outdoorhourbutton1 winterwednesday

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!


Then the snow thawed and it all came dripping, trickling, flooding down. Then it froze, hard. This picture is of another oak:


Here’s “our” chosen beech, slick with ice, gleaming in the sunlight:


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.



(*) 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.


I got to bring home my first pot, which I threw last week. I had made the bottom too thin and it cracked while drying, so we gave it up as a lost cause and didn’t even trim, let alone fire it. But it was fun to bring it home to show Amie, who said:

– Wow! It has a crack!

Yes, well…

I threw three pots this week. The third one was noticeably better than the first, perhaps because I discovered that while centering (*) it helps to look away, to un-focus the gaze, and just feel the clay under your hands.

(*) centering = getting all the clay to be in the exact middle of the wheel; only then can you proceed to shape it.

I also got to trim the second pot I made last week, and I can’t wait to see it glazed and fired.

You know, I tried yoga for a while, with a lovely instructor and a bunch of really nice people one of whom is one of my best friends.  But it didn’t do anything for me. I need to do something. Wheelthrown pottery is perfect for me: it gets me out of the house, into a great community, it gets me out of my head, working with my hands, it relaxes and grounds me, concentrates me, and it satisfies my desire to build my practical skills. And I get to bring pots home, some cracked, some not…


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.