Life on the farm…

My brother jokes about that line from the old John Denver song,  Thank God I’m a Country Boy.  While I agree with that (Girl, in my case), I’m not so sure about this part:

Well, life on the farm is kinda laid back….

Hm. Sometimes, but not usually.

Friday afternoon I walked down the driveway to collect the mail. What greeted me but this scene:dead box

I let loose several choice (French) exclamations. Post…still standing. Mailbox…in the ditch. (The mail, fortunately, was still in it.)This wasn’t the work of a baseball bat, but a car – someone wasn’t paying attention and took out our mailbox, as well as his or her rearview mirror, which was found nearby.

Now, we had a few baseball bats when we first moved here (for me, it was moving back here), but quickly solved that problem with a little Cajun Engineering.

inside new boxTwo different sizes of mailboxes, one sunk inside the other with an insulation of cement. On a 4 x 4, sunk in more concrete. That put an end to joyriders with baseball bats. Can’t y’all respect other people’s property? And isn’t destroying mailboxes against some federal regulation?

Our rural Postal Carrier, bless her, brought the mail to my door on Saturday and asked about the box. Her eyes grew big when I told her what happened. She just shook her head and said “get off the phone and drive, huh?”

Even though the baseball bats have stopped, this is the third – or is it the fourth – cement-reinforced mailbox we’ve put up. Every few years, some drunk couillion takes the curve too fast and winds up in the yard or the ditch. Occasionally they take a mailbox with them. Although the curve is very well marked and drivers are given plenty of warning, there’s always that special someone who just doesn’t pay attention.

Like the guy who recently flipped his F150 pickup and landed on the top of a cane tractor across the road. A sheriff’s deputy knocked on the door and very politely asked if we knew anything about what had happened. Seems that the driver took off after the accident. I’d actually seen the truck earlier, but it was perched so perfectly I didn’t realize that it wasn’t quite intentional (you really never know around here).

Another time someone put their jeep through my cousin’s fence. He, too, took off. I don’t know if the penalty is stiffer for leaving the scene of an accident or for a DWI, but I’m sure those drivers found out.

It’s never dull in the country. And it’s not exactly laid back, either. A couple of months ago, David asked “did you see the alligator in the pond?”

My response:  “Another one?!?!”

Petey the Pond Gator stuck around long enough to be named, but took off eventually. Probably a good thing.

gatorThere’s always work to be done here, but pleasures and rewards are many. I walk to work in the morning to the song of birds and the view of the pond (with or without gator), with occasional egrets, blue herons or ducks (and even a pelican) dropping by.

CardinalThese are precious sights that keep me grounded and make me laugh about things like the gator and the mailbox.

sunsetflying

Life ain’t nothin’ but a funny, funny riddle….thank God I’m a country girl.

On the 12th day of Christmas…

When asking someone “how was your Christmas?” we often receive a reply along the lines of “it was lovely! And I’m so glad it’s over!” I heard that just this morning, and on this, the 12th day of Christmas, I was reminded of something I read recently on Twitter.

It was a retweet of something posted by @theodramatist: “What are some ways that we can start reclaiming/celebrating ALL 12 days of Christmastide?”

nativity dog

How can we keep the magic of Christmas?

Responses to this tweet included ideas old and new, and some great ones at that. While the Christmas theme continues in church until Epiphany, the secular world has mostly moved on. Retailers put Christmas stock on sale Dec. 26th, and – for the most part – wishes of “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays” has become “Happy New Year!”

Christian churches do, of course, stick to the liturgical calendar. And while I understand that Christmas is a busy and exhausting time for staff, how about keepin’ it “high church” for a while if that fits your congregation? (Um, incense is optional.) I had a crazy idea of a midweek carol sing – a week after Christmas. (Why not? Everyone finally has time for it!)

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A Nativity scene made from cypress knees on display at Epiphany Church, New Iberia (2018)

In recent years, my church has started doing the children’s Christmas pageant as an Epiphany pageant, which I think is a great idea. My own home decorations stay up until Epiphany. Here in the the sugar country of south Louisiana, families whose lives follow the calendar of grinding often find alternative dates to celebrate when grinding isn’t finished by Christmas (often the case).

But the feeling of relief that “Christmas is over until next year – WHEW!” is a little sad and bittersweet.

To be sure, Christmas IS a sad time for many, filled with bittersweet moments for nearly all of us. We are reminded of loved ones who are no longer with us; we are reminded of the changes in our lives and the lives of those around us. We look at the changes in the world, and (human nature being what it is), we focus on the things we lack and the things we miss while often glossing over the positive changes.

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a handmade clay Nativity displayed at Epiphany last year

Even the wonderful things about the Christmas season (time with loved ones, community worship, giving) tend to overwhelm us, and I think it’s because we try to squeeze it all into such a short period of time!

Shouldn’t that be a good reason to remind ourselves that yes, there are twelve days of Christmastide, and we all pretty much get started celebrating Christmas during Advent anyway. So why all the stress?

Maybe it’s because we want to ignore the things that hurt us, the painful memories, and the wondering-what-next-year-will-hold. The sad irony is that the very gift of Christmas, the miracle of the Incarnation, should be the healing salve that tends the wounds of the less-than-Hallmark-perfect holiday – and so often we forget about that miracle.

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One of the many Nativity scenes displayed at Epiphany church on our feast day

I’ll be packing up my Christmas decorations today and tomorrow, with the exception of the Nativity. (After all, the wise men don’t arrive until tomorrow, anyway.) As I do so, I’ll be revisiting the memories of Christmas past and be grateful for them. I’ll challenge myself to bring the beauty and miracle of the Incarnation into all of 2019. Tomorrow, I’ll watch our Epiphany Christmas Pageant, sing Christmas carols, and enjoy the first king cake of the season – and maybe find a plastic baby Jesus inside the cake.

I’m welcoming baby Jesus into my heart, and hope that you do, too.

Merry Christmas, and God bless us everyone.

A wonderful bird is the pelican…

I never know for sure what I’ll see as I walk around my home here in rural south Louisiana. We have a fair amount of typical wildlife – birds, squirrels, rabbits, armadillos, raccoons, foxes, snakes, an occasional bear – you know, everyday critters. Fortunately, I don’t have to deal with the bears as I walk to work (just the overturned garbage cans on occasion).

Today was a first, though. While I’m used to seeing egrets and herons in the pond behind our house, I hadn’t seen a pelican in the pond before. They prefer the vast openness of the Gulf, but this fellow looked quite content to paddle around for a while in my backyard.

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He had a couple of snacks, as I saw him snatch up something from the water. (I wish he’d de-populate the turtles, but I’m sure he prefers the small brim that are plentiful in the pond.)

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Pop has an affinity for pelicans.  Today is his birthday; I think the pelican was a special “Cosmic birthday card” for him!

Volunteer Labor

One of the guys at the camp is a member of the Cajun Navy – at least as far as the term “member” can be used with the group. If you haven’t heard, the Cajun Navy is an unofficial group of folks from south Louisiana who, at their own expense and on their own time, offer assistance in flood situations. To put it in a nutshell, they show up with their boats and rescue people.

While this has been going on for some time here around home (there are plenty of folks who fish, hunt, own boats, and flooding has happened for a long time), the Cajun Navy burst into public awareness last year during the flooding in Louisiana of 2016.

Cajun Navy in action

Cajun Navy in action

Now, the Cajun Navy is part of the rescue response to the flooding of Hurricane Harvey. Paul (one of the guys at the camp) was able to get to Vidor, Texas, and one simple word summed up what was going on: Catastrophe. Back at home, the rest of us are looking for ways to help.

I think that the president summed up the feelings of most Americans when he referred to the outpouring of help and support as a beautiful thing. From my point of view, there is nothing surprising there. Natural disaster = helping each other.

water everywhere

Water everywhere.

A few days ago the Sacred Sisters (my prayer group) prayed for all affected, all who were helping, and asking for guidance – what can each of us do? I commented that my only surprise in this response is the surprise of the rest of the world – wow, look at everyone helping each other!

Well, of course! That’s what we do, isn’t it? Is it a reflection on the world that so many are surprised at the outpouring of help directed towards “complete strangers?”

Compassion. For Christians, it is being the hands of Christ. A non-Christian won’t use those words, but it’s still compassion and kindness.

We are all seeking ways to help. Sorting donated clothing for distribution to evacuees far from home. Cooking for evacuees and volunteers. Rounding up helpers. Collecting water and supplies for those who can go to affected areas. For every helper we see on the news, there are hundreds and thousands more working quietly behind the scenes, doing whatever they can.

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Sorting donations for evacuees in our area

The elderly lady making cole slaw in her kitchen. The overworked professional saying “what do they need?” and giving money. The school children collecting socks.

Maybe it’s because we know first hand the helplessness of floods. Maybe it’s because we know that there are thousands of large and small losses in each family, in each life. Perhaps we respond in part because we know the long, hard road that awaits the evacuees when they can get back home.

Rita flood

Why we build our houses “up.” Hurricane Rita.

Then again, maybe it’s just because that’s what we do.

Perhaps the “surprise” and the “news” expressed by the media, and all across social media, aren’t so much surprise as backlash reactions to the hate-filled stories that have filled the mainstream news media outlets. No, that narrative is NOT what America is about. It’s NOT what the southern states are about. It’s NOT who we are.

THIS is who we are: People who give a damn. People who care about others, regardless of their skin color or faith. People who will get creative and not sit around to be told where and how to help, but who will find a need and address it, even if it’s taking the bass boat on the road or buying extra toothpaste and underwear to share with those who left home without anything – or something as unassuming as shredding cabbage for cole slaw or folding, sorting and stacking donated clothing.

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Clothes, food, toiletries, donations pouring in.

This Labor Day, there are many, many Americans who are giving of their time, funds and labor to help others. I can’t think of a better way to celebrate the holiday.

Making Sugar (part 2)

In Part 1, we got the cane from the field, unloaded it at the mill, chopped up, and now… into the mill it goes.

a-crushed-outside

Cane is crushed before it even enters the mill.

The cane is pretty much pulverized along the way, and the juice extracted.  In another part of the cane mill complex, a core laboratory is analyzing samples from each load of cane to determine sucrose, moisture and other factors which indicate the sugar yield from each truckload.  The cane is pulverized through the mill – usually involving a series of rollers – and the juice is extracted.  The remaining pulp is called bagasse, and is usually incinerated to fuel the running of the mill.  There’s an awful lot of bagasse, though, and the sugar content means it will ferment quickly – there’s that stench a lot of people complain about.

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Ground cane being processed

a-grinding

Ground cane being processed (more!)

The juice itself is like any other raw juice – a thin liquid, and frankly, not exactly clean.  It’s cleaned up with slaked lime, and the dirt settles out and is usually returned to the fields.  The juice heads off to evaporators so that it can be boiled down.

a-boiler

Bubble, bubble, boiling sweetness!

If by now you have the idea that a sugar cane factory is a large, hot place with a lot of very massive machinery…you’re right.  Most of the “smoke” people see billowing out of the plant is steam, and both air and water exhaust is monitored and must meet environmental regulations.

Making sugar is an art as well as a science.  It’s one thing to boil the juice down into syrup; it’s something else to coax it into crystalization. It’s a tricky process.

a-checking

Checking crystals

Once the magic of crystalization happens, the syrup heads to centrifuges where the crystals are separated from the liquid.  Voila! Raw sugar, which is dried and sent to a warehouse.

a-centrifuge

Taking a quick sample from a centrifuge.

Louisiana is home to 11 sugar factories which produce raw sugar, which is sent to refineries that will produce refined sugar and similar products.  Because of the sugar content of the cane, it must be processed quickly after it is cut.  The raw sugar is usually stored in warehouses until it can be shipped to a refinery.

a-warehouse

Cane goes from the mill to a warehouse on a conveyor belt. It pours into a mountain of sugar.

a-truckload

At the warehouse, the sugar is transferred to dump trucks, which take it to barges, which will take the raw sugar to a refinery.

I often wonder who figured out that the tall, thick cane held this amazing sweet stuff in it.  Since cane was introduced into Louisiana, I don’t think it was the same brave soul who looked at a crawfish and said “I wonder how that tastes?”

So when you sit down to enjoy something sweet this Christmas or Hanukkah, take a moment to think of all those who had a hand in your holiday baking. Chances are many of those folks are at work on Christmas day, because grinding doesn’t stop until all the cane is done. Think about all of those who’ve had a hand in your entire holiday meal, no matter how extravagant or simple, and say a prayer of thanksgiving.

Now I’m going to post this and bake some Christmas cookies with – yep, you guessed it – home-grown Louisiana raw sugar.

Note – all photos © B. D. Lowry; all rights reserved.  Please contact me for use.

Making Sugar

I live in the heart of sugar cane country.  I am literally surrounded by cane fields.  From my front porch, I have a view of oak trees and cane fields and in the summer, you can indeed hear it grow (the cane, that is).  Our  world has changed so much over the past decades that more and more people don’t quite realize exactly where their food comes from.  Well, I can tell you a bit about sugar.

Right now it’s harvest time in south Louisiana.  We actually have a relatively short growing season – cane is planted in the late summer of one year and harvested in the fall of the next.  Most sugar consumed (sugar, not corn syrup or other sweeteners) comes from sugar cane (about 20% comes from sugar beets), which is actually a grass.  A grass that can grow really, really tall.

c-cane-standing

Sugar cane in mid-summer.  Tall, but still with some growing to do.

In some growing areas of the world where the cane has a longer season, it flowers.  Wow! Not in south Louisiana as the cane must be harvested before it freezes.  Harvest time, or “grinding,” starts around the beginning of September.

c-cane-cart

Harvested cane in carts await unloading at M. A. Patout sugar mill in Patoutville, LA.

Cane is cut, loaded into carts or large (18-wheeler) trucks, and brought to the mill. In years past, the cane would be burned after cutting and before loading in order to remove the leaves. Fortunately, newer harvesting techniques results in “billet” cane which is chopped shorter during the harvesting process – eliminating most (but not all) of the need for burning the cane.  It may be a pretty sight, but it does put a lot of smoke and soot into the air.

c-burning-cane

Burning fields at dusk between Lydia and Patoutville, LA

Anyone driving on a two lane highway in south or central Louisiana knows to “watch out for the cane trucks!” because they do tend to move more slowly than regular traffic. A pet peeve of mine is the folks who zoom around them recklessly or who complain about the trucks.  What, you’re late for work?  You should know better this time of year, and the person driving the truck is at work already.

sterlingoutside

Sterling Sugars in Franklin, LA

Sugar mills are where the cane is crushed, juice is extracted, then boiled down to yield sugar crystals (and molasses).  Sounds simple? Well…the idea is simple, but sugarmaking is as much of an art as it is a science.  But first things first.  Cut the cane, load it, haul it to the mill and unload it there.

d-arrival

A truck filled with cane arrives at Cajun Sugar Co-op, New Iberia, LA

Methods of unloading cane are pretty impressive.

d-dump

At Cajun Sugar, the truck body is lifted to dump the cane.

cajununload3

Sometimes the entire truck is lifted!

sterlingdumpcane2

At Sterling Sugars in Franklin, LA, it’s a similar process.

But wait…I’m getting out of order a bit.  When the trucks arrive at the mill, they are weighed (they are weighed again after the cane is dumped).  A “core sample” is taken at that time as well.  Think giant hypodermic needle and you get the concept.

d-core

The core sampler at Cajun Sugar.

The sample goes directly to the core lab where it will be analyzed for sugar content.  Samples are tracked by barcode, and the load-specific barcode is generated when the sample gets to the core lab. That info is tracked in the mill’s database so that each farmer can be paid properly. Pretty neat, huh? (I remember my grandfather at the mill, counting his truck arrivals – a common thing back then.)

Once the core sample is taken, the trucks are unloaded and the cane is stacked up in a massive yard.  From there it is transported into the mill for grinding.

cajunclaw

Not quite a “big ol’ rock candy mountain,” but a mountain of sugar cane.

The cane is chopped more before going into the mill.

sterlingcrushcane

Between the cane yard and the actual mill.

On the way into the mill, the cane will be on a conveyer belt and “make a pass” under some giant magnets.  A stray piece of metal can mess up the mill, and possibly harm a mill employee.

Generally speaking, the cane will be chopped, smushed, macerated, and more or less rendered into mush/goo/yucky looking stuff and the juice extracted. Hence the term “grinding!”

But how does the juice from this overgrown grass become sugar?  Ahh, that’s the next segment of this series, as I’m now going to have a cup of coffee sweetened with raw sugar.  Stay tuned!

Note – all photos © B. D. Lowry; all rights reserved.  Please contact me for use.

Stay grateful, my friends.

Here it is, Thanksgiving Eve, and I’d like to say that I’ve written an insightful, well-thought-out, finely-crafted post on gratitude.

However… an outdoor fire and a margarita called my name. I’m weak, human, and subject to temptation. Instead of writing, I sat around said fire with the margarita, family and friends, and a Sonic hamburger (and mosquitoes).

We’ve much to be grateful for in the simple things.  So instead of writing, I thought I’d just share some photos of just a few of the many everyday things I’m grateful for.

canal

An evening walk with my dog.

2016-flood-la

The August flooding didn’t get bad at all here.

planting-cane

Planting cane.

turtle

This little guy by my office. Fortunately, he’s not far from home.

avery-island-birds

Bird sanctuary at Avery Island, Louisiana.  Yep, I’m 15 minutes away from where they make Tabasco.

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Sugar cane, by home.

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Harvest time, hauling cane to the mill.

ribbit

This little fella by my kitchen door. He sings, too.

pecan-island

A route in Pecan Island, Louisiana.

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Rain for the cane. (Sugar cane fields)

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Sunset seen from my front porch.

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The view on my morning walk to work.

Life is filled with challenges, trials, fearful things, obstacles and broken dreams.  There will always be an unsoothed ache, a hidden hurt, a lost chance.

Thankfully, there will also be more beauty, chances, hope and love in life, in plain sight, waiting for us to grab it, share it, celebrate it.  The choice of where to look is up to us, and I prefer to see the beauty and hope in the world.

Stay grateful, my friends.