I’m warm because I’m sitting in the sunlight, but it’s coooold out here: 20 F this morning (there’s no wind). The Red-Bellied Woodpecker that is supposed to be in Florida is still here. Can it really be our bird feeder that keeps him here? The day before yesterday I believe I saw a new bird: a Slate-Gray Junco, but I’m not sure. In any case I get pretty excited about it, and Amie caught on.

We spent most of that day and yesterday watching the birds at the feeder (through the living room window), talking about them, listening to their songs “in” this book, and looking them up in the bird guides, mostly Sibley’s Field Guide and also a big book with Audubon’s original watercolors.

Then I said: I’m going to draw that Junco in my art journal. All the while as I drew it, I talked about how the bill is yellow, and the legs grayish and look at those claws and what a small eye that is, and is this the right shade of gray? Amie was hooked.

First she wanted to copy the (made-up) owl I had drawn in my journal earlier (to the right in the picture above). She’s very into water colors now. One of the attractions is that I let her use them all on her own. The acrylic paints are in big bottles and when mixing them even I spill them all over, and they’re of course not so easy to clean up. But the watercolors and water bottle are all hers. I will look out for a nicer set of paints for her. Right now we use a $2 set from CVS.

She drew the big owl in felt pen and spelled the word O W L for me to write. I encouraged her to make it big, to add some legs (how many? two legs and two wings?), and helped by water coloring  in the left wing. The rest is all hers. It is such a powerful image! And then she spontaneously drew that little bird next to it. Can you see it? I was so surprised! She must have been paying very close attention to my more realistic drawings.


Then she wanted to draw the Robin and the Cardinal. We selected a new art journal for her from my stash. The earlier one didn’t work out because the paper is colored and lined. This one is a real sketchbook, “Like yours, Mama!”. This one too is a collaborative effort, though: just like she often draws in my art journal, I (when asked) will draw in hers.

We looked really closely at the birds in Sibley’s guide, which  features not pictures but paintings (which might be easier to copy?). Amie then requested that I draw the bird and she color it in (bird on the right below). While we worked we talked about the look of the birds’ shapes and colors, even what it would feel like to hold one in our hand, how small and soft and scared it must be, and maybe we could feel its heartbeat… We used a lot of words, tried to make our descriptions more accurate, and blended a lot of senses and experiences.

Then she drew and colored in the Robin on the left.


We talked about how it looks very much like a baby bird, with little wings, and a big eye. Notice the claws: she was surprised and impressed that birds have claws. We discussed how they need them to climb and live in trees. We took care to name the bird: Robin is its last name, Tom its first. We also practiced some reading and spelling while we were at it.

We came back full circle when she noticed her “owly-bank owl” observing our doings on the window sill. She wanted to paint that as well.


The painting you see in the picture isn’t finished. She was tired after an hour of painting birds. But she was by now paying such attention to the shape of the object that she was almost drawing blindly: that’s why the lines don’t hook up. It was amazing to see!

In the evening Amie returned to the birds and draw a Cardinal:


For all of this I am of course getting lots of information and inspiration from the Camp Creek Blog. And DH managed to download Comstock’s Handbook of Nature Study, and it arrived at the library for me, so we’ll be following the Handbook of Nature Study blog challenges as well.

I hope Amie gets a lot out of this: fun (first of all!), relaxation, skills to express herself in drawing and painting, language and observation skills, and an understanding and love of nature.

Sharon - without knowing it, apparently – started  The Competence Project:

“I challenge each of you to pick some area of your skill set that’s kind of weak and strengthen it.  And when you feel like you’ve gotten competent, well, pick a new skill. “

One of my visions for our new place was to have chickens, but then it turns out you need at least an acre before the town will permit any livestock. I mourned this for a couple of months – though I do still plan to pursue it with the town at some later date. (UPDATE Jan 2009: done! We can have chickens!)

Then I realized we consume more honey than eggs (and chicken). So when Sharon challenged me, the first thing I thought of was:


I located a bee school nearby that will have classes this coming February and I will be there.

Think of the honey, and all the yummy foods you can cook with honey! And how the garden will profit!

My town, as far as I know, has nothing in its bylaws and laws about bees. I will consult my neighbors, of course, but all our properties are large enough, I believe, to accomodate a hive or two.

I am thinking of participating in Barb-Harmony Art Mom’s weekly “Outdoor Hour” challenges, which follows Anna Botsford Comstock’s book Handbook of Nature Study. Gotta get hold of the book first, though. I’m waiting to get it through the inter-library loan.

This, by the way, is why they call him the Red-Bellied Woodpecker (click on image to see larger):

Red-Bellied Woodpecker

Tomorrow at the library I’m picking up A Seed is Sleepy by Dianna Hutts Aston and Sylvia Long, as well as Sharon’s Depletion and Abundance. That’ll  make for a good mix.

At the library book and cake sale last weekend I picked up some great books, among them some books by Wendell Berry, Rachel Carson’s The Sense of Wonder (old edition) and some great gardening books for $1 a piece!

Too many books to read! But I read one here and another one there, and the ten other ones in the middle, and if all goes well they all mix together wonderfully in my mind, like good watercolors. In the end I can’t quote from any or even remember which message or interesting bit of information came from whom, but it’s cool. I’m done with “learning as information”. I’m into lived learning now.

While perusing the marvelous Camp Creek Blog and emailing Lori about some of her entries there about observational drawing outside, I happened to mention (and realize, to begin with) that when Amie draws “from something” outside, she will attain a realism that is (to me) uncanny.

Like the drawing we did a while ago at Drumlin Farm.

Amie's drawing of two stones with Amie, Drumlin Farm (c) Katrien Vander Straeten

This was the situation as captured by the much less inspired camera eye:


I was blown away by her rendering of the boulders and of the tree and  the addition of the leaves.  It was the first time she drew a tree. She could so easily imagine herself on top of the boulder. She had some trouble with the sky: where to put it? It was interesting to see her grapple with that problem. (We’ve been talking about how “air” is all around us, even if you can’t see it, and I can see her mind trying the grasp the difference between air and sky – fascinating!)

It was the first time she had spent so much concentrated effort on getting something to look like it actually does to her eye. And I didn’t have to ask her. She saw me trying to get “a good likeness” in my own journal and decided to try that herself.

But what I think really got her going was the fact that we were outside. Has anyone else noticed that with their kids, that the outdoors, nature especially (maybe), changes the child’s artistic mindset to more realism?

While we’re on the topic of art, Amie has a new workstation. It’s a big desk that can grow with her (the top can be raised). We got it for free through Freecycle, in mint shape! It’s big too, with lots of space for several art projects at once: playdough, drawing on the small Biggie, painting on the big Biggie, and cutting out snowflakes…


I’m so happy my comfy chair still fits in the corner, but from now on I think I will simply sit next to her at the desk more often. I might get a nice sitting cushion, though. Those little chairs aren’t very comfortable for bigger bums.


Tea party on the kitchen floor with “Pooh Bear” (the bear to the left: I know, he doesn’t look like Pooh to you, but he does to her!), Caillou, and (outside the picture) Gloria (another bear) and Roo (her kangeroo). It was a rainy afternoon but I didn’t have to turn on the light, or doctor the photo afterwards. I love my new bright kitchen!


Yesterday our first pumpkin orphan was brought to us! Amie and I were just coming up the street froma beautiful Fall walk/bike (can you believe this weather: it’s 9 November and 60F!) and we saw an elderly man cradling a big pumpkin approach our mailbox. He put it down so gently near the sign we put up. We waved in thanks and he waved back. Another neighbor was just driving by and stopped to chat, saying she loved the idea! I was quite relieved: I wasn’t sure how the initiative would be received.

All the beech leaves are falling now too: of the big trees they’re about the last to release their leaves. Everywhere is littered with so many leaves you can hardly distinguish the street from the drivewaysfrom the gardens. Yesterday I saw, for the first time, the moon from our bedroom window, unobstructed by the thick canopy that  usually surrounds us. It was a magical moment.

Tomorrow we’re  dropping these leaflets in every neighbor’s mailbox.

our pamphlet requesting pumpkins for compost (c) Katrien Vander Straeten, october 2008

I should have handed them out as we went trick or treating – ah well, next year. We’re sure to snag a couple of pumpkins and leaves this time around, tomorrow we’ll also get a nice Fall Walk out of it, and Amie and I had great fun coloring in the pamphlet. DH happened to snap a picture (it’s not often you see Mama too!):

Amie and Mama making pamphlet

Riot for Austerity first with Thermometer

  • Trash

Trying to establish our trash baseline for the Riot was pretty easy. I weiged the garbage as it was being transferred from the small pail under the sink to our boxes outside (handy for taking to the landfill once a month). In one week – and it was a pretty typical week – we produced 3 lbs. of garbage.

That’s 1 lb. of trash a person a week, or 0.15 lb a person a day.

The average American generates about 4.5 lbs of garbage per person, per day. A 90% reduction would mean .45 lbs of garbage so we’re good there.

I’m not writing this to blow my own horn. It’s just a matter of accounting and of showing that while we might sigh over some of the 7 categories for reduction (our weak points are electricity and heating) there are categories where we do well and that give us courage.

Actually, I think our garbage production is nothing out of the ordinary. In fact, it could be less if I also shunned food and things wrapped in un-recyclable plastics. I haven’t been doing nearly enough of that yet.

  • Compost

Composting helps, of course. Imagine dumping all those half-eaten and rotten but still huge and heavy jack-o-lanterns into the garbage bin.  There’s a good ten pounds right there!

Thinking about that while cutting up our own two pumpkins for the compost, I thought of an initiative: tomorrow I will deliver into each of my neighbor’s mailboxes a note asking them not to trash their pumpkins, but to deposit them on our driveway so  we can compost them. Every evening I’ll collect them and cut them up and put them in the bin. Should be fun (seeing all those Halloween designs), neighborly, and productive as well!

I also contacted the nearest Starbucks and asked if we could have their coffee grounds. No problem! I have no idea how much it will be. The first loot is coming in this evening, so we’ll know soon. It doesn’t even cost us anything to pick it up: DH drives past it on his way to and from the shuttle.

Update: DH came home with 30 lbs of coffee grounds!

My DH can be a funny one. This morning when happening to pass by this here blog (he was so nice to install the new WordPress for me, and that gimicky category cloud to the right), he caught a glimpse of the post on the War on Consumption. And he said:

- What? You passing out economic advice now?

I had to laugh (you would too if you knew my head for numbers). But then I said:

- No! Non-economic advice!

And I meant it.

I was investigating if Freecycle is also active in Europe, thinking I would ask one of my friends there to start a group if it wasn’t. I found Freecycle groups for Antwerp, Brussels, etc., but also found that most hadn’t seen action in over a week. I was shocked and immediately fired off an email to all my friends and family in Belgium, telling them about this wonderful institution.

My dad responded that there already is a way of getting rid of one’s stuff and attaining them as second-hand goods,  called the Kringloopwinkel, which means, literally, the Cyclic Shop. From what I understand, there are quite a few of them around. You drop off your stuff at the shop, for free or for some small some, and for some neighborhoods the shop will come and pick up as well, for free. Sometimes they also clean or fix these things up. Then they are sold to the shop’s visitors at a low price. Dad said that that’s probably why Freecycle hasn’t caught on.

Ah, good! But then: wait a minute. It’s not the same. The Kringloopwinkel is a fantastic initiative, but there are some big differences with Freecycle.

(1) For one, Freecycle has no middle man, no shop or organization. It’s just a free and easy Yahoo Group run by a volunteer who scans for spam and once in a while reminds everyone of the rules. No middleman means no costs.

(2) No money exchanges hands. Everything is Free (also free to get rid of).

(3) Takers usually come and pick up the stuff at the givers’ house. No  trip to the shop, no trip from the shop. So less gasoline consumption.

Fundementally, the big difference between the Kringloopwinkel and Freecycle is that the first is part of the economy, while Freecycle stands outside it.

What is it that so appeals to me about being “outside” the market? Many things, like it being less costly to one’s wallet and the environment. But it’s primarily this: human contact.

DH and Amie and I have been getting a lot of good, useful things through our local Freecycle and we have started offering too. In most cases there has been an extra: getting to know the people giving it away, chatting with them, in many cases exchanging cards and planning to meet again. There is no money exchange in between, no “professionalism”. We are locals meeting face-to-face and our “thanks!” and “you’re welcome”-s are always 100% heartfelt.

Thanks for Freecycling!

Sit a Spell: Amie and mama's corner, November 2008 (c) Katrien Vander Straeten
Sit a Spell: Amie and Mama's corner

I just submitted this picture to the Sit a Spell pool at Flickr (started by SouleMama and Blue Yonder). This is where I sit (in the larger of the two chairs) while my daughter draws or writes. I play with her, we chat, or I read my own book, or just look outside at the Fall colors (at the moment), and sometimes I draw her in my journal.