Catskills Diary: This Writer’s Life

© J.N. Urbanski – Usage prohibited without consent

There’s been a lot of very precious writing emerging in the last few years here in the Catskills where we are riding a tsunami of elite influencers, food writers and stylists. One such darling is Tamara Adler, Hudson Valley writer, who detailed every minute of a few days in her splendid life for Grub Street back in February. Click on the link and read about how she takes her tea in a mason jar and “cooks her eggs over smoldering coals” in a “hand-forged egg spoon” by popping them into her wood stove, poaching them, just so. She calls gouda, a Dutch cheese, “culturally transgressive”. Oh my. Does she mean “culturally”, as in fermented (in rennet) or culturally as in hip? And by “transgressive”, does she mean that gouda is an asshole?

Contrived observations aside, country life seems startlingly easy in the Adler household. She issues statement like, “I fire up the wood stove”. If you have a wood stove, you’ll know why this is understatement of the year. If she has ever dropped a 15 lb log on her foot, she doesn’t let on, but more important – who can afford to let their wood stove burn down to a smolder in the darkest depths of winter? If I had put an egg into my raging wood stove in February, it would have exploded. The spoon would have melted.

Now the New York Times has weighed in because there has rightly been a backlash against the egg spoon now that Alice Waters sells them – also hand forged – for a whopping $250 per spoon. I’m an enormous fan of Alice Waters and her work, but a $250 egg spoon is a luxury and after all her hard work promoting a sustainable food system, she probably deserves it. But I also certainly don’t agree that the backlash is sexist. It’s economical. I think it’s pretty extraordinary that the writer is linking the backlash to the MeToo movement.

I need to weigh in myself because I really don’t want readers to think that country life in the Catskills is easy. It’s not. Ask my husband who’s had a learning curve so steep, he could probably build us a new house from scratch. Here he is, replacing our siding last year, nonchalantly getting on with it without complaining:

© J.N. Urbanski – Usage prohibited without consent

Further, we are still in the tail end – I hope! – of a six month winter and are running low on wood. We have run out of kindling, which is crucial to starting a fire quickly. There was plenty of it loose on the ground by the woodshed a few days ago, wet from the recent rain, but I forgot to sweep it up and dry it last night and now it’s covered in snow and completely useless. Today it took me exactly an hour to get the fire going. Now I have to go outside with the axe and make my own kindling for tomorrow because I feel like spring will never get here. It’s April 18th.

Yes, these mountains make you gasp in awe at their beauty every day of the year, but we do have our bad days. Cabin fever is a serious business if you work from home in winter. Maybe the fact that people are trying to cheer themselves up with old spoons is revealing in itself. Anyhow, in case it looks easy, here’s a more realistic rendering of a winter day in the life of a country lass and you can insert your own f-words before every noun.

February 6th: I wake up at 7am and have my first facial of the day: dog saliva. The black lab needs to go out. The wood stove has died down overnight and it’s freezing, so getting the wood stove going is the priority over breakfast before the coals cool. I throw on yesterday’s clothing and shuffle, shivering, downstairs.

I crouch down, open the wood stove flue and stir last night’s coals while getting face-licked by the dog. Fuck the wood stove, he whines and pushes me over. I need to get more wood while last night’s coals are reddening and stagger outside with the wood carrier. I watch the dog race off into the forest. I lean in to the wind chill factor -10F and trudge wearily to the wood pile as the dog saliva frosts over my ruddy cheeks. I forgot the gloves, so with my bare hands that have freeze-dried to the complexion of lizard, I grab the wood. I bend over to pick up a log and stumble into the pile. A log falls on my head, The axe follows, bouncing off my knee. The dog comes running back. He can’t poo without me, for some inexplicable reason, unless he’s desperate. You need to keep watch! He barks. Of course the dog can’t find somewhere suitable to poo in -10F, so I reluctantly follow him through the forest, leaving the wood at the front door. I follow this little dictator because even though it’s bone cold, dawn is stunningly beautiful. It’s mesmerizing to watch the sun rise over the mountains. The dog has to sniff all other poo, too: owl (furry), deer (pellets), turkey (green), something unrecognizable and a perfect, fresh coyote poo perched on a huge boulder. He springs up onto the rock and pees on the coyote poo. We’ll surely be back later to see if the coyote has issued a rebuttal. Most days in the darkest depths of winter, this is when I take my Daily Catskills picture.

Back to the wood stove: I use an egg box, some lighter balsa wood and some thin logs, throwing them into the stove, in that order, quickly because it starts smoking. I watch as the smoke clears and we see a little glimmer of a flame in the center. The dog begins to panic. Feed me! Feed me! There is a black hole where his stomach should be, into which we could shovel grass-fed, local pork with homegrown mashed potatoes continually, like coal into a hissing steam engine, and he would still be ravenous. After ten minutes, I open the wood stove and, with the new oxygen input, the kindling bursts into life. I slowly add more wood for about a half hour until the thing is raging. In that half hour, I’m also boiling water, feeding the dog and starting up my laptop.

Finally tea, not in a mason jar, because drinking out of screw-top jars makes me dribble down my chin – every time. Then I get to the laptop and work. I eat yesterday’s soup for lunch, homemade white bean and thyme, then take the dog out. I put on snow shoes and trudge across the mountain in zero temperatures with the dog. Snow shoes are awkward, making a loud dragging sound, and sink into the snow. They’re also hard on the hips because your legs are open a little wider. After throwing the ball for the dog for ten minutes and watching him swim like a dolphin through deep snow, I give up and collapse into a snow bank and stare at the sky. I take a picture while the dog licks my face to make sure I’m not dead. My lizard hands freeze without the gloves, so I jump up and frantically try and get the feeling back. I kick off the snow shoes and run back to the house, furiously shaking life back into my hands. Back to work for a few hours before a late supper consisting of pizza, a hearty, hand-crafted, local ale and a shot of local vodka. Dinner of champions.

To keep my sanity, I make time to workout, but rest assured that the minute the sneakers are off, I’m popping the cap off a beer before I’ve even stopped panting. Today it’s yoga. I focus on a spot on the floor, like the teacher taught me – I think – to steady myself  and notice that the “spot” on the floor is the most perfect mouse dropping about an inch from my nose. Note to self: need to get traps.

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