Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Jackrabbit Homesteads


Joshua Tree, California is a strange place. But J-Tree doesn't hold a candle to the desert communities east of here when it comes to freakiness. If you've ever taken a road trip along Highway 62 through the Mojave, you've noticed the seemingly abandoned shacks peppered across the desert landscape and probably wondered to yourself, who in god's name would live out here? There is no town, no shade, no paved roads off the highway, no water, no source of food or supplies. Just tiny shacks here and there, and every so often a leather-skinned old timer working on his rusted truck out back. There's a pretty interesting story behind all this.

In 1938 a curious second-coming of the homestead act was passed in California, initiating what the LA Times called "one of the strangest land rushes in Southern California history." People fed up with city life and eager for a taste of the pioneer spirit flocked to local land bureaus and signed deeds for five acre parcels of desert wilderness for as little as $10 per acre. The project, initiated by the Bureau of Land Management aiming make a buck off of what the government considered "worthless land," really took off after WWII when rations on building supplies were lifted.

Thousands of so-called "jackrabbit homesteads" popped up all across the high desert, eagerly and simply built by GIs back from the war and working class families looking for reprieve from urban life in Los Angeles and San Diego. For most of these new-wave homesteaders, this was an opportunity to own land for the first time without debt. Many of the homesteads were vacation homes for people who otherwise could never dream of having a second house. But it was every man and woman for themselves: water was extremely scarce -many homesteaders relied on above-ground water tanks that had to be filled periodically by a fire truck- and electricity was non-existent until the late 1950s. It was no Little House on the Prairie, but it was still pretty rough living.

The outpost community of Wonder Valley, east of Joshua Tree and the Marine Corps base in 29 Palms, is the most vivid example of the jackrabbit homestead craze. Hundreds of abandoned structures- most are one-room constructions built from prefab homestead kits- lie scattered around the desert in various states of disrepair. They remind me of empty shells outgrown and left behind by hermit crabs. Because the Mojave desert is so arid the wood doesn't especially rot, but the desert sun breaks down plastic, warps wood, peels paint and melts rubber so that many of the structures appear twisted and gnarled as if in some surrealist dream.

Although most of the homesteads are now abandoned, there are a handful here and there that still house some elderly die-hard desert dwellers or their offspring. But the majority of shacks that have been abandoned have been stripped by meth-heads, scrappers, tweakers and other opportunists looking to rip off everything from copper wire to the kitchen sink, literally.

But all is not lost! There's a new, more uplifting chapter in the story of the jackrabbit homesteads. A small but growing community of artists and musicians have moved back out to Wonder Valley and reclaimed a number of homesteads as homes and studios for next-to-nothing, and taken on the restoration project as part of an underground bohemian enterprise in desert living. You can read about their project here.

Hats off to them. I love the desert and I cotton well to outdoor living, but I think I'll keep my air conditioning and running water. For now at least.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Strega Nona Night


HELLO Monday, you always come too soon. We had a wonderful weekend hosting P.'s best friends from college and I am still stuffed from all man-food we ate. The night before the boys descended on our little casita I made a surprise treat for P: homemade pasta and tomato-carrot-cream sauce. That night was a little cooler than usual so it was just joyous to be able to sit outside and twirl warm, buttery fresh pasta on our forks with two attentive dogs waiting for morsels to drop at their feet.

Making pasta from scratch is simple; it just takes some time, but it is so worth the effort because it is such sensual delight to make something with your hands and then eat it after it has been transformed into something delicious. I borrowed my dear friend Nora's hand-crank stainless steel Italian pasta maker to cut the dough into ribbons of pasta, but you can use a rolling pin and knife just the same. (Amazon sells the impeccably designed original Italian Atlas pasta machine for about $70.) If you're even flirting with the idea of making pasta, I urge you to consider the aptly-named Pasta Bible which has every conceivable recipe for pastas and sauces with step-by-step photographs of no-nonsense Italian matrons, vast bosoms covered in flour, as they lovingly roll out tubes of orecchiette. I followed the most basic recipe for standard dough to make my tagliatelle (a little thinner than fettuccine) and it was fool-proof and DE-LICIOUS. It is required that you enjoy a glass of wine whilst making the pasta. Obviously.

2 1/3 cups all-purpose flour
3 eggs (preferably room temp)
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon water if required (I needed almost 2 tablespoons in the dry hi-dez air)
1. Sift flour onto the work surface in a mound and and shape a wide hollow in the middle. Break the eggs into the hollow. Add the olive oil and salt to the eggs. With a fork, first mix the ingredients in the hollow together and then start to mix in the surrounding flour.
2. Gradually incorporate more of the flour until a viscous paste begins to form. Yes, I said "viscous paste." Moving on: using both hands, heap the remaining flour from the outside of the mound over the past in the middle. Work the flour into the paste, adding a bit of water if ingredients cannot be easily worked.
3. Work in the water with both thumbs, then press the dough into a ball and work in the rest of the flour. Now the actual kneading begins. Push out the dough with the heels of the hands, then form it into a ball again. Repeat this kneading action until the dough has a firm but slightly elastic consistency and no longer changes shape when you remove your hands. Cover with plastic wrap and let rest about 1 hr.

4. Now for the fun part. Dust a little flour onto your work surface and roll the dough out into a uniformly thin, long strip with a rolling pin, adding a little flour to the top so it doesn't stick to the rolling pin. If you're using a knife to cut your pasta keep in mind that the thickness must be consistent so that it all cooks evenly. If you're using a machine, cut the long dough strip into manageable lengths, feed through the machine and adjust the rollers to the desired thickness. Hang cut pasta on a drying rack as you work.
The most integral ingredient to pasta sauce is, duh, good ripe tomats. Romas or plums are fantastic sauce tomatoes because they are meaty with fewer seeds, but the most important thing is that your tomats are deep red, ripe, and sweet. Good tomatoes can be hard to find in supermarkets out here in the desert; most are pale and mealy inside with no flava, having been picked while green (when they're less prone to bruising during transportation) and "ripened" with ethylene gas. In that case canned tomatoes, especially the imported Italian brands, might be less romantic but more delicious. Best bet: your local farmer's market.

4 pounds ripe, red tomatoes
1 sweet onion (Walla Walla, vidalia or Hawaiian)
5 carrots
20 fresh basil leaves
1 stick butter or 1/2 cup olive oil
{1 pint cream}
1 teaspoon salt or to taste
freshly ground black pepper

1. Melt butter in large sauce pan. Chop onion in food processor but do not puree, then fry in butter until the acids have burned off. Chop carrots in food processor and add to onions in pan, adding a bit of water to help them cook.

2. Meanwhile, dice up your tomats and add to pan. Coarsely shred basil and add to pan. Simmer until thick, stirring occasionally. Add s&p to taste. Add a little water if need be, or, for a creamy sauce, add 1 pint of cream and lower heat.
Cook pasta per usual, add sauce, season with a little salt and pepper and serve with a hearty, crusty bread and good wine. You can really taste the difference between store-bought dry pasta and the spun goodness you've just made by hand. HEAVEN.

Friday, August 21, 2009

A Prickly Kind of Love


It's been a constant struggle growing flowers and vegetables in the desert, but one thing that has been pretty foolproof is, ta-da, the CACTUS. My dear friend Nora, who is a master horticulturist of the high desert, taught me how to propagate cacti, and it's so easy you can do it even if you live in downtown L.A. and don't have any space.

Break off a healthy paddle from a rooted cactus using tongs and let the paddle dry out in the shade for a week (it will rot if you pot it immediately). Plant the paddle in cactus potting mix (I just use a well-draining regular potting soil and it's fine) and water the little guy. Although different cactus families have different watering needs, a general rule to follow is to let the soil dry out between waterings. Your paddle will root faster than you think, and within two or three weeks you might start to see new growth. Pretty cool.

My beloved spotted aloe shoots up three-foot spikes of coral flowers in the spring that the hummingbirds go nuts over. The aloe is a succulent, not a cactus, with great medicinal qualities. I dug out and transplanted some baby aloes that were growing around the base of this one and they seem to be doing well.

San Pedro cactus from (gasp) Walmart. Hey, it loves the summer heat and it's frost tolerant. The top of this column had been snapped off when I bought it, but with a little water three fat arms sprouted from the break. Once they get big enough I'll break one or two of them off and propagate a whole new crop of new San Pedros.

I call these Gumby cactus, but they're really a kind of spineless prickly pear. Spineless = dinner for desert creatures (you can see nibbles on some of the paddles), hence I had to hang the pots from the side of the house. It adds a little unexpected whimsy to that area behind the house, and the animals can't get at my Gumbies like that.

I let this silver dollar cactus paddle sit in the sun while it dried and it was mostly dead by the time I finally got around the planting it. Then I over-watered it and the whole thing rotted. Just when I was about to rip it out of the pot and compost it, low and behold, it sprouted a new healthy paddle. Silver dollars grow thick, round paddles the size of wheel rims, and gorgeous, edible magenta fruit in the summer.

Happy cactusing. We've got some of P.'s friends coming from L.A. for a BBQ and whiskey-drinking around the firepit under the desert stars. Hope you have a great weekend!

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Summer Reading


P. and I are trying to be disciplined and read before we go to bed. But ever since he returned from Iraq with ALL FOUR SEASONS of The Office on his computer, it's been really hard to be a good bookworm. Just being honest. So we're doing our best to be nerdle-the-turtles AND enjoy the comic horrors of Michael Scott's one-liners.

Here's what's on our nightstand:

East of Eden by John Steinbeck
One of my absolute favorite American novels. Received to less-than-critical acclaim when it was published in 1952, East of Eden is a sprawling, sometimes heavy-handed allegory of the story of Cain and Abel set in northern California between the Civil War and WWI. Compared to Of Mice and Men or The Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden is less tightly-woven, more excessively grand and ambitious; it's many characters are complex, ever-evolving, sometimes vulgar, and always surprising. It's an epic tale of morality, fraternal competition, and the quest for the American dream set in the golden hills of the Salinas Valley. The first hundred pages or so build a slow momentum, but once Steinbeck has all his players on the stage the plot explodes into unimaginable fragments that make this his most brilliant, complicated work.

The Last American Man by Elizabeth Gilbert
Although I couldn't stand the histrionic navel-gazing in her best-seller "Eat, Pray, Love" Gilbert does much better when she's not writing about herself. Here she chronicles the mercurial life of Eustace Conway, who literally walked into the woods when he was 17 and never returned to the comforts of modern life. Part Daniel Boone wilderness narrative, part Thoreauvian meditation on a purposeful life with nature, it's a damn fine little book that will inspire you to reconsider our relationship to the land.

A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush by Eric Newby.
Favorite adventure/travel book ever. Hysterically funny, totally politically-incorrect, outrageously inept Newby, a mediocre fashion designer in London, quits his job and drives (yes, in a car) to the most remote region of Afghanistan with his witless chum, where they set off to climb some unnamed peaks in the incredibly remote Hindu Kush range. Written in the late 50's, A Short Walk is especially fascinating and relevant to read now because Newby writes with a tongue-in-cheek British colonial air about a place that is now ground zero for the Taliban. Beyond his amusing misadventures is real journalistic grit, and Newby's passion for the Kohistani people and research on the bloody history of the region is absolutely pertinent and riveting.

Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie
I haven't finished this book so I can't write a legit review, other than it's a wildly fantastical allegory of the modern evolution of modern India, as played out in the story of two boys from different castes switched a birth on the eve of India's independence from British rule. Divinely lyrical, wondrously constructed magical realism on the grand scale of Rushdie's India in the midst of tempestuous political change.

The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan
I'm late to finally sink my teeth into Pollan's clear-headed, fascinating, scientific dissection of what he calls "America's eating disorder." That is, our total dislocation from where our food comes from. Pollan breaks down four meals and where they came from into four sections of the book: industrial agriculture (your average Big Mac, for example), "big organic" (say, a meal from Whole Foods), a local farm (free-range hens and chemically untreated produce) and finally, Pollan's back forty (a meal foraged from his own woods). Similar books on industrial agriculture vs. organic can be sanctimonious, but Pollan is too good a writer and too hard-nosed an objective researcher to forsake good journalism to push ideology. But you may consider your dinner in ways you'd never imagined.

Roads to Quoz: An American Mosey by William Least Heat-Moon
Every decade or so Heat-Moon comes out with a new book, and it's cause to drop everything and celebrate (His road trip masterpiece Blue Highways is the highbrow answer to On the Road). It's no wonder it took him so long to write his most recent door-stopper of a tome; it's a 600-page, scrupulously researched book about quoz, an archaic word for things one comes across serendipitously. Here he covers pre-Colombian earthworks in Illinois, the history of the American railroad, drug smugglers in rural Florida, and the murder of his great-grandfather, all while retracing the journey of the ill-fated and obscure Hunter-Dunbar Expedition that Jefferson sent down the Ouchita River in 1804. Spellbinding in its Twain-like wit, sprawling in its subject matter, and immensely satisfying.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Gelato in the Desert


We all have our cold comfort foods to get us through the summer months in the desert. For P., it's an ice-cold IPA. For yours truly, it's gelato. Problem is, you can't get gelato in the hi-dez. So I have to rely on my dearest friend Kate at La Petite Choue to shuttle me gelato in a cooler when she comes and visits us from L.A., which never happens often enough to satisfy my need to see her or my need for gelato.

So this summer I did what any desperate girl would do and ordered a KitchenAid ice cream maker attachment for my stand mixer, thanks to some leftover credit we still had at Williams-Sonoma from our wedding. I've had mixed results, mostly due to my inability to follow directions (like the rhubarb ice cream that turned out chewy), but this time it really worked out.

I used a recipe for peach ice cream from my trusty Joy of Cooking, but in addition to the peaches I threw in a nectarines and one borderline rotten mango, and I added a drop of almond extract instead of the vanilla the recipe called for. And I used mostly milk instead of cream, which technically made it gelato instead of ice cream (ice cream = cream, gelato = milk, sorbet = fruit juice). HEAVEN. With a little garnish of basil from the garden (which, by the way, tastes AMAZING with fresh peaches) the whole thing came together splendidly and I was, to be honest, quite pleased with myself. P. was a big fan, too, but thinks the almond extract might be a bit too noticeable for people who are nnutt-averse (said in your best Harlan Pepper voice a la Best in Show).

This is a very simple gelato recipe (no dreaded custard-making required) but I'm afraid you do need an ice cream maker to do it.

{about 2 quarts}

Peel, pit and puree in a food processor:
2 pounds very ripe peaches or whatever stone fruit you have (I used two v. large peaches, one nectarine, and one mango)

1. Pour into a medium bowl and stir in:
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon vanilla (I substituted almond extract for a different flava)
1/2 cup sugar
pinch of salt (I measured out a healthy 1/4 teaspoon)

2. Refrigerate until sugar dissolves, stirring occasionally.

3. Combine in a new bowl and stir to dissolve sugar:
1 1/2 cups heavy cream*
1/2 cup whole milk
1/3 cup sugar (I used a little less...depends on how sweet your peaches are)
*(I only had a little cream but plenty of milk so I reversed the measurements to 1/2 cup cream and 1 1/2 cups milk)

4. Pour into ice cream maker and freeze as directed. When ice cream is almost frozen, add fruit to mixture. (Add pureed fruit to almost-frozen ice cream? To heck with that. I just mixed the chilled fruit puree with the cream/milk/sugar and poured everything into my ice cream maker and let it churn for 15 minutes or until it had doubled in size and had the consistency of soft-serve. Then I poured into Tupperware, sealed, and let it "ripen" in the freezer for a few hours.)




Gil the beekeeper was selling his molten gold at the farmer's market on Saturday and I tried all his desert honeys- avocado (rich and buttery), buckwheat (molassesy- HEAVEN on fresh sourdough bread with a little butter), eucalyptus (slight medicinal scent, would be great in peppermint tea) orange blossom (light and sweet, perfect all-around honey), creosote (dark and pleasantly bitter with a funky zing to it)- and settled on this unfiltered jar of pure citrus blossom honey-avec-honeycomb from the Imperial Valley. Gil drives his hives all across southern CA depending on what flowering plant is in season, and farmers pay him to have his bees pollinate their crops.

P.'s dad kept bees for a number of years in their backyard and he still gets a broad smile on his face when he talks about the romantic agrarian tradition of keeping bees, and my aunt kept her "Italian lovers" in her backyard in downtown Providence (click here for an amusing NYTimes article about the growing practice of illegal urban beekeeping). Beekeeping, or, if you remember your SAT vocab words, apiculture, is something that really appeals to my farm wyfe sensibilities, but it's a real commitment, and the wide-spread problem of colony collapse disorder has me thinking I might wait until P. and I aren't traveling and moving around so much.

But the MOST important bit-o-honey of the day is that my dearest, darling ya-ya friend from Austin (whom I met studying abroad in Mongolia during college) is getting married (!), and she and her man are going to BEEKEEPING CAMP, no joke, where they can learn about making honey and starting their own apiary. This is one of the millions of reasons I love her (and her hubby)- forget the honeymoon in Hawaii; they want to spend their post-wedding bliss wearing bee suits and eating honeycomb in the Texas Hill Country. Yes, I want to go with them.

Now, off to the studio!

Monday, August 17, 2009

Evolution of a Problem Painting


Blue Horse (the Laddy painting from last week's post) sparked a renewed interest in the horse as a subject for me. Not that I haven't always wanted to paint horses, but in school I was terrified of being that Horsey Girl who only painted My Little Ponies galloping across sunsets. I always felt like I was battling against a natural tendency to make "feminine" paintings, as one male professor put it. There's nothing wrong with feminine paintings; I just didn't want to make them at the time. So no horses.

There seemed no way (at the time) to paint them without drowning in the syrup of saccharine genre painting. So, that's why I'm anxious about painting horses. They are so laden with symbolism that it's difficult to make a horse painting that isn't cliche, banal or sentimental. The painter Susan Rothenberg pared the horse down to a featureless, tailless, canid-like body, and anchored the hulking bodies in a vacuum of pictoral space, but it worked. Well. I can learn a lot from her.

I thought I might post some pics of the evolution of this one horse painting in particular, because it seems to be giving me the most trouble. I wanted to use the elements of some of my abstract landscapes that were successful- atmospheric areas of color balanced by linear brushstrokes and opaque blocks of color- and employ them here. Then somehow that persimmon orange happened. Ack! So I let it dry and mixed up a semi-opaque white with a tiny hint of cobalt purple and lots of medium for a sloppy, wet, slightly-transparent wash over the dreaded orange.

Next problem: the anatomy of the horse is like, totally messed up. Blue Horse happened so effortlessly, and the slightly naive or crude anatomy is appealing to me in the overall simplicity of the painting. It FEELS like a dead horse. The crudeness works in that painting. This new horse painting is supposed to portray a very LIVING horse, and I'm realizing that I can't fudge the anatomy out of a desire for unfussy, unrendered form. I need to do some sketches and figure out where those hind legs are, the angle of the hock, etc. I started to figure out the head, as you can see in the most recent photo (above). So I've resolved to get those architectural lines right, then mix up some washes again and build the paint up over it, like cheesecloth draped over a wire sculpture. I want the "bones" to show, so to speak. (By clicking on the images you can make them bigger.)

Friday, August 14, 2009

Fleurs (Happy Friday)


The 112 degree desert temps seem to have subsided for the most part and already it seems as if the wind-battered, oven-blasted plants here are perking up. I feel a renewed energy, too, and can't wait to get over to the studio to work on a painting for an upcoming group show at the 29 Palms Gallery, which I'll post about next week. Happy Friday, and enjoy your weekend! Below are some shots of what's looking peppy at the moment:

Cosmos from the heavenly Joshua Tree farmer's market (Saturdays downtown, 8am-noon)

Squash seedlings (see this pic on my favorite daily L.A. design blog La Petite Choue!)

Fern-leaf lavender (which I've had great success with in the extreme hi-dez temperatures)

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Blue Horse

{A Dead Horse, A New Life}

 Blue Horse / oil on canvas / 36 x 48 in. / 2008

I always knew I'd come back to the image of Laddy lying like this but I never quite knew how to paint it. A few months ago I was cleaning up after a full day in the studio working on a portrait of my husband, P., who at the time was in Iraq. I had a palette covered in leftover green paint, which I couldn't stand to throw out. So I started a new painting and stayed up all night, and by the morning this is what it looked like.

About the green paint. When I was living in New York and dating my now-husband, we bought a can of house paint on a whim because it was the most marvelous color- "Fresh-Cut Grass"- and stayed up until 2am painting most of my furniture with it, whether it needed it or not. I moved across the country with that can of paint after we got married. When P. deployed to Iraq for six months I started a portrait of him with the green house paint as the ground color around his head. So that's the story behind the green paint.

Now, about the horse. I fell in love with a mustang named Laddy many years ago when I was working as a wrangler at a dude ranch in Montana. He was, as my mom put it, a once-in-a-lifetime horse. Laddy was born on the range as a wild mustang (over thirty-thousand feral horses roam federal land in several western states; you can read about them here). He was caught when he was two or three and sold at auction to my friend the ranch foreman, who saw potential in his sturdy confirmation, good feet and unusual intelligence. Supposedly if Laddy didn't buck a cowboy off before breakfast it was free beers for the barn crew that night. He was a handful, but he was an incredible wrangle horse once you were firmly planted in the saddle. Laddy spent twenty years working as an ace wrangle horse in the mountains outside Big Sky, Montana, and I inherited him into my wrangle string during my summers working on the ranch. I bought him for a mere three hundred dollars in 2003 and brought him back to my parents farm in New Jersey, where he enjoyed a retirement of lush timothy, easy winters, and a pasture full of mares. That's the happy part.

Fast-forward five years. I got a frantic call from my mom one morning at my office in New York City. Laddy had broken his hip, she said. It was a freak thing; the vet said that from the images of his MRI Laddy had hundreds of old hairline fractures in his hip. They were probably the result of an accident in the mountains years ago, and they had calcified enough so that they didn't bother him for the next decade. Now in his old age he could have just stepped wrong and the brittle hip bone shattered like a potato chip. There is nothing you can do for a horse with a shattered hip. He was in intense pain and going into shock, my mom said, and she wanted my permission to put my sweet Laddy down.

I was on the next train down to our town in NJ, where my parents picked me up and drove me out to see his body. While I was on the train they'd taken him to a world-class equine clinic that happens to be nearby, and my dad, a tough man who loved Laddy perhaps as much as I did, tearily recounted how little bay Laddy, the wild Mustang from Montana, valiantly got himself off the horse trailer with a shattered hip and limped out to the grassy knoll where they put him to rest, as if he knew it was time. I still treasure the image of my gallant old ranch-broke Laddy hobbling past the million-dollar thoroughbreds with his head held high.

My parents led me out to the knoll. I lay with Laddy's body, which was warm from the evening sun, and curled up against his strong neck, now so small-seeming, and cried. That horse had carried me across rushing rivers, over vast alpine meadows choked with lupines, and protectively pushed the other horses out of my way in the corral. We had encountered grizzlies, bull moose, and forest fires together. He had been my closest ally and partner in all my adventures out west. I lay with him until the sun began to edge low against the valley and the barn swallows dipped and dived at insects in their evening acrobatics. We lay together, a girl and her horse, until night came, and I remember feeling that as I lay with his body his spirit was all around me.

Laddy died two weeks before my wedding. The symbolism of his death was poetically apparent to me; the girl must give up her horse, her girlhood, in order to embrace the next chapter of her life. In my case, that chapter was my darling husband and all the adventures of young matrimony. Laddy embodied my coming-of-age in Montana, self-discovery in the wilderness, the freedom of an unencumbered life. I felt an overwhelming loss, as if Laddy had been an existential part of me, but it was balanced out by the joy and excitement of my new life with P. I think of Laddy's loss as a great equalizing of the scales so that I could have P.

And so here he is on canvas, finally: my little Blue Horse.