Winter is the perfect time to explore the natural stone shelters where native Arkansans once lived
The Observer is raising about 700 heirloom tomato plants this year, along with sheep, goats, chickens and peacocks on his great-grandfather's farm in North Pulaski County. The sheep and goats are in the custody of The Observer's wife, referred to as the Goatessa when she is out of earshot. The other day she enlisted the help of Brandon, our energetic young neighbor who has a titanium leg from the knee down, thanks to an encounter with a drunk driver a couple of years back. Brandon and the Goatessa were ferrying fence parts down into the lower pasture in preparation for building paddocks for the animals. Brandon had parked his loaded four-wheeler along the fence line about 50 yards from Bayou Meto which runs through the Observer's farm. Brandon had dismounted, his titanium leg firmly stuffed into a work boot, when he felt a repetitive vibration running up the metal and into his thigh. When he looked down he saw that his boot was firmly planted across the middle of a frantic, five-foot water-moccasin that was repeatedly striking the metal leg. Because he had stepped on to the snakes middle, it could not strike above the knee, but he realized that the moment he stepped off the serpent that would change. Brandon is a big man, but in a pivot and leap worthy of a ballet master, he was away and over the four wheeler. The cottonmouth, meanwhile, moved with equal alacrity in the opposite direction, headed no doubt to the more comfortable confines of Bayou Meto.
It has been an incredible year for heirloom tomatoes. The mild winter and mild spring allowed for early planting and cool nights for solid fruit set. Starting the first week of June the Observer, wife and kids have been picking 500 pounds a week: large Goldies, Anais Noir, Carbon, Copia, and Oaxacan Jewel. These are huge old varieties, so full of flavor, yet thin skinned and vulnerable to every insect, fungus and skin-splitting moisture fluctuation known to mankind. For the past two years stink bugs have decimated the crop, taking advantage of the Observer's faltering resolve never to use chemical pesticides or fungicides. Neem oil, insecticidal soaps and chrysanthemum-based organic pesticides such as Pyganic get laughed out of the garden by the stink bugs. Last year we raised more stink bugs than tomatoes.
But not this year.
Many Arkansas readers are no doubt familiar with the 1930s era, Benton-based Niloak Pottery, which used kaolin clay to produce exquisite ceramics known for the beautiful blue swirl patterns in the body. Niloak is kaolin spelled backwards and kaolin was the secret ingredient of Niloak pottery. And now it is The Observer's organic secret weapon in his ongoing war with the stink bugs.
Once a week we load up the back pack sprayer with finely ground Kaolin clay dissolved in water. We coat the plants and fruit with a thin white clay film that the insects hate. Every fruit has to be wiped down but there is nary a stink bug. From afar it looks like we are raising a crop of flocked Christmas trees.
The Observer and the Goatessa are new to the sheep- and goat-raising business, buying our Katahdin and Hampshire meat sheep and Kiko goats about a year ago. Recently, the Goatessa had our first young ram slaughtered, dispatched by Brandon and a small caliber pistol. The Foodie mantra "Know where your food comes from" takes on a different meaning when there is literally blood on your hands. The Observer was at work that day in his air conditioned office, necessitating an unavoidable though not unwelcome absence from the killing field. Batman (yes, the ram had a name) was lassoed, pushed and pulled out of sight from the other sheep and then shot. When the Observer returned home that afternoon, and went in search of some ice cream, he found Batman, skinned and gutted, in his freezer.