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…


Today we finally had a chance to set up our germination/seedling area in the basement. It’s not fully done yet, but so far we have:

  1. One large Gorilla shelf rack – fits 4 standard Jiffy or Burpee seed starting flats perfectly. $87.97
  2. four shop lights (2 sockets each), chain links and S hooks included. 4 x $8.97 = $35.88
  3. One pack of 10 fluorescent bulbs: T8, 48″, 32W, 6500 K color temperature, 36.000 hours lifetime light temperature. $25
  4. four wooden dowels (4 x $1.45 = $7.25)
  5. one timer ($11.97)
  6. one power strip ($4.98)

Total cost (so far): $173 (plus tax), at Home Depot.

If more space for seedlings is needed, we can put two more lights/four more bulbs above the lower shelves.

The dowels (those round wooden sticks) fit the holes in the shelf unit perfectly and the shop lights hang from it securely. We can adjust the lamps’ distance from the seeds/seedlings either by shortening the chains or by moving the dowels up some more.


We’re going to put a sheet (poly? shower curtain?) around the whole unit, creating a chamber. This will trap the heat and the humidity.  Now the dowels are too long and we’ll trim them some, but we’ll leave them sticking out so that

  1. there is some clearance in front for one person stand inside the chamber
  2. there is space for the heat to rise to the highest shelves (for the germination and the most heat-loving plants)
  3. there is air flow (we might also drill holes in the particle board shelves)

We’ll monitor if these lamps generate sufficient heat for the seed/seedlings (our basement is only about 55-60 degrees F, and we’ll need temperatures between 65-70). If not, we’ll try a hot lamp or  heating mats, which are more expensive.

We’re also going to put a small household fan inside the “chamber”, to prevent damping off (fungus).

  • Germination part

The top shelf will be the germination part of the operation, because it will be the hottest (since the heat from the lower shelves will rise).

Most seeds need an ambient temperature of 65-70 degrees F, and soil temperatures of optimally (though not necessarily) 80-85 degrees F. Heat is the most important consideration, then light. Some seeds need light to germinate (lettuce), others need darkness (many flowers), but most are indifferent (pepper, squash, tomato). We’ll simply put newspaper over the darkness-loving seeds to block the light, or we’ll paint their domes black.

  • Seedlings

A plant is a seedling as soon as it has grown to “true leaves” – leaves that weren’t already part of the seed-package. Seedlings need up to 16 hours of bright light per day to thrive. Our timer will ensure we don’t forget!

There will no doubt be some shuffling around as we get to know our system, our seeds and seedlings. I’ve added an extra Flickr badge in the sidebar with annotated pictures of anything garden.

Also still needed: seed-starting mix, flats, domes, potting soil, peat pots…

Seeds? Check!

Riot for Austerity fist with Thermometer

This is only our third Riot month and I feel like I’m slacking already.

I realized this when last week I volunteered to drive Amie and a preschool buddy to their field trip. This was legitimate, I think: the preschool needed volunteers. On the way back – just Amie and I – I decided to stop off at Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge, which was legit too, as it was on the way home. It was too cold and windy to go for a walk, and then the officer told me about this great Visitor Center at the Assabet River Reservation, only a couple of miles away. She gave us directions.

Only a couple of miles away – back up north, though, with our home to the south. And the directions turned out to be faulty. And there turned out not to be a Visitor Center. Just a kiosk.

After driving around in circles for many miles, almost getting the car stuck in a snowy lane, with a grumpy child in the back who needed to pee, and seeing the miles tick-tick-tick away on the dashboard, I was very upset.

But it was my own fault. After so many months I was on the road, you know, and I used to love road trips, and getting lost in the country, cruising by the farm houses and going bumpety-bump through dark woods. So I left our “legitimate” route for some pleasure driving…

I’ve been leaving the big computer on all day, letting it sit there, munching on electricity. The screen saver isn’t even on.

I’ve been leaving lights on in unoccupied rooms.

I’ve been wasting water with longer showers, and sometimes boil a full kettle, to forget and then have to bring it to a boil again.

Most of the hay box is finished, but I still haven’t brought myself to put it all together and to actually cook in it. This though I’ve made several soups and stews in the meantime.

We spent too much at Whole Foods on Saturday. Too many exotic luxuries.Y Yesterday  I forgot to put an opened can of tomato puree in the fridge and had to throw it out.

Etc. Etc.

To some of you that may sound uninteresting, but to me these mistakes hurt. I do recognize them as mistakes, and regret them. So why did I make them? Is it Riot fatigue?  Is it winter?

Will the numbers at the end of the month jar me awake?

I think of the seeds every day. They’re locked away in their envelopes, in Ziploc bags, in a large cookie tin, in the cold basement. Held within these many layers, deprived of light, water and warmth and temperature fluctuations, they are kept suspended.


I am rereading Thoreau’s Dispersion of Seeds. It was published for the first (and so far only time) in 1993, in a lovely volume called Faith in a Seed.

Thoreau was writing around 1860, when most people in the States believed that plants spring up spontaneously, not from a root or a cutting or a seed. It’s so hard for us to imagine that people ever thought such a thing. But Thoreau could, though he was one of the few arguing against it (this was part of his larger, Darwinian argument against Agassiz’s “immutable species”).

Thoreau drew this interesting comparison between the American vs. the European idea of a seed.  He writes (on page 1):

We are so accustomed to see another forest spring up immediately, as a matter of course, when one is cut down… never troubling ourselves about the succession, that we hardly associate seeds with trees, and we do not anticipate the time when this regular succession will cease and we shall be obliged to plant, as they do in all old countries. The planters of Europe must therefore have a different and much more correct notion of the value of seeds than we… we know only that [trees] come out of the earth when we cut them down, as regularly as the fur grows on the hides of animals after the summer has thinned it.

Old country versus new country, a place where man has to plant versus a place where Nature sows… I came to this country ten years ago and I live constantly with this Old-New comparison. Look around you, is your America still that New World? Or has it become Old?

What a privilege, what good luck, to be able to read this text!

I have faith in a seed too. The seeds in my basement seem dead, but I believe they will live and flourish. I believe that nature is forgiving. If I make a little mistake, I believe she will correct it. If I make a big one, she will give me another chance, here, in my New World.


One of our Christmas gifts was this game, Max, made by a small family-owned company called Family Pastimes that makes only cooperative games (they even print and make their own boards and boxes).

We must help get the little Creatures safely home before Max, the Tomcat, catches them. In an exciting way, children learn logic, consultation and decision making. An important issue to discuss is also raised: we don’t like Max catching those Little Ones, yet we recognize that he is a natural hunter. How do we resolve this in our minds and hearts? Let’s talk it over.

The game is just at Amie’s level.  She isn’t getting the strategy yet, but a game like this – not too simple, not too complex – is just what will help her understand the necessity of thinking ahead. The duration of the game is also well within her attention span… so there’s time for one more, of course, or two…

It’s also very engaging. Amie gets very concerned about the little creatures – a bird, a chipmunk and a mouse. So much so that she calls Max back to his porch (with a treat) even when he isn’t anywhere close to being a threat. So much so that she tries, very clumsily, to manipulate the dice, which decide who gets to move ahead, the little ones or Max. When I told her she has to leave it up to the dice, she tried hard, but soon I caught her again.

– Amie, we shouldn’t cheat.

– Shhh, Mama! Max didn’t see me do it!

How is that for immersion! I had to put a stop to it after three games. She was getting too excited.

I heartily recommend it anyone with a three to four-year-old, or older child. Also check out Family Pastimes’ other cooperative games: they have them for all ages. Of course I’m putting “Harvest Time” on our urgent wish list!

(I hope this company won’t be adversely affected by the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act.)


The theme of last Winter Wednesday was snow and well, no shortage of snow around here: a whole lot fell last night and more is on the way.

I requested the book, Discover Nature in Winter, from the interlibrary loan, but it hasn’t arrived yet. But Barb mentioned the following experiment: melt and filter different kinds of snow (new and old), then look at the particles left behind, through a magnifying glass or a microscope.

We were in luck today: the snow that fell was the fluffiest I’ve seen so far – it was a joy to shovel. I scooped some up into a glass, taking care to compress it as little as possible. Then I filled up another glass with some old snow that was underneath – the difference between the two layers was very pronounced. That made two glasses of snow:


And one interested little girl who came a-peeking:


6:07 pm

– What are you doing?

– Experimenting!

– O can I help?

We talked about how these glasses of snow looked exactly the same. What would happen if we let the snow in them melt? And what would happen if we packed it down?

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Strange, the new snow was very easy to push down. Its volume was reduced drastically. Not so the old snow. So we got to talk about “compact” and “dense” again. The new snow was very soft and fluffy. That meant there were many air pockets or empty spaces in between the snowflakes or ice crystals, lots of air that was were squeezed out as Amie packed it down.  The snow crystals in the old snow were already packed much closer together, with less air or empty space between them, so it was harder, much less easy to compact even more.

– So (I asked Amie when she had packed both glasses as much as her little fists could stand), is there as much snow in one as in the other?

– No! she said. (It was plain as day, looking at the one glass, still 3/4 full, and the other, only 1/4 full.)

– But, remember, at the beginning they were as full, no?

– Yes.

– How come?

– I don’t know, she said.

I have to laugh at this point. Really I’m not going to pretend that my 3-and-a-half-year-old gets all of this! She just likes playing with the snow. But she did listen, and we did continue our explanations, because we want her to get an idea of this experiment, and of how important and fun it is to experiment, and of how much we value her opinion and think she is capable of understanding.

So the glass with the new, fluffy snow had been filled with more air than snow, and the glass with the old, hard snow had, in effect, a lot more actual snow in it. It also weighed more.

But nothing explains it like a picture, and she and I sat down to make one.


We returned to our melting snow throughout the evening – Amie often pulling on my sleeve to drag me over. Very soon it was obvious that the new snow was melting much, much faster.


6.38 pm

Why would that be? There had been much less snow to begin with. And even after compacting there had probably been a lot of air in it still, which warmed up and melted the snow from within. By 7:14 the new snow had all melted. But the other glass was still half full:


By 9:30 that the old snow too had melted. By then Amie had gone to sleep. I kept the two glasses, with saucers on them, in the kitchen for her to see in the morning. So… to be continued!


Snow fell during the night and a good part of the day. It stopped by 3 and I set out. I used the tiny electric snow thrower that was given to us via FreeCycle, for about half the driveway, and shoveled the other half. Took me 2 1/5 hours in all for about 1000 sq.f. and 4 inches of snow. Thankfully it was very fluffy, so more air than water.

As I was shoveling, a couple strolled by on a winter wonder walk. The woman gave me an encouraging smile. The man frowned and said: “Why don’t you hire a plow, it’ll be done in two minutes!” “True,” I said, “only this is my gym workout, for free”. Her laughter was appreciative. His was skeptical.

I am proud of my self-sufficiency. And it really is not just about that: my two-hour workout made me healthier, so that might add at least another two hours to my life, or make two other hours fitter. At the very least it’ll deepen two hours of my sleep tonight.And the fitter I am, the more self-sufficient I will be…

It’s a gift.


On another note: half of the seeds arrived! We all gathered around to take the neatly stacked packets out of the box. The other half are on back order and are promised to arrive soon. Only one seed is out-of-stock, the Arnica, so I’ll have to find another supplier for that.

I’m also looking for a source of French Green Lentils. Or can I just plant the lentil I buy at Whole Foods? There is no information about where those come from, whether they’re hybrids, etc. Or are those too treated, to husked, so no longer viable? Any advice?