Jim Betts

original works

Hot Cross Buns

Growing up, my family always celebrated Mardi Gras.  We actually always celebrated every holiday: Epiphany, Valentine’s Day, Washington’s birthday and Lincoln’s, back when they were separately noted, cherry pies and log cabin cakes.  St. Patrick’s Day too, but Mardi Gras was a crowning occasion in the year long fetes. My dad would go all out decorating the house in home-grown Carnival style.  Crepe paper and balsa wood construction would be suspended from the ceiling, streamers and noisemakers, tambourines and maracas would be distributed throughout the house and raucous costumes would be designed.  Many of our celebrations were just for the family, but Mardi Gras was an invited guest soiree, costumes expected.

Why am I going on about Mardi Gras as we approach Easter?  Because of the colors.  We would suspend a large flag decorated in the purple, yellow and green of the holiday in our hallway to greet the guests as they arrived.  And I watch each spring as nature unfurls banners in the same colors to greet me on my walks.  Yellow forsythias or daffodils, yellow-rumped warblers and jonquils.  The greenest green of a Kentucky spring morning dotted with purple violets and the magenta of redbuds. The trees, so long stripped to their winter vestments, austere and stark, grow shaggy with bud, then seemingly overnight become misted with the pale greens of newborn leaves.

The smells too, fragrant after the long chill of winter.  The warming air is redolent with the aroma of damp earth and the faint perfume of the flowering trees.  After a rain, worms litter the sidewalks like pine needles.  Robins hop and sing, trilling their pleasure at the abundance of good living that is present.  It is a time when coats are unbuttoned, then abandoned.  Thoughts turn to yard work, then picnics.  It is a time for putting the remains of last year away in compost piles and preparing our space, ourselves for the new growth.

So too it is with baking.  Our focus becomes a lightness befitting the season.  Some of the substantial loaves of winter give way to the airier breads of spring.  Reserved and sensible yields to fun and flippant.  Fruit tarts which seem cold and out of place in our winter’s showcase now glow with the vibrancy of spring.  The warm morning sun streaming in the windows illuminate the danish, making them sparkle like God’s breakfast.  And one of my favorite breads of the year emerges from the recipe cupboard where seasonal products are stored: hot cross buns.  

These light, airy jewels of a bread are a wonderful blend of spice and sweet.  The are “hot” because of the spices in them. We use cloves and nutmeg, spices usually reserved for pies, and the resulting aromatic flavor surprises and delights the palate.  They can be decorated on the top with a cross cut in them, with a cross of short crust pastry dough laid on top at baking time or with a cross of icing applied after they cool.  I prefer the last as it adds just the right amount of sweet.

As bakers, we are given the gift of embellishing the seasons, adding to the moments that brighten our lives.   Whether it be a daily morning slice of crackly crunchy toast, a cookie for a snack, a pie for Thanksgiving or the ultimate, the cake to be sliced at the joyous joining of two lives onto one path, ours is a profession which gets to share in the delights of living.  And products like hot cross buns are once yearly exclamation points.

Hot Cross Buns

This is a soft dough, easily mixed by hand or by stand mixer.  The final dough will be soft, supple and a bit tacky.  When rolling the dough into the bun shape, be stingy with the flour; you want it to stick a bit to the table.

All Purpose Flour 4 cups

Sugar½ cup

Salt 1 tsp.

Instant Dry Yeast 1 packet (2 tsp.)

Ground Nutmeg ½ tsp.

Ground Cloves ¾ tsp.

Unsalted Butter, Melted 1 stick (4 oz.)

Milk, Warmed 1 cup

Eggs, Large 2

Dried Fruits 1 ½ cups (some combination of raisins, chopped apricots, dried     cherries, dates, dried pineapple…)

Add all dry ingredients in mixing bowl, either hand bowl or mixer. 

Add all liquids and begin mixing, either with a wooden spoon or with the hook attachment of the mixer.

Mix until it is a cohesive, somewhat sticky dough, about 10 minutes. If you are mixing by hand, you will want to turn the dough out onto a floured surface and knead until it is smooth and supple.

Add the dried fruit and mix just to combine.

Put into greased, covered bowl and let rise until doubled, about 2 hours.

Turn out onto lightly floured surface and cut into 18-20 pieces.  

Round into tight balls.  Place on baking tray and cover, let rise till doubled, about one hour.

Place into preheated 350 degree oven and bake 16-18 minutes, until golden brown and firm.

While they are cooling, make the icing:

Two cups powdered sugar

¼ cup milk

Mix until the consistency of firm honey.  If it is too wet, add more powdered sugar, too dry, more milk.

With a pastry bag or spoon, draw a cross on top of each of the cooled buns.  Let the icing set then enjoy!

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A Baker’s Almanac: The Moods of March

A surprisingly effective snow fell the other day, wrapping the yellow buds of daffodils and honeysuckle in cotton.  After the tantalizing warmth of the week prior, this cold was not welcomed, though it was beautiful.  We eagerly anticipate the gentle air of spring, full of scent and promise, ready to be done with the chill of winter, but nature seems nonplussed, regardless of conditions.  In winter, when all nature seems tucked up and waiting, a magical growth is occurring. 

If we can pull our faces from out of the burrow of our scarves, we will see the greens of moss and lichens are every bit as lush as the verdant carpet of spring, maybe more so for the paucity of other color.  This is the time they grow, capturing more territory, reveling in just the right clime for their blossoming.  The stone walls and tree trunks seem to glow with a rich spectrum of green, from soft yellow lime to the deep dark of a pine forest.

In spring, the growth is explosive, almost visible.  The lichens’ growth is sedate, slow, befitting the harsher clime.  It is a more somber environment.  I have a mantra which, when I am in my right mind, I live by: If you want extraordinary experiences, you need to put yourself in extraordinary circumstances.  I have a habit of bundling up in inclement weather and stepping out to see what I have not before.  This day, the lichens seemed to glow even more electric green,  a luxuriant counter to the flowing white mist that fell.  The mockingbird that had been announcing the arrival of spring in joyous notes in the morning gloaming sang just as jubilant after the snow, just not as frequently, seeming to need to gather his will between songs.  The air in the neighborhood was thick and muted during the snowfall, like walking into a cathedral.

This is a truculent time, fluctuating between periods of glorious, buttery warmth and gusty, stinging cold.  The festivities of the season also reflect this.  The opulent revelries of Mardi Gras are followed by the austerities of Lent, the emotional swings as dramatic as the weather.  Like the fabled groundhog predicting winter’s fate, Mardi Gras seems to be a moment of exuberance in anticipation of the joys of spring.  But tempered by the cold realities of the slowness of the seasons, the preparation of land and soul for the coming rebirth is measured and slow.  The playful excess of a King’s Cake is succeeded by Lenten sparsity.  Though, to our pleasure, this is somewhat mitigated by a fine and simple bread with the attitude of a pastry.

A tender blending of flour and butter, leavened with soda and buttermilk, with raisins as a kicker, Irish Soda Bread seems the perfect bread for this time of life.  Heavy enough to be substantial, crumbly as a newly furrowed field, it serves equally well as breakfast or dinner fare. And like all simple baked goods, technique is where the magic lies.

As anyone who has taken on pie dough or biscuits knows, a light touch makes the difference.  The butter is cut into the flour, brief mixing leaving pea-sized pieces of butter mottled through the dough.  These jewels of flavor melt down in the oven, creating a honeycombed structure that crumbles deliciously in the mouth.  Whether sliced to accompany a rich Irish stew or cut into wedges to enjoy, scone-like, in the morning, this bread proves the maxim that simple pleasures are the best.

One of the joys of a cold winter’s walk is the return home.  As I arrived at my door, I brushed the boutonniere of snow festooning my lapel and stepped into the house.  I was greeted by a murmuring fire, the purr of my coffee pot and the delicious pleasure of some sweet cream butter melting slowly on a wedge of soda bread.  Like the gradual warming of the world outside, the heat of my house at last penetrated, allowing me to unbundle and relax, preparing me for whatever lay in store.

Irish Soda Bread

All Purpose Flour     4 cups

Baking Soda      1 ½ tsp.

Salt 1 tsp.

Granulated Sugar 3 Tbls.

Unsalted Butter 1 ½ sticks (6 oz.)

Raisins 2 cups

Buttermilk 1 ½ cups

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.  This recipe comes together qickly.

Measure all dry ingredients into large mixing bowl. 

Cut chilled butter into ½ inch cubes.

“Massage” the butter into the dry ingredients until it resembles a collection of small peas.

Stir in the raisins.

Make a well in the bowl and add the buttermilk all at once.  Stir until it just comes together.  It will resemble a shaggy mass. 

Place onto lightly floured surface and pat into one large or two smaller discs about an inch thick.

Transfer to cookie sheet.  If you have two sheets, double pan the bread to keep the bottom from over browning

Cut a cross into the top of the loaf (loaves) and place into oven.  One loaf bake for 32 minutes, 2 loaves bake them for 25 minutes.

Remove from oven when golden brown and somewhat firm.  Cool slightly then eat copiously!

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Fear of Falling

I watched a White-Throated Sparrow follow his cohorts into a bush this morning.  He flitted in fast, grabbed a branch with too much speed.  He couldn’t stick the landing and so launched himself off to the next bush without hesitation.  It was an innocuous event, something that happens without comment all the time.  In fact, had it occurred otherwise I would have been surprised.  Birds routinely launch themselves from this branch to that wire, land or don’t, stay or don’t, with apparent disregard for any consequence.  And this cavalier attitude they have regarding gravity I find intriguing. I have long wondered about the mindset of birds, what it must be like to have no fear of falling.

As a young man, I had the good fortune to work at a self-empowerment program which had an outdoor ropes course element to it.  One of my duties there was to work at the rappel site, sending people of all ages over an 80 foot cliff.  Many of these people had never done anything like this before; some were terrified of heights.  Yet all had taken this program as a way of conquering their fears.  And the rappel was just the exercise to help them with that.

Everything about rappelling challenges core beliefs.  I would take 50 year old people, out of shape and out of their elements, gear them up in harness and rope, then walk them to the edge of the world.  Frequently we would creep the last few feet together, arm clutched hard to arm.  I would them tell them to turn, put their back to the cliff, their feet on the edge, and lean back.  There is something so fundamentally wrong with that that the mind can’t help but rebel.  It goes against everything your momma ever told you to do.  To properly rappel, you basically walk backwards down the cliff, your back parallel with the ground far below.  The rope keeps you from falling and the interplay between rope, feet and rock keep you from face planting, but only if you lean back nearly horizontal.

All your upbringing and instincts scream that this is the wrong thing to do, that you should hug the rope and nestle up to the rock face.  I’m sure there is even some biological imperative shouting from deep within your DNA that stepping backwards off a cliff is a very bad way to further the species.  Yet over the cliff they went, young and old, scared and bold, to safely arrive, jubilant and accomplished, at the bottom 80 feet away.

I had the cherished job of talking them through the technique, through their fears, allowing them to discover a greater sense of capability and freedom.  Initially what was present was fear.  As I worked with them, slowly my voice would penetrate and what would occur was listening followed by trust followed by relationship finishing with love.  There is something embedded in the act of surrendering to another that opens us up.  Its no surprise that we talk about falling in love.  It is scary.  To trust another with your vulnerable heart is like leaning backwards over a cliff.  What comes from that is a release, a joy, a feeling of floating, making you want to bounce down the cliff, gamboling like a mountain goat.  

We celebrate this with our traditions on St. Valentine’s Day.  Bright and shiny, heart shaped and poetic, we express ourselves with candy and flowers.  There is a sweetness to it, rich and enrobing.  True love, like good chocolate, melts in your mouth.

Bete Noire

This flourless chocolate cake, whose name means Black Beast in French, is sinfully rich, tasting like chocolate butter.  It is baked in a water bath ensuring its creaminess.  Simply assembled, it will score you big points with the love of your life!

!/2 cup water

1 cup sugar

12 oz. dark, semisweet chocolate

8 oz. unsalted butter

5 eggs

3 Tbls sugar

In a saucepan, bring water and sugar to a boil. Reduce heat.

Add chocolate and butter and gently warm to melt.

In a bowl, whisk eggs and remaining sugar to combine.  

Stir into chocolate/butter mixture.

Pour into greased 8 inch cake pan.

Place onto a baking sheet pan and put into preheated 350 degree oven.

Pour water onto sheet pan to come halfway up the cake pan.

Bake for about 40-45 minutes, until cake is firmly set and a paring knife inserted comes out clean.

Remove from heat. Take off pan of water, being extremely careful not to burn yourself.

Let cool 30-60 minutes, until just room temperature.

Run a knife around the edge, invert a dish over the pan, flip it upside down and gently tap to release.

Wrap with plastic and chill. May be done a day ahead.  In fact, it works better.

This cake is super rich.  Serve stingy slices floating on raspberry sauce or serve with whipped cream and fresh raspberries.

Enjoy!

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Winter Wheat

Winter in Kentucky is slowly becoming my favorite season. Like most people, I find the cold intrusive, the bulky clothes annoying and the gruff transitions from inside to outside and back again disruptive, but once I commit myself to being out in nature, a walk in a park or even around the neighborhood, I find the starkness revealing.

One of my objections to this land is one of its strongest traits: an almost strangling fecundity. The woods in the summer are so verdant and lush, seeing the forest for the leaves becomes difficult. But in the fall, and especially the winter, the trees reveal their stately countenance. The naked profile of a leafless tree against a snowy backdrop reveals the character of the tree, the story of the tree. In the gaudy greenery of their springtime finery, the trees glow with youthful frippery. But come winter, when the over mantles are cast off, we are left to wonder at the limbs, the heart, the bones.

In the neighborhood next to mine live some trees that are literally hundreds of years old. The architect who purchased the land and first started building houses in the area in the mid-30’s designed the road to wind past the towering Chinquapin Oaks that had settled in that spot long before the coming of us. And they dominate the land even today. Gnarled, broken, they stand in grand testament to perseverance and flexibility. Around them are their newer neighbors: Pin oaks and Sycamores and Tulip Poplars, all stripped to the bone of leaf and flower, all revealing their skeletal structure. I used to feel the trees looked sad, vulnerable in their winter sparsity, but now I see the bold strength, the history, the tenacity of their quest for light, for moisture, for growth. From a distance, the trunk and branch look like the vein pattern of an individual leaf. Up close, the vast strength and solidity of the years is revealed.

So too with the creeks. The record volume of water that has fallen this past year has highlighted their presence, the channels forming on the floor of my leaky basement standing in sodden testament to this. More and more I see how this land is intimately shaped by water. The little and big creeks stitch together the landscape like veins on a leaf, like branches on a winter’s tree. And through the sparse foliage of winter, I am discovering the hidden convolutions of the waterways of the Bluegrass.

On one of the many fine, beautiful country roads which wrap around Lexington, there is a bridge I like to stop at, the intersection of land and water, man and nature being gently revealed. As I step from my car to briefly revel in the gentle glory, I am struck by how accessible the peace of nature is to us here. Today as I walked up to the bridge, at the convergence of two creeks merging to form the Elkhorn, the sun seeped through the clouds and the insistent current seemed to pull the wan sunlight downstream with it. Glassine pillows of water flowed over submerged rocks to fall in a jumble at the bottom of the slope. Heretofore hidden feeder creeks emerged, the gauzy shroud of summer shrubbery dropped to reveal the moist gullies beneath. As I stood there, letting sound and air wash over me, I felt sedation, a slowing of space.

There is a pulling back, a pulling in that comes with winter. The trees stand resolute, their strong, intimate branches revealed in their grand, naked gavotte with gravity. Squirrels shroud themselves in the shawls of their tails. Birds puff up like dandelions, maximizing the insulation of their elegantly efficient feathers. Even our cat is around more, enjoying the warm bath of air from the heater more than his solitude. It is a slower, more languid time; it is a good time for baking bread.

Baking bread at home is one of the most basic and sensuous of pleasures. The smell of the flour and yeast, the sticky texture of the initial mass giving way to the smooth firm ball of properly kneaded dough, the warmth of the oven, the perfume of the baking loaf, all transform a cold winter’s day into a celebration of hearth and home. It is a personal activity which gives richly to all lucky enough to be in the space. And it is easy; with care and patience the alchemical transformation from base ingredients into culinary gold is always achievable, though sometimes with better results than others. And the results keep giving.

The usual recipe for bread gives two to three loaves, allowing for inhalation of the first warm, redolent loaf and the slower consumption of the next over the following days. Like any activity, more practice leads to better results. And in this time of pulling in and nesting, exercising and resolving, it is one which will lead to a greater sense of peace and fulfillment.

Jim’s Recipe for Winter Wheat Bread:

3 cups Whole Wheat Flour

3 cups White Bread Flour

1 packet Instant Yeast

1 tablespoon Salt

2 tablespoons Sorghum or Molasses or Honey

Generous 2 cups room temperature Water.

Combine all dry ingredients into a mixing bowl.

Add sweetener, then water.

Stir with wooden spoon until a shaggy mass is formed.

Turn out onto counter or bread board and knead about 5 minutes, until a smooth, taut ball is formed.

Place ball in oiled mixing bowl, cover loosely with towel and let rise until doubled, about an hour.

Punch down and divide into 2 pieces.

Form into balls and place on cornmeal covered sheet pan, or place into greased bread pans.

Cover loosely with towel and let rise until doubled, 45-60 minutes. (Preheat oven to 375)

Place into oven and bake 30-35 minutes.  When done, the bottom will ring like a drum when thumped.

Remove from oven.  Let cool as long as you can.  Eat with your favorite soup or spread.

When fully cool, wrap other loaf, if you still have it, and store for later use.

Enjoy!

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A Baker’s Almanac: Tales of Simple Goodness

I started baking in college, first in a food co-op, then in my off-campus house.  Living with 5 other college-aged kids meant we ate a lot, giving me ample opportunity to experiment; it was common practice to polish off a standard batch of two to three loaves in a couple of days.  My first baking book was The Garden Way Bread Book, though it lives in my memory by its subtitle: A Baker’s Almanac.  I was intrigued by its promise of a yearly guide to the glories of baking.  In it were the recipes which were to be the crucible for the concoction that would become my life: being a baker.

There is a flow to the year, one to which all beings adhere, bakers notwithstanding.  The new year starts with the pop of a champagne cork but quickly settles into a more austere mindset, one which favors hearty, healthy breads.  After a brief fling with chocolate in February, we trundle on, anticipating the lightness of being which is spring, the abundance of delectable fresh produce which is summer, the robust foods of autumn and the arrival of the sumptuous holidays.  All to be rounded by that pop once again which is both start and death knell. 

In a very unsystematic way,  I will be writing a monthly bit of lore and insight I’ve gained over 38 years of baking.  I have seen the smooth transition from hippie-inspired home baking to rock star restaurants touting stunning pastries and desserts to once again a return to what I like to think of as local materials, honestly expressed.  With history and the seasons as my guide, I hope to entertain, inform and inspire, and each essay will conclude with a user friendly recipe.

What follows is the first installment.  I hope you enjoy!

§

I have long been a fan of fairy tales, simple fables with simple messages, peopled with colorful characters.  These stories entertain and enlighten and I have embraced their gentle teachings since a boy.  One of my favorites is the Elves and the Shoemaker.  This is a tale of simple goodness: a poor shoemaker, unable to produce goods of sufficient quantity or quality to pay for his living, is assisted by a pair of elves.  Unobserved, these mischievously helpful beings produce shoes for him overnight, shoes of surpassing quality which are left to be discovered when he awakens.  There is a gentle goodness, a selflessness, a giving that I find reaffirming.  It is no surprise I run a bakery.

A folklore-ish element suffuses all the goings on of a bakery.  The work of late nights produces wondrous comestibles to be discovered upon awakening.  Watching people come in and grab some something with which to brighten their day is the intangible payment for the long night’s work.  Never is that more clear than during the holidays.  Thanksgiving, with it’s pies and rolls, lays a warm autumnal blanket down upon which Christmas gaudily settles.  Bright, shining, colorful treats of stunning breadth emerge.  The goodies seem to embody the essence of elven work.

I dusted off my copy of The Italian Baker, one of my earliest and favorite baking books.  Filled with lore and culture and regional recipes, I enjoy going to that well again and again, especially when an Italian specialty is called for.  And now it’s Christmas time.  The time above all times when baking is called for, expected, trundled out and anticipated.  Cultures and peoples all over the world pull out their best, to wow and celebrate family and friends.  Long before the coming of Christianity, the end of December had been celebrated.  The Solstice, the shortest day of the year, occurs then.  I suspect if I was going to have a party in the middle of the dark and cold, I’d pick the longest night of the year, figuring we could break into the larder and ransack treasured bits of the bounty of summer, for it would be all about the return of spring from then on.  Fruitcake, jam cake, pies, and preserved meats, all come out to mark the end of the dark and the coming of the light.

And what better way to celebrate than with warm, rich, succulent baked goods?  The English have their Christmas pudding, the southern U.S., their jam cake, the German their stollen (more completely known as Christstollen, the lumpy shape and blanket of powdered sugar said to represent the baby Jesus in swaddling), the French their buche de Noel, the Italian panettone, hence the book I had been holding earlier.  Studded with fruit and spice, it, like its brethren from around the world represent the best in celebration.

Christstollen being assembled: butter, loaf, marzipan, folding and then the final product, covered with powdered sugar.

I view most of these items from the perspective of the professional baker, someone who’s business depends on Jesus Christ, Patron Saint of 4th Quarter Profits.  But the realm of the home baker holds strong through December as well.  I maintain there is hardly a person around who doesn’t remember holiday baking in Granny’s kitchen, even if they never did, so strong is the sentiment surrounding this time.  My mom made cookies and candy.  Wedding cookies, cherry chews (nee cherry winks, dubbed cherry coconut bars), chocolate almond caramel crunch, and butter cookies (see recipe, below.)

Christmas butter cookies

Light, rich, redolent with butter and melt-in-your-mouth tender, these little nothings of pleasure were always my favorite.  The line between perfect and also-ran was fine, the anticipation and reverence while baking, angel food cake like.  When they were made, lightly mixed, squeezed out in just the right shape from some Buck Rogers cookie press, baked to golden tenderness and allowed to cool for only the briefest of time, the experience of that cookie dissolving in your mouth was sublime.  The only time we had these was at Christmas, the rarity increasing the value.  I know we were not alone in this.  There seems to be an endless stream of family favorites and grandma’s specialties.  And for this I give thanks. 

§

Cora Anna Banta Betts’s Butter Cookie Recipe

As presented to my mother, Jackie Betts, her first wedded Christmas.

1 cup (8 ounces) softened unsalted butter

1/2 cup powdered sugar

2 cups All purpose Flour

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

Cream together the butter and sugar until fluffy.

Sift together the flour and salt, add to butter/sugar mixture.

Stir in vanilla.

Push through cookie press onto a baking sheet, sprinkle colored sugar on top if desired.

Place in preheated 350-degree oven for 10 minutes, until golden brown on bottom, pale white on top.

Let cool, but barely.

Eat voluminously.

Makes about 50 small cookies.

The key to this recipe is a light touch.  Don’t overmix the flour with the butter.  Don’t over bake the cookie.  Gentle the whole way and they will be light and crumbly.  A pleasure in your mouth.

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I Am a Tourist Here

I took a roadtrip down to Levi Jackson State Park on Saturday.  No real agenda, no clear picture of where I was going to spend the night, what I was going to see, where I was going to go.  As I left Lexington, I had a sense of urgency, of needing to get there, heedless of not knowing where “there” was.  That continued until I got to Marksbury Farm Market just outside Lancaster on 27.  I stopped in for a sandwich and a chat and as I sat outside eating, I could feel the rush slip away.  I was a tourist.  I could stay there till dark, turn around and head home.  Or I could head on down to Levi Jackson pronto.  Or I could meander at a sedate pace, letting the beauty and charm of the land permeate. The words to a Bob Seger song kept popping into my head: “I could go left or I could go right; it was all up to me to decide.” I chose the latter and rolled on through the day.

I am not being completely truthful when I say I had no real agenda.  I was going down to see the mill stone museum located at Levi Jackson.  A hundred or so millstones from old Kentucky mills line the walk leading to an old mill.  What I didn’t realize was my original agenda was about to be subsumed by the conversation I was going to have with Bob House, docent and ranger of the rebuilt, fully operational mill located in the park.  I got there around 10.  He had just opened up the cabin and I eagerly pressed him for a tour.  The cabin and much of the furnishings had been built in 1805.  It was moved and rebuilt in it’s current location in the 1930’s, as part of the WPA.  And it had been operating there since.

Photo by author

The joys of simple technology!  When Bob opened the water gate (My favorite bumpersticker from the Nixon era: “Behind every water gate is a mill house.”  Get it?!), the creek was allowed to flow over the turbine (not a side mounted wheel, but a “true turbine,” according to Bob) and the foot-diameter axle began slowly to turn.  Attached to that axle is a wheel, some 4 feet around, and wrapping that is a 10-inch wide belt of leather which goes to the front of the cabin, looping around a much smaller circumferenced wheel and back.  The smaller wheel is attached to two giant stone discs, very heavy (“I don’t know how heavy they are, I ain’t never weighed them.  But I know that 4 grown men can’t pick them up.  We have people come in at night to steal them.  They can stand them up and roll them to the parking lot, but they can’t lift them into their truck.”).  Let’s say 1000 pounds.  The belt which takes it’s languid time circling the big wheel fairly flies around the smaller one, causing the upper most stone to turn at an impressive speed.  Grain, in this case corn, is loaded into the hopper mounted over the mill stone casing (a circular wooden box which keeps the grain from flying out as it is ground by the stones) and is shaken into the opening as needed.  The grain is pulverized into flour and slides down a wooden chute into a wooden trough, where Bob packs it into cloth bags containing two pounds of fresh milled cornmeal.  

Photo by author

The entire machine is made (with extraordinary few exceptions) of wood, stone, hide.  It is incredibly efficient and works in a wondrously harmonious relationship with its surroundings.  Bob said that even the small dam needed for the operation of the mill helps balance the ecosystem.  The backed-up creek environment, favored by birds, turtles, fish used to be supplied by industrious beavers.  But we hunted most of them, so the mill is doing their work.  The sound of the mill while it is in operation is practical, soothing, organic. A hum of the earth, of tree and rock and water moving in harmony.  It probably took 10 minutes for the mill to grind the two pounds of flour, but it could do that all day and night, with very little supervision, forever.  Efficient, serene, perfect technology.  I left there with the same feeling I get walking through the woods.  Of being at peace and feeling at one with the world.  The technology didn’t separate man from nature, it bound the two more tightly.

I rode home with my two pounds of fresh milled, unbolted corn meal.  I had asked many questions and been given a vast array of knowledge: ecology, economics, machine design, politics…  I had gone to look at mill stones and had come away with milling. 

The mantra “I Am A Tourist Here” is one I have been trying on for a few months.  When traveling, I give myself permission to ask ridiculous questions from complete strangers and am usually intrigued and stunned by what I learn, safe in may guise as a tourist.  However, when I’m home I operate as if I should know, as if I shouldn’t be a tourist.  As if I shouldn’t take that untried road, or stop at that new place, or be inquisitive and naive as I am when I am touristing.  Just by reciting the mantra, the fardel of society slips from my shoulder and I am given permission to look at my familiar terrain with fresh eyes, an act which almost always yields delightful insight.

Photo by author

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Eyes to See

To see a World in a Grain of Sand

And a Heaven in a Wild Flower

Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand

And Eternity in an hour

 Auguries of Innocence – William Blake

As a young man, I had the good fortune and insight to spend a great deal of time outdoors hiking and backpacking.  I traveled to Alaska and, on one memorable night, sat on a cliffside on Kodiak Island, watching a literal midnight sun disappear beneath the horizon, bathing sea, air, land in a glowing wash.  This was followed, a twilit dusky hour later, by an equally glorious sunrise, the sun that far north traveling not in an arc but in a barely truncated circle about the sky. 

I hiked the Olympic National Rain Forest for a sodden sublime week, sitting on a valley rim, alone in the vastness save for a deer, licking the sweat from my rain jacket I had hung to dry on a branch.  I watched in wonder as a white stag, whose forebears had been imported from Sherwood Forest, emerged from the fog of a Point Reyes morning, him being more interested in lording over the herd of females and fawns who materialized, with a shuffle, out of the whiteness. 

I sang to the glories of the grandeur unfolding as I hiked up the switchbacked cliff face of Yosemite Valley, each turn bringing me higher and deeper into the vast beauty of that hallowed land. 

I guided a raft of friends down the Middle Fork of the Salmon River through the heart of the Sawtooth Mountains of Idaho.  We started in a tributary barely wide and deep enough to permit our craft, finishing, after many nights and rapids, in a wide, flat, slow flowing river which could accommodate a cruise liner.  The world was grand and big and I wanted to see it, to taste it, to bite off huge dramatic chunks.

I am not now that young man.  A friend’s t-shirt loudly proclaims my current state: “The older I get, the better I was.”  My hikes are now a morning walk, my vistas the downtown buildings I spy from my perch atop the coach’s tower in my neighborhood park.  Guiding rivers is now staring in wonder at the intricacies of the creek that flows through the next door neighborhood.  And yet, when I stop long enough to see, the grandeur which inhabits these spaces reveals itself.

I watched in amazement as the remains of a spring rain flowed down the creek, simultaneously carving a channel and creating a delta, as the carrying capacity of the swift water diminished with slowing flow.  In a fractal view of the world, I was watching the Mississippi River flow past New Orleans. 

On a neighborhood walk, I spied in astonishment a Cooper’s Hawk diving treacherously at a chipmunk, narrowly missing.  Or equally amazing, a Red Tailed Hawk lumbering skyward, hauling with him a squirrel who must have equaled the bird’s own weight, forced onto a tree limb perch by my insistent approach.  With the additions of a video crew and David Attenborough’s narration, this was life writ large, worthy of National Geographic. 

The other evening I went for a walk, to be greeted by a Rothko sunset: a flat, snow-leadened wall of cloud sat heavy on the sun, squashing an orange smear onto the horizon. 

Another night, I watched as clouds like a sheet of dryer lint dragged in front of a gibbous moon, fat and white, fixed and solid like a peg in the heavens.  That celestial display no less grand than the gauzy curtains of Northern Lights I was entranced by in New Hampshire on the Appalachian Trail. 

I watched a Bradford Pear tree, whose flowers bested 3 snowfalls and a hard frost to sweetly declare this spring’s imminence, at last give way to the greening of the branch.  The fortitude of our trees to persevere in the face of Spring’s grudging warming is as grand as the Redwoods’ or Joshua Trees’.  Caterpillars of snow crawling on the delicate limbs of Eastern White Pines, crashing down in a secondary snowfall as the sun-warmed branches released their burdens, are as wondrous as the calving of icebergs, the process being the same. 

I feel deeply, especially in spring, the glories of the world around. The volunteer Pin Oak in my backyard, 20 years ago a twig, now is rivaling the size of the 100-year-old Burr Oak of my neighbor’s.  The flocks of warblers travel like gaily colored acrobats on their way north, stopping to pick bug and bud from trees seemingly timed for their arrival. 

My legs are hampered by age and responsibility, my hunger for adventure diminished with time, but the wonders of the world surround us even in our backyards if we have eyes to see, an open spirit and the willingness to “waste” time on the slow and the minute.