In progress

I hate to share in-progress pictures. Partly that’s because many of my projects are done in budget-sized increments, and how do I decide when I’m really “done”? But I also recognize that sharing progress pictures makes things seem more doable. And I tend to think most things are doable. Or at least, more things than most people think are.

So here is what’s been occupying my time after work for the last few weeks. It’s a picture of the back of our house, as seen from the new birdfeeder I installed in the backyard (more about that in a sec). The deck I built in 2020 with The Boy, but the stairs by the chimney and the short walkway I just added last week.

The reason for adding them was that below the chimney, I am putting in a water feature – a shallow pond (from 4-16 inches deep) for the wildlife and birds, with a small bubble fountain in it to make the birds happy. There are wetland plants that will go there as well, and to the right of the chimney, out of the shot, will be a small sitting area, where the red chairs that are currently on the deck will go, so I can sit in the shade of the afternoon and watch the fountain.

Ok, so that’s out of the way – let’s see what is blooming this week:

I love common yarrow. It’s evergreen (here, anyway – your mileage may vary), the pollinators love it, and the ferny texture fills in well. Every garden I have will have some yarrow in it.

And coneflowers! A native (well, this yellow variety is a nativar – don’t @ me, people), also beloved by pollinators, and nearly bulletproof. I just loved the juxtaposition of the yellow with the purple verbena – also a native plant, also bulletproof and beloved by pollinators.

The magnolia is still blooming, proof that God loves me and wants me to be happy.

This is the native “species” purple coneflower – lovely as can be. Surprisingly hard to find in nurseries, as people live the colored nativars. But I like this one best.

This is elderberry. Also native, it’s an aggressive bush here. I understand people pay for elderberry plants, but there’s no need. If you cut a branch off around the size of a pencil and then stick it in the ground, it will root. It fills in quickly and spreads, so it’s ideal in a place where you need quick screening. But the birds love the cover AND the berries, and the butterflies love the flowers. A great wildlife plant.

I wanted a bird feeder out in the yard, away from the house. The feeder by the house – really just a saucer on the deck rail – you can see it on the far left of the deck in the back of the house picture – is really only drawing Cardinals and Thrashers. I figured a feeder further from the house might draw more.

And it’s working – here are some Chickadees and a Tufted Titmouse that came to visit.

So Thursday evening I builta quick and dirty platform feeder: It’s just a 10-foot piece of ¾ inch EMT conduit driven in the ground as a post, then I drilled a 15/16 hole in a 2×2 for the crosspiece. It’s held in place by a 10d nail that goes through both the crosspiece and the 2×2, so it makes it easy to remove if needed. The platform feeder itself is just some 1×2 from which I made an overlapping double frame that sandwiches a piece of 2×4 fencing for support and a piece of window screen for drainage. On the right, you see the Blink camera. I hung the hanging feeder under it to balance out the weight, else it tends to lean a bit. Were I to do this over, I would use a piece of 1-inch EMT instead of the 3/4.

The squirrel baffle is just a piece of 4-inch PVC that is 2 feet long. I put the top of it six feet off the ground, and then drilled a hole through both it and the EMT and ran a piece of coathanger wire through it to hold it in place. Thus far, no squirrels have attempted it. We will see how it works.

Building a Birdcam

Over the last few weeks, I have been pretty focused on building a camera set up so I can monitor the wildlife that visits my yard.

I have a pretty exacting set of criteria.

It needs to be affordable. I know affordable is a squishy term because what may be affordable to me may not be to you. But I really wanted this to be a less than $100 project, at least to start out. I am a big believer in starting a new project with the minimum viable setup, and then, if we decide it’s worth pursuing further, then I can spend some money. But to start, less than $100.

Then it needs to be simple. I didn’t want to run wires, set up networks, or learn new technologies to set this up. There are a number of reasons for this, but one of them is that just like I didn’t want a large upfront investment of cash, neither did I want a large upfront investment of time. I was willing to spend an afternoon setting this up, at least to get started.

And then, what result did I desire? I wanted to be able to have videos of the animals that visited my yard that I could download and share on social media. A bonus would be still photos, but if I had video, I could always capture stills from that. I knew these wouldn’t be award-winning photos, but I wanted to have proof of concept before I figured out something better.

And I wanted to not have to go out to the camera and retrieve an SD card from the camera like I would if I used a trail cam. I should be able to do this over the internet.

I could do almost all of this with a simple trail cam, like this one. The two big things I didn’t like about the trail cam idea is that I had no idea what I had taken pictures of until I pulled the SD card and took it inside to my computer. The other is that the video quality wasn’t all that great. (I’m aware that higher dollar cameras have solutions to both of those issues, but not under $100.)

In the end, I bought a Blink outdoor security camera. With the required sync module included, I paid around $75, but the price fluctuates on this all the time between $50 and $125. They go on a huge sale on Amazon Prime days as well. The camera is small – about 3×3 inches. It’s battery-powered and uses wifi, so no cables are needed.

The Blink outdoor camera is designed to be a security camera, so it’s motion-activated. I have it clamped to a board in front of a saucer of sunflower seeds, and so when a bird (or lizard or squirrel) gets in the saucer, it automatically records up to 60 seconds of HD video and then uploads it to the cloud. From there I can review it when I want, download it to edit elsewhere, or share it on social media directly from the app.

Each day it syncs with the sync module and downloads the day’s history, so I also have a local copy of all the videos recorded that day.

It’s not a perfect system. I almost went nuts until I figured out how to urn off the notifications. It says you will get 2 years of use from a pair of AA lithium batteries, but by the 3rd day, I got a warning that I was using it more than planned and my battery life would be shorter. The stills are not as good as I would like, and the framerate is a little slow for my purposes.

But overall, I’m really happy. I have begun to upload some of the more interesting ones to YouTube. I’m investigating feeder types, to attract even more birds. I’m putting in a water feature over the next few weeks, because birds love moving water, especially in our heat. I’m going to set up a solar collector, to get around the battery life issue.

And, God help me, I’m looking into setting up an always-on livestream on YouTube. Which does involve cables and money and new technologies.

But wherever this ends up, it all started with $75 and an afternoon.

Firehouse Soup

While I went to college, I worked a few years as a firefighter for the City of Memphis. I learned many things there, but the biggest impact it had on me long-term was how it taught me to think about food.

The deal was that you worked every other day for three days, and then you were off for four days. So, for example, you may work Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and then you would be off until the following Wednesday, when the cycle started all over again. And each shift was 24 hours long and began at 7 AM. Depending on what fire-fighting equipment was housed at your station, you could have anywhere from four to 12 people on each shift, and you always worked with the same people.

It was like a second family you lived with 1/3rd of your life. We had laundry and showers and we cut the grass and, of course, ate together. And while there was a kitchen and equipment such as pans and knives provided, the actual food was not, and was up to you. Some people brought their own food, but you didn’t if you wanted to be trusted by the others on your shift. To be trusted, you needed to belong to the syndicate.

I worked at several different houses during the years I was on the job, and the syndicate always worked the same way. There was one member of the shift who kept track of a pool of money, and that was used to buy groceries for your shift. Each shift had its own refrigerator and cupboard, which were kept locked. At each meal, you were either “in” or “out” for the meal, meaning you intended to eat the food bought from the pool of money, and you were “charged” your pro-rata share of the groceries that went into that meal. And on payday, you settled up your bill, which replenished the pool of money, and it started all over again.

So, every day you worked, you had to figure out who was cooking three meals for your shift. Some shifts had 1 person who just loved cooking, and they took it on as their responsibility, but most times we would ask who wanted to cook each meal, with the others doing cleanup. Breakfast was usually fixed – eggs, bacon, biscuits were common, most often with gravy – and lunch was often caught as catch can, but the big show was supper.

A cool thing about this system is that you had a diversity of cooks, with each bringing their favorites to the table. Tom was in his 20s and could run the grill, but not much else. Curtis loved to make spaghetti. Stan made round steak and gravy, with mashed potatoes and English peas so good that my mouth waters just thinking about it.

And John always made soup.

John was nearing retirement after nearly 30 years on the job. He had been divorced for nearly 20 of those years and most of his off-work meals were either sandwiches or dinner fare. But his one claim to culinary fame was his soup.

I probably ate it two dozen times and watched him make it half of those times, and it was never done exactly the same way twice. It was more of a technique rather than a recipe, but what it always was, was good.

As an example, I will share how I made it last week, but everything in this recipe is up for negotiation.

Dice a small onion into small pieces, and dice two cloves of garlic while you are at it. In a large pot, crumble a pound of ground beef, add your diced onions, and sprinkle some salt on top of it all, and then, over medium heat, begin to brown the ground beef. Stir it all around until the meat is no longer pink and the onions are translucent, then add the garlic and let it sweat a bit, but don’t, for the love of God, let it burn or you just ruined the whole thing. The garlic will be flavorful and ready in about a minute.

Pour in three and a half cups of beef broth (or water plus an appropriate amount of beef paste) and a 12-ounce can of V8 juice. Using a spoon or something, scrape the bottom of the pan to make sure all the bits are off the bottom of the pan and it’s all mixed well.

To this, add a 15-ounce can of diced tomatoes (Rotel is another option here, but it obviously changes the flavor), a couple of tablespoons of Worcestershire sauce (easy for you to say), and 2 teaspoons of Italian seasoning. We only had a few spice jars at the fire station, but Italian seasoning went into everything. Let it come to a boil.

While you are waiting on that, peel and dice 2 potatoes of whatever kind you have around – I had Yukon Golds. Add it to the pot, along with a pound of frozen mixed vegetables. (I know that sounds vague, but that’s what they are always called at the grocery. It’s generally green beans, carrots, and English peas.) Let it boil, then bring it down to a simmer for 15 minutes.

NOW. You can let it simmer for another 15 minutes and have a perfectly acceptable soup to serve with your dinner. Or, you can do what I did and add a cup and a half of elbow macaroni and another half cup of beef broth and THEN let it simmer for another 15 minutes and have a hearty, filling soup you can eat for diner all by itself.

Beef or shredded chicken. V8 or Tomato sauce. Beef broth or chicken. Macaroni or spaghetti or even instant grits (trust me on this). Tomatoes or Rotel. White potatoes or sweet potatoes (What? Yes.)

It’s all up in the air. Mix and match. Live a little.

You deserve it.

The Bird Project

Mr. Doc died when I was 10, and it was way before that. I was probably six or so when I first learned about birdwatching.

Mr. Doc was my elderly neighbor, the retired farmer who, along with his wife Monty, acted as my surrogate grandparents when I was growing up, and who often kept me after school. She was, without question, the best cook in the world – or at least, in my world, but he was the lord of all other domains.

When the clock on the table in the living room hit three, he and I would go outside to sit in the shade on the north side of the house, where it was far cooler than it was in their un-airconditioned small farmhouse. He wore a battered straw hat when we would go outside, to keep the sun out of his watery eyes, and he and I would sit in metal yard chairs that were old then, and the cool kids would powder coat and sell them on eBay as “retro” now.

The fencerow on that side of the house – the one that separated their lot from the 3 acre field that was always strawberries in the spring and then black eyed peas in the late summer – had a hedge made of wild plums, from which Monty made jelly each summer, and overhead, a power line that ran along it to the yard light that illuminated their backyard. And nearly every day of my life, on that power line, sat mockingbirds.

We would sit out there in the shade of the late afternoon, him and I, and watch the mockingbirds and listen to their songs. Sometimes the blackbirds or the blue jays would come and try to chase them off, but the mockingbirds would not have it – no sir.

When I told my Aunt Louise about the mockingbirds, she told me there were people called birdwatchers, who went to faraway places to look at birds through binoculars and write it down in their notebooks. Wasn’t I lucky, she said, that I didn’t have to go anywhere at all but the north side of Mr. Doc’s house.

We didn’t have any binoculars, but she did have an old pair of opera glasses she let me borrow, and I would take them to Doc and Monty’s and sit in that yard chair and look at the different birds, giving them names and making up stories about them. Mr. Doc would show me how to bust up dried corn on a flat rock with a claw hammer, and then I would make piles of it on the ground, far enough away for the birds to feel safe from me, and they would fly down, skittish and fearful, and eat.

We were rich as lords.

I haven’t done any birdwatching in at least 40 years. I mean, don’t get me wrong. I love birds, and I plant my yard heavily in their favor. Sometimes we will sit on the yard swing and watch the cardinals in the magnolia tree, and the deck I built in 2020 is always a haven for grackles and cedar waxwings, and we get hummingbirds in the salvia I planted just for them. But I don’t go looking for them. They are something like happy accidents I sorta planned for.

But last week I came across a German woman who lives in Michigan and who takes pictures of the birds that show up at her birdfeeder. It’s pretty stunning. And faster than you can say hyperfocus, I have spent literally every spare hour researching how to do this.

I mean, it ties in with a lot of my existing projects, like building a yard that supports wildlife, and I figure I can share the pictures on my sadly neglected Instagram account, which I think a subset of you would also appreciate, and then maybe periodically give updates on the project itself, which gives me things to talk about on my blog, and plus, I know the names of like six different kinds of birds. It would be a chance to learn new things.

I like learning new things.

So, stand by for bird updates. This is how ADHD works, y’all. Despite the fact that 7 days ago I had zero interest in birds in any specific way, I spent the afternoon today researching feeding setups and action cameras. I don’t make the rules – it’s just how my brain works. You can fight it, but 49 years of owning this brain have taught me to hang on and see where it shakes out.

Chips and Cheese

In high school, I worked at a grocery store after school. I worked from 4 to closing (which was 8 PM) during the week, and usually a good eight hours on Saturday, and would sometimes work on Sundays from 1 when we opened after the church was out, until 6 when we closed. Sunday was the worst because on Sundays you had to both open AND close.

It was a small town and a small grocery store. It was roughly the size of a Rite Aid or small Walgreens. I didn’t work every night, but most of them. I generally pulled 25 hours a week or more – probably more than was wise for a kid my age, but I loved it.

But the best part was after I got home. By the time we closed the store, it might be 9 before I got home during the week. Supper would be long over, and my brothers in bed, but Mom would leave dinner out for me, and I would fix myself a plate and heat it up in the microwave. Often she would then put everything away and go lay down and read, and Dad would sit up to watch the news before bed.

This particular night, I had gotten in later than normal and was starving. Mom had fixed Taco Salad for supper, which was what she called it when she would spread crumbled tortilla chips on a plate, then cover the plate with iceberg lettuce and tomatoes and shredded cheese, which was then topped with “taco meat”, which is what we called ground beef with an Old El Paso seasoning packet added, and jarred salsa and sour cream. It was very filling and good and seemed exotic in Marshall County, Mississippi in 1986.

All the ingredients were left out on the counter, waiting on me to put them together. Mom was already in bed, reading, and Dad was watching the end of a show, in anticipation of the news. I piled all the assorted goodness on my plate and, as I often did on those nights, sat in the living room with Dad and ate while we watched TV together.

When the show ended, I got up to put the food away. Dad followed me into the kitchen.

“Wait a minute”, he said. “I need a snack.”

He took down a large supper plate – one of the white Corelle plates with the blue flowers they had gotten as newlyweds – and spread chips over it in a single layer, edges just barely touching. Then he picked up the block of good sharp hoop cheese we always seemed to have in our refrigerator and, holding the box grater in his left hand, grated cheese over the tops of the chips in a dense layer, coving the chips until only the undulations of the chips under the cheese betrayed their existence.

He took this mounded plate of yellow marvelousness and put it in the microwave for 30 seconds, during which time the cheese melted and spread over the chips, flowing into the cracks and bubbling on top. He took it out, pulled a chip from the edge of the plate, watched the melted cheese string stretch an improbable length before breaking, then picked it high in the air and, head tilted back, put the whole thing in his mouth, cheese string first, the way some people eat spaghetti.

Then he shut the microwave door and went into the living room to watch the news. I had watched all this with curiosity, just waiting to see where this was going. Suddenly, the spell broke.

“Wait, “ I said. “I want some!”

“Well, make you some of your own. What do you want me to do, write the recipe down for you?”

So I made some, exactly the same way, and just as I walked into the living room, the news came on the TV. We sat together on the couch, in silence, with nothing heard above the sound of the TV but the crunching of chips and occasional sighs of satisfaction.