I has just reread Lori’s Observational Drawing Lesson on the Camp Creek Blog when I looked up and spotted the perfect occasion for such drawing: Amie sitting at the table, waiting for her grandparents to appear on the troubled webcam, paper and pencil, and a panda bear mask she made in school. Okay, I thought, let’s practice seeing!

Lori advises to start with something simple, so the panda bear mask is perfect.

  1. The shapes are simple, yet varied, and well defined.
  2. There is only black and white, and no shades of gray (except in the details), so we can focus on the shapes.
  3. The alternating rings of black, white and black of the eyes would be a nice challenge for Amie. She often forgets which contour she is coloring in and often looks up to see she has colored in the whole image.
  4. There are only a few details (the staples, the shadows of the indentations around the rim of the plate, the pronounced grain of the wooden handle), and I thought it would be interesting to see if she would see them. But even without the details, the result would easily look like the original and be satisfying.
  5. It’s not too big and there won’t be too much coloring in, which she has little patience for.  I give her only half a letter size piece of paper, to keep it manageable. The drawing could be done in 15 minutes.

To focus on shapes and later on on details, Lori says to use only a plain pencil. Amie has always had recourse to lots of colors, but for drawing she always chose just one of the bunch, so moving to a pencil was no problem for her. The only problem I have with plain pencils is that they don’t scan in very well, as the graphite reflects the scanner’s light.

Amie was so interested in the exercise that she wanted to do a second drawing right away, even though the grandparents had now appeared on the screen (they were happy to watch). Then I left everything on the dining table so the next day when we found ourselves there, she wanted to draw another one, and this morning at breakfast she drew the fourth. Here they are (click on image for larger):

090109panda1 090109panda2 090110panda3 090111panda4

I made sure we used our words, naming all the shapes and discussing their location respective to one another.

  1. We started with the circle of the face. I encouraged her to draw it big enough so there would be room for everything. In the first drawing she couldn’t get the circle quite right, but the next two were pretty close, while in the fourth she wasn’t paying much attention to the circularity.
  2. Then she added the handle underneath: the first time she didn’t get the thickness of it (and she added her own arm holding it), but when with the next drawing I pointed it out to her, she drew it as a long rectangle rounded at the bottom.
  3. Then she added the half-circles of the ears, on top but a bit off to the sides.
  4. Then she moved to the face itself. I suggested we draw the nose first, because it was nearly in the middle. She tried to get its fluffiness down by moderating the pressure on the pencil and going round and round in softer strokes.
  5. As for the mouth, she was more interested in its “thickness” than in its angular shape, and it had to be “smiley”. I pressed her to see and reproduce the shape, not the “feeling” of the expression, and she reluctantly did so in the first drawing but reverted to the smiley aspect in the other ones.
  6. The eyes were the most interesting: in the first three drawings she drew three circles, trying to size and position them right, which is very hard for her to do, motor-wise. Then she colored them in carefully. In the fourth drawing she decided there were four circles. I asked her why. She pointed to a tiny rim around the plastic of the googly eye. What a  detail: I hadn’t spotted it myself!  “That’s sort of whitish and blackish,” she said. “Gray?” I asked. “Yes.”  She colored in that extra circle separately, but in black, so you can no longer see it.
  7. In the third drawing, when she was done, I asked if she had missed something, a detail? She didn’t spot any and I pointed out the staples, which she gladly added.

We worked on these drawings together, only I made sure she drew all the shapes, I just helped with the coloring in. I decided, as we were playing with shapes anyway, to add some writing of letters and numbers.

Unfortunately she discovered the eraser at the other end of the pencil. I tried gently to dissuade her from using it: she is already such a perfectionist! But more than often she erased my mistakes. “Your coloring is terrific, but mine is even better.” We’ll call that “confidence”…

Though the fourth drawing shows perhaps the most likeness, it was obvious from how seldom she looked at the original anymore that she was drawing her idea of the mask, not the mask itself. So it’s time to leave the mask and find something else!

This is a great daily exercise. It fills those 15 minutes when you wait for dinner to be set on the table or some computer to work, or while you’re having a snack or chatting.

It’s 8 in the morning and everyone is asleep but me. I’m in bed, next to the sleeping bodies, trying to type quietly. They lie so deep, while I’m on the surface, eyes wide open.

I’m looking out of the bedroom window at the trees in our western garden and in the neighbors’ garden: beeches, birches, oaks and many pines. They are covered in the snow that fell during the night. Once in a while they release some of it and the wind picks it up and runs with it.  Narrow columns of snow move sideways, like smoke from a chimney. Tall, billowing veils glide along majestically: snow ghosts. Sometimes the view is a white out. It’s breathtaking, peaceful yet dangerous.

I love living in this country. “This country,” as in: this land, this place. I revel in its biodiversity, which I know is sorely depleted but still so much richer than in Europe. So many animals and flora seem so alien, so new to me: the huge puffball fungi, the foxes, the big beetles, even the deer. I am in awe even of the deer.

My Dad,  when at dusk he got out of the car after we picked him and my mom up from the airport in September, stopped still in his tracks and said: “What is that sound?” I stopped too, listened. What was he hearing that alarmed him? Oh, the crickets! Thousands of them, chirping away, very close and all over, all around us. No more crickets in Antwerp?

And I love this winter, the first in our house. Though I complain of our heating bills, I am grateful for the bitter cold (- 22 Celsius on 1 January , though I missed that), for the snow fall and snow drift. It excites me, a girl from Belgium, where a deep freeze and a snow  storm were events. Even in Brookline, where we lived until June last year and where the snow was cleared immediately by town and condo cleaning crews, I had not done this: walked on top of the snow, on the crust frozen so hard it is like walking – precariously – on stone.


DH took this picture two nights ago. That’s the light of the almost Full Moon, the Full Wolf Moon of January, touching down on our front yard. I have never seen moonlight like this. In Antwerp and Brussels, and Brookline and Alston, too close to Boston, moon and starlight were washed from the night sky.

I stood looking out the window then, at that white-blue glowing snow, the creeping shadows of the tree trunks and branches, and then up, along the stark beams of the towering pines and oaks, rising up, up it was like being lifted, by that light, up into the shimmering sky.

I was in awe, weirded out and attracted. I live in a strange and wild place.

Over the holidays Amie got to stay for several days over at her friend, E’s, place in NY. E is four and a half and bright as a button and she loves playing with Amie. They are well matched for verbal communication – they both love to talk – and they are both interested in making art, like drawing and making paper flowers. So there were plenty of opportunities for seeing the two of them create together.

There was a great moment when E asked Amie if she wanted to learn how to draw a butterfly. Amie was keen and she followed E’s instructions carefully.

This is E’s drawing:


This is Amie’s:


It was fascinating to witness their exchange. For instance:

E says: This is how you draw the body. [E draws the long oval shape of the butterfly pointing away from her]

Amie carefully copied the shape. They were sitting at a 90 degree angle to one another, and Amie drew hers in the same direction as E’s.  E saw this and it didn’t look right to her, so she turned Amie’s page so her butterfly body would also point away from her.

Then E drew the antennae. And gave her butterfly an ear. BTW, much earlier on I speculated that some theories might be right: that children’s draw animals more “realistically” earlier on than human figures (namely tadpoles), because they are “freer” (not caught up in the animal body) to see its shapes correctly. Amie back then (at 24 months) seemed to have a better idea of the shape of a dog than a human. But ever since she has left the tapole figure behind, all her animals have looked like human! This eared butterfluy is an example.

E had no such illusions (but she has probably drawn a lot more animals, in particular insects, than Amie).

E says: No, that’s not right.


DH explains: Amie, those aren’t ears, but antennae. Draw it like you draw arms and legs.

Amie did so, so her butterfly has one ear and two antennae. (We don’t erase.)

Then they went on to the ladybug. unfortunately all of us adults were distracted so none of us witnessed that. Going by the evidence, Amie seems to have made an attempt which was not right, and moved on to another ladybug. E’s drawing also has sky and grass, Amie’s doesn’t – I don’t know what that green square represents.

It was pretty neat to observe them. Amie obviously paid a lot of attention to E’s instructions. There’s more drawing with E to come!


Bad weather and illness delayed our second Outdoor Hour challenge – we did Challenge #1 over a month ago and it’s supposed to be a weekly challenge!


But yesterday we were – and we still are (knock on wood) – healthy, and the temperature deigned to rise above freezing (though only barely), and the sun shone so brightly on the fields of snow. We were sitting at Amie’s desk, looking out her big window and practicing writing, when I couldn’t resist the urge to go for a walk. Amie is always up for a walk in the snow, so we went out for about half an hour, until our fingers grew numb inside our gloves from the cold wind and the chunks of snow we were carrying…

I love the (apparent) paradox of the second challenge: it is about keeping quiet in nature but also about “using your words”. The idea is to be quiet while out there, and to use the words once you’re back inside for discussion.

Now, keeping quiet is hard to do with Amie, indoors or out. Ever since she could, she has talked nonstop. She can whisper, and does so with a lot of theatricality, but she can’t keep it up for long. Also, part of our walk, around the block, is via a street that gets busy with cars and buses around that time, when school ends.

I decided not to initiate talk but to let her talk if she wanted to, and then to guide the conversation toward words (adjectives and verbs) for what we were seeing and hearing and feeling.

Snow was, of course, the main attraction. It was everywhere!

  • The snow looked white and clean or dirty and brown/gray.
  • It sounded and felt either crunchy and icy or slushy and wet.


  • It looked and felt either frozen and slippery, or melted or something in between. We discussed what made the snow melt and how one thing (water) can  look and feel so different! We studied tiny rivulets underneath thin ice sheets. I mentioned – totally off the cuff ;) – that dark things get warmer in the sun, absorbing more heat, than white things, which reflect the sun rays.
  • We deplored that the snow wasn’t fluffy like before and that all the snow has hardened into rock solidity. This made for interesting track-making: you could stand on top of it, making hardly a dent, or crash through the frozen surface taking whole chunks down with you.


  • Also, we discussed how throwing a snowball made from this kind of ice-snow would hurt if you threw it at someone, because it was as hard as stone.
  • And that brought us to what kind of snow you need to make a good snowman (unfortunately not a snow Amie has experienced yet: a couple of weeks ago it was too light, now it is too hard). We talked about “dense” and “condense”.


  • We brought two “snowballs” home, though they were more chunks than balls and more ice than snow. Amie declared one a boy and the other a girl, adding that “it’s nice to be a girl” and that she would ask Baba if it’s at all nice being a boy.  Keeping in mind the melting  danger, she hurried me up as I transferred them from outside to the freezer.


We immediately indulged in some hot chocolate and some “honey cake” that my parents brought from Belgium (I need to find a good recipe for it, it’s always gone so fast).


Then we sat down to draw and Amie drew herself picking up snowballs (lo-ong arms) and holding hands with Lumpy (the Heffalump from Pooh). Nothing to do with the snow, that one, but she got the trunk right. She also gave herself some “earmoths”. “You mean earmuffs?” “No, ear-moths, Mama!”


Barbara, who started and runs the Outdoor Hour Challenge, just added another challenge specifically for winter, called Winter Wednesday, using the book Explore Nature in Winter by Elisabeth P. Lawlor as a guide. I’m thinking of joining that too, for obvious reasons.

Riot 4 Austerity fist with thermometer

We finished our second month of the Riot while not at home, so my meter readings are a couple of days off. These numbers are for the period from 1 December 2008 to 4 January 2009.

1. Gasoline: OUCH!

We did so well last month: 7.939 gallons of oil/person or 19% of the US National Average. But for the New Year we visited friends in NY City and Washington DC. For the three of us it was much cheaper to drive than fly. I do love road trips, I admit it. I love singing along with the 70s and 80s music we always play when on the road, and looking outside, concocting stories about the places I glimpse, through the trees, and getting a feel for the vastness of this country… But the memory of all that doesn’t lessen the pain:

22.6 gallons per person = 55 % of the US national average.

I’m enjoying winter, but I’m looking forward to when I can bike Amie to school. That will save us 32 miles a week, or 128 miles a month.

2. Electricity: up a little

We spent a little more on electricity than in month 1: 345 KWH (up from 300).

That’s 38% of the national average.

The rise probably has to do with the fact that we recently started heating the bathroom with a small space heater.

3. Heating Oil (and hot water): DOUBLE OUCH!!

We burned an incredible 93 gallons of oil in little over a month, 10 days of which we weren’t even at home (the thermostat was set to the minimum, and no water was heated). That’s almost double what we burned last month (52.7 gallons), and

151% of the US national average

(which ranges over a year and the entire country, not to forget).

Evidently it was terribly cold here in neck of the woods. For instance, on the day of our trip back up North (1 January), the temperature in DC was 36 F, 19 F in NY and 6 F in Mass. – we were happy to stop in NY for a couple more days. And it continues to be freezing cold.

We’ve insulated the house as tightly as can be, we Freeze our Buns, and as long as our budget doesn’t allow more measures to be taken (like a woodstove, and a home-built solar thermal collector), this is how it will have to be. I hope it averages out at the end of our Riot year…

4. Garbage: made it

This is unchanged from month 1. We produced 3 lbs. of garbage on average, so at 0.15 lbs a person a day we made the goal of

10% (.45 lbs) easily.

5. Water: very close

We consumed 324 gallons per person, which is

11% of the US national average.

I ascribe the drop (it’s down from 459 gallons in month 1) to the fact that we weren’t home for part of the month.

6. Consumer goods: Christmas fling

We spent $326 on consumer goods last month – not bad considering it was the holidays. We did a Handmade Christmas, but we also got a globe and a small computer mouse for Amie and some books and crockery for ourselves.

It amounts to 40% of the US national average.

It’s an aberration and we’re back on our thrifty track.

7. Food: Huh?

I am no longer going to calculate this category.  The more I think about how to, the less possible it becomes. Can anyone tell me how they do it? By weight, by bulk, by cost?


When she unpacked the glove: “It’s the Earth! It’s the Earth!”

We’re back from our trip and I am finding it difficult to get back into things with the blogging. But here’s what you can expect soon:

  1. I’m preparing an update on our second Riot month (December 2008), so that might get me started. DONE.
  2. We’ve been doing more drawing, so of course I’ll report on that. DONE.
  3. I’ll also put up some pictures of our adventures in NY City and Washington DC: they involve lots of drawing, dinosaurs and a fearful run-in with the Big Bang.
  4. Thanks to a reader of this blog, I will be able update my “green diaper” product reviews with new information on Nature Baby Care.
  5. And I owe you pictures of our Homemade Christmas, which turned out smaller than we had planned but was a success anyway and a good way to get a tradition started.
  6. We’ve almost completed the construction of our haybox cooker. I  want to try it out before I report back on that.
  7. We’re wooing a friend to come stay with us as a semi-permanent house guest. I’m so excited about our co-housing experiment!
  8. In the meantime I’m still waiting for news about the novel from the agent. What a drag to have to wait so long… I feel at a loss about my future and this totally squashes my inspiration to work on it or on its sequel. I have some short stories brewing, though, and maybe even a poem or two. I just need a couple of hours without having to clean or dig out the gutters…
  9. The seeds should be arriving soon and if Skippy’s Vegetable Garden planting schedule is any indication, we’d better start working on that, so expect some reports on the installation of a seed growing bank in our basement. DONE
  10. I have some thoughts/feelings about how to deal with Climate Change/Peak Oil/Economic Depression despair and conversations with “unconverted” friends. That will make a more philosophical discussion: one that I often indulge in these days, before the flurry of practical action has to set in.

That’s quite a list…

Is it normal to go crazy when ordering seeds for the first time?

This is my order – with Fedco Seeds only (choosing just from them was difficult enough: I didn’t dare add the selection from any other gorgeous catalog).

  • Provider Bush Green Bean OG (A=2oz)
    Maxibel Bush Haricots Verts OG (B=2oz)
    Cannellini Bean (A=2oz)
    Red Kidney Bean (A=2oz)
    Mayfair Shell Pea ECO (A=2oz)
    Blizzard Snow Pea OG (A=2oz)
    Boothbys Blonde Slicing Cucumber OG (A=0.5g)
    Costata Romanesca Zucchini OG (A=1/8oz)
    Early Summer Yellow Crookneck Summer Squash OG (A=1/8oz)
    Uncle Davids Dakota Dessert Winter Squash OG (A=1/4oz)
    Scarlet Nantes Carrot (A=1/8oz)
    King Sieg Leek OG (A=1/16oz)
    Evergreen Hardy White Scallion (A=1/16oz)
    Clear Dawn Onion OG (A=1/16oz)
    Long Standing Bloomsdale Spinach OG (A=1/4oz)
    Black Seeded Simpson Lettuce OG (A=2g)
    Cracoviensis Lettuce OG (A=1g)
    Summer Lettuce Mix (A=1g)
    Winter Lettuce Mix (A=1g)
    Bright Lights Chard (A=1/16oz)
    Gigante dItalia Parsley (A=1/16oz)
    Golden Purslane OG (A=0.5g)
    Broccoli Blend (A=0.5g)
    White Russian Kale OG (A=2g)
    Redventure Celery OG (A=0.2g)
    Applegreen Eggplant OG (A=0.2g)
    Peacework Sweet Pepper OG (A=0.2g)
    Glacier Tomato OG (A=0.2g)
    Ida Gold Tomato OG (A=0.2g)
    WOW! Tomato ECO (A=0.1g)
    Sun Gold Cherry Tomato (A=0.1g)
    Arnica Chamissonis OG (A=0.02g)
    Sweet Basil OG (A=4g)
    Genovese Basil (A=2g)
    Borage OG (A=0.5g)
    Catnip (A=1g)
    Caribe Cilantro OG (A=1g)
    Bouquet Dill OG (A=2g)
    Purple Coneflower or Echinacea OG (A=1g)
    Elecampane OG (B=0.3g)
    Garlic Chives (A=0.5g)
    Ladys Mantle (B=0.2g)
    Lemon Balm (B=3g)
    Sweet Marjoram (A=1g)
    Common Mint (A=0.1g)
    Stinging Nettle OG (A=0.2g)
    Greek Oregano (A=0.2g)
    Pennyroyal (A=0.1g)
    -Rosemary (A=0.1g)
    Rue (A=0.5g)
    Broadleaf Sage (A=1g)
    Stevia (A=0.01g)
    German Thyme (A=0.2g)
    Sweet Woodruff (A=0.2g)
    White Yarrow (A=0.1g)
    Kablouna Calendula Mix OG (A=1g)
    Calliopsis Mix (B=0.9g)

You can tell me, honestly: did I go crazy? I will probably need 3 acres to plant all of these, but then I figured most of these seeds can be kept for 2-3 years, so there is no rush to plant all of them in one season. I shouldn’t in any case, since some of these cross-pollinate, and we want to save seeds but have not enough land or any way of isolating the plants.

We’re still travelling. We’re in DC now and in the New Year we’ll head back home via NY City. Next task: making and purchasing growing-from-seed supplies. Almost forgot: got to ask all our friends and relations to save their gallon milk and juice  bottles for us.


I’ve been quiet about Amie’s reading and writing here because it’s tough to know where she stands. One day she reads and writes enthusiastically, the other day she won’t even write her own name properly (and that she has been able to do since she turned two).

She has been reading simple words, slowly stringing the sounds together and in some cases sight-reading them (“the”, for instance). Yesterday we made a quick visit to the mall (I know! It was horrendous. I got a splitting head ache. But we had to pick up our new glasses) and as we drove by she read: “S-Eh-Ah-Ruh-S” but couldn’t make sense of the word. She listened carefully to our explanation that “E and A in this case sounds like Eee, but sometimes it sounds like Eh, as in BEAR”. Wow, it must be so confusing to her! But she takes it all in stride.

She can also do the process in reverse, spelling out the words. She can isolate the sounds pretty well and then write them down as she hears them. She can write all the letters, even the S, sometimes mirroring them.

Some days ago  sat with her as she drew the picture above. It’s of Santa and a snowman (for some reason she drew these upside down, getting the smiles right) and Mama (“with sweet fluffy ears”). I helped her practice her S and spell “Santa Clos”. Later on, when we were not around, she wrote on top, in a combination of pen and sticky letters:


When I asked her what it means, she said:

– Oatmeal.

She hadn’t quite remembered how to spell the EE sound, so she had invented her own sign for it.

So is she writing now? She’s playing at writing, that’s for sure. We should all still be playing at writing. I am, for the most part. Are you?


Dark-Eyed junco and American Goldfinches

Who knew birdwatching in winter would be more fun than in summer!

We’re experiencing our third snowstorm in five days – or is it the second one come round again? The scene outside is magical, but to me there is also an aspect of danger. I see the trees laden with snow and think: oh, so beautiful! Then the wind blanks out the view and I think: electricity outage!

Amie has been nothing but ecstatic. She has made angels, climbed the snowbanks, eaten the snow (making the funniest faces), threw snowballs (it’s not sticking much, though, so no good for snowmen) and sledded down our front yard hill. Pulling the sled and the child back up was Mama or Bab’s job, as was shoveling and maneuvering the car back up the steep and long and slippery driveway.


The birds at our feeders are just as ecstatic. Except for the Juncos, the Mourning Doves, the Northern Cardinals and once in a while a Downy Woodpecker, many were not to be seen… until the snow came!


Mourning Dove (click on image for larger)


Black-Capped Chickadee


Tufted Titmouse


Red-Bellied Woodpecker


Northern Cardinal

Suddenly there they were again: the Black-Capped Chickadees and Tufted Titmice, the Carolina Wren and the Blue Jay, the American Goldfinches, the White-Breasted Nutchatches and even the Red-Bellied Woodpecker (who is supposed to live in Florida). The Dark-Eyed Juncos are out in droves, playing in the snow, chittering at one another, performing great feats of on-the-spot flying (we call that “bidden” in Dutch: praying).  No wonder they’re called snowbirds: they love the snow!

It makes for a big hullabaloo at the feeders as they all vie for prime feeding spots. I deny the compost bins our old bread and rotten apples, putting it out for the birds instead. I stand by the bedroom window, watching the woefully overgrown juniper and Rhododendron bushes where they take shelter. I could stand there all day…

It’s supposed to snow more today and this evening, and then there will be a couple of clear and windy days and a deep freeze. I’m sorry we won’t be around for that: I wanted to experience walking on the ice on top of the snow. We’ll be off tomorrow to NY City and then Washington DC until a couple of days after New Year’s. I might be able to post, I’ll do my best!