Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Completely Harmless Horsehair Worm

The Completely Harmless Horsehair Worm

As one of my duties as a Harlem City Councilperson, I serve on the Unified Disposal Board. Every fall this board meets at the Landfill rather than in our usual meeting room at the Court House. This fall, we met at the new Landfill. After the meeting, while we were putting away chairs and wandering around admiring the pristine new facility, occupied with chit chat and discussion of the football season, Clay Vincent spotted a cricket skittering across the sparkling new floor, deliberately stepped on it and smashed it dead. I have no problem with that; I probably would have done the same had I seen the cricket first.

I have a quasi-Buddhist attitude toward animal life. I suppose all might have purpose. I try to be respectful. One of my fondest memories is of a bee which landed on my forearm when I was sitting on my deck, watching the hummingbirds dart about the flowers. The honey bee, attracted by the same flowers, was momentarily distracted, sniffed and began licking my arm. For several minutes it wandered across my arm licking the sweat off my skin. As the bee’s admiring hostess, I found great beauty in those precious moments.

I will cheerfully pick up Madame Spider and escort her outdoors and send her on her way with good wishes for a long and felicitous life. On the other hand I just as cheerfully swat flies and mosquitoes into kingdom come. I do not tolerate ants in my kitchen. Nor do I easily accept the harmless box elder bugs, though there seems to be little I can do about them.

Moments after the death of the cricket, Clay dropped to his hands and knees, excitedly exclaiming, “Would you look at this. I’ve always wanted one of these.” From the look on his face you’d have thought it was Christmas. “One of these” was a wriggling, looping, swirling life-form emerging from the rear end of the squashed cricket.

We three women emitted an appropriate, “Ewww! What is that?”

“It’s a horsehair worm,” Clay explained as he searched for a pencil with which to pick up the creature, thin as a hair from a horse’s tail and just as long. He inserted the pencil through one of its loops, raised it off the floor and deposited it into a styrofoam cup. “It’s a harmless parasite. Crickets are often the host and when one dies, the worm emerges. They live in grasshoppers, too. I’m going to put it in a bottle and display it on my desk. Which one of you ladies wants to hold the cup on the way back to town?” As a unit, we clasped put our hands behind our backs and convinced Clay to put the cup in a box and lock it in the trunk of the car.

And that should have been the end of the story. Except for one word that Clay uttered: grasshoppers. My yard, and probably yours too, has been full of grasshoppers since mid-summer, chomp-chomping away at the most tender greenery. Since the horsehair incident, I feel as if I have been suddenly cursed with X-Ray Vision. Inside each grasshopper stomach, just waiting for me to step on the grasshopper and liberate it, lies a long thin horsehair worm, curled in a ball, eating away at its host. Difficult as it has been, I have gone out of my way to avoid squishing grasshoppers.

Last night at dusk I stepped outside to cut a spray of tarragon to dry for my larder. When I came inside and closed the door, I noticed a super-sized grasshopper clinging to my shirt sleeve. Before I could ensnare the creature, it jumped off and away. Search as I might, I could not find it. I tried to reason with myself. Now, really, what are the chances this one grasshopper is host to a harmless, emphasis on harmless, little horsehair worm. And so what if it’s crunchy stomach is a worm hotel? It cannot hurt me.

After a restless night, I wandered through my house sloshing my first cup of coffee, when I spotted the fiend beneath a table. I gingerly enclosed it in a Kleenex, and feeling less than virtuous, escorted it and whatever parasites it might host, back into the great outdoors, perhaps to live, perhaps to die, but not in my back room.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
September 29, 2011

Work makes you happy

Work makes you happy; I read it in a magazine so it must be true!
My appointment was for one o’clock. As I walked over to Marcia’s for a haircut I knew I would be a few minutes early. But I also knew if I stayed home I would dig into another phase of my current project, forget the time, and be late. It suited me to while away a few moments in somebody else’s space. I let myself in Marcia’s shop door and wandered to the window to admire the new patio her husband had recently built. I sat down and picked up the top magazine from the stack on her table. I had idly flicked through several pages when this title, “Work Makes You Happy”, or something to that effect, caught my eye.

Though I snorted with derision, a quick scan of key phrases plunged me into agreement with the article’s main premise. Marcia walked through the door so I put the magazine down. But the idea of work equating with happiness had become glued to my brain.

My Dad would have loved this. Dad was a worker. If you grew up in my family, you worked. My Dad once told me that work was the only thing that gave him satisfaction. He did not know how to relax, how to find enjoyment in idle pleasures. He worked and he gardened, which is work in disguise, and I think he found equal enjoyment in both. He taught me to do whatever I did with all my heart; to do my best. I thank him for that.

I certainly never knew a moment of boredom. Nor, once they were older, were my children ever bored. One look at the gleam in my eye and they quickly found multitudes of fascinating things to do.

I grew up with too much work. Today many of us don’t have enough work. With such a plethora of labor saving devices, with whatever one desires (for a price) at one’s fingertips, with jobs structured into meaningless fragments, one might find oneself longing for the days one left the cabin in the quiet rays of dawn and returned at dusk dragging a moose, walked through the door to the pot of stew bubbling on the hearth and sour dough biscuits steaming in the dutch oven and the candle flickering on the table. I have lived too close to that and it is romantic hogwash.

My premise is that if one is going to open the door to happiness, balance is the key. I learned work from a master. Other pleasures I had to learn on my own. It took many a year for me to realize rest and relaxation are just as important as work. But they don’t negate it nor should they replace it.

The past several weeks have been filled with more work than usual. While I long for a short trip to Lincoln or Kalispell or north to Saskatchewan to visit friends, right now I must content myself with mini-vacations during each work day. So I take time out to make a batch of dill pickles. Or bake bread. Or read another few pages in my much-neglected book. These things give me great satisfaction. A knock on my door is not an unwanted interruption but an opportunity to visit with a neighbor. A trip to the post office, four blocks from home, often consumes an hour. Filling my short list at the grocery store can take even longer, with folks to chat up in every aisle.

As I work I am entertaining the thought of a real vacation at one of my favorite get-away spots, Quinn’s Hot Springs north of St. Regis. It will be a multi-purpose vacation, melding work with play. The work agenda will include planning a job with my son and his wife; play will be splashing with my granddaughter Lexi, plus hours of soaking in hot water. I envision Lexi squealing with joy as I point out the lofty mountain goats clinging to precarious perches. When she splashes water on me, I’ll pretend to be properly annoyed. Then we will giggle together.

Meanwhile, I am content with a vacation on my back steps, sitting in the sun, with cats curling their tails around my legs, blissfully aware of leaves jiggling in the slight breeze, admiring my apples hanging on the trees, redder and juicier and sweeter each day, wondering if I should harvest the potatoes today, watching the bees gathering the last sweetness from my patch of mint and the gold finches cavorting among the remnants of sunflowers. Just a few minutes more, and then back to work.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
September 22, 2011

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Bag Balm, Health and Beauty Aid

Now and then I walk down to the city shop early in the morning to have coffee with the men from Public Works. They meet an hour before work to drink coffee and tell lies. It is kind of like they unwind before the work day starts rather than after it is over. Although I can’t join them every day, I enjoy feeling accepted as one of the gang. I am honored they invite me.

So the other day when I hobbled into the shop more crippled than usual, Richard frowned and asked me, “What’s wrong with you today?”

“I think I broke my toe,” I answered. I pulled my sock off and bared my foot for all to see. “I stubbed my toe on the frame of an Amish buggy seat that I had just recovered. I thought I’d set it out of the way. But I turned around and ran right into it. Blood flew everywhere. I will lose my nail for sure.”

“Did you put Bag Balm on it?” Richard asked.

“Well, sure. Don’t you put Bag Balm on everything?”

“The pharmacist said if he didn’t carry Bag Balm, he’d probably go out of business,” interjected Vic.

At my house there has always been a square metal can of Bag Balm. When I see the level drop near the bottom of the can, I hurry to buy a replacement. I have a can for my shop, a can in the bathroom and I keep an extra can for when I travel.

Nowadays the Bag Balm comes in three different brand concoctions. I’ve tried them all. I call them gooey, gooier and gooiest. I prefer gooier. You can buy one in a tube. Or a giant economy size. Or in a cute little teeny baby can. It’s all pretty much the same thing—glommy yellow salve.
I’m not saying it’ll cure whatever afflicts you. But it sure works for a lot of things. For example, when my son Ben was a baby he broke out with a severe case of baby eczema. The doctor prescribed a marvelously expensive medication made mostly of lanolin and sulfur. I know because I was chatting with the pharmacist while he mixed the stuff and I knew that whatever he was cooking up, it was almost Bag Balm. After I used up that small jar, whenever a lesion would break out on Ben’s skin, I smeared on Bag Balm. It cleared his skin right up. Of course, with Bag Balm my baby smelled like coal tar. Maybe the stink is perfume to cows.

Dry skin has always afflicted me. In winters my skin would break and bleed. I remember as a small child getting ready for bed, smearing Bag Balm on my legs and pulling my dad’s long socks up to my knees. I wore my own socks over my hands and up to my elbows to keep the salve on my skin and off the sheets. Today I don’t wear the socks. Bag Balm keeps my skin soft, but the stuff gets on my clothes and on the sheets. Fortunately it washes out.

Cuts? Bag Balm. Abrasions? Bag Balm. Rash? Bag Balm. Sun burn? Bag Balm. Calloused feet? Bag Balm. Fever blisters? Bag Balm. Leather softener? Bag Balm. Shoe polish? Bag Balm.

In addition, I have used Bag Balm to prevent stretch marks during pregnancy, smother warts, and loosen rusted bolts.

Bag Balm healed the cut on my toe. I will still lose the nail. Like I said, it doesn’t cure everything. If you see me in the store clearing the shelves of Bag Balm, you’ll know that either I suspect I have a dread disease or it is winter and my dry skin is driving me nuts.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
September 15, 2011

Friday, September 9, 2011

Dining Out at the Senior Center

My friend Katie recently became manager (that is probably not her official title) at the Little Rockies Center here in Harlem. The Little Rockies Center houses the Sweet Medical Clinic in several rooms, a number of apartments for senior residents, and a gathering place for senior citizens and other community members. The facility includes a well-stocked kitchen and large dining room with comfortable chairs around huge tables.

Although Katie had insisted that I am welcome to come to lunch any time, and several others had invited me, I never thought of going until Saturday. That morning Katie’s son Trent came by to help me with some heavy garden work. Trent is a husky sophomore at Harlem High. He is a good worker and has done odd jobs for me since he was in sixth grade.

Together we pruned my raspberry jungle. The raspberry bushes had sneaked across the enclosing path and invaded the southeastern corner of my yard. I think they did this in the dead of night. One day I had an orderly grouping of raspberries along the eastern wall of my garden cabin. The next day I had a plantation. ‘Tis the season and they desperately needed pruning. Trent began whacking at one end and I attacked from the other. We met in the middle. Without Trent’s help, the job would have been overwhelming.

Next we tackled the hollyhocks. Without hesitation I claim to grow the most beautiful hollyhocks in town. They flourish around the house in several groupings. They tower eight, nine and ten feet high with elephant-ear leaves. The flowers bloom in a profusion of colors I have seen nowhere else. In the fall the pithy stalks bow to the ground heavy with seed. By this time of the year they are unsightly and benefit from a thorough chopping.

We finished the hollyhocks. It was nearly noon. Trent had worked hard but we were not done with my list for the day. First though, I needed to feed the young man to keep up his strength. I had nothing prepared. No restaurants are open on Saturday in Harlem. “Want to eat lunch at the Center?” I asked.

“Good,” Trent replied. “Want to know what is on the menu today?”

“No. I’m sure it will be good. Let’s go. You drive.”

“I’ll give you a clue,” he said. “I was there early this morning and smelled cinnamon rolls fresh out of the oven.”

The dining room was packed. Trent led me to the sign-in book. Next to it sat a coffee can with a slot in the lid for donations for the meal. Had I been unable to pay, no matter. They would have fed me anyway. I knew many of the people there and they greeted me. Some diners come regularly for the lunch and also volunteer their help with serving and clean-up afterwards, just like at home.

I spotted an empty chair between Mary O’Bryan and Mary Calvert, women I have known since my childhood, when they owned and operated the Merry Market where we bought groceries. We were eight women at the table. Our talk was cheerful and lively. I knew all but one of the gals. Everybody assumed I had met Ellen, the new pastor at the Lutheran Church. By mid-meal I felt like she was an old friend. She made that easy for me by wearing a tee-shirt which proclaimed her to be a fellow bibliophile. In keeping with her profession it read “Lead me not into Temptation—especially bookstores.”

We feasted on roast beef, potatoes and gravy, peas, a salad, fresh dinner rolls, and grapes. Sure enough, Mrs. Herndon plunked a huge platter of enormous fresh-baked cinnamon rolls on each table. I groaned. I was too full to eat another bite. Evelyn insisted I take a cinnamon roll home with me for later.

Lunch was a treat but best of all was the camaraderie. I had not realized our little community had such a wonderful gathering place. When Trent and I left the Center to return to garden work, a dozen people called after me, “You be sure and come back now.” I know I will.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
September 8, 2011

All in the Family

I waved as my daughter and her family backed out of my driveway on their way back home to Marysville, Washington. The whole family, Dee Dee and her husband Chris, their daughters, Jess and Toni, dogs Cutie and Daisy, spent the last several days at my home. Well, almost the whole family—everybody but Burli. Burli, the one hundred fifty-five pound English mastiff with the self-esteem of a lap dog. Burli, who could pin me into my chair and make me laugh. Burli, with her massive face, beautiful with all its folds and wrinkles. Burli, with her drool.

Burli had been put down. She had been in continuous pain. In her last month she had lost twenty pounds. The vet figured that on top of her long list of ailments, she probably had a cancer. It had been a sad day. Everybody cried. Burli was family. Many times during their visit, our conversations turned to memories of Burli.

As a farm girl, I had ample opportunity to become fond of an animal only to discover it had disappeared from the barnyard and through a circuitous route, ended on the table. Because of this, I never had a chicken as a pet. I had much too active a role in the process of their transition from fluffy yellow chick to pullet to Sunday dinner.

However, my first experience with losing a pet was my own pig, Jasper. I killed him. I was eight years old. It was a rainy day in early spring. We lived on a small farm in southern Indiana with several acres of woods. Mayapples, with leaves the size and shape of small umbrellas, grew there in profusion. I asked my dad if I could gather mayapple leaves to feed my pet pig. The mayapple is also called the hogapple. Their little fruit ripens in early fall and the hogs seem to find them a delicacy. My dad said yes. I made trip after trip into the woods, gathering armloads of mayapple leaves and tossing them over the fence into the pigpen where Jasper lived with seven other handsome Yorkshire weaner pigs.

I loved Jasper. I would hang over the fence for hours scratching Jasper’s pink back and talking to him, unloading my eight-year-old troubles. Jasper wriggled in appreciation, grunted, sighed, and burped. Once I had heaved a small mountain of leaves into the pigpen, I headed to the house to peel potatoes for supper, leaving Jasper and the other seven porkers noisily rooting through the tender green delicacy.

The following morning my dad woke me early and motioned me to get dressed. I followed him to the barnyard. There lay my own Jasper, bloated, belly up, legs in the air. Around the other side of the leaf pile, the other seven pigs sprawled in the same position. All dead. I had killed them.

I cried and cried. My Dad stood with his hand on my shoulder. He never said a punishing word to me. After all, I had asked and he had given me permission to feed the mayapple leaves to the pigs. He had not known the leaf of the mayapple was poisonous.

I have had pets much of my life. Pinky, my first cat. Flopsie, my first dog. Pete and Repete, my daughter’s Chinese hooded rats. Houdini, my son’s gerbil,which I nearly killed one night when he escaped his cage and snuggled under my chin to sleep in my warmth. Horses, more cats, more dogs, and even more rats. Some died. Some disappeared. Twice I held dogs in my arms while the vet put them down. Whether we intend it or not, our pets become family.

My own two cats, Penguina and Fat Louie, did not welcome our visitors, especially five-year old Toni and the dogs, with the same enthusiasm I did. Penguina holed up beneath my garden cabin and only emerged in the dead of night to come to the house for a bite to eat. Fat Louie eventually tolerated the children and the dogs. Now my kids, grandkids and their pets are gone. The house is awfully quiet. Penguina is peacefully asleep beneath the cutting table in my shop. Fat Louie is curled in my garden basket, under the bench out my back door.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
September 1, 2011

Stealing from the Birds

I planted chokecherry bushes in my yard. I don’t know what I was thinking. Certainly I had not intended to create a chokecherry plantation. They were given to me, those desiccated branches. I stuck the dozen bare-naked sticks into the gumbo. I wasn’t sure any would survive. I hoped one chokecherry might live which I would keep pruned into a bush. Each August I would be able to go out into my back yard, fight off the birds with flailing arms and pick enough of the puny little fruits to make a single batch of jelly, nostalgia jelly, essence-of-memory chokecherry jelly.

When I was a child my grandmother always snorted at the idea of harvesting chokecherries. The miserable little fruits consist of nothing but skin, a drop of juice and a large pit. Back on our farm in Indiana, before we moved to Montana, we had pears, apricots, peaches, persimmons, plums, cherries and several old-fashioned apples. Real fruit. Nevertheless, desperate for sweets, every August Grandma and I crossed the river, tromped down into the barrow pit and emerged into a thicket of scrubby chokecherry trees. We worked hours to fill our pails. Sweat poured down our backs. Mosquitoes feasted unmolested on our flesh as we held the bucket with one hand and stripped the fruit with the other.

In our steam-filled kitchen we simmered the fruit, strained the juice, cooked it to the jell stage, washed, scalded and filled jars and carefully ladled melted paraffin over the hot jell. In September we tackled the native crab apples in much the same fashion. Come winter we treasured those jars of shimmering jelly.

Today at the market one may buy bushels of peaches or pears or apples. It’s all trucked in from Yakima or California or South America. One knows neither where the fruit originated nor when it was picked. Eating store-bought fruit is like playing the lottery. At times the pulp is woody and tasteless. When you pick a winner, it is sweet and juicy. Yet it is undeniably easy to buy fresh fruit in the produce department and jelly in brightly labeled jars on aisle three.

Ah, my chokecherries! Six lovely, low spreading bushes survived both late frosts and hailstorms. Every branch is loaded and bent to the ground. Some branches are so heavy they broke off at the trunk. All summer I guarded the bushes like a hawk. So did my cats. They lounged in the shade of the little trees, twitching their tails, ready to pounce on any unwary bird dumb enough to come near. The cherries prospered, grew plumper, fleshier and juicier than any chokecherry in my previous experience.

Finally picking day arrived. With my blue colander in hand, I stripped the heavy fruit from one branch. I grabbed a stool, sat down and reached into the drooping branches. In minutes I had heaped my bowl. I emptied it into a bucket and continued picking. When I had picked the ripest cherries from two of my bushes, I went inside to the kitchen. I processed a batch of jelly for myself, a batch for my children and a couple batches to give to visitors.

Now I was in a quandary. Sure, I could let the birds take the rest of the cherries. But surely there must be other women in town like me, hungry for chokecherry jelly but unwilling to head out into the country and battle through the brush. I made some phone calls. Marsha came over. I handed her a stool. She chose her bush, sat down and in minutes filled her bucket. I called Evelyn. She said she would love some but didn’t think she could pick them. So I picked her a bucketful and delivered it in exchange for a cup of tea, a cookie and conversation. Mary said, “Sondra, you know I don’t can!” Sandy said her fruit shelves were overloaded. Jane said, “The thought of canning anything makes my stomach hurt.” Lois said that she didn’t think she’d have time, but thanked me for calling. I’ll keep asking. Somebody will want to share my bird cherries.

Everything has been ripening late this year. One of my bushes is still covered with little green fruit. Give it another week or so of sunshine. Maybe I will generously leave the last cherries for the birds. Maybe.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
August 25, 2011