Cold Frames, Creaky Floors, Seed Catalogs and Making Soap

map, gary new duluth

With winter settling in on northern Minnesota – the wood floors seem to creak more – and, I have switched from doing things to planning things. Planning gardens, planning beehives, looking at seed catalogs, attempting to make soap, and going as far as contacting a realtor or two about empty parcels of land in the area. Trying to keep busy seems to be a bit of a challenge and a case of blues has settled in on me – nothing new, mind you, I have dealt with depression for a long while; it is part of me, so I will make peace with it, settle in, and ride it out.

The cold frames are out in the yard, the hives at the house are wrapped up for the winter, we have a tentative agreement signed for placing hives on private land this spring near Island Lake, three batches of soap have been made, and the 2011 seed catalogs have started to arrive in the mail.

Melissa has been busying herself by painting. It started with, I think, the dining room and the wall and window we had to replace due to water damage. This gave her license to paint; this was followed by the living room, then the stairwell and hallway going upstairs, then the kitchen. Midway through the kitchen, a new bed frame was purchased for our guest room; the guest room got a short-notice makeover. The new bed looks nice and only required a small bit of carpentry on my part to make the hecho en México work with our crooked, late-1800s floor. Melissa was back in the kitchen this long weekend. I was in the basement and attic doing long overdue electrical work. We had a few outlets that were put in place, wire was pull from them to locations were power could be tapped, but somewhere along the span of four years, the wiring never made the connection to the power. That changed this weekend and all the outlets in the house are now live. Thanks to lupus, though, my hands and their joints hurt. All in all, with only one breaker being tripped by my pliers making contact from a live wire to ground, it was a success. The successful wiring did offset the blues momentarily.

cold frame

Back to the gardens. I have written about the cold frames in the recent past; I also wrote about my table saw and thumb accident that set me back with just about everything – my day job, hive winterizing, garden winterizing, and the list goes on. The construction of the cold frames was completed a while ago; however, it was not until this weekend that I moved the last two out into the yard. My neighbors, who are all in their own right, nuts, must have thought the same of me. Clearing snow away, to set a heavy wood box with an old window on the top, down on the ground; then filling the box with dirt. Crazy talk, I know.

Gardens. gardens. gardens. I want more next year. We have the front of the yard, but fruit trees will be going out there. Side yard? Melissa wants to put a chicken coop there next year. Other side of the front? That might work. Other parts of the back? There needs to be a balance between garden-space and hound-space, but something can be worked out. All that, and I plan and think, and plan and think. Run an idea past Melissa, then rethink it. I thumb through countless seed catalogs; it would awesome to grow this, or it would be totally bitching to grow that. There is always the space issue, and there is always the issue of our short growing season. With the cold frames, I hope to get a jump on some things this spring.

Don’t drop the soap. Saponification, has it is called, is the process where a strong base (in this case, Lye or Sodium Hydroxide) reacts with very weak, fatty acids (e.g. oils); You get some heat energy released and if the base and the oils were the correct proportions, you get soap. The prep time and mixing takes about an hour and the saponification time takes another 23 hours.

Round one was a hops, oatmeal and beeswax. Melissa has declared this one, so far, the best. Round two was a goats’ milk, honey and tea tree oil; very soft, it has a slight medical smell to it. Melissa gave the process a stab, and only splattered me with caustic goo once. She made a goats’ milk, lime essence/extract and coconut oil soap. She calls it "lime in the coconut". It is a pleasant smelling soap that cleans well.


Alex has prompted me to write something.

Most days I come in contact with two people: al-who i share the house with-and my mother-whose arm i wrap just about every day (more on that at a later date). both of these people have memory issues. al is dealing with the residual effects of a stroke 8 years ago and my mother is dealing with the residual effects of living to the age of 87. interestingly enough, i’m often the one with the best memory. “best” here is obviously a relative term and it only really only applies to my short-term memory. long term memory has never been my long suit. i’m just too good of a fabulist. it must be the Irish in me.)
it’s said that steel sharpens steel. the meaning being, i think, that like things are best suited for this task. if this were not so, the saying would be that a banana makes a great sharpening tool. i’ve not heard this said. so i’m getting nervous. i ‘ve not been spending much time with whip-sharp individuals.
i;ve been known at various times in my life for my sharp wit, my sharp tongue, my sharp teeth, and razor-like stare. i’ve been know to make many cutting remarks. some of my observations have been not only insightful but also incisive.
but lately, i suspect that the knife metaphor is dulling abit. the edge is being taken off so to speak.
actually,a rather good short-term memory has held me in stead so far… i remember especially well things that i’ve eaten recently that were exceptionally tasty.. the scrambled egg with thyme on toast with a dash of hot sauce this morning comes readily enough to mind. as does the great 2006 bogle merlot that i had a few nights ago… an aside: i got the very last case at the liquor store which is something i’ll long remember, i’m sure. it was a coup. i also remember very well where i put my keys and my scarf and where you or you put y
but my inabaility to sharpen my skills on the minds of those around me matters not a shred to my mother. she has always prided herself on being the sharpest mind in town. her scrabble score is always substantially higher than anyone else’s. she does at least two crossword puzzles a day. but recently the lights are dimming in the short-term remembrance department. and she’s not a bit amused. in fact, when i mentioned that i was toiling at this blog ( and after i reminded her what a blog was-again) and that it was about the subject of memory, the air got decidedly chilly when i brought up her less than stellar abilities. she was again not amused.
she doesn’t take well to being less than perfect.
(being the slowest, clumsiest, roundest,last one to be picked kid on the block. i think i got that lesson learned very early.)

ah well… i’ve worked hard enough at this for now.later i’ll buff this blog to a sheen of published perfection.  if i remember i’ll also write  about the times that i’ve let the kettle boil down to nothing but pan and the ensuing billows of smoke that filled the house as enamel melted and metal met its match in heat. .. and about the smoke alarm which failed to sound as someone had forgotten to change the batteries.

say, that’s some damn good remembering!

…and the bees were all tucked in, snug in their hives…


With the recent snow fall staying on the ground, and the air temperature staying in the region of below the freezing point of water, I can say with a weatherman’s confidence, winter is here. Hound Sarge has also informed us on several occasions that “it is winter; it is cold; I would rather poop in the living room.” With my thumb healing up, I was able to get the hives winterized only two weeks after I had wanted to get them buttoned up. The Hygienic Italians (in the photo, the one on the left) will need to be checked on mid-winter. The Carniolans swindled them out of honey, and I am concerned they might run low. Other than that, the bees will be left to their own devices for the winter.

And, so, what is there to do that is bee related this winter, you asked inquisitively?

The short answer is soap and candle making with beeswax.

beeswax melting

The last several days, I have been melting and filtering beeswax through cheesecloth. My first attempt was with our convection oven, but the temperature settings did not step finely enough to not be concerned about causing the wax to darken (which occurs after 190 degrees fahrenheit). I switched to using our conventional oven which can step at 5 degree intervals and go as low as 170 degrees. I settled in on 185 degrees; at this temperature I was able to, with in reason, melt the wax relatively quickly.

Melting, round one, was a mixture of wax, dead insects, and what is pejoratively called "slum-gum", a thick mixture of wax and heavy honey – mostly from decapping comb. This first round of filtering through cheesecloth yielded 9 oz (by weight) of beeswax and 14 oz (by weight) of thick honey. Honey so thick, it had characteristics of taffy.

The wax made it through two more filterings and was finally molded into a brick by using a non-stick bread-pan.

Melissa will, with hope, be posting about our soap making endeavor. The plan is to make an olive oil, beeswax, and palm oil soap – most likely – several pounds worth – in the coming week. I have been reading up on the saponification process of taking triglycerides and combining them with strong base (in our case, sodium hydroxide – NaOH – or "Lye") all at a certain temperature with the hopes of making soap. If it fails, you end with a blog of fat or a brick of drain cleaner. Lets hope we end up with soap and not a blog of fat.

A November Chill – Memories from a Bygone Time

deer scratching head

Last evening, just before dark, you could hear gun shots in the distance. Much like war drums from a bygone era, the gun shots signaled what would start 30 minutes before sunrise today, November 6, 2010; the opening of the Minnesota Firearm Whitetail Deer season. Every November, on the first Saturday of the month, whitetail season, or more colloquially, just “hunting,” begins, and goes for runs for a couple weeks. It is always precluded by a day or two of distant gun shots being heard; most likely, hunters who are doing last minute sighting in of their rifles – making sure they can hit the mark.

I started tagging along with my father and his brother, on the hunt, when I was about ten years old. Too small and too young to carry a firearm, I would just shadow my father. It was always an enjoyable time; time to bond with an otherwise work-obsessed father who would leave for his office before I awoke in the morning, and would, all too often, arrive home just as I was heading to bed.

There were always rituals involved with act of going hunting. They stand out in my mind vividly — the hanging of our bright orange clothing outside in an attempt to remove "unnatural" scents, the cooking of steak and potatoes for dinner, the boiling of water to clean the dark green Stanley thermos bottles that would hold the next day’s coffee and lunch (usually beef stew), the unnatural sound of my uncle drinking beer, the smell – in the cold November air – of the Marlboro cigarettes my father smoked, the smell of the fuel oil burning heater in the cabin, the cold morning air, the first glimpses of sun coming through the trees while you sat motionless in tree stand.

I shot my first and only deer, a yearly, when I was fifteen. Without going into gory details of the deed, I look back at it as a rite of passage. I stopped hunting after the next season. I was changing, growing up, and becoming aware of my surroundings and people near me. The rituals were losing their magic and appeal. Deep down, I did not want to have those memories, good memories, poisoned or twisted by external forces.