Friday, November 23, 2012

A Recipe for Beer—The Infamous Snowpocalypse Porter

Snowpocalypse Porter—February 10, 2010 (Round 2 of the Blizzards of 2010)
2 lbs. Wasmund's smoked malt
2 lbs 120-l malt
2 lbs Chocolate malt
1 lb honey
½ lb Blackstrap molasses
½ lb Molasses
1 tsp gypsum
3 quarts water from melted snow
Step mash
Initial gravity 1.052
Chilled wort in snowbank, which is remarkable inefficient unless you are constantly fiddling with it.


We have two champagne bottles of this stuff left, and we haven't tasted it in well over a year. We will be killing those off sometime over the holidays, so keeping fingers crossed...could be spectacular.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Cattle Egret

A few days ago, we were driving through the county to visit our friend's little dairy, when something moving off in the distance caught our attention.

It was a bird, brilliant white in the low-slanting sunlight of the morning, flying gracefully and purposefully towards the northwest. Both its brightness and it's flight pattern were distinctive, but at such a distance we had a difficult time identifying it. As we arrived, it flew behind the crest of the hill and disappeared.

As we went about our business at the dairy, my curiosity got the better of me. After asking permission—of course—I unchained the twin metal gates and quietly as I could, entered the adjoining field. Securing the gate behind me, I walked cross-country slowly and deliberately through the field, among the dozens of cows and calf grazing there, towards the crest, scanning the horizon as I went for any sign of the bird.

As I reached the ridge, there was a flash of white downhill to my left. There the bird stood in all its brilliance. It was tall and elegant, and as best I could see, pure white from wingtip to wingtip and head to tail. It moved with great poise and consideration through the russet grasses, plucking seeds and insects as it went. It studied its surroundings with great care and diligence, and seemed utterly serene.

From time to time, it would take flight for a few yards, moving to a new patch of grass to feed. And when it arrived in a new location, it paid no attention to the residents in place—calf, cow, steer or border collie. It simply went about its business with great focus. At one point, a calf, seemingly annoyed by the bird, charged it and ran after it for a few yards; the bird simply flew just a few feet ahead of the calf until it tired of the effort. It did the same for the border collie, who seemed to feel this avian intruder was not showing the proper respect.

But in a few minutes, the most amazing thing occurred. The same tan calf (or an identical looking one) slowly moved closer to the bird. For a brief moment, the two stood motionless, face-to-face, addressing one another. "There is no veil."

Then they simply went about their respective businesses.

It turns out the bird was a Cattle Egret, not common to this area, but not unknown. We are on the edge of their natural range. They are well known for their commensal relationship with livestock, feeding on insects drawn to and stirred up by the livestock. The livestock neither particularly benefit from, nor are harmed by, their presence. They seem to have no natural distrust for the animals surrounding them that dwarf them, but instead get along with them in an admirable display of neighborliness.

Its graceful flight, brilliant plumage and regal, assured presence made the Cattle Egret one of the most impressive birds I have ever seen in person. I'm very glad I decided to take that little walk into the field to see what I could see.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Road To Kilmarnock

On a cold gray November morning, I am driving to Kilmarnock, a small town at the distal end of Virginia's Northern Neck. The neck is bounded by the Potomac on the north and the Rappahanock on the south; at its tip is the Chesapeake. The land is mostly flat sandy farmland punctuated with rich stands of pine and long walls of grey-brown oaks with their leaves around their ankles. The spine of the Northern Neck is a long, low dwindling ridge breaking the flatness and adding some twistiness to the roads. Soybeans are being harvested today by giant John Deere combines; corn is long gone from the fields, leaving only the rough stubble of its stalks behind.

I travel Route 3, a state highway that begins in the Piedmont at Culpeper, crosses the Fall line at Fredericksburg before meandering down the coastal plain and ending in Gloucester. It waxes and wanes on its way to the waterside, first four lanes, then two, then four again so many times over that it's hard to keep track. I note that every time it dwindles to two lanes, the driver ahead prefers to drive at least ten miles below the speed limit. This phenomena, and the astonishing length of the Northern Neck—after a short time driving, I reach what I assume to be the midpoint. It is not; I still have almost an hour and a half ahead of me—contributes to my sense of having been driving for ever and that I will never, ever, reach Kilmarnock.

I was wise to leave my arrival time vague.

A few miles shy of Kilmarnock, I crest a gentle rise and see in the distance a figure walking on the shoulder amid the wind-blown leaves. Though he is walking determinedly, with his back to me, I can tell by his posture he is hitchhiking. As if in confirmation, he hears my approach and turns to stick out his thumb. I have already changed lanes and begun to slow down.

He trots along the shoulder to where I have stopped. (I am always glad when hitchhikers do that; there is nothing more infuriating that a dawdling hitchhiker.) The front seat is full of a jumble of things, so I reach back and open the rear door so there will be no confusion. I am slightly embarrassed for making him ride in the back, but there is only so much...

He ducks in gratefully, trailing a nimbus of stale cigarette smoke behind him. He extends a scarred and calloused hand for me to shake, and thanks me profusely for stopping. I run through the obligatory preliminaries—how long you been out there, how far you heading, and so on, and find myself pleased that though my long and arduous trek to Kilmarnock is nearly done, I am still going just far enough to get him to his destination.

He tells me his story.

He is a plasterer. Not a drywall man, but a real plasterer. He was called out to a job first thing this morning and hitched there, but the lead was called off to another site and there was nothing for him to do. So he is heading home late in the morning, not a dime richer and hoping tomorrow will work out better. I surmise a lifetime of working with alkali is responsible for the condition of his hands.

“We're working on an older hoese, maybe from the 1830's. The original lintels over the windows were made of plaster, but they've rotted oat over the years. Instead of rebuilding them with plaster, we're building them up from cement. The final finish we'll do with plaster, so they look right.” 
“The hoese has walls that are two feet thick, ceilings ten, twelve feet high. The lintels themselves are eight feet up, so everything we do, we gotta do from either up on a stepladder or on scaffolding. It's tough. And there are a lot of windows...” he trailed off and gestured out the window. We had arrived. 

He exits the car and thanks me once again. I had spent four, maybe five minutes with him, and it was like stepping back into the 18th century; his trade, his description of his work, his self-reliant demeanor, his generous attitude. But mostly his ancient Virginia accent, with its distinctive bending of vowels that still maintains here and there, mostly in those low places close to the saltwater. It is the still-living language of the English who came here sometime between the founding of the country and the Civil War, and it is beautiful to hear it being spoken in a land where we have lost almost all marks of regional distinction.

Really glad I stopped. No idea why I did.

Also: This timely piece.

Thursday, November 01, 2012

Missing Beast

Gaaah. I'm stuck here for the fifth day as a pedestrian in this dystopian stripmall flatscape, with perfect weather and a ragged inability to get a good night's sleep. I really think an hour or so of quality time with Beast would go a long way to smoothing the rough edges of my tired-out brain right now.

If I was gonna be stuck here for very much longer, I'd track down that place I looked up that rents bikes and pay for an afternoon's worth of riding in circles.

And it's weird: even the BMW riders here don't wear helmets and they aren't in Aerostich suits. Go figure.


I'm not sure what brought this to mind recently, but I was reminded of an incident from a long time ago, that seems more remarkable every time I reflect on it.

I was about fourteen or fifteen, my exact age doesn't really matter. I was a member of the Explorers, which I refused to acknowledge was in any was associated with the Boy Scouts. Regardless of its affiliation, the organization presented an opportunity to escape the stifling confines of suburbia one weekend a month and get out into the woods with a small cadre of like-minded miscreants.

In any case. Besides my hanging with a tough crowd of middle class white teenagers, my parents also owned a share of a farmhouse in the shadow of the Blue Ridge in Sperryville, just a couple of miles from the boundaries of Shenandoah National Park.

So I had the bright idea of heading out with the Explorers on a weekend trip to Shenandoah, and using that as a launching point for an epic day hike beginning at Skyline Drive and following the Piney River down Old Hollow to Apple Hill.

In fact, I may have actually, um, you know, helped plan a weekend trip for the Explorers—a circuit hike, you know—for the rest of them. I'm kinda sketchy on those details at this point. So, on a fine spring Saturday, we piled into the van and left Arlington for Shenandoah National Park and Skyline

Drive with a mixed bag of understandings of what was going to transpire. At the trailhead, we parked the Green Monster and saddled up—them with their full packs with tents and sleeping bags, me with my daypack...

We set off down the trail, and as I was kinda fleet of foot, I got out in front of everyone. Of course, I was also not encumbered by a full pack, so had a bit of an advantage. So I hiked like a boy possessed, and within a few short minutes, I was alone in the wilds, making a solid four-plus mile an hour pace. I still can recall how the wind felt and how the air smelled that day.

The trail began along the ridge, then dropped down to follow the stream valley. By noon I was near the park boundary, and by a little after one I had arrived at Apple Hill and had lunch with my family.

But, strangely, I had never thought to mention my plans to Bill, our Explorer post advisor - chaperone -  resident adult. I'm not sure I even explained things to any of my peers in any great detail. In my mind, I wasn't participating in an Explorer outing; I was simply catching a convenient ride out to the mountains with them.

From an adult perspective, I can't imaging what must have gone through Bill's mind that evening when the group assembled at the campsite with one fewer hiker than they began with. I never really did find out, and I don't recall our ever speaking of it later. I know that if some little smart ass pulled a stunt like that on me, I'd make sure we had an understanding once we were both back in the world.

What gets me is recalling exactly how this made perfect sense at the time, though in hindsight it seems the very epitome of obliviousness. As a young teen, I passed through the world like a shade, wrapped in a self-sustaining mantle of invisibility. I left no trace, made no mark, had no impact, made no difference. So I completely believe it—and sympathize—when young people do dazzlingly dumb or inconsiderate or thoughtless or ridiculous things. It's likely they lack any way to gauge,  no way to recognize that they make a mark on the world, however faltering or tentative that mark may be. 

We need to remember that for the first decade or so of our consciousness, we really don't make much impact on the world at large, and perhaps the greatest revelation of growing up is that moment when you reach out and the world resonates beneath your touch.