Pasta With Turnip Greens

You need to trust me on this one. I know it sounds strange–it did to me, the first time I saw the recipe. And you may think that you don’t like some of the ingredients, so you wouldn’t like the finished dish. But this recipe is quick and easy, uses only a few inexpensive ingredients, and has a very unique and delicious flavor, unlike any other dish I’ve ever had before. Give it a try.

Jeanette and I found this recipe in an Italian cookbook we happened on years ago in a used bookstore. It’s not the typical spaghetti and lasagna type of Italian cookbook most people are familiar with; instead it focuses on regional, country-style dishes. This particular dish is from the Apulia region of Italy.

Your basic ingredients are a medium size turnip or four to five of the small Japanese salad turnips that have become popular in many farmers markets in recent years, enough fresh turnip greens to fill a medium mixing bowl or colander, a two ounce can of anchovies (I like the King Oscar brand–they’re meatier than many others), four to five large cloves of garlic, some good quality, flavorful olive oil, red pepper flakes, some Parmesan cheese, and a little white wine. You’ll also need the pasta–use one that has a small to medium size, such as penne or rotini, or one of my favorites, caesarica, because you need to be able to toss the cooked pasta in the sauce to thoroughly coat it. Because this dish is so simple, if possible use an imported Italian pasta–many really do have more flavor than inexpensive mass produced pastas.

To begin, wash the turnip greens and tear them into bite sized pieces.

20151021_212845While the water for the pasta is coming to a boil, prepare your other ingredients. Coarsely grate about three to four tablespoons of the Parmesan cheese (DON’T use the pre-grated stuff in a can–it has no flavor!). Chop the turnip into pieces roughly one quarter inch square, slice the garlic cloves into thin slices, and coarsely chop the anchovies. Please don’t rule this dish out if you think you don’t like anchovies (many people dislike them)–when you use them in this recipe, they literally melt in the pan, and add a lot of flavor without making the dish taste like anchovies.

20151021_212651The original recipe calls for dried red pepper flakes to be added while cooking, and those work just fine. I’ve come to prefer using chopped Calabrian peppers in pasta dishes, however–those are what’s on the bottom right corner of the cutting board in the photo above. A friend who worked in a restaurant taught me about them, and I find they add similar heat to a dish as dried pepper flakes, but more flavor. If you can find them (they’re imported, and can be tricky to find), I’d recommend using about four, chopped, in this dish.

20151124_155007Put enough olive oil in a non-stick skillet to cover the bottom, then add the diced turnips and saute them on medium heat until their surface begins to lightly brown. Add the garlic slices, anchovies, and Calabrian peppers or red pepper flakes and continue to cook, stirring frequently, until the garlic begins to brown and the anchovies dissolve.

20151021_213904By now you should also have added your pasta to the boiling water–most pastas this size take somewhere around ten minutes to cook. Add the turnip greens a handful at a time, stirring constantly as they wilt. Periodically add a splash or two of white wine, as needed, and cook until the greens are tender, which should only require a few minutes. Here’s what the dish should look like at this point:

20150923_223701Turn the heat off under the skillet. When the pasta is done, drain it and add it to the skillet, stirring and tossing  it to thoroughly coat the pasta with the sauce, then sprinkle the Parmesan on top.

20151021_22082520150923_225720Now stir the cheese in, letting it melt into the sauce and on the pasta, and you’re done–it’s very quick and easy! Add sea salt to taste after serving.

If you eat meatless meals, this could certainly serve as a main course. We usually have it as a side with a grilled lamb chop, although on this occasion, we served it with trout we’d caught in the McKenzie River, that flows behind our farm. Jeanette made a quick, simple pesto out of olive oil, garlic, salt, and some extra turnip greens, and we stuffed the trout’s body cavities with the pesto, wrapped them with thread to hold it in, and I cooked the trout in a wood smoker grill.

20151021_215452Another quick and easy protein option is to top the served pasta with a fried egg–either for dinner, or as we sometimes do, with the leftovers for a quick and different breakfast.


New Book Covers

Over the past week, I’ve been working with Lou Harper, of Harper By Design, to get a new, more powerful cover for Viking Warrior. She also made some significant improvements to the cover for Dragons from the Sea. Here are the new covers for the print editions. The e-book covers are on display on my author page on Facebook–if you haven’t found it, please visit me there, too.

VikingWarrior print cover jpgDragons_Print JPG

Salmon Pasta Primavera

Classic pasta primavera is a dish that celebrates spring, topping pasta with sauteed fresh vegetables, usually including asparagus. Although there are versions of the recipe that use a cream sauce (sacrilege!), usually it’s a very light, fresh dish that is tasty, healthy, and fairly quick to prepare. In the version I make, the only sauce is the olive oil the vegetables are sauteed in, plus a few spoonfuls of basil pesto. On this occasion, I also added some salmon chunks, because we currently have a goodly amount of salmon vacuum-wrapped in our freezer after a recent successful fishing trip. Besides salmon, any firm-fleshed fish should work (sometimes we use fresh albacore), and shrimp and scallops work nicely, too.

Because the actual cooking time is very short, you’ll need to prepare all of the ingredients in advance.

20151023_20444020151023_204631Skin the salmon–only a small piece is needed–remove any pin-bones in the meat, cut into cubes roughly one inch square, and place in a bowl. I like to toss the cubes in a spoonful or two of garlic hoisin sauce for extra flavor.

20151023_203222Slice a handful of cherry tomatoes in half, and mince a large sprig of fresh Italian parsley and fresh rosemary.  Put the tomatoes and herbs in a bowl, added some minced or crushed garlic,and toss with just enough balsamic vinegar to coat.


20151023_21240520151023_212328Next you’ll need to prepare your vegetables by cutting them into small pieces. Pasta primavera is a wonderfully flexible dish–you can use whatever fresh vegetables you have available. On this occasion, we used the dish to say goodbye to some plants in our garden that had reached the end of their season. Because of the cooling autumn nighttime temperatures, our yellow squash and zucchini plants had a number of baby squash on them that had set but had essentially stopped growing, so we harvested those then pulled the plants out of the garden. We also harvested some small broccoli shoots that had grown on a plant the main head had previously been harvested from, plus some purple cauliflower, and I cut about three cloves of garlic, also from the garden, into thin slices.

20151023_212337We also cut up some red sweet pepper, a small sweet onion, some chanterelle mushrooms, a few black olives, and–just because we had them–some squash blossoms. But again, almost any combination of vegetables, as long as they’re fresh, will work in this dish.

20151021_115639Very little goes to waste on our farm. Our sheep also benefited from this dish–here they’re feasting on a cauliflower plant pulled from the garden after its head had been harvested.


Now it’s time to actually begin cooking. Bring a saucepan of water to boil for the pasta and begin cooking it. On this occasion we used a penne pasta, but any similar size, such as casarecca or gemelli (aka rotini) will work–you want a pasta that’s close in size to the vegetable and salmon pieces. Incidentally, I used to think there wasn’t much difference in pastas, but a few years ago I was enlightened. Some pastas really do have much more flavor than others. Some of our favorite brands now are rustichella d’abruzzo, from Italy, and Sfoglini, which is made in New York City, athough both are little pricey. A very good brand which has tested high on blind tastings, but is considerably less expensive if you have the ability to shop at a Costco store, is Garofalo, another imported Italian variety.

Add olive oil to a saute pan or large skillet. Use a good oil that has flavor, because it will be a significant element of the vegetable topping and overall taste of the dish. Over medium heat, begin sauteing the vegetables, adding them sequentially according to how delicate they are and how long they’ll need to cook. With the vegetables we were using, I began with the onions, garlic, and red pepper, then after sauteing them for a minute or two, stirring constantly, added the mushrooms and olives. After a minute or two more I added the squash–if they’d been just diced squash, rather than these delicate baby squash, they’d have gone in earlier–and after another minute the broccoli, cauliflower, and cubes of salmon. As soon as the broccoli turns a bright green, turn off the heat. I added the squash blossoms at that point, then about three heaping tablespoons of pesto and a few pinches of sea salt, and stirred the vegetables to coat them. We always make and freeze a number of batches of pesto during the summer months when fresh basil is plentiful to be sure we have some on hand, but if you don’t make your own a good quality store-bought pesto is fine.

20151023_21505320151023_215108Here are the vegetables and salmon, sauteed and tossed with pesto. Meanwhile, when the pasta is done drain it, return it to the pot, and toss it with a tablespoon or two of pesto to coat.


It’s done! For each serving put pasta in a bowl, top with some of the vegetable and salmon mixture, then add a spoonful or two of the the tomato and herb mix over top. Total cooking time should be fifteen minutes or less, plus maybe another twenty to thirty minutes of preparation time in advance.


Salmon Bean Soup

I love peasant food–and I should explain what I mean by that term. In traditional societies and cultures, peasants are the people who form the foundation of society. They are the people who produce the food that everyone eats: the farmers who grow the fruits and vegetables, who raise the livestock that provide milk, cheese, and meat, and the fishermen who catch the fish and other bounty from the sea. Because they generally are not wealthy folk, their cooking emphasizes inexpensive but hearty meals such as soups and stews that use whatever ingredients are readily available, and because peasants cannot afford waste, often use items that the wealthy might throw away–such as a fish carcass.

20151008_164803This soup recipe uses the carcass of a salmon. Jeanette and I usually buy a whole salmon several times a year from our favorite seafood market: the Fisherman’s Market in Eugene, Oregon. By buying a whole fish, the price per pound is much lower than buying just a fillet, plus we want the carcass. If you don’t want to purchase a whole fish but do have access to a good seafood market that gets wild salmon, you can probably get them to give you a salmon carcass for free or close to it. Last week, however, a friend took us salmon fishing on the Siuslaw River and we caught three beautiful fish, which–after cutting them up, vacuum-sealing the fillets in meal-sized portions and freezing them–left us with three carcasses, so we knew a big batch of soup was on our agenda.

The night before you plan to make the soup, soak about a half pound of cannellini beans in water. Although you can use canned beans, you’ll end up with a much heartier, richer tasting soup if you use dried beans and cook them in the soup broth. Just be sure to soak them overnight so they won’t take too long to cook.

20151008_204226The next day, after you assemble your other ingredients–more on them in a moment–the first step is to simmer the carcass. Using a large stockpot, add the carcass, including the head and any fins trimmed off while filleting the fish, plus a wedge or two of onion, a few chunks of carrot, and four or five bay leaves. Fill the pot about two-thirds full with water, bring it to a low boil, then reduce the heat to a simmer and cook the carcass for an hour or two, until the meat left on it is cooked and the bones are on the verge of separating. Using a slotted spoon and/or tongs, remove the head and pieces of carcass from the pot to a large bowl, and once they cool, pick the meat off of them. You should end up with a nice bowl of small pieces of salmon meat.

20151009_202240Set it aside in the refrigerator for now, and discard the head and bones. Pour the broth in the stockpot through a colander or wire mesh strainer to remove any debris and solids (you can either discard the onion and carrot used to make the broth or add them back into the soup, but be sure to add the bay leaves back in), then return it to the stockpot.

Drain the beans, add them to the broth in the stockpot, and return the liquid to a low boil. Now it’s time to add the vegetables.  These can vary depending on what you have available–that’s the peasant style of cooking–but basic ones to use include a coarsely chopped onion, several cloves of garlic coarsely chopped, and a few carrots, sliced into chunks about a half inch thick. I usually add a leek and some cabbage, but on this occasion we had some collards in our garden that needed using, so we substituted them for the cabbage.

20151008_204147Whether you use cabbage or collards, you’ll want about four or five large leaves. Slice them into strips roughly an inch wide, then cut the strips into pieces about an inch square, and add them to the pot. Cut the root off of the leek, and slice the stalk into pieces about half an inch thick. Above the stalk, discard the outer leaves that are tough or dried out, but save some of the center leaves that are tender–they’ll probably have a bit of dirt in them, so be sure and rinse them as you separate them. Slice the saved leaves into strips about a half inch wide, cut the strips into half inch square pieces, and add the leek to the pot.  Season the stock with two to three teaspoons of sea salt and pepper to taste. A type of pepper I like to use in soups and stews is long pepper, sometimes sold as Balinese Long Pepper. They impart flavor, but not heat–just throw four or five into a dish this size while cooking.






The beans and collards–or cabbage–will probably need to simmer at least two hours, possibly longer, to become tender. After an hour, periodically pull a few beans out with a slotted spoon and test them. Also after the first hour, add a large handful of sliced shiitake mushrooms–an optional ingredient, but they impart a nice flavor–to the pot.

20151009_174155Once the beans and collards/cabbage are tender, taste the broth for salt and add more if needed. Stir the reserved salmon meat into the soup, let it warm for about fifteen minutes, and you’re done. We like to serve it with a salad and a big chunk of baguette, to sop up the broth. Don’t worry if you have a lot left over (and you probably will, unless you’re serving a crowd). This soup freezes very well, and makes a wonderful prepared meal to pull out of the freezer at a later time.



Squash Frittata

20150920_140015One of life’s simple pleasures for me is cooking with my wife Jeanette. I’d like to use this space from time to time to share some of our recipes. This one, a squash frittata, can be used for either a breakfast or a simple dinner. The amount of ingredients described are for a small frittata, cooked in an 8 inch cast iron skillet.

Yellow crookneck squash is very versatile vegetable. Its taste is so bland, it can be added as an extra vegetable ingredient to numerous dishes without changing them, because it tends to blend into the flavor of the dish.  But this dish highlights the squash itself, rather than using it as a background ingredient. The basic ingredients are squash, eggs, and a piece of thinly sliced prosciutto, but the dish can easily be varied. For example, in this instance, we had some padron peppers I’d roasted the night before on hand, so I added them, and if you want a vegetarian dish, the prosciutto can be omitted.

20150920_130557 In our garden we try to pick crooknecks fairly small both because they’re more tender at that size, and because it helps keep the amount of squash you have to deal with from getting totally out of control, given that squash plants tend to be such prolific producers.  Slice the squash into slabs roughly one half inch thick, then cut the slabs into pieces roughly a half inch square. Cook the squash at medium-high heat in olive oil in a non-stick pan, turning regularly with a spatula, until the exterior of the pieces begins to blister and brown–that’s key to the final outcome. You’ll need enough squash to fill the cast iron skillet about three quarters full.

20150920_131117Tear the slice of prosciutto into pieces and saute until they become crisp. Preheat the oven to 375. Brush the bottom and sides of the cast iron skillet liberally with olive oil. Add the browned squash, then crumble the crisped prosciutto over the top. In this version, we chopped the roasted peppers and added them, also. Beat four to five eggs together, pour over the contents of the skillet, add a few pinches of salt, and stir gently to mix. At this point as an option you can also sprinkle some grated Parmesan cheese over the top, but it’s good without it, too. Remember–this is a dish than can be varied easily, depending on ingredients you have on hand.

20150920_132015You’ll begin cooking the frittata on the stove top, at a low to medium temperature. You want the eggs to cook, but not to burn on the bottom.When the edges of the frittata are set at least an inch out into the pan on all sides but the middle is still wet, finish cooking in the oven, for as long as it takes for the middle to set and the top to brown lightly.

20150920_135527I think you’ll be surprised by the delicate texture and flavor of this dish. The browned squash pieces almost melt into the overall final product, giving it a slightly sweet taste and a light, fluffy feel in the mouth almost like a souffle. Eat as is, or topped with salsa. Any questions, please feel free to post and ask them.


If You Like It

During the past week I read several interesting things about the state of publishing today. One was the results of a survey conducted earlier this year of numerous authors (and if I recall correctly, I was among the respondents) by the Authors Guild, which addressed how much authors make today. According to the survey, which compared its results with a similar survey conducted in 2009, author incomes are trending sharply down. The average income of full-time author respondents, which in 2009 was $25,000–hardly a living-high wage to begin with–has dropped by 2015 to $17,500.  Only 39% of author respondents in the 2015 survey reported that they could support themselves solely with their writing, and the amount of time the average author must now spend on marketing, including by social media to try to make contact  with readers, has increased 59%. In other words, authors are having to spend much, much more time trying to market their work instead of actually writing, but despite these increased efforts, most authors are seeing their income decline.

I feel these authors’ pain, because I’m one of them. When The Strongbow Saga was originally published by HarperCollins, I could not even come close to being able to make a living from my writing. Harper’s sales of my books were dismal, and their efforts to market them were nonexistent. But I was able to get the rights to the series back in 2010 and 2011 and republished the first three books myself, then completed and published book 4 in 2013 (and book 5 is coming in 2016!). As a self-published author I was finally able to support myself with my writing–my wife, Jeanette, was even able to quit her day job, and we were able to move to Oregon, and buy the small farm where we live today.

Things change. Over the past year I, like so many authors, have seen my sales, and my income, drastically decline. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why. A large part of selling books today depends on how well your books show up on various internet search engines and programs, like Google, or Amazon’s search and recommendation engines. In previous years, The Strongbow Saga had high visibility in these kinds of channels. Now, apparently that’s not so. Ironically, part of the reason appears to be the success and popularity of the History Channel’s “Vikings” television series. There didn’t used to be very many fiction series set in the Viking period out there, but the popularity of the “Vikings” show has changed that. Nowadays the internet search engines are as cluttered with Viking fiction as my end-of-summer garden is overgrown with weeds, and it is hard to stand out when there’s so much static filling the channels. And it is a vicious circle–the less your books stand out in search engines, the less they sell. The less they sell, the less they show up….

Admittedly, I have not until now put much effort into marketing of The Strongbow Saga, simply because I have not needed to. But as I said, things change. I’m now scrambling to learn, from authors more skilled at such things than I, how to reach a larger base of readers and fans. Apparently, in this day and age authors MUST have a presence on Facebook. So now, I have an author page there, and I am hereby pledging to post on it regularly. My days as a social media recluse are over. If you spend time on Facebook (and apparently almost everyone in the entire world, except me, already does), please visit me, and follow my page, at And I’ll soon be on Twitter, as well, at @StrongbowSaga. Very soon there I will begin telling a tale of horror–and it’s all true–told in tweets.

At the start of this post I mentioned that over the past week I had recently read several interesting things about the state of publishing today. Another, besides the Authors Guild survey, was about Amazon’s 20th anniversary, and all of the numerous ways in which Amazon has been an agent of change during that time to transform  publishing. You can read the full article here, but let me list just a few. In 1995, Amazon launched its online bookstore (Did you remember that they used to sell only books? I didn’t.). In 1999 Amazon began using complex computer algorithms to give readers personalized recommendations (“Other readers who bought this book also bought X”–one of those very important search engines The Strongbow Saga has become increasingly less visible in.) In 2007 Amazon introduced its first Kindle e-book reader–and also introduced its Kindle Direct self publishing platform which allowed authors for the first time to publish their books directly, without having to depend on one of the big publishers. And between 2007 and 2011, Amazon almost single-handedly developed the market for e-books, increasing their sales from being little more than a concept to becoming, in the United States and increasingly so in the rest of the world, a major percentage of all book sales.

In the course of transforming publishing, Amazon has greatly democratized it, giving more power to authors and lessening the stranglehold on book publishing that a few big publishing houses once held. But Amazon has also empowered readers, as well. Book reviews used to be written only by an elite and fairly small cadre of professional reviewers whose reviews, published in periodicals like Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, and the New York Times Book Review supplement, could mean success or failure for a new book. Good reviews in these journals would mean libraries would purchase the books, and bookstores would stock and prominently display them (and as an aside, one incredible blunder HarperCollins apparently did when they launched The Strongbow Saga back in 2006 was to fail to send out review copies. As a result, no reviews at all were obtained in the big journals, and the series’ launch, indeed its very existence, went mostly undetected among libraries and bookstore buyers).

Today, that power rests with you–the readers. Another of Amazon’s innovations was to allow, encourage, and prominently display readers’ reviews of books–and once Amazon got into the business of selling everything else under the sun besides just books, reviews of those items, as well. For the first time, readers could shop for a book by finding out what other readers thought of it, rather than just some elite New York reviewer.

You, the readers, have been given a tremendous power. If you like a book, if you like an author, you now can give them your support. If an author has given you pleasure, give them something back. Write a review. Post it as many places as you’d like, but by all means include Amazon–the world’s largest seller of books today. Those reviews are among the factors than can affect search and recommendation engines. I’m speaking here not just for myself, but for all of those many, many struggling authors whose financial woes are reflected in the Authors Guild survey. Please–use your power. If you like what we have given you, please take the time and effort to give back.

Things Change

So do plans. In my post a few days ago, I explained how some unanticipated events had thrown my writing plans for this year behind schedule. I had intended that I would complete and publish The Beast of Dublin by late spring of this year, then in the fall begin the fifth and final book of The Strongbow Saga, but that did not happen.

Fans of The Strongbow Saga have been waiting too long to receive the conclusion of Halfdan’s story. I do want to risk not getting it to you by next year. Therefore, I am once again setting The Beast of Dublin aside for a time, and am turning to the final installment of The Strongbow Saga (tentative title: To the Edge of the World) with an eye to publishing it, if all goes well, in the first half of 2016. Thank you all for your patience and loyalty.

News From the Farm

20150801_121026How time flies! I did not realize it had been so long since I last posted here.

I will be in Portland, Oregon on Friday, August 7th, to teach two classes at the Willamette Writers Conference. At 9:00 AM I’ll be in a panel discussion, “Do It Yourself: Three Case Studies in Successful Self-Publishing,” with authors Annie Bellet and William Hertling and self-publishing trainer Carla King. And at 10:30 AM, I’ll be teaching “Bringing the Past to Life: Research Strategies and Methods for Writing Historical Fiction.” The Willamette Writers Conference this year has a self-publishing track block of courses that should be very helpful to any writers who are either considering getting involved in self-publishing their own work, or who are already doing so, but are looking to improve their success and skills.

But no doubt you are wondering, after having heard nothing from me for so long, where I currently am with my writing. My plan was to devote this year to completing The Beast of Dublin, a historical thriller novel set in the Strongbow Saga world which I began back in 2009, which is a stand-alone story but also is, in some ways, a prequel to the Strongbow Saga. I’d hoped to complete and publish it by summer, but as often happens, life intervened with my plans and intentions. Much of my time and energy during the first months of this year were taken up with two big issues: helping my stepdaughter Laura make the big move from Texas to Oregon, and battling with my former publisher, HarperCollins, over copyright violation issues–I discovered that they were still selling e-book editions of my books years after no longer having the legal right to do so. Both issues ended well: Laura is now happily an Oregonian, and HarperCollins and I finally resolved our differences satisfactorily, but I am behind schedule on my writing as a result. I still hope, however, to complete and publish The Beast of Dublin by the end of this year, and to write and publish the final volume of the Strongbow Saga in 2016.

But I have learned to accept, in this fourth year in my new home and life in Oregon, that writing will not take place during the summer. Our farm consumes every moment of our time during that season.

My wife, Jeanette, and I produce a significant amount of the food we consume, and each year the percentage we produce increases. We grow a large variety–over 50 different crops over the course of the year–of vegetables in our large garden, the orchard we laboriously planted in 2012 is finally beginning to (literally) bear fruit, and wild blackberries grow abundantly on our land. Summer is a time of tending to the garden, harvesting and processing vegetables and berries, and filling our two freezers with vacuum-sealed packages that will provide us with fresh organic food for the coming year.

20150801_114327This year that has all been complicated by the weather. Western Oregon is in the midst of a terrible drought. Our pastures are so dry that the grass crunches underfoot when we walk across them. The mountains had very little snowfall this past winter, and as a result rivers and streams are at record low levels. Tragically, the low water levels and much higher than normal water temperatures are wreaking havoc with the salmon and steelhead populations: hundreds of thousands have already died while trying to return to their home rivers to spawn. And the effects of the drought have been compounded by wave after wave of extremely high temperatures–we’ve had five 100 degree or higher heat waves already this summer, and virtually no rain. Last week, for example the high temperatures recorded on our farm on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday were 108.5, 105.6, and 103.4. On such days, we can only work outside for relatively brief portions of the morning and late evenings, and much of that time of necessity is devoted to watering the garden and orchard and caring for the animals’ needs. And the wildfire danger is very high. Earlier this summer we scythed a wide fire break in the pasture around our home, and are now relying on the sheep to keep it eaten short.

Speaking of the sheep, this year our small herd was increased by the birth of three new lambs, and decreased by the death of one sheep. This spring for the first time we culled the herd, and killed and butchered a sheep for meat. We took Ramses, a three year old ram, who was formerly the leader of the herd. He had grown somewhat aggressive over the past year, regularly attacking the younger rams to assert his dominance over them, and even charging me several times. The herd is a much more peaceful community now, and his meat is quite tender and tasty.

Our two mature ewes each had a lamb in early spring. The first we feared would not survive its first 24 hours, because its mother, Sweetie (an absolute misnomer of a name–she has a very cranky disposition), gave birth on the far side of our property, away from the safety of the barn and the small pastures around it where the ewes have always given birth before. Only three days earlier, a cougar had been spotted prowling less that 100 yards away from the area where she gave birth. Our sheep are Soay, a semi-wild ancient heritage breed that originated on an island off the coast of Scotland, and we feared that if we tried to move the baby to safety, Sweetie might abandon it–something that sheep sometimes do if the bonding process between the mother and new-born lamb is interrupted. So we reluctantly left her to fend for herself and the lamb overnight, and our fears for its safety were increased when a cold rain fell for much of the night. But somehow it survived, and the next morning, with the help of Sigrid, our Border Collie, we  encouraged Sweetie and her lamb to slowly make their way across the pasture to the safety of the barn. We named the lamb, a male, Lucky, because we felt he was very lucky to have survived.

Our other mature ewe, Pretty Girl, who is pictured below (she has been unusually slow to lose her winter wool this year–Soay sheep normally shed their coats in the early summer), is a much better mother than Sweetie. Her lamb was born several weeks later, and quickly was awarded the name Allie, because only a few days after she was born we saw her pee–how we usually determine the sex of new lambs–and said Hallelujah, this one’s a girl!

20150727_110458The third lamb was a surprise, and did not arrive until late spring. She was born to Deidre, a young ewe who was one of the twins born to Pretty Girl last year. Because of her young age and the fact that she showed no signs at all of being pregnant, we were not anticipating a lamb from Deidre this year. Deidre is still smaller than full size, so the lamb was tiny, but has seemed very healthy from birth. It has kept us in suspense about its sex, though, because months after its birth we still have not witnessed it peeing–a fact which eventually won it the name of Nopey. In the photo below, the child-mother Deidre is on the left, Allie is in back on the right, and Nopey is in front, chewing on a mouthful of beet greens. From the shape of Nopey’s developing horns, which look similar to Allie’s (plus the absence so far of a visible scrotum), we’re beginning to hope “it” will prove to be a she.

20150727_110518And that’s the news from the farm. In my next post–which will not be so long in coming as this one was–I’ll share some photos from last year’s research trip to Ireland, including scenes that will figure in The Beast of Dublin and in the final portions of Halfdan’s story in the Strongbow Saga.


I have a pervert, sex offender duck. I thought humans were the only species capable of such behavior.

We keep chickens on our small farm, and also have two ducks. The chickens and ducks each have separate coop areas in the barn where they’re closed up at night, but during the day they all free range in a small fenced pasture that the coop area opens into. Our oldest hen, who is named Bard (she’s a Plymouth Barred Rock), doesn’t come out of the chicken coop much anymore, though. Most of her generation of chickens, our first ones, are gone now, and she’s pretty slow moving and often just looks tired.

This afternoon I was in our garden—a fenced area next to the bird’s pasture—washing a head of lettuce I’d just harvested, when I heard a horrible, prolonged distressed squawking coming from the coop area of the barn. I rushed in and saw that the sound was coming from our rooster, Goldie, who was outside of the chicken coop looking in, acting very distressed and absolutely screaming about something inside. I stepped in and saw it. We keep a foot-high board across the open doorway of the chicken coop during the day to keep the ducks out, but the male duck had gotten over it somehow, and was on Bard’s back, pinning her to the ground and raping her, holding the feathers on the back of her head tightly in his beak so she couldn’t move.

It was disturbing and upsetting, almost like coming upon someone’s grandmother being raped.

I grabbed him around the neck—none too gently—dragged him off, carried him outside flapping and gasping for air, and flung him out into the pasture.

Sigrid, our Border Collie, loves the chickens. She likes to follow them around and watch them, and sometimes will just lay down among them while they scratch and forage around her. She knows she’s forbidden to do anything that might hurt them, and shows no inclination to (she does have a game she invented that we call Rooster Tag, where she pokes the rooster in the butt or chest with her nose, then quickly jumps or spins out of reach when he tries to attack her. It’s all in fun—on her part, at least). But when she saw me throw the duck, she realized something unusual must be going on, and promptly ran over and tackled him, which sent him running squawking away down the pasture.

Poor old Bard came out of the coop and all of the other hens and the rooster gathered around her, almost as if they were trying to comfort her. She stayed outside with them for a long time—very unusual for her—and they all stayed close around her.

Eventually the male duck made his way back to the barn, where his mate, looking worried, joined him. What did the damn thing do? He charged into the chickens, scattering them, and jumped on Bard again. Apparently for him she is some kind of very enticing object of sexual desire which he can no longer resist. Both Sigrid and I rushed in and he ran away. For the rest of the afternoon, Sigrid kept the ducks under close guard, safely away from the barn and the hens, until we shut them up in their pen for the night.

20150425_170638The female duck stopped laying eggs over a year ago, and the two of them eat a lot of food, are noisy and messy, and in general give nothing back for the amount of trouble and work they require. My wife, Jeanette, and I have been planning, at some as yet undetermined point in the future, to relocate them from the barn to the freezer. It was very tempting today, while I had his neck in my hand, to go ahead and do the deed. But plucking and cleaning a duck is a time-consuming and tedious process, and it’s best prepared for in advance. However, I can see a duck-pluck party coming very soon. Sentence has been adjudged, and is awaiting execution—as is the duck.

Ancient Archery Skills

Halfdan, the protagonist of The Strongbow Saga, is an archer. In many late Medieval societies, which tended to have more rigid social class structures than did Scandinavian society during the Viking era, the bow–while still an essential element in warfare for providing missile fire against an enemy–was not considered a “noble” weapon, and archers were typically commoners, and considered of lower status than the knights who formed the elite fighting element of most medieval armies.

Viking society was far more egalitarian and pragmatic. While there was certainly a small class of nobility in Scandinavian society, membership in the noble class was not strictly determined by birth–any free man could, by virtue of achieving wealth and success through his own skill and efforts, become a chieftain, a leader of men with his own retinue of followers. And the Vikings greatly admired and valued exceptional skill with all weapons, including the bow.

I have personal familiarity with the use of a bow. Growing up, I spent many hours shooting a recurve bow, both at targets and roaming through woods near my home hunting the same kind of small game that Halfdan did. I now own a yew-wood longbow, handcrafted in the same design as Medieval English and Viking bows, which I acquired to better understand how such a bow shoots differently from modern bows, and to better describe how Halfdan shoots. And I search the old  sagas for stories of Viking archers and the shots they made, to try to ensure that Halfdan’s skill, and the shots he makes, are realistic.

Although I have never found any accounts of such feats by Viking archers, I have read accounts of skill with a bow by Medieval Mongol and Saracen archers involving such incredible accuracy and speed of fire that they seemed almost impossible to believe. But recently Jeff Hays, the very talented voice actor who narrated the audio editions of the Strongbow saga books, sent me a link to the video below. A modern archer named Lars Andersen–ironically enough, a Dane, like Halfdan–has taught himself some of the forgotten techniques and skills of those ancient archers. What he is capable of with a bow will astonish you. Watch, and be amazed.