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.


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.)


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.”


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!”


Friends are saving their egg cartons for us and we’ve been researching what breed and how many chickens we want to get, on the internet, in library books:


And in the field, at Drumlin Farm:



I was checking out their state-of-the-art chicken coop as much as I was the chickens (the photo shows only part of one side of the coop).


I wanted to ask a Drumlin Farm-er for more information and if they sold any hens/chicks/fertile eggs, but none were around. In fact, Amie and I seemed to be the only visitors. It was cold, of course (definitely below freezing) and rather windy, but so beautiful!

But most invaluable of all is the fantastic advice from my readers. THANK YOU! I will keep you informed on our research and decisions.

Riot for Austerity fist with Thermometer

Gasoline: 25%

After our road trip splurge last month, we did better this month: we used 31.1 gallons between the three of us, which makes for 25% of the US national average, but more than our first month Rioting (19%). The reason was the schedule changes that necessitated DH to take the car into school several times, instead of his shuttle.

I can’t wait until it’s warm enough to bike!

Electricity: 37%

We used 332 KWh last month. That’s 37% of the US national average and a little less than last month.

I found out from our electricity provider that we can switch to either a 100% or 50% wind power electricity, for just an additional 1.396 / 0.837 cents per KWh. We switched, of course, to 100%. I typed 332 KWh into the Riot Calculator and it returned 9% of the national average! That’ll take care of our electricity, then! Who knew it was that easy, and that cheap?

Heating Oil and Warm Water: 159% !!!

Our furnace ran for 115 hours, which translates into 97.75 gallons of oil, or 159% of the national average.

My remarks here are the same as last month. It has been even colder than last month, we have a super-efficient boiler, and the house is fully insulated. We take short showers (cf. water usage). We’re still saving up for a super-efficient wood stove, but until then…

Garbage: 10%

This stays the same, if it doesn’t get better. We make the reduction of 10% easily.

Water: 14%

We used 173 cubic fee, the three of us. That’s 14% of the US national average. That’s just a little bit more than last month, and I had expected it to be worse.

Consumer Goods: 16%

We spent money mainly on our germination and seedling “chamber” ($200), seeds for the birds ($12) and sand for the icy driveway ($18). As the first is an investment into our garden and thus our more sustainable future, I’m going to leave that off the tab. Last month, then, we spent 16% of the US national average. That was a good month.

Food: Spent too much

I stopped calculating the merit of our food purchases last month. I find it impossible. But let’s just say it’s miserable with regard to the distribution between locally grown, dry bulk and wet, conventionally grown food. But last month was bad also with regard to what it simply cost us! We entertained quite a bit, and our vigilance when shopping at Whole Foods has slacked.  Why are organic milk and cheese so expensive?!

I had a great discussion with a friend about David Orr’s essay, “Loving Children: a Design Problem“. She concluded that the breakdown of education is one of the many results of an unfettered capitalistic economic system. It sounded like the end of our conversation, because, you know, The Economy: what can I do about that?

I almost accepted it as such, but then I said that what Orr and others like him want to bring home most of all is that “an unfettered capitalistic economic system” is not something out there, but something in us. It’s not something that happens to us, but something that we make happen, almost constantly every day, all day long. When we buy something, or watch television, when we turn on the lights in rooms we don’t occupy, dive our cars, etc. We are that economy. And if it is “unfettered”, it is so because we are unfettered: out of control and loving it, thinking we can go on like this for ever and with impunity.

I added that all of this pervades our children’s lives as well. In Orr’s article it shows in the landscape, in our non-sense of place. I added that this “unfettered economy” becomes natural to our children, with dire consequences for child and world.

My friend agreed that indeed our environments have become toxic physically, spiritually, intellectually. But she disagreed that as individuals we can peaceably radically alter the system. That history tells us that blood is usually spilled in such attempts, and human greed corrupts the results.

I said that we cannot peaceably and radically alter the system as a whole. But we can banish it from our home and our children’s environment(s). Not totally, of course (although some people I know are getting close, off the grid and all that). We can at least banish its most corrupting influences, like television and advertisement, the plethora of toys, the plastic throwaways.

And we can model a more wholesome way of life by not wasting food or energy, by showing them, with a little garden perhaps, where food actually comes from and the hard work that went into it. By showing them (right at home) the value of hard work. By not wasting paper towels, by sending less stuff to the landfill…

There are so many things we can do, quite easily, and without bloodshed. It might not change the world, but it will change the child.

But first you have to let go of that nice delusion, that “The Economy is not us.”

Related posts:

A Gift of Self-Sufficiency

She’s My Little Sample

Home Made Christmas

Off the Market: Freecycling


To follow up on yesterday’s Outdoor Hour Challenge on Squirrels, here are some of today’s nature pictures.

Squirrels, of course. Even though I dug out the snow around the bird feeder, they are still attempting to get up onto the baffle. The prickly bush approach must have been too painful, and it wasn’t working anyway:


Climbing up the pole?


Baffled again… But not for long.


Beautiful animal:


This is a tiny one. It’s the first time I’ve seen it. At first I thought it was a chipmunk, it’s that small. It’s very reddish brown: is it a young Gray Squirrel (do they turn gray as they get older?), or is it another species? It didn’t venture far from the tree.


The Carolina Wren, who was really the hero in this photo and this one.


And later on:


The Moon and Venus below it.

And even later, just now as I am writing this – O my! – I can hear the Great Horned Owls who come here every year, in the coldest of winter, to breed (r have they been here all along?). I hear him, a low “Hoo, hoo-hoo” and her reply, a higher pitched “Hoo, hoo-hoo, hoo-hoo”.

So unbelievably beautiful, magical!

I was told about these owls by a neighbor. I wonder, if he hadn’t told me about it, and if I hadn’t been waiting to hear this for the past month (at least)… would I have heard it?


This challenge is really called “Tree Silhouettes,” but as the trees on our property and in our neighborhood are so crowded together, most of them haven’t grown into the typical shapes they would have had, had they been in an open space where they didn’t have to vie for sunlight with others. Except for the towering pines, most of our trees are hard to identify by  their silhouette.

So we decided to turn our attention to the bark – the leaves, in the middle of this wintry season, being long gone. The book focuses on birch, the bark of (most species of) which is of course quite amazing. I showed Amie a small roll of paper birch I collected long before she was born, and we talked about how you can use it for writing.

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We have two birch trees on our property, but going by their gray bark that hardly peels, and their black “eyebrows”, they’re the the Gray Birch (Betula populifolia). They grow right next to one another, so probably from the same root system.


I showed Amie the other barks from my collection. I never took notes about where I got them – live and learn. I don’t remember where I got the one on the left, but as it is scaled, it is probably from a cherry or, more likely, a maple.


The other pieces of bark I remember picking up from the ground, where they had fallen off the small trees lining my old street in Brookline, MA. They look like beech, being so smooth, but next time we’re in that neck of the woods we’ll try to identify the tree. They’re very pretty, and I hope they don’t indicate some tree disease.


I am really liking the book, Discover Nature in Winter, which I’m loaning from the library. The book is quite basic (at 196 pages), and I do wish some there was some more about mammals in winter, but the information and challenges are novel and inventive.

Read aobut our next Winter Wednesday-Tree Silhouette adventure here.


Outdoor Hour Challenge #45 is Squirrels. We have plenty of them, three at least, all Eastern Gray Squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis). They come out when the sun is bright on the snow.

Comstock writes charmingly about squirrels, and she quotes from Thoreau, which I find always makes for captivating reading. They both seem to describe exactly the three squirrels I know! I also followed her suggestion of Ernest Thompson Seton’s Bannertail. I enjoyed Seton’s Two Little Savages, and I like Bannertail even more. It’s the kind of book I wished I had a first, signed edition of…

I’ve reported on our resident squirrels before, when we did an experiment leaving an apple outside and when the squirrel got hold of our Indian corn. On that last occasion the gorging squirrel sat still long enough for me to drawn it from life.


We’ve had many occasions since then to observe “our” squirrels. I often save scraps of food out of the compost bucket and leave them on the balcony ledge, right in front of our window. Oftentimes I just know that they are studying us as much as we are studying them!

  • Squirrel Tracks

We’ve gone out and investigated squirrel tracks.


They are vague because old and because the snow had melted a bit, but these are definitely (two sets) of squirrel tracks.

  • What They Eat: Everything

But his morning was surely a high in our squirrely studies. Amie yelled: “Mama! The squirrel is eating the birds’ food! Shoo! Go away, squirrel!”. You see, yesterday we had a short thaw followed by a hard freeze, so the snow in our garden, two feet high, is now capped with a hard shell from which the squirrels can jump onto the top of the baffle.


I call this picture “Unbaffled” (the baffle is that black cylinder: it’s supposed to stop the critters from climbing up via the pole). From the baffle, the squirrel lunged for the hanging suet basket. It was a sight!


We witnessed a lot of acrobatics, and a lot of suet being consumed.


As you can see the intrepid Carolina Wren wasn’t afraid at all, and ate from the same block of suet the squirrel was grasping. The other birds hung back.

I let them eat some, then threw out some cut up apple cores, then shoveled the snow around the feeder. Party’s over. Amie wanted to put out one of the “experiment pine cones” for them, but I explained they only eat the seeds inside the cones, not the cones themselves – which led to some discussion of what a cone is made from and what its function is.

  • Where They Live: In Trees

After preschool Amie and I went into our yard to look for squirrel nests. She was surprised that our squirrels (Gray Squirrels) live in trees in nests much like birds, only bigger and not so well constructed. We also found out that a squirrel is not attached to any one home, and often has half a dozen where he can bed down.

We found three nests that we suspects are squirrel’s nest (click for larger).

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I’m not sure about this one, there aren’t as many leaves:


  • Squirrel Bones: A Missed Opportunity

We found a dead squirrel many months ago. It had been attacked by a fox, maybe a cat or smaller dog (though I doubt that), who had taken a chunk out of its thigh. I dropped it over the fence so the meal could be finished, but now I wish I had buried it somewhere. I could have dug it up and cleaned and mounted the bones… I remember once, as a child, after we had rabbit stew, we put the skull in formaldehyde (?) and kept it. It would be neat for Amie to do too. Maybe when we’re a bit older.

UPDATE on the Squirrel Shenanigans here.

We had another snowstorm today. Preschool was closed. Amie and I sat ,in our PJs, at her table and decided to draw something. She chose her favorite book of animals, an older edition of the Visual Encyclopedia of Animals (DK). I think she likes this book because it is small, but thick and compact with stiff and shiny paper, and it looks like “a grownup book”.


She opened the book to the first page and I suggested she draw the beetle, since it was the simplest. Declining to take this opportunity to read some in my own book, I decided to make it into another seeing lesson. I thought the fact that she would copy from a book was interesting. It is after all something she will be doing often and another good way to learn seeing and drawing.


It took quite a bit of talking by me and concentrating on her part to get the beetle down on paper. I could see she was struggling with certain preconceptions of how she should draw such a thing (round body, head attached, four legs) and what it actually looked like in the book. Then we parsed the sounds in BEETLE and for a moment I thought of letting her write it like she heard it: BEETUL or BEETOL. But then I pointed out how it was written in the book, and could she copy that, because that’s how it is really spelled? She found that quite interesting.

The ammonite was her second choice and easier. She is quite confident  drawing spirals. She liked it so much she added a bigger one and called the first the baby and the second the Mama ammonite. She spelled out AMMONITE, from the book, and I wrote it down, and then we discussed whether to add a S, because there were two of them.


The flamingo was the most interesting shape. Again she battled the urge to reproduce the traditional preconception of what a bird looks like. So together we described the shapes, in detail. How the flamingo has such long legs and a long neck, and a large beak. And how this one was turned away a bit. And where was its eye? I really like how the flamingo turned out! I think she captured its shape very well. She also enjoyed copying FLAMINGO as we parsed the sounds. There’s a B there because she was going to write BIRD first, but then she changed her mind and took on the challenge of the larger word.

Then she water colored all them and this is the result:


I also instituted what I hope will be a tradition: beside the date we’ll also add some details about the day. I asked her: “What is so special about this day so far?” “Snow storm!” she said, and “School is canceled.” Duly noted.

A while ago I pledged to learn the great and ancient art of beekeeping. I contacted several bee schools and was about to enroll. Then I realized that it won’t be possible to have a hive this spring or summer, for the simple reason that there are no flowers nearby. We live in a wooded area. There are no fields or meadows close by, most of the vegetation is trees, shrubs and lawn. So I’m holding off on enrolling in a beekeeping class and the new plan is to first establish lots of bee-flowers around the property. That will take a good year, so the bees will hopefully arrive next summer.

Instead I enrolled in a pottery class. My first class was yesterday and I already threw two “competent” pots at the wheel (“competent” as in: they will hold water and they look okay, but their shapes are entirely accidental). Next week I will learn to trim the pots, then later to fire and glaze them. There will be hand-made sessions too, and I’m keen on learning how to make decorative tiles.

But I already know that my favorite will be sitting hunched over that wheel, shaping the earth with steady hands and sensitive fingers. It feels just great to work with the earth. To see the pot come off the wheel is so satisfying: I did that? And then to think how strong well-fired clay is, that it can withstand temperatures of over 400 degrees.

I’ve already added a pottery wheel to my wishlist! Maybe we can devise one ourselves. And a kiln…