We had two experiments going on here yesterday and part of today.

  • First: dunking cones


When we found this cone on our Outdoor Hour walk last week, we identified it as a Norway Spruce cone. It was wet and cold when we brought it in, and we (I) had observed that the scales were slowly opening as it was drying out, or as it was warming up.  Then I read  Michelle’s cone experiment, which suggests it is the water that closes the scales. This makes sense: so the seeds won’t get washed or washed out. Yesterday we got to reproduce the test. (The stone on top was to keep the cone down in the glass.)

Amie was very into it as a Game With Water, in the living room no less!


I took the lead, going on an on about seeds etc. But Amie really got the point once we had a wet and a (as yet) dry cone one next to the other. When her Baba came come she could tell him the link between wet and closed.


Isn’t it amazing? I mean, the cone is dead, right? it has been severed from its tree, even its tiny seeds have long gone… Yet it still moves, it still functions. Maybe something to do with the construction of the scales: contact with water produces a chemical effect that makes them contract in a certain way… Gotta find out exactly how that is.

{UPDATE} “The scales open when dry because their outer halves shrink more than their inner halves, and they pull away from the cone. When wet, the scales swell shut.” (here)

  • Winter apples, winter animals

Our second experiment involved an apple that had gone mildly bad. We ate the good part and rather than throwing the bad part into the compost, I cut it up and put the segments out on our balcony, right in front of our big living room window.


Who would come and eat it?


Bird? Or mammal?

Not one animal touched the apples all afternoon, all evening, or all night! Then, today between noon and one, our resident squirrel picked up piece after piece, moving some to we-don’t-know-where (his nest? a “cupboard“?) and munching others in plain view on our balcony. We talked about how squirrels don’t hibernate, but chipmunks do (sort of, to some degree). We haven’t seen a chipmunk in over a month.


What a treat, to have been kept waiting and then to see the happy squirrel eat the apple made of the bright winter sun!

I also happened to read Mary Oliver’s Why I Wake Early yesterday. There’s this line, in “Something”:

and sometimes I am that madcap person clapping my hands and singing;

and sometimes I am that quiet person down on my knees


Amie has taken the next step in the development of drawing humans: clothes.

She had just come home with the cutest class photos and we were discussing that we should cut some out to send to the grandparents and godmothers. She didn’t want to.

– I want to keep all of them. (*)

– But they’re all the same (I returned, admittedly quite nonsensically).

I explained how much they would like a photo of her, to frame and put on their mantelpiece… Amie saw we were at an impasse. She is very proud of her compromising  skills (*), so she said:

– Okay, I have a solution. I’ll draw them a picture of myself and we’ll send them that.

Well, I’m never one to say no to a drawing.

She sat down and was about to draw the arm when she paused and drew… a sleeve.

– See, she’s got sleeves, right? Like me, I’ve got sleeves too. And her arm is in it and comes out of it.


Then followed trouser legs and shoes and “humongous hair that hangs in her face”. Which is also quite realistic:


(*) I’ll write soon about sharing and compromising with Amie. It’s taking on interesting aspects, to say the least…

I’m pretty sure that our Tia Tata doesn’t read this blog, so I think we’re fine, but


Okay, that said, all the rest of you can get a preview of one of our homemade Christmas presents. It’s a diorama for our friend Tia Tata, who is a social worker, marine biologist and diver (she founded and runs Dive Kulture, just so as you know, a fantastic program for inner city kids here in Boston). So of course it had to be of the ocean.

Amie was all for it, and she adores the word “diorama”. We sat together many afternoons drawing and coloring and cutting out  fishes, gluing together an octopus and several more fantastic creatures.  They’re hardly  anatomically correct – we’ll make it also a learning experience  next time around.  We selected a box and painted and decorated it, then played some, of course, and then put it all together.

Except for the glue and paints, some of the paper and the googly eyes (which were a gift from my mom), the whole thing is made of stuff that was bound for the recycling bin or the trash. Just like our Manush house way back when.

Here are the results (Tia Tata, if you are still reading, look away now). Click for larger images.
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So much fun! Now, with me falling sick we’ve also fallen behind on our present-making… We’ll have this week and the next to make up!

This hurts, because to tell you might dimish my own chances – no one said I was perfect – but Peak Oil Hausfrau is hosting her first give-away: a year’s subscription to Mother Earth News!

Don’t go over there, though. I mean: do go over there, by all means, just don’t comment.

Oh that’s not good either.

Do comment but on another article.  ‘T Is the Season is a great one, about more era-appropriate gift baskets.

{UPDATE} Bummer!

While lying in bed, surrounded with a lot more books now (so I’m feeling better!), what better things to do than dream, despair over how little we’ve done (as a prod), and plan our next moves. One of our priorities is our compost bins.

The Starbucks coffee grounds and the neighborhood orphan pumpkins have filled our two Earth Machines to the brim. So much so that we’ve stopped collecting from Starbucks and are praying no more pumpkins come our way, at least until we’ve set up a “second stage” composting area.

I think I’ve figured that stage out now. It will be further away from the backdoor but closer to the future garden and right next to the fenced-in-area for leaf-mold (thanks Opa!), in the far corner of our backyard for immediate access to carbon.

But what kind of bin? I like that stationary three-bin system, with the plexi-glass lid and all, in Storey’s Country Wisdom (*) (p.438). But really it’s too involved and expensive.


  • Portable wire mesh cylinder

I also like a more portable system, and one that is very easy to turn.  Storey’s also has a circular wire mesh bin (p.437): you roll up some 36″ wide 1″ poultry wire to a diameter of about 3 1/2 feet, place it and set 4 to 5 metal or wooden stakes against the inside  of the cylinder, pull it taut and drive in the stakes there it is, after some cosmetic adjustments. The idea is that when it’s time to turn the pile, you simply lift the cylinder up over the stakes, letting the compost tumble out, then move the cylinder next to it and simply fill it up again.

The wire mesh will allow for a lot of aeration, and we plan on putting in a chimney: another wire mesh tube, or long PVC pipe with lots of holes, that sits in the middle of the pile, sticking out quite a bit so that it doesn’t accidentally get filled. It’s supposed to do wonders and also minimizes having to turn the pile.

One great tip I hadn’t read before was to open up the soil underneath the bins with a fork before you set the bin on it: that helps drainage and  facilitates access for the earthworms.

I’ll need to reserve three spaces: two for bins, and one empty one for the turning process, like so:

O  O  O

1   2  3

Set full bins on 1 and 3, and when it’s time to turn, lift up bin on 1, move  to 2, shovel in the tumbled out compost. Then lift up bin on 3, move it to 1, and fill it up with the tumbled out compost.  As they’ll be close together, 1 and 3 are not a stretch. We just need to take care that there’s enough space in between to accommodate the compost tumbling out.

The proposed site is exposed on all sides, and we’re on a hill. There are lots of trees around but in winter they prove to be a windbreak full of holes. But our neighbor has promised us some free planks (the outsides of the trunks he cuts up) and so we’ll make an enclosure around the three bin spaces on all sides except the south.

This system is so simple and portable that, once we have even more compost we can easily set up more of them, and wherever we want on our property.

  • Some concerns

Do we need a lid and do we need to secure the bottom of the bin to keep the critters out? I hope in this second stage, when most of the contents of our Earth Machine have decomposed some, no critters will be interested in them anymore. We’ll keep an eye on it, and if we see critter activity, we’ll anchor the bottom rim of the wire with screws or stakes into the soil (like our Earth Machines), and we’ll devise a wire mesh lid or hatch. Roll with the punches.

As we’ll be filling up that bin or bins immediately, I will also be able to make the timing of our composting more precise. So far we’ve just been throwing in our kitchen wastes, coffee grounds and pumpkin whenever they come round, and we’ve only used a little of the finished compost for our “Bomb-Proof Mulch” experiment. I’ve read (in Storey”s) that if you leave finished compost too long its nutrients deteriorate leach away, but then elsewhere (about every other book) it says you need to put compost through several rounds of heating before it is “finished”. Needs more study!

In any case, we’ll be investing in a compost thermometer. This news made DH salivate: “Oh, one with several sensors and a digital, wireless reader?”” “No honey, an analog meat thermometer, only longer”. Needs careful attention to purchasing!

Any suggestions are very welcome!

(*) This collection of the many of the small Country Wisdom Bulletins is possibly the most useful book I’ve ever bought. And I love the format: bound large newspaper sheets with lots of room for notes.

Sorry for my absence here. I’m ill in bed. Not the little sickness, which asks for bed and tea and a stack of books and reading all day – that doesn’t happen anymore, with a child too young to care yet: it feels like too much of an indulgence. No, a more serious illness, with much coughing and moaning and strange feversleep, and… okay, I admit it, one, only one book: A Sand County Almanac.

Reading the Almanac is a yearly ritual, mostly in winter (along with Rick Bass’ Winter, which I often also read in summer). It is so full of gems and today, half awake, I read this one and I know I had to stir enough so as to share just one of them with you:

Our ability to perceive quality in nature begins, as in art, with the pretty. It expands through successive stages of the beautiful to values as yet uncaptured by language. (p.96)

Well, food for thought! But the thinking will have to wait for this here addled brain…

{This was written yesterday but I had already posed two entries so kept it for today}

I slept badly last night, or rather not at all (this cold is getting the better of me). Ever since having Amie I can function pretty well on very little sleep, on a certain level. But this morning I just couldn’t wrap my brain around the sequel to my novel. I’ve been rereading A Trail Through Leaves by Hannah Hinchman and she got me all excited about patterns in nature, for instance why it is that leaves curl. On our nature walk yesterday Amie brought home a bunch of dead leaves and… well, see for yourself:


I had never drawn a curled leaf before (I usually go for the easy top-down view) and I was pretty intimidated by all those curving, curled lines. But I took my time and looked as closely as I’ve seen Amie looking. And then there it was!

It felt so good, taking that hour or so to draw for myself and by myself. And to get to use my fancy (and barely used) watercolor set, which I keep it hidden from Amie.

Taking one’s time though isn’t so simple in this day and age of the clock. This is the larger view of the desk (Amie’s art desk):


It’s funny and typical: the cup of tea, the art objects, the journal open, but also the dolls and the playdough and especially that clock-clock-tick-tock. Five more minutes and I need to leave to pick her up from preschool.

Oh, you want to see this?


It’s The Potboiler, all 340 pages of it, before it was sent off to the agent (my first attempt). Everyone keep their fingers crossed, please.


The first Outdoor Hour challenge is simple. Read pages 1-8 (did that, read my “book review” here) and head outdoors! The focus is Comstock’s principle that “In nature-study the work begins with any plant or creature which chances to interest the pupil.”

So yesterday we went for an hour-long walk around our block and we brought a large bag for collecting  things. Amie is very into “collecting” and she gathered wood chips, stones, twigs, leaves, cones large and small, pine needles, maple seeds, and a feather.

As we walked we discussed the colors we saw, the sounds we heard, and even what the wind smelled like (“sour,” she said, but honestly I don’t think she’s even got sweet and salty straightened out yet). We checked out some strange berries, and Amie told me “they’re not for us for eating, but for the birds”.


We looked closely at two trees. One that had three things growing on it: moss, lichen, and some kind of climbing plant. We found it pretty amazing, that those are not the tree’s leaves, but the leaves of a different plant that lives on the tree! The other, otherwise bare tree was hollowed out, and we speculated about what had damaged it and what had been eating it, and whether it lived in the tree. (Click on the pictures for larger image)

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Back home I got Amie’s small table out of the guestroom – it was banished when we acquired her large desk – and baptized it our nature table.  We assembled all our treasures (along with some bugs that had come along for the ride).


Since then Amie has frequently returned to the table to rearrange things or to finger the small piece of bark with lichen on it that we found on our driveway.  the lichen look like tiny plants, but they feel so crusty and crumbly…

Drawing in our field books wasn’t part of this first challenge, but today, when she saw my own drawings of this morning (but about that tomorrow), Amie was keen to draw. It was a true exercise in observational drawing and magic to behold! I took a whole series of pictures, more of which you can see via the Flickr badge in my sidebar.

First it wasn’t clear to me what she was drawing, but it was to her!

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Then she moved on to draw and paint the feather – amid much speculation about which bird it used to belong to.

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The result:


I’m not sure what the two things are that we will be returning to throughout the week (part of the challenge). I’m reading up on the lichen (Comstock, p.715) and the feather (pp.29-33), etc. But I’m going to see where Amie takes it. Like Lori says, Don’t plan ahead, Plan along!

Riot for Austerity fist with Thermometer

We have one month of Rioting for Austerity under our belts.  Let’s see how we did.

1. Gasoline: down but still a long way to go: 19%

We’ve been extra careful with our driving. DH has gone into work a little more often than usual, but for the rest we’ve managed to consolidate our driving into absolutely necessary trips that comprise of school drop-off, DH’s drive to the shuttle, shopping and library downtown once/twice a week, and an occasional Freecycle/Craigslist pickup in town.

The result: 7.939 gallons of oil/person. That’s 19% of the US National Average. Sounds good, only that’s just one month. At the end of this month, for instance, we’re driving to DC: that’ll blow the budget! This is one category that needs to be calculated over a year, though it’s still good to keep a monthly tally, of course.

2. Electricity: 33%

This was another one of our weak points and there’s good news here too: our last meter read indicated our household used up 300 KWH last month, that’s down from 411 KWH in October but still 33% of the US national average. The goal is 90 KWH per household per month.

So let’s see, what is plugged in? Constantly: our oil furnace controls, the radon remediation system, one thermostat, three clocks, our cable modem and wireless, the phone, the fridge (old upright with freezer on top). Intermittently: our  laptops, the lights at night (only where necessary and all are CFLs), the washer (we wash cold and line dry in our basement), our electric stove and oven.

Where can we cut back more? Cooking, for one.  As it gets colder, we cook and bake more. We’re working on a hay box for stew and soups, and a smaller one for the teapot to outdo our present tea cozy, so I don’t have to use the microwave that often. We microwave more (the choice between “cook on high for 2 minutes” and “cook in oven for 30 minutes” is an easy one) even though the results are less crispy. In summer we plan to have our home-made solar cooker ready. Sharon has 25 tips for  saving energy and money when cooking here.

As for some of the less “energetic” appliances, we can unplug them and run them on rechargeable batteries charged by a solar battery charger. We could try this with some  reading lights as well – those in any case are good to have in case of emergency or for camping out. Gotta find a good affordable one first (any suggestions?).

We’re also looking for a way to hook a (solar-charged) battery pack to our oil heater controls – I don’t like the idea that if the electricity goes (if only because a tree falls on the lines somewhere), we’d have no heat.

3. Heating (and Hot Water): 85%

The weather turned nasty a couple of weeks ago, and our usage of heating oil – which also warms our water – shows it. Even though we’ve been Freezing our Buns at 63-64 F during the day and 58 F at night, we’ve consumed almost as much oil in the last month as we did in the previous 4 months: 52.7 gallons. That is 85% of the US National average, but then that average is calculated over the full year, so I’m not too shocked about it.  November, December and February will naturally be our highest oil-consuming months. This is one category we’ll have a better picture of once a whole year is out.

Still, we’re working on this. We’re having the last 10% of the house insulated on the 6th. And there are some experiments in the works. For instance, we picked up an about-to-be-trashed double-paned window today via Freecycle and we are hoping to put it in a solar thermal collector of our own making. This has only just reached our drawing boards, so I don’t know when I’ll be reporting on this one. Lastly, we’re still saving up for our super-efficient wood stove.

4. Garbage: 3%

This is unchanged. We produced 3 lbs. of garbage on average, so at 0.15 lbs a person a day we made the reduction  (.45 lbs) easily.

5. Water: 15%

Our water consumption has gone down: 458.83 gallons of water, which is 15% of the US national average. We’ll keep chipping away at it…

6. Consumer Goods: 44%

We have been following a more or less strict regimen for both consumer goods and food and we have for the most part stuck close to it. Between 1 November and 30 November we spent about $350 on new consumer goods and $50 on used (Craigslist). Most of this sum went to the “homestead” (mason jars, 7 bags of Moo Doo, 2 much needed comforters, candles) and crafting materials (glue and paints) for our Homemade Christmas. Still, they all count. That puts us at 44% of the US national average. Chippin’ – we’re chippin’…

7. Food: at a loss…

We have been extra careful with our food purchases, which account for a large percentage of our monthly expenses. We had two moment-of-weakness-restaurant-take-outs (aaargh!) and one restaurant visit that was made of necessity (sigh).

Now I am at a loss as to how to calculate the three categories. I was doing so by dollars, which gave me this:

a. Local, sustainably grown: 13.5% – where at least 70% is desired.
b. Dry, unprocessed bulk goods: 8.5% – where no more than 25% is desired.
c. Wet goods & conventional: 78% – where no more than 5% is desired.

which is pretty bad. But then I realized that, once we start growing our own, that is, free food, the whole reckoning will be out of whack, unless I assign some sort of dollar value to each item I pull out of the soil… Reckoning by items, which is what the Riot website suggests, is difficult too, because some, like a bag of flour, last months, while others, like a tub of yogurt, last two days… By weight? Keeping score is tough on this one. If I just eyeball it honestly, it is bad, probably as bad as the percentages (by price) above.

Needless to say I am looking forward to growing our own food next year. I think we can make a huge dent in the cost of food while also balancing the 3 categories better. But while we wait for Spring we are working on getting a chest freezer so we can take advantage of local sales. We bought a whole lot of (used) mason jars and are now on the look out for a decent but not too pricey (new) pressure canner. We’re also drawing up plans for a root cellar. So much can still happen here!

Food is the category where we perform the worst, but also the category that gives me the most hope!