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The holiday season

For eight of our ten Christmases in Foster we’ve driven a mile and a half down the road to cut down our tree at Colwell’s Farm. Mr. Colwell, who is also a furniture maker, stopped planting new trees a few years ago, and so each year we’ve tried to judge when the supply will run out. Worry prompted me to tag our tree in October…and a couple trees had already been tagged when we got there. On a warm afternoon we examined each tree carefully, finally abandoning (once again) all sense of proportion and choosing a fat one. I tied lots of colored ribbons all over the tree to identify it.


The day after Thanksgiving we went back to cut it down. On our way out, with the tree in the back of the pick-up truck, we stopped by Mr. Colwell’s wood shop to return the saw, pay (the price has remained $25), and to wish him a great year. Two customers were just leaving, so everyone said “Happy Holidays”…and then the man said sourly “I still like ‘Merry Christmas.’”

I didn’t realize that many people shared this sentiment until I read Gail Collins’ funny piece in the New York Times a few days later. Then it came back to me that last year a small but vocal faction declared there was a “war on Christmas.”

How exactly could there be a war on Christmas? Since the beginning of November, holiday (Christmas) decorations have festooned storefronts. By mid-November (two weeks before Thanksgiving) radio stations began playing non-stop Christmas carols.

I love Christmas. My tree is decorated not only with all the special ornaments Cherisse and I have collected over the past 30 years, but now with some of my childhood ornaments (and some from my mother’s childhood). A lot of history, artistry, and love hangs from that tree. For the next few weeks I will play lots of Christmas carols—we have a large collection ranging from Kings College Choir to James Taylor. However, I grew up and work in New York City, and I am surrounded by people of diverse backgrounds and beliefs. A greeting of “Happy Holidays” works for everyone, and includes the New Year as well. It is a friendly, polite greeting, and sounds festive.

So why would anyone object to “Happy Holidays?” The reaction seems rooted in a “them versus us” mentality that pervades our political system, and parts of our society. It isn’t healthy or productive.

In these past few days much has been said about Nelson Mandela. Almost unanimously people comment on his magnanimity, his ability to forgive, his inclusiveness, and his heart. Nelson Mandela was an exceptional human being, but it doesn’t seem unreasonable to hope that we, especially at this time of year, might aspire to these traits.

A spectacle in yellow

When I was a teenager, my parents purchased a summer cottage in Madison, CT. It had beadboard walls inside and weathered shingles on the exterior. Two large porches, one open downstairs, and one screened in upstairs, convinced my parents to buy the house on the spot (they had been looking, so had a good sense of what they wanted). The house had no heat or indoor shower. You accessed the beach and Long Island Sound down a dirt road and a grassy path.

Over many years streams of people came through that house. A large kitchen, though poorly arranged for preparing big meals, managed to feed everyone. Mornings, a heaping platter of doughnuts from the Madison Bakery (long gone now) would be set out on the long table covered with a floral-print waxed tablecloth. Later in the day it would be laden with lunch, and then dinner, while friends sat around the table telling stories.

The living room area circled around an open staircase (a perfect design for running kids). With four bedrooms upstairs (none very big), my sister and I had our own rooms for once; the bathroom had a clawfoot tub, rarely used. To reach the upstairs porch you went through one of the bedrooms. An attic had two additional rooms, with sinks, but in the summer it got unbearably hot, so we used it only for storage (and once for overflow guests).

All manner of games were enjoyed in the large yard with its lush grass—including a “pitch and putt” tournament (with betting) that my father’s work friends played in what became an annual Turkey Day golfing event each fall. My mother’s perennial gardens expanded year after year, with special flowers she chose in travels around New England with my father. A vegetable garden produced Jack-in-the-Beanstalk sized produce: zucchini that went from normal (edible) to baseball bats overnight, huge tomatoes and eggplant, and basil that grew into bushes.

My father didn’t like the cold, but my mother did, and so we started spending weekends in the house by April (we slept in thermal underwear, sweaters, socks, hats, and under piles of blankets). My sister and I would do our homework in the car to stay warmer. My father worked at the dining room table, typing on his computer dressed in a winter coat, hat and gloves.

I loved the lazy summers, but my favorite season, despite the cooler temperatures, was spring. Each year my mother planted daffodils, so by the time we finally had to sell the house, there must have been thousands of flowers. Even better was the forsythia that surrounded a good part of the house. In keeping with my mother’s rather laissez-faire view on landscaping, these bushes never got trimmed. They became a huge thicket that had two great benefits. A practical one was that they surrounded the outdoor shower, offering relative privacy…unless someone actually walked up to the back door. (Since my mother, sister and I preferred evening showers, we had the added advantage of darkness.)

The second benefit simply was the glory of color. For a couple of weeks each spring, you drove down our stone road and came suddenly upon a glowing mass of bright yellow. Wide and tall, the bushes intertwined and spread. Flying overhead I imagine you’d see greens, browns, and dots of color. And then at our house, an immense block of happy yellow.

Cherisse and I bought our own house in March, and that first spring we planted several forsythia bushes. They grow fairly quickly, and now, several years later, they offer a glorious burst of color. It isn’t the same—the Madison forsythia had something magical about it—but they are beautiful, and a welcome sight after a snowy winter. Soon green leaves will replace the flowers, but by then other plants and trees will bloom in great numbers and color will abound. For now, we enjoy the spectacle.


Winter weight

Rebecca, a rather small cat, has once again put on her winter weight. In the warm weather she is outside for hours, covering a lot of ground. However, in the cold, snowy weather, she often sleeps much of the day, getting up just to eat, or to re-locate herself to someone’s lap.

The winter slows us all down. Running outdoors isn’t appealing in freezing temperatures, and there hasn’t been enough snow or sustained cold temperatures for much skiing or sledding. Early sunsets make the entire day feel compressed. With fewer outdoor chores, more sedentary responsibilities take precedence. In the evening we gather together for family movie night with three warm animals curled up in a pile of black fur.

March is almost upon us, the long in-between month when we’ve begun to tire of winter and long for spring. Eventually the earliest bulbs will appear in bright spots of color. Until then, we’re content with an additional four minutes of sunlight each day. We resist Rebecca’s semi-hibernation, as appealing as it looks, and speed up progress on indoor work, before long sunny days keep us busy and exhausted outside. We enjoy the waning weeks of winter.


Blizzard of 2013

Yesterday we woke to a world blanketed in snow—by the time the snow stopped it would be four feet in some drifts. As the snow abated we tried to forge paths for the dogs. We had to exert great energy lifting our snowshoes out of the deep snow to take each step. The dogs and Rebecca were unhappy, and the chickens outraged. Only Cherisse and I enjoyed the beautiful snow-covered landscape that looked like the Arctic tundra.



The smell of summer

For some people, that fresh laundry smell is associated with the type of detergent used. For me, it will always be the smell of summer—warm sun and fresh air. Growing up, we spent our summers in Connecticut, in a house without heat, and without a clothes dryer. My mother did copious loads of laundry, and hung it all on a clothesline that ran from the back of the garage to a tall t-post erected for this purpose.

When Cherisse and I moved into our house in Foster, there was an old Sears washer and dryer. Eventually the washing machine died, and so we purchased a high-efficiency front loading washer, but kept the dryer since it still worked. The washer and dryer are in a bump-out in the back of our house, which must have been built around the machines because they don’t fit through the door. To get the old washer out (and new one in), Cherisse had to remove (and later replace) the door, its casing and the jamb.

Eventually the dryer, too, died. Only this time we didn’t buy a new one. Instead, the clothesline we had strung between two trees became our primary dryer—year-round. We discovered that in the wintertime the dryness of the air nearly compensates for the diminished sunlight. If there are too many rainy (or snowy) days, we use a wooden drying rack. (We just bought a fantastic new one at the Common Ground Fair—it is beautifully made and has much greater capacity than our old one.)

I love to see our clothes blowing on the clothesline in our backyard. We save money, help the environment (by reducing energy use), and enjoy laundry that smells wonderful.

Return to spring

We left for Maui on March 3, wearing winter coats. In our absence spring arrived. Poking through the pine branches (which I’d left on the snow covered garden) were brightly colored crocuses. The daffodils grew six inches in the 10 days we’d been gone. In contrast to the vibrant colors of Maui, everything here is muted, but with that exciting promise of an explosion of color. Soon the forsythia bushes will turn to brilliant balls of yellow. Then the lilacs, crab apple, and dogwood will bloom in pinks, purples and peachy whites. The asparagus and rhubarb will provide our first homegrown harvest.


In the past few days we’ve enjoyed a very different landscape, and bounty. Despite a climate well suited to growing an abundance of fresh foods, they are not easily found (although we’ve seen a steady improvement over the past few years). We ate juicy pineapple, apple bananas (smaller, firmer and sweeter than the large ones flown to our markets from Costa Rica), papaya—all local and sold at a “farmer’s market” (on Maui this simply means a market that sells some local produce). We went upcountry to Kula to get a wider variety of exceptional vegetables: beautiful lettuce, sweet carrots, fresh strawberries. Next time we’ll drive to Kula early in the trip; there were many vegetables we didn’t have enough time to try, like the gorgeous artichokes and avocados.


Excellent goat cheese is available at Surfing Goat Dairy, where we took a tour, fed some goats, and petted the youngest, who climbed all over each other. I am convinced that goats would be an enjoyable addition to Maggie’s Farm, although they like interaction so much that they are clearly pets (and will require much more attention than the chickens).

Feeding goats

A number of restaurants on Maui now source meats, vegetables and cheese locally and my favorite by far is Flatbread in Paia. We discovered it on the last trip, and it is just as good (we ate there three times). We had been surprised to discover that Flatbread is a franchise (mostly in New England), but they’ve made it distinctly local. Aside from excellent pizza with fresh, local ingredients, they make the best drinks on the island—fresh juices and top shelf liquor, some of it local as well (Maui rum and vodka).

Plants and trees grow almost before your eyes; the colors and variety present a lush dazzling array. Even though this time of year is the “rainy season,” the weather was unusual: Kauai and Oahu had bad flooding and parts of Maui were so saturated there was briefly a ban on drinking water on the north shore. We didn’t mind the rain, and we enjoyed some sun and a few spectacular sunsets.

Stormy skiesSun setting on Lanai

The whales come to Hawaii in December to have babies, and return to Alaska in the summer to feed. I would have been happy scanning the horizon all day to see the awe-inspiring whales rising out of the water. We spent one night on Lanai and as the sun set we watched several whales take their time rounding a bend. The next morning we had the breathtaking experience of watching dozens and dozens of spinner dolphins swimming and spinning out of the water in Hulopo’e Bay. Some people sat on surfboards in the water to watch them up close—experts have found that dolphins are adversely affected when humans swim with them, but these were stationary observers.

The trip was relaxing and refreshing, and we spent a lot of time with Cherisse’s brother and his family—Briana is 10 now and Mekayla turns six very soon.

Briana and Mekayla after the hula show

Briana and Mekayla after the hula show

Still, we couldn’t wait to get home to all the animals and chickens…all well taken care of by a rotating crew of excellent house-sitters, and my sister who managed all the comings and goings and took the dogs from time to time (evidently four dogs are too many for one bed…Cathleen had to sleep on her couch for three nights to escape the crowd). We’re eager to hear from our young friend Isaac about the games he taught Featherfoot.





I am convinced that one day Cherisse and I will invent something so useful, the world will wonder how it survived without it for so long. Until that time, I will simply admire the genius of others.

Today I used three marvelous inventions. The first is the heated mattress pad. Our bedroom stays cold, which is better for sleeping, but challenging when getting into bed on a cold winter’s night. Now, 15 minutes before bedtime, we turn on the mattress pad (which brilliantly comes with two different controls), and then slip into a toasty bed.

The kitchen scale is another essential creation.  Cherisse bought it for making bread, because weighing the ingredients is far more accurate than using measuring cups. I pull it out almost every day. We use it for canning our vegetables, for weighing dried beans to cook for soups, and to constantly satisfy our curiosity about odd things (like how much the giant chicken eggs weigh).

Crockpots (or slow-cookers), once popular in the 70s, have made a resurgence. This morning I used ours, putting in the chicken carcass from last night’s dinner, covering it with water and adding some herbs, salt and pepper. I set the cooker on low for eight hours, and now we have a nutritious broth, without the onions I can’t eat (and every store-bought stock contains). Tomorrow I will make soup.

Thanks to all the people who came up with these life-changing devices. Someday I may contribute my own.

Solar powered

Our laundry room is in a bump-out at the back of the house, accessed through the dining room. Whoever built it used a small, old barn or shed door to separate the rooms, and someone made very rough cabinets out of barn boards which hang over the washer and dryer. A wooden ironing board, worn smooth and concave in places from much use, is in a built-in cabinet; the board drops down when its door is opened.

The room is functional, and suitable for its intended purpose, so we didn’t give it much thought until the washing machine died. Then we discovered the room must have been built around the machines…the washer wouldn’t fit through the narrow door. Cherisse had to dismantle the doorframe and remove some brickwork in front of the dining room fireplace in order to get it out, and the new one in.

On nice warm days we’d hung clothes outside on the line, both to save energy and because we loved how the the laundry smelled after drying outside. We did use the dryer, but decided not to replace it when we got the new washer. We hated to discard a machine that worked, and we didn’t want to spend money unnecessarily. So Cherisse rebuilt the doorframe, in effect sealing in the dryer. It lasted a couple more years, and then gave up.

Now we wash laundry only on nice days, in summer or winter. With sun and a breeze, clothes will dry on the clothesline even in freezing temperatures. There is something about seeing clothes drying, courtesy of nature’s power, that lifts the spirits. As I hang up the laundry, lines from Wynonna Judd’s song “All Of That Love From Here” usually run through my head:

I can see the cotton sheets, they’re swinging in the wind

I’m swinging in the wind

I close my eyes and my mind flies

And I’m right back home again, I’m right back home



The Christmas tree came down today. We are always loathe to see it go, but yesterday’s warm temperatures made us feel the time had come. The treasured ornaments so happily unwrapped last month are packed away. The unadorned tree is lying outside—until I cut off the branches to strew around the flower garden—an object of curiosity for the chickens.

Reducing waste is high on our priority list: we try to reuse or recycle as much as possible. Our kitchen scraps go in the compost (or to the chickens), and any paper, plastic and glass we haven’t repurposed gets distributed religiously in the town’s bins, or taken to Whole Foods (which has bins for just about everything the town recycling doesn’t take). The process requires a little effort for great results. Perhaps if everyone visited a landfill they might feel the same…the mountains of waste are unpleasant and disturbing. I remember a story that made national headlines (in 1987) of a barge loaded with garbage that left New York and travelled down—and then back up—the East coast, until the trash was finally incinerated in Brooklyn. No state wanted it. The story made people stop and think about garbage, some for the first time. Recently I sat on a city bus, watching a woman dropping unwanted parts of her newspaper in a trash bin. New York now has permanent recycling bins placed around the city for paper, plastic and glass, so just a little thought on her part would have made a difference.

In Rhode Island, recyclables must make up 35 percent of the waste that towns send to the state’s landfill, or the disposal rates are higher, and town tax rates go up. So there is a strong financial incentive. For us, using our Christmas tree to protect the flowers, or turning our scraps into compost has its own tangible rewards.

The new year

Any given year offers many chances for fresh starts. As a student, I loved September, with brand new notebooks, and the promise of exciting classes. For gardeners, spring heralds a beginning: new seeds to experiment with, adjustments to soil or placement of plants, and plans for more diligent weeding. And of course, there is January 1, the start of a calendar year. Twelve months stretching ahead in which to tackle those unfinished projects from the previous year, and to undertake new ones.

Every New Year I make a few resolutions. Nothing formal; a mental checklist of things I hope to accomplish. A few items repeat each year: I am still working on patience…I always seem to have room for improvement there. By December I have eaten too much sugar (and flour, and butter) and am eager for a healthier diet and exercise regimen. Mostly, though, I look forward to new opportunities and challenges.

2011 has been an interesting year. Not all great, but in balance it has been happy, and exciting. Cherisse and I got married this past January in Northampton, MA in a very small outdoor ceremony—making legal a relationship more than two decades long. We got our chickens, which have provided endless entertainment as well as a steady supply of eggs. Cherisse, with help from Cathleen and Mat, built a chicken palace. Thanks to Jack and Lucy, the chickens have electricity and a clever pop-up door. We added a second beehive and harvested our first honey. We planted pear trees, a gift from Greg Peck. A few new vegetables were tried out in the garden; some of these will make the Fedco seed list for 2012, but not all. Eight days without power prompted us to finally get a generator. A huge oil bill hastened our switch to a woodstove. And throughout the year we were lucky enough to enjoy the company of family and friends.

All of which makes me look forward to 2012. High on my unofficial list is to volunteer more (I have something in mind). Cherisse and I would like to create a product (or products) from Maggie’s Farm. There are those house projects carried over from year to year (slowly whittling down), and the barn roof needs replacing. Will we get goats?

No doubt many surprises will occur during the year, shaping our lives in unexpected ways. I enjoy the unknown, secure in the love and support of my wonderful family and friends. They make anything possible. Happy New Year.