Tuesday, August 31, 2010

All Creatures Great and Small

Monarch caterpillars on butterfly weed bush in my parents' backyard

All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful,
The Lord God made them all.

Each little flower that opens,
Each little bird that sings,
He made their glowing colours,
He made their tiny wings.

The purple-headed mountain,
The river running by,
The sunset, and the morning,
That brightens up the sky;

The cold wind in the winter,
The pleasant summer sun,
The ripe fruits in the garden,
He made them every one.

The tall trees in the greenwood,
The meadows where we play,
The rushes by the water,
We gather every day;--

He gave us eyes to see them,
And lips that we might tell,
How great is God Almighty,
Who has made all things well.

Maker of Heaven and Earth (All Things Bright and Beautiful), Cecil Frances Alexander 

Ladybug, left, and ladybug larvae, right

I spent a great deal of time this past weekend staring at a bush outside my parents' house. It was a large butterfly weed, and from the first glance, it didn't appear to be in great shape. The leaves were turning a sickly yellowish color, and it was cloaked in tiny orange aphids. However, it was hosting a fascinating variety of life, all interdependent on each other and/or in the plant in various combinations.

First of all, there were the monarch caterpillars--we counted as many as 12 at once. They're a striking caterpillar to begin with, and we enjoyed seeing them in sizes ranging from two inches long (about ready to make a chrysalis) to tiny (about the size of the tip of my pinkie fingernail). They ate ravenously, especially the larger specimens. I was mesmerized just by the speed at which they devoured the leaves. (Eric Carle had to have been talking about a monarch caterpillar when he wrote "The Very Hungry Caterpillar.")

Then, I noticed the ladybugs--not the orangish imported versions that are such pests in some areas of the country, but "real" red ladybugs--the kind I remember from my youth. I also noticed another type of critter or two--a grayish larvae and a red and black larvae. This was ringing a bell from a book I'd read to my 7-year-old. I asked her if these were different stages of ladybug larva (something I'd never seen before in person). She assured me it was--and, trust me, she'd know on this type of thing.

Ladybug, top left, and ladybug larvae, bottom

But that wasn't the only life the plant was hosting. There were bees coming to the plant's orange flowers, flies and gnats buzzing about, and the occasional little spider. Every time I came out of the house, I had to check out the veritable menagerie on the butterfly weed.

It struck me how wonderfully God has created this world and the myriad life forms in it. How everything on this planet has a purpose--even aphid-infested butterfly weed plants that at first glance look like they're destined for the compost heap!

Ladybug pupa

Dear Lord: Help me to see with open eyes the beauty of the world around me. Help me to observe with the wonder of a child and praise your glory to the heavens. Teach me that if you can use something as humble as a weed to bring forth life, you can use me too, as imperfect as I am. 

O Lord, how manifold are thy works! In wisdom, hast thou made them all: the earth is full of thy riches. So is this great and wide sea, wherein are things creeping innumerable, both small and great beasts.

Psalm 104: 24-25

Saturday, August 28, 2010

An Old Poem: In Season

Here's a poem I wrote for our middle child (now five!) when she was four months old. I hadn't written any poetry in years, but the idea for this poem came to me in the middle of the night, while nursing. I couldn't go back to sleep until I had jotted a few lines down; by the next afternoon, it was finished.

In Season
for Julianne Elizabeth

By the time we discovered you
you were a comma of possibility,
microscopic but mighty,
a miracle of inattention.

By the time we met you
you were wrinkled and wriggling,
a parched bud of need and longing.

Now we know you, lush, plump, fully realized.
A soft, round belly, milky and cool,
perfect as a pitcher of cream.
Hair, a delicate fuzz.
Eyes, a shock of delphinium blue.

She’s a peach, a friend told us.
ripe, melting
ready to be devoured.

Copyright 2010, Elizabeth May

Friday, August 27, 2010

Clean and Green: Making Your Own Cleaning Products, Part 2

My commitment to green cleaning began by chance. I was looking for essential oils to purchase to make a homemade air spray and happened upon a "recipe" for an easy all-purpose spray cleaner. It was made of things I already had around my house. It took two minutes to mix. It worked. It smelled good. I didn’t have to warn my kids: “Don’t touch! It has chemicals on it!”

I was hooked.

It will be a year this fall since I started cleaning naturally,and I'm still going strong! It’s easy to mix up a new batch of All-Purpose Spray Cleaner (see recipe below) if I need to, and takes only a few minutes. But, I also try make things as simple as possible. I clean tubs by sprinkling in some baking soda and a few drops of liquid castile soap  that I keep in a nearby closet, and then lather it up with a scrub brush. I clean and deodorize toilets by sprinkling in a few tablespoons of borax and squirting in a few drops of tea tree oil . I let it sit for a little while--you can even let it “work” overnight--and then scrub with a toilet brush. My mirrors sparkle when I spray on club soda and wipe dry with a clean rag.

I know I’m saving money with DIY cleaning, but, best of all, I feel good about what I’m using in my home. And, I’m discovering another nice side effect of green cleaning too: When your cleaning regimen smells like aromatherapy, you actually clean more!

All-Purpose Cleaning Spray

This is the first cleaning recipe I made. I like it because it only has three ingredients. I use it on my laminate kitchen countertops, bathroom sinks, toilet seats, showers and tubs; it can also be used on stainless steel, mirrors, and glass. That’s a lot for one little cleaner!

12 ounces distilled or filtered water
4 ounces distilled white vinegar
10-20 drops essential oil, or to your preference (I like tea tree oil for my bathrooms and a citrus scent like orange, lemon, or lime for my kitchen.)

Pour all ingredients into an empty spray bottle. Shake before each use to distribute essential oils.

Antiseptic Soap Spray 

This is good for you antibacterial buffs out there. It’s a nice, natural alternative to commercial sanitizers and draws on the naturally antiseptic cleansing qualities of both soap and tea tree oil. Great for bathrooms, wiping down toys and doorknobs to kill germs, and more. 

3 tbsp. Dr. Bronner’s liquid castile soap
20-30 drops tea tree essential oil
16 ounces distilled or filtered water

Fill a 16-ounce spray or squirt bottle almost full of water. Add liquid soap and tea tree oil. Shake to mix.

Furniture Polish Spray

There are two options for this simple furniture cleaner. Both use nearly the same ingredients, but in different proportions. I use spray #1 for my vintage and antique furniture—these older pieces with a more porous finish just “drink” up the oil. Spray #2 is great for painted furniture or pieces with a harder finish.

Olive oil
Distilled white vinegar
Lemon essential oil or fresh lemon juice
Distilled or filtered water (for spray #1)

For spray #1, put ¾ cup olive oil, ¼ cup vinegar, and 40 or so drops lemon oil or ¼ tsp. fresh lemon juice in bottle. (This only makes about 8 ounces, so you may want to get a smaller bottle. Since it’s largely oil-based, you don’t need to use a lot; I usually squirt a little on a clean rag and buff it in.)

For spray #2, put two tsp. olive oil in 16-ounce bottle, add 20 or more drops lemon essential oil (or 1 to 2 tsp. fresh lemon juice) and ¼ cup vinegar. Fill the rest of the bottle with water. Shake well before each use.

If you are using fresh lemon juice, most experts recommending keeping your spray in the fridge so the lemon juice doesn’t go rancid.

Soft Scrubber

I use this when I need some extra scrubbing power; to scour my kitchen sink, to get at the bathtub and the texturized bottom of my shower. One note: Baking soda will leave a residue, so try not to use it on glass shower doors or metal fixtures, unless you don’t mind following with a vinegar spray cleaner to make things shine.

Baking soda
Dr. Bronner’s liquid castile soap

Homemade soft scrubbers can tend to dry out, so I mix this on the fly. I put baking soda in a shaker container (dollar-store confectioner’s sugar shakers work well), shake out as needed on the surface to be cleaned, and add a few drops of Dr. Bronner’s liquid castile soap. I then lather it up with a wet scrub brush, rinse, and repeat as needed.

Image: graur codrin / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Clean and Green: Making Your Own Cleaning Products, Part 1

Everyone’s “going green” these days. Recycling bins show up in nearly every business and home; schools and workplaces go “paperless”; hip boutiques carry purses and accessories made of everything from old license plates to juice boxes to recycled newspapers; and, families everywhere toss their harsh commercial cleaners in favor of natural, homemade concoctions that save the planet--and their pocketbook.

Well, I may be stretching it a bit with the last one, but we could all benefit from considering how we can “green” up our cleanup. If you’re like I was, you probably haven’t thought too much about what’s lurking under your kitchen sink or in your bathroom cupboard. But what if you could replace the plethora of commercial cleaning products—many harboring caustic, or even potentially toxic, chemicals—with a few simple, time-tested basic cleaning supplies that are all-natural?

Think pantry staples like baking soda, lemon juice, olive oil, and white distilled vinegar. Add in the aromatic world of essential oils for heavenly scents and extra disinfecting power. Mix. Repeat.

That’s just about how complex homemade, green cleaners are. In fact, for earlier generations this won’t be big news. Just ask your grandma. She probably didn’t buy a different cleaner for every day of the week; many of today’s products weren’t even on the market when she was young. She knows that mildly-abrasive baking soda is safe enough to eat but also can clean your oven, tub, and more. No doubt, she could tell you that vinegar and water mixed in a spray bottle (or club soda) will make your glass, mirrors, and metal shine like never before.

I began making my own cleaning products nearly 10 months ago, and haven't looked back. Tune in for Part 2 tomorrow when I share my tried and tested tips and homemade cleaning recipes.

Image: Arvind Balaraman / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Create An Herbal Bouquet

One of my favorite things to do this time of year is  create a bouquet of herbs.

It's pretty, smells fragrant, and inspires you to pluck a few leaves or stems to enliven your meals.

The bouquet pictured here includes herbs from my own garden (rosemary, dill, oregano, parsley, and chives), though you could certainly purchase the herbs at your local farmer's market or grocery.

I simply wash the herbs, so they're ready to use, and put them on my kitchen countertop where I can't miss them come mealtime.

Here are some of my favorite, quick and easy uses for fresh herbs:

1. Chop fresh chives and use them to top baked potatoes, or toss boiled potato chunks with real butter and chives.

2. Place a fresh tomato slice on a piece of bread and sprinkle with fresh minced basil. Top with a slice of cheese and broil for a delicious and easy sandwich or snack.

3. Slice fresh cucumbers and toss with yogurt, sour cream or mayo, and season with sea salt, fresh ground pepper, and fresh dill weed.

4. Make a homemade herb vinagrette by mixing two parts olive oil to one part balsamic vinegar or lemon juice. Season with sea salt, fresh ground pepper, fresh garlic (pressed through a garlic press or minced) and a variety of fresh herbs, finely chopped.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

A New Poem: Elemental


I thought I saw you the other day.
You were shimmering
in the wake of rain.
You were dancing
in dappled leaf-light.
I felt you thudding
through my veins.

I searched you thrumming
in springtime thunder,
and found you
vibrating into my bones--
sensed you in
every taste touch smell,
but most of all
you felt like home.

I touched you 
in creek-smooth pebbles,
sounded you out
in river moans,
tasted you in every season
and never felt alone.

I sighted you flying
in the moonlight under
darkened silken wings,
Felt you tingle into my every nerve,
saw heard knew
you in everything.

Elemental as iron,
essential as air,
simple as a drop of dew,
yet, how often
I forget
You're there.

Copyright 2010, Elizabeth May

Monday, August 23, 2010

The Cracked Laundry Basket

Have you ever been on a shopping mission? I know I have. Maybe it's for some key bit of home decor, or for a hard-to-find piece of clothing to match something you already have. We can invest a lot of time and money searching out that perfect item, and the ironic thing is, we often don't really need it.

On the other hand, I often neglect the essential--the everyday items that get alot of wear and tear and wouldn't be all that difficult to find or all that expensive to replace.

Take the cracked laundry basket.

I recently realized we use two laundry baskets in our household--and that they're the same ones my husband and I had in college. (Let's just say they're pretty old, without getting into revealing details about exactly how old we're getting too...)

One just cracked in several places. It's time for a new one, but I haven't gotten around to it.

It's kind of like my spiritual life. The thing that really matters, but that I don't invest enough time in.

Just as I can easily fill my shopping cart with frivolous impulse buys, I can also fill my mind with distractions that crowd out God.

Dear Lord: Please help me to take a foundational approach to spending my time and money, focusing on what's truly important, like my relationship with you. Help me to clear away the clutter and distractions of daily life to reveal your face.

Look to the Lord and his strength; seek his face always.

1 Chronicles 16:11

Friday, August 13, 2010

A Food Journey

Growing up on a small "hobby" farm in Southeastern Ohio, I took local food for granted.

We always had a huge vegetable garden in our own yard. We had chickens to provide us with eggs, and it was my job to collect eggs daily. (I was even able to sell the surplus brown eggs to our local health food store for some spending money.) We drank fresh, unpasteurized milk from our dairy-farming neighbor down the road. We even raised our chicken, pigs, and Angus cattle.

My mom was born in West Virginia, but contrary to the stereotypical hillbilly jokes about her home state, she spent her childhood in towns like Charleston and Huntington. She grew up purely as a city girl, thinking tomatoes came from the grocery store--not a garden. As an adult, she became fascinated with farm life and learning how to make, grow, and raise her own food, direct from the source. So, when she and my dad had the chance to move our family out to a 220-acre Ohio farm, they jumped at it.

Looking back, my parents gave DIY a whole new name. Purchased directly from an Amish family, the old farmhouse lacked indoor plumbing; it had some wiring, since it was not always an Amish home, but, according to my dad, it was just "shoved up" in the walls. Naturally, my parents had a few projects on their plate--not to mention responsibility for me and my sister, then three and seven, respectively.

In the midst of all this home improvement and child-rearing, my parents started right into farming. My dad took main responsibility for the livestock, and the vegetable garden was a joint effort. My mom also dove into food preparation, teaching herself how to make homemade bread, can fruits and vegetables, and even churn butter.

"There was a time when we could say that everything on our table, we raised ourselves," my dad recalls proudly.

As my sister and I got older and more involved in activities, and as my dad traveled more and got busier with work, my parents found that they couldn't keep up with raising so much of their own food. Little by little, the food on our plates changed. The bread was no longer homemade; the meat wasn't our own. But, we still did better than many of our fellow Americans--we got meat from our neighbor who raised her own cattle, and we always kept a big vegetable garden.

I grew up, moved away, and stopped really thinking about my food. In college, it was all about what was cheap and easy. After college, things didn't change too much, until I started subscribing to food magazines and becoming interested in cooking more. But, even then, it was about finding a recipe that looked good and going off and buying all the ingredients--regardless of what was in season, or local, or organic. The food's pedigree didn't even enter into my thinking. Then, kids came along, and I found myself doing things I used to turn my nose up at--making cream-of-mushroom-soup casseroles and crock-pot concoctions that included ginger ale and ketchup, and nuking chicken nuggets and easy mac and spaghettios.

Every now and then--for special occasions and when I got totally bored with our usual food--I'd go on kicks where I'd dig out my cookbooks and make good food again. But, by and large, I'd fallen into the trap again of looking at food in terms of how cheap and quick and easy it was. After all, I reasoned, I had little kids, I had work--what I didn't have was time to prepare elaborate meals.

Then, I got tired. Got tired AND educated. Got tired of sub-par food. Got tired of fixing a meal that I didn't even want to eat. Got educated about our food system in the U.S. and how far away from the source we've gotten. I learned how laden our foods are with preservatives, chemicals, and stuff we really shouldn't be putting into our bodies. I became convinced that it wasn't just a luxury to feed my family well; it was a necessity. Our health--our very lives--depended on it.

I learned to make food shopping and prep a priority. I learned again to take pride in where my food comes from. I'll be honest. It can take more time and money. And, there are days when we throw in the towel (literally, because let me tell you, this approach does up the dish-washing ante quite a bit!) and order take-out pizza. We also indulge far too often in things like supermarket ice cream in elaborate flavors and with an ingredient list a mile long; and our kids still partake of decidedly non-healthful things like juice boxes and candy at parties and kid events.

But, at least we are informed now. And, we're making a conscious effort to tell our food's story with pride.

"These apples are organic."

"This bread is made at a small bakery that doesn't use preservatives."

"This came from a local farm."

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Discovering Purslane

I have to admit it was a first for me. After dinner Sunday night, we were playing out on the driveway with the kids. I leaned over, pointed to a weed growing from the cracks in the concrete and said, "hey, we ate this for dinner!"

I don't think my husband was impressed.

Don't get me wrong, I didn't go out and forage for dinner, but I did decide to be adventurous at the farmer's market. A farmer was selling his "magic mix"--a handful of chard, a handful of nasturtium leaves and a handful of purslane (this is the "weed.") "Chop and saute for 2 minutes--it's the perfect side dish," he said.

I was intrigued. I also remembered hearing about purslane's great health benefits.

Purslane contains more Omega-3 fatty acids--especially alpha-linolenic acid--than any other leafy vegetable. It also contains an extraordinary amount of EPA for a land-based vegetable source.

Purslane is a succulent herb--which means it pulls moisture from the ground and holds it in its leaves and stems. This is good news from an eating standpoint; it means purslane is juicy. It can be used raw in salads or cooked like spinach. I've only eaten it cooked with the aforementioned chard and nasturtium, and it was surprisingly good. It didn't have a strong or "weedy" taste, but added some nice crunch and a pleasant, lightly sour note to my saute (almost as if I had added some vinegar or lemon juice to balance out the other flavors).

Here's what it looks like cooked. I sauteed it in local Amish butter, added salt and pepper, and organic feta. I'd like to try it raw too. I've found recipes for a cucumber yogurt salad and potato salad using raw purslane.

For more details on purslane, click here or here.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Raising a Monarch Butterfly

Two years ago, we found a monarch butterfly caterpillar at my parents' farm in Southeastern Ohio in August. We watched the amazing transformation take place, stunned and enthralled as God's miracle unfolded right before our eyes. It began with the ravenous eating and rapid growth of the caterpillar. As we were getting ready to return home to Pennsylvania, I noticed the caterpillar had attached himself to a stick and dropped head down. I was concerned. Was this normal? Soon, I noticed a green substance creeping up the caterpillar, but it was time to go. We packed our little piece of nature into the car and headed home, hoping the jarring of the car didn't disturb our precious cargo.

When we climbed out of the car, we were amazed to see the work of the caterpillar was complete for now: He had turned into a lovely jade-green chrysalis, complete with a metallic gold line around the top and more gold specks around the base. We watched and waited. One morning, I noticed the chrysalis had turned black. I was certain something bad had happened. The girls and I left for a few hours to run an errand, and while we were gone, my husband called to inform us our butterfly had hatched.

Disappointed to have missed it, we rushed home. We saw that our butterfly's abdomen looked large and its wings, small and wet. We took him outside and watched as his wings grew larger and drier (evidently he was pumping fluid into his wing veins).  He took turns walking onto our fingers and letting us "hold" him. We were careful not to touch his wings, which would harm him.

The girls and I watched as our butterfly grew stronger and stronger. He flew a bit, then rested on the brick side of our house. We took pictures. And, finally, we said goodbye to our beautiful friend.

We had such a wonderful experience witnessing God's beauty at work in the world around us, we've been wanting to raise another monarch butterfly. Our wish has been granted again this summer. I returned home from another visit to Ohio this past Sunday with what I thought was one large monarch caterpillar and some milkweed leaves to feed him.

Turns out, two more tiny, tiny caterpillars had hitched a ride on the milkweed. God is generous!

Dear Lord: Please help us to appreciate the beauty and wonder of the natural world around us, which you have created. Allow us to view the miracle of transformation from caterpillar to butterfly and be inspired. If a tiny worm can accomplish such dramatic results in a few short days, what could we do, if only we trusted in you and in our own gifts?

Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.
  Romans 12:2

For more information about monarchs and some cool life cycle photos, visit http://www.monarch-butterfly.com/

Image: Liz Noffsinger / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Morning Coffee

Are you a coffee junkie? A java aficionado? A mocha maven?

Do you start each and every morning with a cup of coffee or tea?

I do. It's a given.

Yes, I do have to take some time to make sure I'm stocked up on my favorite beans and that I have the right filter. I need to rinse out the pot, fill up the reservoir with fresh water, replace the filter and measure out the coffee grinds. These days, most of this has to be accomplished with a four-month old baby on my hip, which makes it all the more challenging.

But, it's worth it.

There's something else that should be as much a part of my day as my morning coffee. Time with God. Every day. Non-negotiable. As much a part of waking of as my daily caffeine boost.

Seeking God first in the morning sets the stage for a productive and peaceful day.

Dear God, help me to consistently seek you each and every morning. Help me to connect with you and feel your peace. Infuse my daily life with your love and joy. Amen. 

But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

Matthew 6:33