As our trusted reader(s?) know, we grow all our vegetables from seed, and now that it is spring (on the calendar at least) the time nears to sow the seeds. We do this in the basement, where we have a large “seedling bank” of lights and a heat mat.

But most of my plastic trays are pretty beaten up, and I didn’t feel like buying more flimsy plastic. So we decided to make our own seedling boxes out of wood. They’ll be sturdy and long-lasting, made of biodegradable material (mostly), and I was able to design them so that the containers that I use most often (the plastic boxes that mushrooms and berries come in) actually fit well in them.

Amie helped me shop for wood and nails at Home Depot, helped design the box, then helped saw and hammer and glue the sides together and cut out the bottom. She had the most fun hammering the bottom on, then sinking the nails in.





Amie and I made this little altar. We are collecting small momentos (like feathers) and printing out pictures of animals we love who have died – human and not alike. There’s no plan, just to have it be a place for remembrance. We’ll see how it develops. The little statue inside was made a long time ago by my mom. I find it a comforting, gentle figure.


Today I got a call from fellow beek Katharina, who had gotten a call from Haven artist Jarrett Mellenbruch, that a swarm had been caught in Beverly, MA and was on its way to the deCordova Museum. (Read how I got involved in this project in the first place. here)

I gathered my equipment and suit and jumped in the car to meet them. I arrived having missed the pouring of the swarm from the bucket into the transfer device (Katharina has a picture of this on her blog), but was in time to see the bees in that box brought up to their Haven.

The device has a nifty 3D printed top part (purple) with a funnel that fits with precision into the slot in the Haven box.


Brian, who had caught and brought the swarm, climbed up the ladder to install it. Katharina belayed. The museum had already closed, so there was a small audience.


We stood around waiting for the bees to move in. So far the cold weather had worked to our advantage, making the bees cluster and walk around a bit stunned. It helps to not have them fly all over the place. But now they were clustering inside the device. It was also getting darker.


Here is Katharina checking whether the bees are moving into the Haven.


We had hoped they’d crawl in pretty fast, but then it started raining and the device didn’t seem to empty out. So we decided to leave it there and come back in the morning.


Here’s Jarrett’s plaque:


And here’s Katharina, waving hello:


I’ll update tomorrow. Hopefully these bees will like their new home. Also, now that swarm season has started, we’ll hopefully have a second swarm soon to put into Haven no.2.

The deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum is situated in Lincoln, the town to the north of us. Still, though it is only a twenty minute drive away, I had in all the years of living here never gone there until my friend A managed to pry me off my mountain and out of my town and took me there.

I had vowed to take Amie too, but that didn’t happen until another friend got to meet the artist Jarrett Mellenbruch who was setting up a bee-related art project called Haven at the museum.
Jarrett is based in Kansas and was in town only to set up the structures for the project: two bee houses mounted on 16-foot poles. The other part of the project – the live bees, swarms more specifically – still need to be found. Jarrett set up bait hives in the neighborhood – I’ll try to get a picture of their ingenious design – but he will also have to rely on people letting him know about swarms, and beekeepers getting them, and a beekeeper climbing up there to hive them.
So he found a perfect collaborator in my friend, Katharina, a beekeeper, a member of the BEElieve network, and a climber!
I am also the first two, but though I don’t mind heights, I do mind ladders, stairs and escalators. Still, I’ll be helpful, holding the ladder, taking pictures and video when she’s hiving the bees. I’m also on several “swarm lists” – lists of people willing to go and take away a swarm.

Anyway, on Wednesday I took Amie to the park to show her the Haven project, and we got to visit a nearly empty park on a wicked sunny day.

I wish I could have taken video so you could hear the song, but as we had reached this art work right before the park closed, the landscapers were hard at work with wood chippers, stump grinding, and leaf blowers: a right racket!


Amie was really most interested in climbing this tree, which has undergone some serious graffiti and still stands strong.


We stumbled upon “Acorn Head” by accident and were wondering what it is he sees all day, all night.
The “Dancing Man” in the background is my absolute favorite. It’s deeply moving how he twirls up out of the rock, into the sky.
We found some cairns and weren’t sure if they were art works. Some were tumbled, one was still beautifully perched. The crumbling ledge that was the source of the rocks was right there, so we decided to add to the display.
The result, with the other one in the background:
And there, lastly, was one of the Havens.
And the other one:

Today Amie and I had planned to go on the first leg of the Energy Exodus march, but a nasty and (f0r me) unusual allergy attack had me up till 4 am, when I caved and finally took that Benadryl. I never take those because they knock me out completely. I woke up late, still drowsy, and told Amie we wouldn’t be going. She was disappointed. She really wanted to march and say her piece. We had made a great sign for her to hold:


The Exodus is a five-day walk, though, so we’ll try to hop on in the middle, or meet them at the end.

In between sniffles, relishing the cleansing sweat in the hot sun, I watered the thirsty garden (by hand; the irrigating tote has been empty for a while now). I also put the two poor pullets back into their little coop. The poor things were exhausted from hiding in dear and being pecked on, and then when one broke an egg they were so hungry – the hens hadn’t allowed them to eat much – they went for it. Not a good thing! Maybe I set them back to square one by pulling them out, but perhaps they just need to put on a little more weight. We’ll see.

Back inside Amie and I turned to her old school backpack. It’s the one she used the year before last year, a hand-me-down that is still in very good shape. Amie wanted “something new,” though, so we decided to decorate it. She made the designs and we applied our considerable sewing skills (ahem) to it. At first she wanted to keep the brand name visible, but when we talked about how it is now really her backpack, she asked to cover it up. Voila, debranded!


She is so proud of it. As she sewed, she kept chattering about how her friends will be SO AMAZED. They’d better be!



On this rainy day, reading Thompson’s Growth and Form (“Nature works true to scale, and everything has its proper size accordingly”) while  listening to Beethoven’s Seventh, second movement (Allegretto) over and over again and sipping sumptuous kombucha tea (I’m getting the hang of it). All three are sumptuous, of course, but one is cerebral, the other mournful, and the other playful.


Back to patterns! Having a plan for the slope has re-opened my mind for the immediate front: the balcony, the level stretch of garden up top, the top of the driveway. This is what it looks like right now:



I already analyzed one of the more general  problems: the negativity of this space. There are some more specific patterns that can be applied, or rather, actualized here to address that. Let’s start with the patterns that apply to approaching, entering, arriving and leaving. Alexander write: “The process of arriving in a house, and leaving it, is fundamental to our daily lives” (p.554). The first pattern is this:

 110. Main Entrance: Place the main entrance of the building at a point where it can be seen immediately from the main avenues of approach and give it a bold, visible shape which stands out in front of the building.

At our place the problem is not so much the lack of an obvious entrance, but a confusion between two entrances. At the moment there is only one way to approach our house, which is the driveway, and upon that approach you see the mudroom door and the “official” front door on the “balcony”.


As the “official” front door leads straight into the living room, we prefer to use the mudroom door when it is cold, rains or snows. The mudroom has room for boots, umbrellas and coats and acts like a sluice, keeping the cold out. But when it’s warm we usually leave the front door open, with a screened door that allows light into the dark corner of the living room. Needless to say, in all but the situation when there is uncleared snow on the path and the balcony steps (as in the picture), visitors are confused: which door to use? Idea:  make it so that in summer and fair weather the “official” front door seems the way to go, and that in all other situations the visitor is directed to the mudroom.

But first, what to do with each of these entrances?  I’d like to apply to them the following three patterns:


112. Entrance Transition: Make a transition space between the street and the front door. Bring the path which connects street and entrance through this transition space, and mark it with a change of light, of sound, of direction, a change of surface, of level, perhaps by gateways which make a change of enclosure, and above all with a change of view.  

130. Entrance Room: Arriving in a building, or leaving it, you need a room to pass through, both inside the building and outside it. This is the entrance room.

160. Building Edge: A building is most often thought of as something which turns inward- towards its rooms. People do not often think of a building as something which must also be oriented toward the outside. But unless the building is oriented towards the outside, which surrounds it, as carefully and positively as towards its inside, the space around the building will be socially isolated, because you have to cross a no-man’s land to get to it. Make sure that you treat the edge of the building as a “thing”, a “place”, a zone with volume to it, not a line or interface which has no thickness. Crenelate the edge of buildings with places that invite people to stop. Make places that have depth and a covering, places to site, lean, and walk, especially at those points along the perimeter which look onto interesting outdoor life.

The mudroom fully embodies the Entrance Room pattern: it is inside the house but also feel like outside, as it is unheated and full of outdoorsy things. The visitor can’t see this, however, from the outside. In order to draw him with the promise of a Transition to the inside, we could place a trellis above the door and grow a vine on it. This would also nail Building Edge, change that transition from a mere line into a place.

The front door satisfies none of these patterns.  You walk  through and you abruptly find yourself in  the living room. This is the case in many ranches, and I don’t understand why any architect or homeowner thinks this is appropriate. It’s disconcerting for everyone!  The line between inside and outside here is filter thin, not a place at all. The tiny balcony and the roof above it are not deep enough to create volume.

This is an area that has fantastic potential!

First let’s deepen the balcony. Alexander points out that any balcony that is less than six feet deep will not be used (Pattern 167. Six-foot balcony), and here we have an example if that. It is a mere 2 1/2 feet deep and no one ever wants to sit there. Let’s knock away the surrounding brick wall and add another five feet to the surface. Depending on what material we use, we can make it straight or rounded (think adobe!). We can forego a wall altogether and make it accessible by a step or two, all around.

But this place would be too hot in the Summer, as it’s south. So let’s make it into an Outdoor Room.

patt163163. Outdoor Room. Build a place outdoors which has so much enclosure round it, that it takes on the feeling of a room, even though it is open to the sky. To do this, define it at the corners with columns, perhaps roof it partially with trellis or a sliding canvas roof, create “walls” around it, with fences, sitting walls, screens, hedges, or the exterior walls of the building itself.

Let’s add a wooden pillar and beam structure around and over it, on which we grow grapes and other deciduous vines. The bare vines will allow the much needed sunlight to enter the living room in winter but the leafy canopy will shade the balcony in summer. And they grow food too (permaculture: stack functions)! The rest of the enclosure will be done with potted figs and other plants, benches, a hammock. Let’s fill this new space with all manner of places to sit, sleep, work and play in the sun, in the shade.

This will also bring to life Pattern 168, which to me is one of the most important patterns:

168. Connection to the Earth. A house feels isolated from the nature around it, unless its floors are interleaved directly with the earth that is around the house. Connect the building to the earth around it by building a series of paths and terraces and steps around the edge. Place them deliberately to make the boundary ambiguous.


This will draw us outside, to the blueberry patch, the espaliered pear tree, the path to the vegetable garden and the apiary to the right. To the left it will draw us to the pond and the dwarf orchard. To the front it will draw us to the slope with its berry bushes and trees. This is really only possible if we get that slope planted: there can be glimpses of conviviality from the street, but there must also be privacy. And even in winter it will draw us out by the eye. When standing in front of the big living room picture window, we won’t be stopped short. One more bonus: that continuation on the same level outside it will make the living room seem bigger and, depending on the material we use, it will absorb the light and heat of the sun in winter and reflect that into the living room.



Back to our original question: how to decide the visitor’s question which door to choose? When we’re done both will stand out and look inviting? I don’t have an answer yet. Maybe it will come when we look through the  patterns at the next area: the driveway and the car place.


I got Christopher Alexander(’s A Pattern Language from the library a few days back and am just blown away by it. This man had such humble, democratic insights into the task of the architect and a real feel for natural, beautiful,  human and humane living spaces. His book first proposes patterns for building cities, towns, neighborhoods. About the latter, we writes:

14. People need an identifiable spatial unit to belong to.

You can see that I devoured this because there is so much there for the Transition worker. Then it continues on to groups of buildings, houses and gardens, rooms (indoor and outdoor), alcoves, seats… smaller and smaller. Here’s one of my favorite patterns, one that, now that I have tended the fire for over three year, makes me nod and smile:

181. The Fire: There is no substitute for fire.

Alexander stresses the communal aspect of fire as he does for all his patterns. The patterns are always in service of people-living-together, whether in towns, neighborhoods, houses, room and gardens. It is about people of all ages, communing, playing, celebrating, working and learning together, letting each other into their lives and homes, and about the privacy and solitude that a social human being also craves. Another favorite,

94. Sleeping in public: It is a mark of success in a park, public lobby or a porch, when people can come there and fall asleep.


(A friend remarked that this is what gets you arrested these days, “for breathing while homeless,” then asked if he should get off his soap box. I said: “If your soap box isn’t comfortable enough to sleep on/in…”)

It’s no wonder that this Pattern Language is used in Permaculture design: it is all about niches for humans in society, built environments and nature, with a minimum of competition and a maximum of cooperation and joy. Published in 1977, the book is at times old-fashioned when it deals with materials and technologies, but it is for the most part timeless. And as an object it feels good: heavy in a handy way, 1171 thin, crackling pages, like a Bible, or the Kritik der reinen Vernunft, and of course I got it for my library. This website has all the patterns in their sequence if you want to explore.


What I am most interested in at this point is invitations.  How do you make a place inviting to potential visitors and even to the people who live there? That someone owns a place or works in one, that he walks in and out every day, doesn’t automatically mean they were invited in. The majority of buildings we live and work in are dead to some degree that no rugs or framed prints can make them alive. What to do with these buildings that already exist?

Alexander’s architecture is democratic: he wants the average person to be able to build, and rebuild.  His solutions are small ones, though they are not to be confused with easy ones, like the facile throw of a rug or the hanging whatever print is trendy – for those, consult Cosmopolitan or Martha Stewart. Alexander’s solution do require work, that is, thought and labor.  Raising pillars, creating ceiling vaults (with burlap!) and building bed nooks require tools (hammers, nails, hands), resources and some handiness. And often times it is clear that he takes it for granted that one person can’t do this: to reclaim our buildings from cheap functionality or cold self-aggrandizing, it takes a village…

There are some good things about our 1200 sq.f. 1950s ranch: it’s small and compact and by some lucky stroke it faces mostly south and the chimney runs down the middle of the house. But it’s so boxy and straight! I marvel at the lack of organic fluidity – no wonder I love my pudgy wood stove with its rounded corners. Slowly I will start working on this, rounding my house. But first, I want to make it more inviting.


105. South Facing Outdoors: People use open space if it is sunny, and do not use it if it isn’t, in all but desert climates.

This is perhaps the most important single fact about a building. If the building is placed right, the building and its garden will be happy places full of activity and laughter. If it is done wrong, then all the attention in the world, and the most beautiful details, will not prevent it from being a silent gloomy place. […] Always place buildings to the north of the outdoor spaces that go with them, and keep the outdoor spaces to the south. Never leave a deep band of shade between the building and the sunny part of the outdoors.


We do well by this pattern. Our house faces more or less south and it has a large stretch of land in front of it. We have a large stretch in the back as well and that is sunny too, since we have only a one story house which doesn’t cast much shade.


Nevertheless my observation over the last four years is that we hang out almost exclusively in the back. In the back is the screened-in porch (where we sometimes eat dinner), the paved  patio (more meals under the umbrella, grilling, and summer carpentry work), the small lawn (ripped up by too much badminton) and beyond that, at the edge of the trees, Amie’s play house. To the right is the shed and the kiwi trellis, which invites you to the chicken coop and the wood piles in the east. To the left, in the welcome shade and between the rampant hostas, are the rain barrels, and then, around the corner of the house  lies the vegetable garden to the west. All around the edge of all this activity is a rim of towering, mature oak and pine. Beyond our property line in the north there is a narrow wooded stretch of conservation land and then it goes down the wooded hill. We spot the lights of our neighbors down there only in winter when the trees are leafless.

All our outdoor activity then, all our play, work and food, happens in back.  None of it up front. When we come up from the street, either walking or driving up the driveway, we head inside or around back immediately. Most plants grown up front get watered last or are downright neglected. The two rain barrels I had up front are used last. I’ve written about the challenge of this area before.


view south-west from our living room window

When it’s warm we keep the “official” front door from our balcony straight into our living room open, but that and this view out the window is about all the interaction we have with that huge stretch of property south of us. Why is that?  It has to do, in part, with pattern 106.


106. Outdoor spaces which are merely “left over” between buildings will, in general, not be used.

There are two fundamentally different kinds of outdoor space: negative space and positive space. Outdoor space is negative when it is shapeless, the residue left behind when buildings – which are generally viewed as positive – are placed on the land. An outdoor space is positive when it has a distinct and definite shape, as definite as the shape of a room, and when its shape is as important as the shapes of the buildings which surround it.  […] Negative spaces are so poorly defined that you cannot really tell where their boundaries are, and to the extent that you can tell, the shapes are nonconvex. […] Make all the outdoor spaces which surround and lie between buildings positive. Give each some degree of enclosure; surround each space with wings of buildings, trees hedges, arcades and trellised walks, until it becomes an entity with a positive quality and does not spill out indefinitely around corners.


All the positive space on our property is behind the house, where one has a feeling of safe and well-defined enclosure by shed, planters and trellis, treeline and fence lined by berry bushes. The space in the front of the house on the contrary is ill-defined.


Upon approach up the driveway a large asphalt circle opens up with to the left the bisection of the property by the long, straight length of the house. Turn west and in front of the house is an open space hardly dissected by an amorphous medicinal flower bed, a weedy slope downward with toward more weeds, some trees along side. The only things that draw your eye when you’re up near the front are the three beehive boxes to the west.


When you look up at our house on the hill from the street the negative aspect of this space is even more evident:


It looks better in Spring, like this:


Still, this picture is a case in point, as the only time we actually get to enjoy this view is when we walk down there to take a picture. The solution, then, is to turn all this wasted space into positive space by giving it more definition, by dividing it up and enclosing it with soft edges punctured with inviting gateways and entrances. How we’ll do that involves some more patterns.