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We were looking for a good example to draw from, and I pulled out the huge tome about Paintings in the Louvre Museum that DH and I lugged home all the way from Paris. We leafed through and as the book starts with art from the Middle Ages, the predominant image was of Jesus on the Cross.

“Who’s that?” she asked.

“His name is Jesus.”

“What’s he doing?”

“He is nailed to the cross.”

“Why?”

“Because people didn’t like what he said,” I said (making it up as I went along).

“Is that his blood?”

“Yes.”

She was fascinated. She leafed through the entire 1000-pager looking for more Jesus-on-the-Cross. She asked questions about details, like if he had a ledge to stand on or not. Then she also got interested in Jesus as a baby.

“There must be a picture of Jesus on the Cross as a baby,” she said. “I think that also happened.”

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A couple of days later Amie was ready to draw Jesus. We got out our Hildegarde von Bingen book, from which she had already drawn Cultivating the Cosmic Tree and as expected she chose an image of Jesus on the Cross.

She drew the body and head of Jesus first, then the outstretched arms, and then she gave him a big smile.

I asked: “Really? Is he smiling, do you think?”

She looked closely. “No,” she said, confused. She always draws her human figures with a smile.

I suggested she keep that drawing but use it in another picture, and we found Christ Sits in Judgment.

“But he is sitting here,” Amie protested.

Then she solved the problem herself, by drawing a line across the figure’s body to indicate his knees. Then she spent a lot of time on all the circles that envelop him.

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After a couple of days, when she again asked to see the big book with Jesus on the Cross (again without any prompting by me), I asked her: “Do you want me to tell you the story of Jesus?”

The answer was an eager yes. I should have prepared better, I think I made a mighty mess of it! Especially the question “Who’s God?” got me all muddled. But she was interested. Later that day she came to me and said:

“You know, in Jesus’ time, they called Jesus ‘Mama’. Did you know that? Some people called him ‘Mama’.”

How strange!

{This is a second attempt at this poll. I deleted the first one: the polling service wasn’t working properly. My apologies to those who already voted; please vote again.}

I am curious about how my readers think about Peak Oil / Global Warming. Do you think the threat is real? What do we hope/fear for the future?

And coupled to that: What are our appropriate responses? Should we simplify/reduce, rebuild our sustainability/resilience, work on our skill set for a depleted world? Start growing our own food? Or not?

Please click. If you can’t find your reason, let me/us know and I can add the alternative, or you can type it into the poll yourself (in that case, please keep it short). You can choose any or all answers that apply.

For those of you reading this on the Riot site: you’ll have to come on over to the blog to vote.

Good luck!

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The temperatures have soared (in the low 50s today) and all the snow is melting. Funny, how all the stuff that fell on the snow but was covered up again is now showing on top: dust, twigs and leaves, tiny seeds… whatever snow is left now is no longer purely white.

But last week, before the thaw set in, Amie and I went for a nature walk with the intention of finding animal tracks. It was cold, but each time we spotted a track in the snow, we grew magically warm. We followed the trails wherever they went, up and down the slopes, underneath the bushes, around the trees, sinking in up to our knees (snow got into my boots: gack!).

We were on the trail of one creature in particular. I had found its tracks on an earlier walk and had had a tough time identifying them, because only the trail (the pattern of walking/trotting) was clear, but not the tracks (individual footprints), in the old snow. Still, going by Murie’s Animal Tracks my best guess was that they were the tracks of the Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes). I’ve seen this beautiful creature in person only a couple of times, long ago in the summer, so suspecting its signs was exciting. I was keen on getting a good footprint, though, in the freshly fallen snow.

We didn’t have to go far, for there they were: that same pattern, right behind our garden fence. “It might be the fox, Amie!” I whispered, and as we walked along the meandering trail, we kept quiet, for maybe he was still around…

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This trail is one of a “perfect walker” or an animal with a “direct-register track”: when at a trot, the hind feet step into the tracks made by the fore feet and their trails often form a nearly straight line. Their trails look like the trails humans leave behind – the human animal having only two legs can’t help but be a “perfect walker”! But the fox’s tracks are smaller and closer together: made by a smaller animal. Also, they go places where a human wouldn’t go, like underneath bushes.

Domestic cats, bobcats, coyotes, wolves, foxes, deer and moose are perfect walkers. Domestic dogs are not: their trails are more irregular. We don’t have wolves, bobcats, or moose. That leaves deer – of which we’ve seen a few right behind our house – domestics cats, foxes and coyote.

Time to look at the tracks themselves. This time the track hadn’t disappeared in the snow and I got some nice photos!

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Well, that rules out the deer, which has hooves, and the cat (or bobcat, had one wandered quite far out of its range), because cats usually keep their claws retracted, and here the claws can clearly be seen.

Fox, then, or coyote. Coyotes have been spotted in the area, but not in our neighborhood that I know of, and I haven’t heard one. Also, the coyote’s direct register tracks are about 14″ to 15″ apart, whereas these were much closer together, about 8.5″ apart. The coyote’s print, with nails, are usually almost around 3″ long, whereas these are only about 2″.

The unique and therefore distinguishing feature of a fox’s track, the one that will make all your doubts disappear, is the line or bar that runs across the heel pad of the front track (it can be straight, or chevron-shaped). None of my tracks were clear enough, though.

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The snow was very powdery and quite deep, which may account for “slurring” of the tracks in those pronounced lines from one track to the other. Sometimes they seemed to have been foot drag, sometimes they seem to have been made by the fox’s tail.

I explained all of this to Amie, some of it at a whisper, while we were walking, but most of it back at home, while looking in the track books from the library together. I was interested in identifying the track, of course, and talking about how the signs of animals make them alive for us, even though they’re not present.

But I also wanted to show her how an argument works, but which path of deduction I emphasized the words “caused” and “causes”, “so” and “we conclude”, and “it can’t be this because” and “it must be this because”. She was interested in the detective work and clearly grasped some of the easier steps. For instance, she told me herself, looking at the pictures I had made and the drawings of deer tracks, that it couldn’t be deer.

She loves to pore over the images in the track books, and soon I’ll ask her to make some drawings. At the moment we’re swamped with Valentine’s cards, however. Of course we’re doing a Home-Made Valentine’s, just like we did a Home-Made Christmas: 20 cards and 100s of hearts out of construction paper, 20 envelopes out of scrap paper, 20 signatures /tracks painstakingly coaxed from my daughter’s tired hand…

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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.