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I am having fun with the garden plan. There are so many possibilities, so much to do! I’m cautious about planning too much. I want to concentrate on the food growing areas first: the veg garden, herb garden and some container gardening, and perhaps some berry bushes around the perimeter.

But we need to address those areas where the vegetation was ripped out and where the topsoil was dug under during last year’s new septic system installation. The soil there is terrible, and weeds are all that grows there. The largest of these areas is on a slight slope, so it is especially erosion-prone.

I just want to sow something there that is cheap and temporary, something we will replace with more permanent plantings in a year or two years’ time. A green manure would be optimal, as it would enrich the soil for the later plantings, but I was also thinking of some easy herbs and/or flowers. Whatever it is, it needs to:

  1. grow fast to shade out the weeds
  2. tolerate poor soil
  3. tolerate partial shade
  4. have a shallow root system (or it will clog the leach field pipes)
  5. be easy to eradicate once we want to replace it
  6. be cheap

Any ideas?

I also got our potato seed and onion set order in at Fedco’s Moose Tubers. Finally and not a moment too soon: they already sold out of many of the organic varieties. I ordered:

Fingerlings: Banana organic (1 lb)

Early: Dark Red Norland organic (2.5 lbs)

Mid-Season: Keuka Gold organic (2.5 lbs)

Late: Elba organic (2.5 lbs) and Bintje naturally grown (5 lbs)

Bintje is the classic deep-frying potato. It is very desired as a “friet patat” in Belgium, though it is rarely sold in supermarkets anymore. And that’s where people now get their food usually. I ordered two and lots of the late varieties – and good keepers too – because I always crave potatoes in winter.

If all goes well, those 2 lbs of onions will yield 60-80 lbs of onions, and those 13.5 lbs of potatoes, 135 lbs of potatoes… Mmmm, I love potatoes! Should I order more?

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This is a neat idea to save energy on your fridge and freezer. It was suggested in the Riot 4 Austerity discussion group. I’m happy to have found it because our inherited fridge-freezer is an old one and we could definitely use some KWH savings there.

It makes sense that it takes a lot of energy to cool an empty fridge or freezer. Not that it takes longer to cool air than, say, a gallon of milk, quite the contrary. The problem is when you open the fridge or freezer door. All that cooled air simply tumbles out (especially if you have an upright – cold air is denser and heavier than warm air). But the cold in the gallon of milk largely stays put. All the things in your fridge and freezer are “cold-sinks”.

So the solution is to fill you fridge or freezer with these sinks: bottles of water, for instance. There will be be an initial extra investment cooling them, but after they’ve reached the desired temperature, each time the machine is opened, (1) more coldness will be retained and (2) there will be less air to cool and re-cool.

But the idea goes further: if you live in freezing temperatures (as we do), why not fill up some bottles of water and put them outside to freeze, then put them in the fridge and freezer? That eliminates the initial extra investment, and the frozen bottles in the fridge will do some extra cooling, for free.

Just happy to have found another silver lining to our deep-freeze!

{UPDATE} Just my “luck”! Just as I put the bottles outside for freezing, the temperatures shot up!

I am preparing two bags;

1) A field bag, containing

  1. compass
  2. measuring tape
  3. pencils and pencil sharpener
  4. paper/journals for Mama and Amie
  5. eraser
  6. watercolor and water bottle, brushes
  7. baggies for collecting
  8. clear tape
  9. camera

I might add a baggie with Plaster of Paris for capturing animal tracks and a mixing tin.

2) A run-out-of-the-house emergency pack, containing

  1. important documents and some cash
  2. important medications and first aid kid
  3. duct tape
  4. matches in waterproof container
  5. several ziploc bags
  6. batteries
  7. battery/handcrank flashlight
  8. portable battery/handcrank radio
  9. swiss army knife
  10. 1 change of clothes for each of us, extra socks
  11. high energy bars
  12. water bottles and water purification tablets

The emergency bag needs to grow into something more substantial, possibly with sleeping bags, tent and cooking gear and more food. Not too big: not too much for just one person to carry.

Does it strike you too? The contrast! How is it possible to live with these two bags at the same time? How do I reconcile them in my life: one, this love of life, of my child and of nature, and, two, this hopelessness, this dreadful vision of the future?

I don’t know. But I do.

The same tension is present here, in this blog. Many come here for my reviews of “green diapers”, or to read about Amie’s artwork, and lately also our nature studies. They are often confronted with posts about how we are simplifying our lives and reducing our carbon footprint. It confuses them.

Others visit for our seedling setup and chicken studies, our progress in the Riot 4 Austerity, or to read our What We Do Manifesto. More than often they get Tigger as drawn by Amie, or Mama’s latest wheel thrown pot. They too are confused.

I seem to alienate both. Or do I? I don’t know.

Should I have two blogs? Or three perhaps? I’ve thought about it, but I don’t think I can. All these sides is who I am, always all these together at once. They often do battle, and then this blog is the place where I come to proclaim the one or the other that is the strongest at the moment, or the one or the other that needs some encouragement.

It might turn off some readers, but so what?

And yet I think it is time that I started writing more about this contrast, or rather, this overlap between life-as-usual, which is so wonderful at the moment, and my very real and detailed worries for the future. It’s time to begin the work of reconciling them, in my own mind at least. That story is perhaps the most important one to tell.

Amie wanted to draw from one of our art books. It’s a new thing. She loves to sit with the “humongous fat one” that DH and I lugged all the way from the Louvre so many years ago, and leaf through all of its 600 pages.

This time I pulled out a book about Hildegarde von Bingen. We leafed through von Bingen’s magnificent visions of the Cosmic Egg, the Microcosmos and the Macrocosmos, and the Cultivation of the Cosmic Tree. “That’s the one,” she said.

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She put her entire heart into reproducing it in as much detail as she could apprehend and process. I helped a little, mainly by describing the aspects she wanted to focus on (“the square is big so everything can fit inside it.  You can divide the inner circle by drawing a  cross in it”) and by coloring in a little. The rest is all hers.

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I decided to combine this week’s Outdoor Hour and Winter Wednesday challenges. For the first we observe a tree throughout the seasons. Those who have followed the challenges from the beginning have done this three times already and will be completing the year. But as Amie and I have just joined the Outdoor Hour, this will be the first season in which we observe “our tree”. The season being  winter, and our attention having turned to tree bark, we also fit the Winter Wednesday challenge.

But first, to choose a tree!

  • Choose Your Tree

We have many trees on our property, and of many species: Beech, Gray Birch, Red Oak, White Oak, Maple, Hemlock, Pine and some immature Spruces. I have been wanting to do a serious count for months now, but I never get around to it – when you move into a new place there are so many other, “more urgent” things to do. I would say that we have a stand of several generations of trees going, with the oldest a good 50 years old, the youngest still a sapling.

Too many choose from! But we’ll choose the American Beech in our front yard. It is one of the oldest trees on our property, probably about half a century old. Its trunk rises stately and straight as a ruler, then it forks, way up high, and develops a beautiful crown that shades out any other tree in its vicinity. To me it’s a symbol of strength and endurance. To Amie its a BIG tree.

  • Trees in Winter: Snow and Ice

Until a couple of days ago the trunks of the bigger trees were encased in ice. Snow had fallen and lay packed on the branches and against the trunks. The picture below shows those layers of snow clinging to the trunk of one of our oaks (the tree lists about five degrees away from the camera, so it’s not totally vertical). If you click on the picture to make it larger, you’ll see the intricate layers in which the snow was laid down against the tree: a right marvel!

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Then the snow thawed and it all came dripping, trickling, flooding down. Then it froze, hard. This picture is of another oak:

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Here’s “our” chosen beech, slick with ice, gleaming in the sunlight:

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Makes you feel cold, no? But it turns out that cold is not a problem for our trees, in winter. It’s heat.

  • The Problem of Winter Heat: Frost Cracks

One of my favorite nature study books is Reading the Forested Landscape. A Natural History of New England, by Tom Wessels (*). Wessels discusses (p.79-80) how trees are adapted to the cold New England weather, particularly by their bark, which protects the cambial tissues (“the vital part of the trunk; it builds on its outside a layer of bark, and on its inside a layer of wood around the trunk”, Comstock, p.620). What they protect against is heat from fire and heat from the winter sun.

As Wessels writes, it seems counterintuitive that a tree needs to protect itself against exposure to winter sunlight. You’d think some warmth and sunlight would do them good. But most of our New England trees are impervious to the cold.

Wessels conjures up the image of a tree on the edge of a meadow on a cold January day. It’s -5 F. The sunlight falls directly on the dark trunk, heating the bark and the underlying wood to over 70 F, making them expand.  Then the sun dips below the horizon. The bark begins to cool and contract, but the underlying, insulated wood takes longer to do so. And so the bark doesn’t fit around the wood anymore: it’s too tight. So it cracks open. The resulting wound is called “frost crack”. This weak spot grows larger and deeper with each such temperature fluctuation.

I’ve yet to find a tree with such a crack. That’s because most trees have been around here for many millennia and they have foun ways to adapt to the winter sunlight.

  • Bark to the Rescue

There are four kinds of bark texture (just counting the deciduous trees):

  1. scaly (maples and cherries)
  2. ridged (ashes and oaks)
  3. plated (black birch)
  4. smooth (beech, birch)

We explored these thoroughly, by sight and touch, and Amie can make out the smooth barked beech most easily. It’s good fun, running your fingers over the bark with your eyes closed, trying to guess which it is.

The first three of these kinds of bark allow the heat trapped underneath the bark to escape faster, so that the underlying wood can cool at the same rate as the bark.Result: no frost cracks.

The smooth-barked beech lacks this capacity. So how does it protect itself from frost cracks? It is lighter in color. When I asked Amie what color the bark was, she automatically said: “Brown” (just like she automatically reached for the brown pen when drawing her tree a couple of days ago, even though “I really don’t like the color brown. But oh well [sigh] I will have to use brown, because it is brown, after all!”)… I asked her to look again, and she said: “Gray!”

The lighter color of the Beech’s bark reflects the sunlight. This is an adaptation of this originally tropical tree to the exposure to winter sun in the high and not-so-high North.

One day I will tell this story to Amie again – my three-year-old adaptation of it, I must admit, falls woefully short – and we will marvel at the great resilience of this tree, and at Nature’s meticulous inventiveness and perseverance.

I also wanted to share with you another marvelous tree, in the back of our property. We call it the Tuning Fork Tree. I believe it’s a Pine, but shall go back to verify some day.

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~

(*) Reading the Forested Landscape is a detective book, really. At the beginning of each chapter there is a beautiful etching  of a wooded landscape (by Brian D. Cohen). The chapter then deciphers the clues to disturbance histories,  the impact of logging, forest fire, beaver activity, blowdowns, blights, changing climate and human handiwork. As you read, you learn about forest succession, ecosystems, and the history of New England’s forests. It’s fascinating and beautiful.

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I got to bring home my first pot, which I threw last week. I had made the bottom too thin and it cracked while drying, so we gave it up as a lost cause and didn’t even trim, let alone fire it. But it was fun to bring it home to show Amie, who said:

– Wow! It has a crack!

Yes, well…

I threw three pots this week. The third one was noticeably better than the first, perhaps because I discovered that while centering (*) it helps to look away, to un-focus the gaze, and just feel the clay under your hands.

(*) centering = getting all the clay to be in the exact middle of the wheel; only then can you proceed to shape it.

I also got to trim the second pot I made last week, and I can’t wait to see it glazed and fired.

You know, I tried yoga for a while, with a lovely instructor and a bunch of really nice people one of whom is one of my best friends.  But it didn’t do anything for me. I need to do something. Wheelthrown pottery is perfect for me: it gets me out of the house, into a great community, it gets me out of my head, working with my hands, it relaxes and grounds me, concentrates me, and it satisfies my desire to build my practical skills. And I get to bring pots home, some cracked, some not…

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Amie and I spotted the first Robins of the year on 21 January. One of them was climbing the cranberry bushes underneath our feeders and kept falling off. He looked clumsy, groggy. Our neighbor – who can tell us which bird settled in our gardens in which year, going decades back – told us that when Robins eat fermented berries, they get drunk. I would tell the story to Amie but she has no idea what “drunk” means, and I don’t know if I want to clue her in on that one yet. (having a deep abhorrence for drunkenness)… It was a sight to behold, nevertheless: funny and (for me) worrisome too.

I was looking for more information about the migrations of Robins and found this neat website for children and teachers about seasonal change called Journey North. There are pages about plants and the seasons and migrations of birds, worms, butterflies, frogs, etc. The ultimate goal is to help kids understand that all living systems are driven by the sunlight in a dynamic ecosystem that connects them.

Kids can enter their observations – we did so with our Robins – and then see maps, their own observation included. It’s like the Mass Audubon eBird, only more child-focused.

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We returned to the Winter Wednesday tree challenge yesterday (read our first entry here), which is about tree silhouettes. Amie decided to draw the large pine trees in our  neighbor’s yard (all the trees in our own yard are too close to see in their entirety from the window). (The picture below was taken a month ago, when there was still snow on/in the trees.)

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It was a pleasure and also slightly mystifying to see her draw those trees. You’ll see what I mean when you see the drawing…

First we decided which tree to draw: the large pines in our neighbor’s yard? Yes! I pointed out they’re actually two or even three pines clumped together. Okay.

In the spirit of observational drawing, I made sure we discussed our subjects. First we talked about how they are not leafy but “needle trees” and about how all the leafy trees have lost their leaves, but how the trees she was about to draw were still so green.

We discussed the colors (I suggested we forgo the colors and draw just the shape with a pencil, but Amie insisted on using her brand new color pens – and who could blame her?). The crown, she observed, is dark green. And the trunk? “Dark brown!”

We talked about how the trunks are long and how the green crowns sit on top of them, sort of clustered together into one single, huge triangle in the sky.

After getting all this straight, Amie started drawing.

She drew one very long trunk, all the while commenting: “I really don’t like the color brown. But oh well [sigh] I will have to use brown, because it is brown, after all!” She really talks like that.

I asked if she would draw the other trunks too, and she said no, she’d draw just one.

When the trunk was done, I asked if we should tape an extra page on top for the crown?” She said: “No, there’s enough space, see? Here?” and she pointed at the blank space next to the tree. Then she reached for the light green pen.  I reminded her of the dark green color of the needles, but she said “I really don’t like that green, I’ll use the light green instead.”

Then she drew a flattened circular crown on above and next to the trunk. I suggested that its shape is triangular. She said: “There’s no space for that”.

Then she started drawing the leaves, taking special care with the ones squeezed in on top. I said: “But doesn’t our tree have needles?” she said: “I’m drawing leaves instead.”

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Mmm. I asked her which tree she was drawing. “That one,” she said, and she pointed at the tree in the foreground of the photo: the oak. I said, bewildered: “But that tree has no leaves. The leaves all fell off in the Fall.”

“But I’m drawing the tree in summer, Mama!”

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