Friday, June 24, 2011

The Mythical Queendom of Mine

I shall sparkle!

The Mythical Queendom of Mine


With all the media foo-foo-rah about folks of every ilk declaring themselves independent of government’s nasty interference, protesting their individual rights and seeking personal sovereignty with the aid of jeeps, machine guns, stashes of ammo and thousands of acres of wilderness playground (set aside by the federal government), I figure it is time to stand up and be counted. I hereby join the sovereignty movement.

For years I have hankered to be a benevolent despot. Therefore, I declare myself Queen of the Queendom of the Sovereign State of Mine. I tossed around a variety of fanciful names for this country I rule, but like my granddaughter surveying her space, I decided “Mine” says it most succinctly. Though my country encompasses a mere two city lots, it is all Mine. My Queendom is small, until it is time to weed in which case it grows exponentially, but ruling it should be relatively simple.

I now have been Queen for approximately five minutes. Nobody has come to challenge my title, to knock me off my throne. Therefore I shall appoint a committee to arrange the ceremony for my coronation. This extravaganza shall include parades, fireworks, a state dinner, balloons, flowers in profusion, red carpets, speeches, accolades, a throne, ladies in waiting, ministers to do my will, visiting heads of state, trolls, magicians, gypsies and a fool. And cake. I shall be bedecked and beribboned in a matchless gown and robe, created by me to reflect my impeccable taste. I shall wear an exquisite crown crusted with the finest jewels. I shall sparkle.

My first order of business will be to write my declaration of independence, construct a constitution and adopt a bill of rights. I’ll appoint a committee of my ministers for each of these mundane governmental-sorts of jobs. Each committee will study similar documents from other sovereign nations (why re-invent the wheel?), pencil in proposed changes, argue over details, order take-out pizza and then table each item to be deliberated afresh at the next meeting.

I have been pondering the design of a flag to fly majestically over my Queendom. What do you think about a cottonwood tree (green leaves) covered with balloons (all bright colors) against a sky (blue with white puffy clouds) and with a ribbon beneath (red) bearing the words “Another Beautiful Day in Paradise ”? And I must have a national anthem, something that reflects my free spirit, perhaps “Fat Bottomed Girls (make the rockin’ world go ‘round)” by the musical group, Queen.

I will need a royal seal for my documents of state. Something large, embossed, official looking with incomprehensible words. I must have a collection of stamps for mailing letters and packages. My mail box out front will serve as the royal post office.

In my country there will be two times, daytime and nighttime, thus simplifying the royal clock, the design of which is evocative of the traditional yin and yang. I decree there will be one season—temperate. My court wizards will see to the details. National holidays will be comprised of my birthday, my children’s birthdays and your birthday. If anybody protests my decrees, let them eat cake.

I must not forget the royal license plate on my royal truck, personalized with my royal likeness, of course. Wait, wait! I had a thought! If I have license plates, does that mean there must be rules for the use thereof, such as “must be attached to the front or back bumper of vehicle”? If there are rules, rules must be enforced. I would need enforcers. And if there are police, it follows there must be judges and jails and punishments. Eww. In my Queendom, I don’t want punishments, I only want rewards. Table that. I’ll figure it out later.

Oh, the untold problems! If my Queendom must have all the above, then how do I pay for such a bureaucracy? Taxes! Ewww. Even more bureaucracy. If I institute taxes, then there will be an uprising followed by revolution. I’ll be beheaded. Skip taxes. We’ll work on that issue later too. Meanwhile, charge it.

Now that I have declared myself a sovereign nation, I must negotiate treaties with my neighbors, the City of Harlem , County of Blaine , State of Montana , the Province of Saskatchewan , et al. What if citizens of these entities, seeking to avoid prohibitive restrictions in their own countries, flee to my benevolent Queendom? I’ll be flooded with refugees. I’ll have displaced persons camps in my backyard. How will I feed them? How will I house them? Oh, the multiplicity of problems!

I’ve got it! I’ll apply for foreign aid!

Sondra Ashton

HDN: Looking out my back door

June 23, 2011

Think the rain will hurt the rhubarb?

Think the rain will hurt the rhubarb?


In an old vaudeville country rube routine the straight man says, “Think the rain will hurt the rhubarb?” The top banana replies, “Not if it’s in cans!” Now, doesn’t that make you want to slap your knees and hoot and howl.

On the east side of my garden cabin, between the raspberries and the neighbor’s caragana shrubs, my Dad planted rhubarb. Those who grow rhubarb know that for the average family, one plant will provide all the rhubarb one healthy family can be forced to consume. My Dad liked to garden. Years ago he planted five varieties of rhubarb, whose succulent crisp stalks run from deep red, through shades of pink to light green.

So I have rhubarb, glorious rhubarb, abundant rhubarb, too much rhubarb. I considered taking out all but two clumps, a green and a red, although one plant is more than sufficient for my needs. However, I know that it is never possible to eradicate every vestige of root. Just a smidgeon of hardy root will cower, hidden in the ground until next year, when it will miraculously shoot forth into an entire new plant. Rhubarb originated in China , caravanned through Europe and sailed to North America by boat. I am firmly convinced, that in seeking to reconnect to its roots, my rhubarb has delved through the center of the earth and emerged somewhere on the other side of the globe, where a Chinese family reaps the bounty from my sister plants.

Every year in early spring I await my first taste of crisp, tart, mouth-watering rhubarb, chop, chop, into the crust and out of the oven, beautiful bubbling pie. When I was a child we called it “pie plant”. My grandparents used it for its restorative medicinal properties. The leaves are poisonous but so sour there is little danger you or I would eat them. We canned finely chopped stalks in quart jars and lined the cellar with ruby-fruit in a row. In my garden, rhubarb is the first fruit of the year, the first harvest. I gently grip the long stalk low to the ground, pull it from its casing, and whack off the giant green leaf. It falls to the ground where I leave it to decompose.

The more I harvest, the more the mother-plant produces. Nothing seems to daunt rhubarb, neither freeze nor snow nor rain nor drought. It dies back with the first hard frost, then springs forth to yield from early May through late September. This happens to be a great year for rhubarb. One day the tender shoots poked through the snow and then, overnight it seemed, stalks shot up past my knees, with leaves the size of elephant ears. Every morning I bring an armload of rhubarb into my kitchen. I make rhubarb pies, pineapple-rhubarb sauce to dribble over ice cream and cinnamon-rhubarb sauce to serve with waffles. I mix it with other fruits, dried, frozen and fresh, cranberries, raisins, strawberries, peaches, apples, oranges and mangoes, for pies and jams. I strain the juice for jelly. Out of my oven rolls a procession of pies, cakes, tarts, cobblers, crumbles, scones and bar cookies.

I have invented recipes for rhubarb salsa, chutney, pickles and relish. I hide it in soups. I chop it fine and roll it into dough for cinnamon rolls. Rhubarb is especially toothsome served with venison or pork. (I’ve been told rhubarb makes a fine wine but I would probably produce a batch of vinegar, though that might not be a bad thing.) This year I have thrust bundles of rhubarb on friends, neighbors and passing strangers. Like the desperate zucchini grower, I have developed a certain gleam in my eye.

Yesterday’s hail storm shredded my tallest rhubarb leaves and dimpled many of the stalks. I’m afraid the damaged spots will turn soft and those stalks will spoil, so I’ll harvest them this morning. I’ll chop it and bag it and stash it in the freezer for winter treats. In another week or two, I’ll stroll out to the rhubarb patch and find another crop of tall, juicy stalks, hankering to be made into pies.

Sondra Ashton

Looking out my back door

June 16, 2011

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Back at the Border Bar

Then and today.

Back at the Border Bar


The other day I was at the Harlem city hall for a swimming pool committee meeting. I don’t know how I got on the pool committee. I don’t know how to swim. I have tried numerous times to learn. The city has a great team of lifeguards this year and they promised me that they can teach me to swim. I wouldn’t put money on it. But this is not about swimming.

Before I left the office, I ran into a friend from Malta . “Have you been out to pick asparagus this year?” he asked. “Well, no,” I admitted. “If you’re going to get some, you’d better get out there,” he countered. I thought about that while I walked home.

Back at my house, I asked my guests, David and Vidya, long time friends from Port Townsend, Washington , if they would like to go to Dodson to pick wild asparagus. Within minutes we were on our way. We quickly picked a nice mess. But this is not about asparagus either.

On the way home the sky presented spectacular roiling clouds. “Let’s go to the Border Bar for a burger,” I suggested. We pulled into Harlem and headed north to Turner, entranced by the sky show all the way.

Kimber, owner of the Border Bar, took our order for burgers with heaps of grilled onions. “We are holding The Cruise on the18th,” she told us. “Are you coming up?” She and her husband Jay and a few other good people from the north-country put on an annual car show, with new, vintage, and muscle cars, one of the highlights of the summer.

“We were here last year,” David told Kimber. “It’s a shame we’ll have to miss this one. I loved the burn-outs and people lining up to smash that old car with sledge hammers. We left before the street dance. Next time we will stay longer.”

“Cars, food, fun and music; that’s what it’s about,” Kimber said as she headed to the grill to sizzle our burgers.

“I went to a street dance in Turner once,” I said. “It was the summer before my senior year in high school, a different era, the early sixties. My Dad let me have the car and that was a rare thing.

“Six of us girls went together. We were all ‘good’ girls. Nobody had to tell us right from wrong. We knew. Today we probably would be called ‘nerds’. None of us were what you’d call ‘hot stuff’.

“In the old days when Turner threw a street dance, it was a hum-dinger. People came from all around the country. With the music, the dancing, the noise, and the free-flowing libations, nobody remained strangers for long. None of us girls were accustomed to drinking, but we each had at least one beer. We were having a great time but I had to have the car back by the witching hour, so we left around eleven. On the drive home, one of the girls in the back seat suddenly felt sick. The other girls cranked down the window, scooted her over, and made her stick her head out. She vomited all over the side of my Dad’s car.

“I dropped the girls off at their homes and rolled into my drive moments before midnight. I knew I had to clean the car before Dad came out for chores. So I set my alarm for four-thirty, sneaked down stairs, filled a bucket with hot soapy water and scrubbed the car. When he came out at five o’clock I was rinsing it down. ‘What are you doing,’ he asked. Why do parents ask the obvious when they are standing right there watching. ‘Washing the car,’ I answered.

“My Dad stood in silence for about three centuries. He looked from me to the car and back to me. He shook his head, turned and walked to the barn. I never went to another street dance.”

We ate our burgers, each of us contemplating misspent days of our youth. It’s a new day. I think I’ll give the Turner street dance another try.

Sondra Ashton

Looking out my back door

June 9, 2011


What is that woman up to now?

Blooming in the desert.


What is that woman up to now?

A few weeks ago in Billings , at a municipal officials workshop, while eating lunch and eavesdropping on a conversation between the mayor of Malta and the mayor of Saco , I heard her ask him about his hay mulch garden. I overheard the words “no weeds”. I quit eavesdropping and scooted into the conversation. “Tell me everything you know,” I said. And that is how Howard Pippin, mayor of Saco , became my garden mentor.

When I moved back to Montana after twenty five years in the Pacific Northwest, I bought my Dad’s house on the edge of Harlem . My Dad had moved to town but never had given up farming. He created a perfect lawn and a garden which fed half the neighborhood. But by the time I could settle into my new home, the lawn and the garden had endured some years of neglect. In this country it doesn’t take long for weeds to dominate. The first couple years I hired a man to mow the lawn, by that time more weeds than grass. In all innocence I planted a garden and condemned myself to hours bent over pulling weeds and hauling hoses.

By fall I was ready to give up gardening altogether. My back ached. Every muscle screamed. My scraggly garden yield was not worth it. And I also felt conflicted about both lawn and garden. In this semi-arid country I do not think it is right to use water to grow grass which you must water, then mow, then water, and then mow ad infinitum. I appreciate the beauty of a lawn but I cringe at the use of water. No other semi-desert cultures grow lawns. The People, native to this land, did not peer out of the teepee in the morning, stretch, yawn, and say, “Think I’ll mow the grass today.”

So, I hauled in bark chips and covered the entire lawn. It was magical. No more grass to mow. No more nasty weeds to yank up. My water bill plummeted. In the former lawn I planted shrubs, trees and flowers galore. My yard is on the way to becoming a path-lined paradise. Every third year I have to put down more bark because the wind blows in new soil and then deposits more weed seeds. But meanwhile, there are few weeds to pull and I need only water the shrubs and flowers.

Once I had eliminated my lawn, I turned my attention to the garden area. I covered it with straw in the fall and then tilled it in the spring. I was dismayed. My newly enriched soil now grew an even more bountiful crop of weeds. So I planted a cover crop of barley to crowd them out. My barley crop was beautiful, but how do you harvest barley in a garden bed? So I tilled the barley under leaving a dismally bare garden patch, except for weeds which still needed to be hacked out. But my fruit trees and shrubs were filling out and being fruitful.

That’s why Howard’s words about his weed-free garden fell on my ears like rain following drought. He told me I could cover my entire garden area with old rotten hay. It would create a nutricious mulch. I could then plant directly into the mulch and never again have to plow, hoe, cultivate, weed, water or spray. I could garden with little labor. No weeds.

Howard’s mentor, Ruth Stout, wrote a witty book “for the aging, the busy and the indolent” (the shoe fits my foot) called “Gardening Without Work”. I immediately ordered a copy. Next week I will drive to Saco to visit Howard. I want to see with my own eyes how he uses Ruth Stout’s methods to garden in our dry land.

Meanwhile, yesterday a neighbor farmer, Karl Humphreys, angled his tractor down my alley and lifted a bale of spoiled hay over the fence into my yard. With the help of a couple friends I soon had potatoes and onions planted and covered with a deep mulch of loose moldy hay in a portion of my garden. I don’t expect a large yield this year. I don’t want large. I want a few good things without battling weeds. Today I planted the next section with a variety of seeds and covered them with more mulch.

When I started my experiments with a bark chip lawn, it caused a bit of talk and some outright criticism. Folks wondered, “What is that woman up to?” Now my neighbors stop me in the post office or on the street and say, “I like what you are doing.” “I can finally see what you are trying to create with your yard. I wish I could do that.” And “Your yard is like a house of many rooms, each one different. It’s so beautiful.”

The hay mulch in my garden may not look like much right now, but just wait until fall when I can reach down through it and pull up potatoes and onions and carrots for dinner.

Sondra Ashton

Looking out my back door

June 2, 2011