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.


Most of our chickens have descriptive names, like Featherfoot (our rooster has feathers on his feet), the bareback chicken (a Rhode Island Red hen who lost the feathers on her back), the Ancona (we started with three Anconas, but are now down to one, which makes the identification simple), and the babies (although they are a year old now).

We gave some of our chickens people names. Maria kept laying eggs in rock walls, and would stay out all night. She was named after Julie Andrews’ character in Sound of Music. (Staying out all night proved to be her downfall.) Junior was the mean rooster we dispatched. And then there were Lucy and Ethel—two RI Reds, with the most distinct personalities. Almost always together, they frequently peered in the kitchen door looking for something good to eat. Big on outdoor chores, both would be on hand for gardening or chopping wood, grabbing grubs and bugs, looking up at us expectantly if we were slow.

Ethel was at the top of the pecking order—not a gorgeous feather out of place. On Friday a freak accident befell her. She became entangled in a branch under the viburnum bush in the garden; she either strangled or broke her neck trying to extricate herself. We were home all day—I was working at the computer, close by. We never noticed.

The chickens aren’t pets like Koa, Oliver and Rebecca. They are however in our care, and they have charmed us. So with great sadness and regret we wrapped Ethel in burlap and buried her. Now we have five hens and Featherfoot (all of whom seemed to readjust immediately to their new number). The Ancona has stopped laying (she does this periodically), and the others are sporadic, so our egg supply has dwindled considerably.

When we first got chickens we worried about what to do when they stopped laying—chickens can live well over 10 years and while the coop is large, it can’t accommodate generations of chickens. However, we chose to let them roam and while this gives them a happier life (all you have to do is watch them and you’ll agree), it is also a more dangerous one.

This spring we will order new chicks. I hope there is another Ethel.

Making a difference

On Thursday, one of my favorite television shows, Glee, addressed the death of one of its stars. We went through a box of tissues watching the raw grief of the actors as they said goodbye. The episode blurred the lines between fiction and reality as it asked how you measure a life.

Around this same time I saw several interviews with Malala Yousafzai, the remarkable young Pakistani woman who spoke up—against the Taliban—for the right of young girls to be educated. The Taliban retaliated by trying to assassinate her on a school bus. They almost succeeded, but she recovered—with even greater resolve, and formidable strength.

Just sixteen years old, Malala has already had a profound impact on the world. Her steadfastness and conviction…and her optimism…are an inspiration to all. She makes us better.

Here are two excellent interviews:

PBS Newshour interview with Margaret Warner:

Daily Show interview with Jon Stewart:


Summer has made way for fall. Despite unseasonably hot temperatures (“unseasonable” is the new norm), the trees around us have erupted in gorgeous colors. Falling leaves pile up on our woods’ path.

Lettuce still grows (slowly) in the garden, but my hopes for a fall crop of kohlrabi and bok choy fizzled. Something devoured the first emerging seeds, and most of the second attempt. The few survivors seem too small—and are growing too slowly—to make it. We’ll see. So far we’ve had little success extending our growing season into colder months, but there is always next year.


I admit to a slight feeling of relief when the growing season is finally over. We still have plenty of work—weeding (of course), pulling out dead plants, and fortifying the beds. Cherisse is getting manure from our neighbors (they have two cows and a horse), which we will work into our soil. I ordered snowdrops from White Flower Farm which I’ll plant this weekend. With a couple valiant exceptions the flower garden has died, so I need to cut back, pull out and mark places where I will move things around come spring.

Spring glimmers in the distance: the Fedco tree catalog has already arrived, and their seed catalog won’t be far behind. For now though, we have autumn, with vibrant color, cooler temperatures, and shorter days.


We just picked our third large harvest of shiitake mushrooms from the logs we inoculated last summer with close to 1,000 shiitake plug spawn—an ingenious present from my sister. The first big crop came in the spring, then the logs went dormant again, producing only an occasional mushroom (frequently lost to slugs).

A lot of rain a couple of weeks ago resulted in very large mushrooms sprouting in our woods. Although we wouldn’t consider eating any of them, they did inspire us to check our shiitake logs. To our delight we found lots of mushrooms—and yesterday we picked even more.

Cherisse has been incorporating shiitakes into different dishes, however if we get another round we’ll have to dry some for winter use. That will carry us through until next spring when the logs (hopefully) begin again.


Seems we’ve just gotten started

What happened? Next weekend is Labor Day. September. The unofficial end of summer.

Carol Burnett used to close her show with “Seems we just got started and before you know it?, comes the time we have to say, ‘So long.'” It feels like summer has just begun, although I can see that the flower garden has peaked—while still lovely, the flowers have begun to fade. The vegetable garden has entered a waning production mode. Although we are still planting a few fall crops, like greens and kohlrabi, our focus is on harvesting the steady, though not abundant, flow of vegetables. Cucumbers have been our best crop. We were never overwhelmed by summer squash and zucchini—we’ve had just enough to eat fresh, plus Cherisse has made several loaves of zucchini bread, frozen to enjoy throughout the winter. Our eggplants looked better than ever, and we’ve had some nice fruits. The same with our pepper plants. However they, and our tomatoes, seemed to halt their development, perhaps because we’ve had unseasonably cool nights this August.


Bunnies mowed down our parsley, though I may yet be able to freeze some. Our basil flourished for awhile, and then suddenly looked like it burned—although that doesn’t seem possible. We’ve made just one ice cube tray of “pesto”—basil pureed with a little olive oil, which we’ll cook with this winter (usually we have bags of pesto cubes). The lettuce and swiss chard have done well, and while the cabbage took a hit from worms we still have some nice (smallish) heads. The celeriac looks good, and will hopefully see us well into winter. Our carrots taste great but some suffer from carrot flies (we just cut off the bad ends). We had several nice melons growing, but lost them to slugs or rabbits (or both).

Our fruit has done well this year. Strawberries were abundant, and our blueberry bushes produced a steady supply through July. Two peach trees are covered with fruit. One is ripe, and good, but the fruits didn’t get very big (perhaps they weren’t thinned aggressively enough). I am eagerly anticipating a big crop of Asian pears—one of our trees is covered with them, and they look perfect so far. We have three apples (total) on our five trees, although that is three more than we’ve ever had, so I call that progress.

By all those measures, time has clearly marched on, so I must ignore the voices saying “wait, we’ve just begun.” Once upon a time, time did stand still, in the best possible way. Twice recently I’ve been reminded of the summer nights I spent in Boston, with my work softball team, our ranks rounded out with our friends, mostly ringers. The day I started at Yankee magazine I was told we had a game that night, and we were short women players…did I know anyone who could play? I called Cherisse (a ringer), who was working at MIT, and I raced home to get shorts and a t-shirt. That was the first of many, many lovely evenings, playing softball, drinking long-neck Rolling Rocks, yelling and cheering while the sun set over a baseball field. Once the game ended we’d join the other league teams at a nearby bar, and we’d hang out eating terrible food, drinking more beer, and knowing that life was grand and time would always stop for us.

Eventually we all moved on, finding other jobs, starting families, buying homes. Responsibilities, pressures, a bad economy…all these things shifted our priorities. I love my life and don’t want to go back in time, but I remember those summer nights, when there was nothing but the crack of a bat, a red sun in an outfielder’s eyes, the whump of a ball hitting a baseball glove…that made me feel so completely in the present.

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Now I think “surely September isn’t next weekend.” But it is. Soon the garden will die off for a few months, and I’ll abandon that unfinished list of outdoor activities, and move on to other things. I’ll accomplish a handful of those, only to be startled by the 2014 Fedco seed catalog, which will remind me to order new seeds. I’ll think back on what did and didn’t work in the garden and imagine a fresh start. It happens each year, and in its own way, the relentless passage of time feels reassuring. I’m glad we’ve had this time together.

A queen is born

From the start, our second hive struggled. We found its queen still in her cage two days after installation (the bees need to eat through the candy plug to free her). We interceded and, once released, the queen began to lay eggs—but never in great quantity. Then we couldn’t find her. The diminishing brood cells indicated she had gone, died, or stopped laying. We did find some queen cells though, which we left in hopes the hive would successfully make their own queen.

In the other, stronger hive, over-population became a concern—we didn’t want them to split off in a swarm. So after a couple weeks with no signs of a queen in the second hive, we pulled frames laden with capped brood and honey from the strong hive and placed them in the weaker one. Then we crossed our fingers that, with this minor intervention, the hive would solve its own problem.

And it did! We checked a week ago and Cherisse spied a new queen busily at work (we know she isn’t the original because she has no identifying dot). This past weekend we checked again, and the new queen has been laying eggs. Thanks to a combined effort, we may have averted disaster in both hives—avoiding a swarm and buying the other hive enough time (with stolen brood) to hatch their own queen. The next couple of months will be a critical time for both hives, as they work to build a strong, steady stream of brood and put away enough honey to see them through the winter. We’ll watch their progress.

“Slow down…

…you move too fast, you got to make the morning last.” My sister and I sang that song enthusiastically, in the back seat of our car. When we got to the “Feelin’ Groovy” chorus, we belted the lyrics out with gusto, albeit tunelessly.

This weekend, slowing down was the only possibility. The weather, in the 90s and with high humidity, made it impossible to even consider any outdoor project. Just walking to the chicken coop, my steps grew slower and slower.

I looked at my flower garden ruefully. This time every year it seems that I lose control. In the spring I watch the perennials get bigger (and a few weeds I am never positive about until they become huge and proclaim their identities). I think “Oh, I need to move this flower and that one”—they self seed and begin to crowd out the ones I actually planted myself. But other jobs seem more pressing, and where would I move them anyway? I can’t bear to discard a plant, so I am often stymied by what to do with them.

Then suddenly everything is big and bushy, with some flowers growing taller than I thought possible, competing with their neighbors. This weekend I vowed to tackle the flowers; just a couple hours a day would restore order. Instead I examined, from the relative cool of the house, the crazy, haphazard collection of purples, pinks and yellows, duking it out, and thought “Next weekend.” The butterflies and bees love the garden though, and I can see bees of all sizes moving from blossom to blossom. So all is not lost.



A tractor or a horse can pull a log out of the woods. So can someone with a winch.

My sister, Cathleen, has taken a number of forestry management courses, studying how to create different habitats on her property to attract a variety of native creatures. Strategic clearing of trees is a key component in maintaining a healthy woods: taking down diseased or dead trees (many of Cathleen’s were killed by a gypsy moth infestation a few years ago), and opening areas to give more light or relieve overcrowding.

In one of her courses Cathleen learned how to use a winch to remove felled trees from the woods with minimal impact. With ropes, pulleys and the winch itself (a small yet powerful engine that runs on gasoline), one person can pull a log a long distance—although having two people makes it easier since one can stay with the log while the other operates the winch.

One Saturday I went out to watch Cathleen and Cherisse working…and pulled two logs myself. A rope was attached to the log we wanted to drag out, and then to a pulley attached to a tree. The winch was at a right angle to this, so the log first moved horizontally. As it reached the pulley (or “snatch block”), the pulley released and the log shifted to point downhill. The winch bears most of the load, but it takes some effort to pull the rope, hand over hand, propelling it forward. It is hard, but immensely satisfying.







Garden bounty

While “everything in moderation” might be a sound strategy in principle, it doesn’t apply when you have a bumper crop in the garden. In that case, you consume huge quantities of the fruit or vegetable until it peters out…ideally around the same time you think you couldn’t possibly eat any more (until next year).

Each night Cherisse has come in with 2-3 quarts of beautiful strawberries. We purchased 25 Sparkle plants years ago, and I’ve been rotating the daughter plants from bed to bed ever since. However over time the strawberries have spread on the ground (plants climbed over the beds and established themselves, and some may have self-seeded). These bonus plants make it challenging to walk around the garden (you have to avoid stepping on strawberries), but they are very healthy—and very productive.

Our strawberries are the best I’ve ever tasted (with the possible exception of some we once had in New Brunswick, Canada). Sweet (with a little tartness) and juicy, we eat them on cereal, pancakes, waffles, shortcake, in daiquiris, or plucked right off the plant and into our mouths. We share some with the birds and slugs (and for awhile the chickens, until Cherisse put a fence around the garden), but we’ve got plenty.

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The asparagus has had even longer run; we’ve picked large bunches every day for weeks. Now the time has come to let them go to seed and store up energy for next year. We’ve had a lot though, and are happy to wait until next May for more.

In early spring we planted a small amount of snap peas which have offered a steady supply of fat pods. Most get eaten in the garden. The dogs love the shells, and sit waiting for you to scoop the peas into your mouth and hand over the good part. (Once a pea fell to the ground; in turn they picked it up and spit it out.) A few peas have made it to the kitchen, and were added to stir fries or salads.

Early planting has also rewarded us with an abundant supply of lettuce, arugula and spinach. For the first time we’ve had great success with bok choy, possibly because of the row covers which we’ve kept on all the beds. This seems to have deterred the small cabbage worms that decimated our bok choy in the past (and our cabbage). We can’t keep out the slugs, but they don’t do as much (or as rapid) damage.

All of this will carry us through to the summer fruits and vegetables. Blueberries get bigger, as do our our tomato plants, peppers, eggplant, squash, carrots, parsnips, celeriac, cabbage, kohlrabi, and melon. Looks like good eating ahead.