A writer's tale of living and working in the country.

Month: January 2014

Surviving the Dream

Most days, if you asked me how I am doing, I reply, “Living the dream.”

Today with a box of tissues lying next to my box of antihistamine and decongestant, while attempting to not scratch the hundreds of tiny lash marks that promise to leave scars on my forearms, I might say, “Surviving the dream.”

Sometimes I think dreams should come with warning labels:

This dream may require ridiculous amounts of exertion, cause numerous scratches to your forearms which may lead to an intense burning sensation. Bleeding and dehydration are likely. Muscle aches could lead to domestic abuse when your spouse jostles the bed at night. Mental stability may be questioned when the patient begins to stack silverware in the fashion of woodpiles.  

Around here, the normal quiet that signals winter has been shattered by the constant roar of a chainsaw. Operation Free the Hundred-Year-Old Pecan Trees has commenced. Unfortunately it is only the first of several steps that must be taken before we can officially become a pecan farm.

Before clearing the majestic pecan.

After. At least 128 years old.
Pre-clearing: It looks like there is only a few trees to remove under those pecans, but there were dozens of small trees, hundreds of prickly vines and several thorny locust trees.

In spite of the growing number of cuts across our arms that might lead strangers to believe we have taken in a hoard of kittens, we press on. We tug, scrape, haul, hoist, cut, load, dump, stack, and drag until the mighty trunks of the pecan trees are bare.

Occasionally we find a dead animal and the game of Identify and Classify the Remains offers a small break before we trudge back to the mountains of underbrush that won’t clear themselves. 

Good times…

Two pecan trees at the north end of the pasture.

The four pecan trees at the south end of the pasture. The second one from the left is the largest we have and measures 152 inches in circumference, which if the calculations are correct means it took root around the time of the Civil War. The two flanking it measure around 83 years old. 

Brush piles waiting to be burned.

Every. Single. Piece. had to be cut, hauled and stacked. On the bright side, if there happens to be another ice age we are prepared.

The Hermitage

If you are ever traveling near Nashville, Tennessee you must make a stop at The Hermitage: the beloved home of President Andrew Jackson, who served as the seventh president from 1829 to 1837. “Old Hickory” as he was known, lived at the estate until his death in 1845.

The tourism office offers separate audio tours for adults and children. I highly recommend getting the kid’s audio tour, it whittled down the vast amount of information available and presented it in a humorous light. With expansive grounds offering slave cabins, a smoking house, and a museum, you will need to allow at least three hours to tour with children.

The house itself has been restored and the original wallpaper still hangs in many of the rooms. Tour guides, dressed in period costume, offer information and great stories about the stubborn and raucous general who saved a young U.S. from the British at the Battle of New Orleans.

Numerous historical items are on display from the life and time of Jackson, including his carriage, china, clothing and portraits. The gardens and grave site of Jackson provide a peaceful backdrop for a leisurely walk around the estate, or a paved running path for kiddos tired of being couped up in a car.

We visited The Hermitage over the summer so we read Andrew Jackson by Steve Potts before touring the estate. Now that our two older boys are studying American history, they really appreciate the opportunity they had to see, touch and experience history. The Hermitage is well worth the money and time to visit if you are ever in the area. 

A view inside the smokehouse.

A view inside one of the slave cabins.
Andrew Jackson’s grave site on the grounds of The Hermitage.

Sweet Revenge

Owning land in Texas means eventually crossing paths with Honey Locust trees. There is a reason they thrive in the drought-ridden scorching heat…they are evil.

Plucked-from-the-depths-of-hell evil.

Imagine giants covered with armies of miniature soldiers all wielding swords, ready to defend themselves from any unknowing creature that happens by, and only naive creatures go near them because once you’ve tangled with a Honey Locust you will avoid them like the plague.

Unless they stand between you and your pecan orchard.

Most ranchers would relocate the orchard rather than deal with the trees. Not us.

We hack them to bits and haul their dead bodies to the sawmill.

Hubs spent fourteen hours one day during the Christmas break exacting his revenge for every cut, stab, and poke that he has endured from the Honey Locusts.

And the results were beautiful.

I wish we could have left it unfinished, but it would have lasted only two seasons under the harsh Texas sun.

Hubs used a plan from Ana White and made the table 30″ wide instead of 36″ to fit our second-story porch. I sanded it down with 50, 80, 120, 220 and 320 grit pads before sealing it with a deck stain and sealer since it will have to endure harsh weather conditions. We bought 8 wrought-iron-look plastic folding chairs from Sam’s Club.

The red is from the wood, the toner/sealer had no red in it.

The felled wood laid by the wood pile for a long while, allowing the carpenter ants to burrow those cool holes through the rock-hard wood. A pain to stain, but worth the effort. A strong solid piece of furniture built solely from the extermination of the enemy.

A win-win I’d say.

Curriculum Review: All About Reading

While my husband and I were contemplating pulling our kids from public school and homeschooling, we discovered that our youngest, about to complete first grade, was going to be referred for dyslexia and dysgraphia testing by the school.
He wasn’t the best reader, but he had maintained an A average. We had worked with him all year, after school, to bring him up to level, but nothing we did helped. In the last months of public school, I spent a lot of time trying to uncover the source of his difficulty. I compared my observations (he seemed to be missing several necessary sounds and rules for reading which made him frustrated and quick to give up) to the markers for dyslexia and dysgraphia and determined that he showed none of the specific “symptoms” listed other than being generally behind in reading and writing.
Our fence walking suddenly halted and we knew we needed to homeschool Youngest, even if only for a year, to get him back on track. I spent hours researching curriculum and finally decided to just start over…take him back to preschool in both reading and writing.
We began All About Reading Level 1 in August of 2013 and began Level 2 at the end of October. I’m not exaggerating when I say that it has changed our lives. My formerly struggling seven-year-old now reads above grade level. He begs to go to the library every week where we check out no less than twenty books solely for him. It’s not unusual to see him running up to bed at night with his arms piled high with books. He now has great confidence in reading and that bleeds over to every subject that he tackles.
Why did this program work for us?
Multisensory learning.
Every lesson offers auditory, visual, and tactile reinforcements of the material covered. The parent/teacher explains the letter sounds and reading rules while manipulating magnetic tiles on the board. The child then uses the tiles to build sounds, syllables, and words. The child is tested on 10 new words every lesson with provided cards. The included workbook contains worksheets and games that reinforce the lesson. Each level comes with at least two hardbound books that contain fun short stories with the words the child has learned, allowing the student to gain confidence in reading actual books.  

The tile board serves both All About Reading and All About Spelling.

I was worried that taking Youngest back to the beginning of Kindergarten would break his spirit, but the program was so different than anything he had ever done before that he barely noticed. He sped through the lessons, filling in the holes that had caused him to hate reading. I figured that he would slow down when we got to Level 2, but the program continually reviews and builds on previous material so that the he was excited to learn the new words.

The teacher manual easily lays out what the parent/teacher needs to do each day, dividing the lessons into sections that can be completed all at once or at different times of the school day for kiddos who need shorter learning periods. Other than the initial set up, almost no prep-work is required on a daily or weekly basis. I cannot rate All About Reading highly enough. It has been an amazing blessing to this new homeschool family.  
We used All About Reading in conjunction with All About Spelling and IEW’s Primary Arts of Language: Writing. The writing program includes the first level and student materials for All About Spelling. I will review those curricula separately since each could be used on their own if desired, but I highly recommend using them together since they all follow each other seamlessly and the child gets the optimum review of learned material.    

The Greenhouse

Most husbands trek to a jewelry or clothing store in search of their wife’s birthday present, but Hubs knew the way to my heart would be found in the lumber section of a hardware store.

And as I have mentioned before, I have experienced some disaster trouble with gardening. I seem unable to cultivate tomatoes and peppers from seed… the only real option for Heirloom plants. Some research revealed that tomatoes and peppers are best started in greenhouses and then transplanted to the garden.

Armed with this knowledge, Hubs and Oldest set to building a greenhouse for my birthday. I was forbidden from entering the back pasture for over two weeks while they toiled. A freak snowstorm prevented them from finishing before the big day, but that was really a blessing in disguise since it meant that Hubs and I could finish the building together.

The general plans came from Ana White but Hubs had to do some adjustment calculations since the wood available in Texas is different than that in Alaska where she lives. Our greenhouse is also set on a buried brick foundation with cemented anchors to prevent the powerful Texas wind from sending our work to Oz.

The edges of the walls are sealed and covered by galvanized roof flashing, something Ana later added but did not include in the original plans. Hubs built our door of scrap lumber instead of Ana’s plan. We covered the top half of the door with screen to allow for air flow in the summer and then added a solid insert that is screwed in from the back of the door for winter.

We will have to make adjustments to the interior to thwart the many animals that will inevitably attempt to tunnel under the walls to reach any tender green shoots in the later winter and early spring. If all goes well, the interior will be finished soon and you can take a peek inside.