about having a stack of clean and pressed clothes for Monday morning's chaos.

Now that Jill has come into our lives we can skip the whole vacuum cleaner, dust cloth stuff and go straight into our weekend. She's great. We love her and never want her to leave us.

I have always needed someone like Jill but it wasn't until about five years ago that I made the leap to paid domestic help. I still feel uncomfortable with the role of employer but I have adopted a grateful attitude and always treat Jill with respect. I want the person who straightens out my kitchen cupboards and wipes out my refrigerator to think that she isn't not only valued, but worshiped.

On Thursday mornings, I am running around picking up the big chunks. Cleaning up before the cleaner gets here. That guilt kicking in. The best thing though is getting home on Thursday evening. It makes all that guilt go away. I open up the back door and see a clean kitchen floor, wiped off counter tops, dust free book shelves and sofa cushions that have been straightened and plumped up. What an angel! I hope she never leaves us.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Hometown tornado

There was a category F2 tornado in my old home town of Iowa City on Thursday night. It was shocking to hear that a town that holds so many fond memories for me has been hurt.

When I found out, I phoned friends and family right away. Naturally, I couldn't get my brother on the phone. I'll try again later on today but I have been told that he is fine. He still lives in Mount Vernon and that is miles from Iowa City.

I did manage to get Renee on the phone. She said that she was teaching a class (U of I history dept) when the sirens went off. She said that she actually saw the funnel cloud. I'm glad she got to see it from a safe place. All the years and years I spent in the mid-west, I never actually saw a tornado until I moved to Scotland. Go figure. The tornado I saw was up on the hills behind the house. It was too small to warrant panic or even classification, but it sure was a tornado.

Renee said that her husband Davey and son Max were safe at home but they heard the roof from Menards (a lumber and DIY store/warehouse) getting ripped off by the wind. It is in this section of town, next to the river that the Dairy Queen is located. It was positively flattened by the tornado. The walls are completely gone. All that is left are the refrigerators and the front counter. The Kum & Go (convenience store with very unfortunate name) that is mere yards away was left without a scratch. Tornados are perverse that way. I've been told that the owners of the DQ are committed to rebuilding. (whew!)

There are only a few things one can do on a very hot summer evening to get cool if you don't have the luxury of air conditioning. 1) Go to the movies. Two hours of dark and cool plus you get a movie and the smell of freshly popped popcorn. 2) Drive to the Dairy Queen or Dane's Dairy for an ice cream. I like both ice cream places for different things. The Dairy Queen has Buster Bars and Dilly Bars - two of the top ice cream bars in the world. Dane's Dairy always has a long line of cars waiting to buy ice cream at the drive up window. They have great ice cream but I think the real reason for the long queues is that the dairy gives out a small dish of ice cream to every dog that visits. You can see in every other car, the family dogs going berserk in the back seats knowing they're in for a treat.

The other thing I saw that was upsetting was the photographs of St Patrick's on Court Street. The roof has been all but ripped clean off! Its such a nice church to walk to on a sunny summer morning. I didn't realize until I was reading the news from the Iowa City Press Citizen that there is a Spanish language mass that is held on Sunday afternoons. How cool is that? Father Rudolph Juarez is holding Mass at Regina High School for the time being. Say a prayer for the folks whose lives have been upset by this tornado.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Happy Easter

I am always the first one up. I have evolved into an early riser over the years. We were late getting home last night, so I had to go and hide the eggs in the garden first thing this morning. I went out in my jammies and dressing gown (no neighbours to horrify). When I opened the kitchen door, our rabbit Jasper was sitting on the back step. Could it be that Jasper is the actual Easter Bunny? I picked up our floppy eared rabbit and returned him to his run. That run really needs to be replaced. It won't even keep the rabbit in anymore. If the rabbit can get out, then predators can get in.

This is a photo of Jasper (with Easter egg on top of his hutch). You can see the bricks I have placed to prevent his further escape.

I then went out and hid Cadbury's creme eggs and other treats in the garden for George to find. I learned early on to count them all out. This way, you're not faced with finding a nasty and ancient boiled egg in July or worse October. You have to keep looking until they're all accounted for. If you want to hurry things along, you can do "hot or cold" to help the searchers find the eggs more quickly.

Now that we have a dog, I am hiding the chocolate creme eggs UP. This way Polly won't find it and suffer chocolate or more specifically theobromine poisoning (very bad for dogs). I balance these dangerous goodies in hedges, young trees and other assorted shrubbery. The funny thing was that the Cadbury's creme egg that I balanced in the young walnut tree had bird pecks on it by the time it had been found by our youngest child! It had only been up in the tree a very short period of time (maximum 1 hour)! George had cried "Bird Flu!" and wouldn't eat the bird pecked egg. The Man of the Place had no qualms and it was gone in seconds.

It was warm and dry today. This is the third day in a row that has been dry. It meant that I could cut the grass!

Young George had been away for the past couple of days and got back late on Saturday night. He was up in Glasgow visiting one of his older brothers, Sean. They've been planning this visit for ages. George was SO excited about going up. It was all I could do to get him to eat in the days running up, he was so excited.

Henry and I had a glimpse at what life is going to be like in a couple of years when George packs his trunks and goes off to university. It turns out that Henry and I still like each others company. That's okay then. We pottered around the house and then went into Dumfries and then Carlisle in search of a new fireplace for the extension and a new lawnmower.

On Friday we went into Dumfries in search of the perfect fireplace. We went to a place that has an enormous showroom and hundreds of different styles of mantel pieces and cast iron inserts. We had agreed that we wouldn't have marble OR knotty pine. I did find one mantel that I liked quite a bit. It turned out that it was made out of MDF (medium density fibreboard) and veneer, not solid wood. No good for a real fire. On top of that, it wasn't really made very well. I was so disappointed. It would have done nicely. We went away empty handed.

Saturday morning it was time to tackle the new lawnmower purchase. We went down into England and Carlisle for this one. We found a good one pretty quickly. The young lad who sold it to us was SO charming. There was another fireplace business not far from the lawnmower place so we though we'd "pop in". Not only did they have a mantel that was perfect for the new living room, Henry and I agreed on it! (we rarely agree on when it comes to matters of personal taste) We ordered some slate to go under the fireplace too. It sure doesn't take long to spend £1000.

So, today after the Easter rituals have been observed I decided to give the new lawnmower its test run. What a joy it is to use a new, sharp bladed lawnmower! I raised the blades for this first cut. The lawn has been tamed again.

One weird thing that I found while mowing. There was some frog spawn in the lawn. I don't know why frogs might have done this. It got me thinking about evolution. It is my theory that the successful species who have loads of food and don't have to fight too hard to reproduce usually get phased out. Its the species that struggle and are forced to the margins of existence that survive. The frogs that are forced to lay their eggs in the grass rather than in the water are the frogs that evolve into something new.

I called The Man of the Place out to see this freak of nature. He promptly tossed the mislaied eggs into the pond muttering something about fiddling with natural selection and improving the gene pool by removing stupid frogs.

So, now the grass has been tamed by the shiny new Honda mower. Most of the tadpoles have hatched. The pond lily is throwing up new leaves. The chickens are laying very well. The daffodils are at their peak and we search the skies for the arrival of our swallows. All is right with the world, at least in our little corner of it.

It is my dearest wish that everyone has had a joyous Easter.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Family Vacation

The Man of the Place hasn't been on holiday with his sister since he was about 12. As of this week, he is going to get to do that again. My lovely sister-in-law Victoria and my beautiful niece Emily are going to be joining us on our Egyptian adventure. I'm so excited! If you could photograph "ants in your pants" you'd get a photograph that is not too far off what I look like now.

So, not only do I get to go diving in the Red Sea for days on end. I get to hang out with Vic and Em. It'll be great to have more women than men on the vacation.

The thing is, sometimes when on vacation, I just want to sit under an umbrella by the pool and read a book. The Man of the Place can't do that. He has to be "doing something". When we were in Tunisia a few years ago, I put my foot down one afternoon and said I wasn't going anywhere. I was going to read my airport purchased novel by the poolside. Little George can splash about and we'll have a great time. To be fair, Henry tried. After I had gone through about ONE chapter in my book, I folded it away in my bag and caved in. The swimming pool was too cold for George to swim in and my darling husband had been pacing around the pool like a caged tiger. To be fair though, doing stuff was much more fun and there was enough down time during the holiday for me to finish all the books I brought with me.

This time, if I just want to lounge by the pool either I will have company. Vicky is a fully paid up member of the poolside sisterhood.

I can't wait! (Did I say that already?) We're also planning a day trip to Cairo to the Egyptian Museum and the Great Pyramids over in Giza. In the 70's the Tutankhamen Exhibit did a tour of the US. It came to Chicago for a bit, the closest it was going to get to me. I missed it though. I think I was too young to have enough influence to get the family to go to this exhibit. I remember thinking to myself, that I'll never get to see the famous death mask unless I get to go to Egypt and when was I EVER going to go to Egypt. Henry bought me a book, Sharks of the Red Sea. Hee hee. He's more afraid of sharks than I am. Now that I think about it. I'm not afraid of spiders, snakes or mice either. They'll startle me, but after the initial flinch, I'm okay. Large mammals will get me to run the other way though. I was one of those rotten kids who would chase the other kids in the neighbourhood around with garter snakes. I am also the official "get the spider out of my room or bathtub" person.

I say the most dangerous part of any dive is the journey to the dive site. In fact, I surprised that Henry has suggested diving in the Red Sea at all. Last year he was pretty adamant that he would never dive anywhere where there might be sharks. I said that if that was the case, we had to restrict all our dives to freshwater lakes and the Mediterranean. Sharks are a much bigger danger to snorkellers and surfers than to divers and if we leave our wetsuits made of meat at home, we should be okay.

Crackle Birds

I mentioned in a previous posting about my site meter that I can tell what the Google, MSN and blog searches were that leads an inquiring person to this blog. I also mentioned that I had somebody searching for "crackle birds" and got me.

I have never heard of crackle birds. Perhaps the searcher meant Grackle. There are grackles in North America. They're little black birds with iridescent feathers that shine purple in the sun. There is the Common Grackle, Boat-tailed Grackle and the Great-tailed Grackle. Below is a picture of a Grackle.

I was curious to know if there actually was a crackle bird so I did a Google search myself. Guess what was second on the list? Me. Me and my blog about the site meter. I don't know how the original person crackle bird searcher got me though.

Incidentally, since my first posting about all of this, I have had three more people come to my blog in search of crackle birds and one poor guy from Texas searching with "woodpeckers destroying my house".

Is this is all getting a bit too self-referential?

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

New bird spotted - The Siskin

I've got another new bird to add to my list. The Siskin. A pretty little yellow, brown and black thing. There was a mated pair that were visiting the bird table that seems to be rapidly growing in popularity.

I couldn't get a good photo of the Siskins so I've borrowed a picture off Google.

We also had two pairs of greenfinch yesterday along with over a dozen chaffinch. That combined with the pheasants, and other frequent visitors, I had a nice busy bird table to watch while I had my post-work mug of tea.

I hear through the grapevine that the swallows have made it to the south coast of the UK. I check the skies and electricity wires regularly to see if they've come this far north yet. I'll let you know when they come to Whitelees. Though where they'll nest this year is another thing. With the extension, we have wiped out at least four nest sites. Do you think they'll be satisfied with the eaves?

Sunday, April 09, 2006

A Fine Day

Today was another quiet and fine day here at Whitelees. Another dry day like this and It'll be dry enough to cut the grass. The guys left on Saturday to watch the football game and were planning to stay over in the Northeast because the two of them are starting their dry suit course on Sunday. So, I've had big hamburgers on Saturday and a lovely salami sandwich for lunch today. By the time they get home, the offending smells will be gone and the packaging will have been burned in the stove. (we have a coal burning stove to heat the house)

Early in the day it was, as normal, dog walking time. We had all the time in the world so it was up to the wilderness bit. No half toads or mating amphibians this time. I only saw one single toad.

After climbing the fence we walked up winding and rutted lane. When rounding the corner of tall trees to where the pond is, we disturbed a big grey heron. I don't know if it was because we were so near or what, but this thing was huge. It seemed to be the size of a pterodactyl! I tend to see more wildlife when I walk the dog by myself. Other people, though good company, make way too much noise. I fancy that I could have been a marvelous woodsman/woman/person. I was following deer tracks and observing wildlife like anything. I had even brought my binoculars (or as we say here at Whitelees - "binoclears") with me. I saw that woodpecker again too.

I had a good look in the pond. I wonder if turtles ever show up in this pond. It looks like a good turtle pond. I just don't think there are many turtles in Scotland. Shame. The frog spawn up at the north end of the pond is a bit further on than the Whitelees frog spawn. The stuff up there is half hatched out already. This is the stage that the Whitelees stuff is at . . .

It looks like it has started to hatch, but it's a few days off that.

On the way home, I thought I'd take Polly through the woods across the road from us. I haven't been through there since before Barney died. Some young trees have been knocked over by the weather in the year since I've been there. Other than that and the fact that the wild raspberry places are greatly enlarged, not much has changed.

I must remember to keep an eye on the raspberries this year. I didn't pick any last year. I hope that they don't peak when we're away. It might happen.

The best thing about today's walk was the fact that after we emurged from the woods onto the road about a hundred yards from the house, a stoat (like a weasel or mink only bigger) ran across the road in front of us. Polly was looking at something and missed the whole thing.

I'm not too worried about stoats just now because I don't have any baby chicks. I had one stoat take 14 chicks from under a hen one year! The hen was too big for it to tackle so it went for the easy money and got the chicks instead.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Mr and Mrs Pheasant

Its not just the amphibians that are pairing off. Lord and Lady Pheasant have been clearing up the seeds and peanuts that have been knocked off the table and into the grass. I did see them try to jump up and try for the mother lode. It was comical to watch and impossible to photograph with this digital camera. The camera has an annoying delay. Mmmm pheasant!

I saw a cock pheasant with about seven hens in the field behind Whitelees yesterday. This fella only has one hen that I can see. I hope that if they keep visiting, they'll come across with some chicks later on in the spring. I'm not too hopeful about that. Pheasants are notoriously rubbish parents.

I am waiting for yellowhammers to show up. . . . . and it would be nice to see the squirrel again.

While walking the hound this morning, I saw a buzzard being dive bombed by about four crows. The buzzard was way too close to their nests for comfort. Show off!

Site Meter

I put a site meter on my blog very early on in the proceedings. From this I can get all sorts of interesting stuff.

For instance, I can see what a person has typed into a Google or MSN search engine to come up with my blog. Examples of searches that have led to this blog:
"Black's Gaslight Village" - hello George!
"I hate Whitelees" - gosh that was very odd and kind of upset me
"haircut dreadlock"
"mothers of boys"
"plants for lazy guys"
"Scotland, search blogs"
"destroying crackle birds" -? (I have never promoted or even considered destroying crackle birds)

By far my favourite thing is looking on the site meter world map. It shows by way of little green dots where on the planet hits to my blog are coming from.

Its exciting when all of a sudden I've got a hit from far flung places. Some of these places are about as far flung as you can get. The thing is, I don't know about you, but I just want to GO to these places.
Germany - hello David and Viola!
South Africa
New Zealand - that was my friend Jan
Japan - could have been Devin from high school

Most of the hits come from friends and friends and family - thanks guys!
The bulk of my hits come from the Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois, New Jersey, California and DC areas.

I'm glad that some of the sites I visit myself don't have site meters on them. I don't fancy people knowing how often I visit their blogs. They might start to think I'm some sort of crazy stalker-type person who has no life of her own.

I get a few hits by virtue of my link to Scottish Blogs. Those tend to be UK based hits - there have been a couple of visits from a location entitled Marlow, Windsor and Maidenhead. Think the Queen is looking? (more likely somebody from my head office) The Scottish Blog site is great for random blog viewing. I found a great one this morning. I've bookmarked it. My Neighbours are Hoors! This woman lives in a flat above a brothel. Its very funny and makes me glad I don't live in town anymore.

It seems that my haircut entry is the most viewed entry to date. Go figure. My Beautiful Scotland entry is just one viewing behind it.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Time to get started

It is that time of year again, time to get the greenhouse fired up. These two boxes arrived today.

I've taken delivery of some new seedlings. I've got a box of geranium seedlings and a box of impatien seedlings (Busy Lizzy).

Now that I've got these little babies and the knowledge that there are a couple more boxes on their way, I must get space sorted out for them in the greenhouse. Thankfully I have only recently made a trip to the dump with unwanted stuff that seems to pile up. This will make finding room on the staging easier. While the extension is going on, the greenhouses have been doubling as storage for shelves of old paint, oil contaners and the like. I am sure that by the end of this summer, we will be organized enough to have the greenhouses be just greenhouses.

I already have visions of how lovely the hanging baskets are going to look this year. I make really lovely hanging baskets that positively explode with flowers.

I have taken an idea from another felllow blogger here in Scotland. I've decided to offer my birds sunflower seed hearts or shelled sunflower seeds. They aren't cheap (cheep) but I am hoping to attract more exotic and uncommon bird visitors to the Whitelees feeders. The above photo shows the new feeder that has been attached to my new Mothers' Day bird table. This shot shows the pond (full of frog spawn) behind and to the left of the feeder.

About an hour after I put these choice morsels out for the birds, I was rewarded.

You can see there are two European Goldfinches at the new feeder. Aren't they such pretty little birds? Above the finches is a Robin. Head down to the right of the Robin is a female chaffinch.

This is a treat for me because we don't normally get Goldfinches visiting until late summer when they come in to feed on flower seed heads and dandelion clocks.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Grown Up Tastes

I made the mistake of putting chopped nuts in the chocolate chip cookies on Sunday. We had friends over for lazy Sunday mugs of tea and inspection of The Extension. Sadly however the resident 12 year old does not like nuts and is refusing to eat the cookies because they contain nuts. This means that I am going to have to give them away, send them with The Man of the Place to his office or eat them myself. The new wetsuit hanging in the closet won't fit if I choose the last option.

I didn't put the nuts in there to ward off George, but that's what has happened. I put chopped pecans in because I like them. I used to not like nuts in cookies but somewhere along the line, my tastes changed.

I like to eat a number of things now that I didn't like before. Its a sign along with having conversations with my peers about insurance, that I may very well be an adult. I don't know when it happened but now I like strong cheeses like stilton and roquefort, anchovies, red wine and nuts in cookies. I do have to be careful that the nuts aren't Brazil nuts - terribly allergic to those.

I read somewhere that this is because our tastebuds loose their zing as our bodies grow older so that cheese that would be spat out by a child (and rightly so some may say) will be savoured by adults. When we were on holiday in France, we went through much more cheese than fancy bon bons from the pattiserie.

The other thing that changes is what we value. Years ago, before child number three was being considered, I was wandering home from the pub with some pals and we passed a tile shop. Being a new homeowner, I went up to the windows to see if there were any tiles in there for our bathroom. I didn't see anything I liked from the window and we kept on walking. I noted that a material change had just occured. Not five years earlier if I had been passing that tile shop while going home from the pub with my friends, I would have cast scorn on this waste of perfectly good commercial space. Somebody put a tile shop there. It could have been another pub!!! I would have poured scorn on the whole tile industry and the sad customers with their sad little tile buying lives.

I now have a tile buying life. I wouldn't call it sad though. Its just different to the life I had and different to the life I thought I might have.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Quiet Day at Home

It is nearing the end of football (soccer) season. However, it's not over yet. The Man of the Place and George have gone to an away game and I've had the house to myself.

I walked the dog up the road to our favourite off-the-lead place. The place where I was rescuing toads last Sunday. I saw a huge flock of geese flying overhead just as I was going out. It wasn't the Canada Goose. I know their honk very well. It could have been the Barnacle Goose or the Greylag. In any case there was a huge "V" of them. I suspect there were over 40 birds.

We saw the usual pheasants, robins, chaffinches etc. I did see a grouse! It was flushed out of the heather not far from where we flushed it out last week, merely by walking past the thing. They make much less noise when going skyward than a pheasant.

During our inspection of the ponds, I noticed there were a lot of half toads in the road. A head here, a pair of legs there. Something has been eating them. Eww. I salvaged a mating pair of toads by taking them off the road and to the edge of a pond. Let's hope I have also saved them from predation.

On the way back to the house, the rain started in. Typical. It was beautiful when I got up this morning. But as Polly and I were going past some scrub and untrimmed hedges, I saw a Goldcrest. Britain's smallest bird. At first I thought it was a Wren, but then I saw the yellow flash on the top of its wee head. It would be nice if I could get photos of these not so common birds, but 1. I don't usually take the camera with me when I am walking the dog and 2. the birds won't stay still for me.

Looking out to the bird table, I keep hoping that I'll see the red squirrel again. It hasn't been back yet. I am however noticing that we really need to cut the grass. Its still too wet to cut just yet. We'll need at least three days of no rain before the grass can be cut. Before that though, we must actually buy a lawnmower. The old one died. Apparently you need to make sure that there is oil in the engine all the time. Sheesh!

So, here at the very quiet Whitelees, I have been cleaning floors, loading the dishwasher, getting some laundry processed.

I also get to watch some TV without having somebody come in and be horrified at what I'm watching. Usually its romantic comedies or Killer Tigers of Asia but occasionally I like Dog the Bountyhunter. That's good for a chuckle.

As I am married to a vegetarian, I also get to tuck into the pate and have salami sandwiches without offending anybody. Its a shame that its still a bit early or I could wash it all down with some Asti Spumante - a very underrated drink!

I'm off to watch Mean Girls now.