Wednesday, December 26, 2012

I don't trust our ancient furnace not to explode or asphyxiate the cats, so when there is no one here to feed the fire the house gets cold.  We returned from 3 days away to find the indoor temperature a cool 47 degrees.  So cats and humans alike have been lolling downstairs while the fire blasts out enough heat to make the  house habitable again.

I never installed any fans to bring the heat up, so I had the boys tie on blanket capes and run up and down the stairs.  Effective as well as entertaining.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Saturday, December 22, 2012

The shortest day of the year was rainy, windy, cold and dreary.  A good day to stay home.  But, of course we celebrate the night not because it's a nice, pleasant night - but because, despite all dreary evidence to the contrary, it's the night of turning once more toward the sun.  The days will get longer.  The cycles of the world will renew.  It's going to get colder - this is the first day of winter, after all - but the work of re-making spring starts now.

After darkness had fallen and the drizzle was only intermittent, I took dry fuel from the woodpile to build a blaze.  The windy night soon had it whipped into a dancing bonfire.  A friend and her daughters joined us and we toasted marshmallows and sang, and dodged the sparks and embers that were flung out from the fire.  I threw wet pine boughs on the blaze to send even more shards of fire twirling up and around in the dripping wet woods.  

Monday, December 17, 2012

There's a side of me that thinks winter ought to be a time of dormancy.  That we should take our cue from northern nature, whose living bits more or less coast through the cold, dark months on whatever they have managed to store away.  I read somewhere that the old Russians used to nap the winter months away on their stove ledges - maybe doing some needlework or carving to complement their imperfect hibernation.

To this side of me it seems cruel that we are flogged through the trough of the year by winter holidays -- these christmases and hanukahs and new years.  Too much febrile bustle for such short, dark days to contain.

But in a few days the solstice will be here.  I'm going to burn our mound of pine boughs and make a hissing, spitting, crackling pyre in defiance of the sun's neglect and in welcome of its imminent return.  And I'll drink hot cider and scorch my wet boots dry.  Because there is a side of me that wants no part in dormancy.

Saturday, December 15, 2012


Monica took the top of the pine that the hurricane threw down, and she made it our Christmas tree.

José and Nico discuss the nature of flying monkeys.  (All three of the boys are performing in the school musical, The Wizard of Oz this week.)

Friday, December 14, 2012


In October Monica's mother, Esperanza, was diagnosed with late stage ovarian cancer.  Monica flew out there and her sister, Clara arrived from Costa Rica.  There was little that medicine could do except ease her pain.

Abuela with her grandchildren
Esperanza gathered her family and her friends around her - she reached out to those she couldn't gather, and she gave them the strength and peace to accept that her life was drawing to a close.

And on December 9th she died.

In January we'll have a memorial service for her in California, and I hope by then I will have been able to put together the words to express some of what she meant to all of us.

With her daughters two years ago

Saturday, November 17, 2012

A Veterans Day genealogy:

Veterans Day is an invitation to reflect upon war and military service.  Myself, I’ve never been a soldier - never was taught to kill or die for god or country. 

My father, Richard Brown, was a young school teacher in the 1960’s, and so he was never sent off to the war in Vietnam.

My grandfathers, Porter Brown and William Gilchrist farmed the land in Pennsylvania, even as the Second World War swept 16 million Americans into military service.  You need to look further back to find a soldier.

My great grandfathers, Fred Brown, Roy Metz, George Gilchrist and Jacob Tewksbury – farmers, hotelier, teacher –
 never sailed for Europe in the Great War.  Instead they farmed, taught school, raised families.

So too did their fathers and fathers-in-law, Cyrus Brown, John Metz, Samuel B. Metz, Jacob Heddings, Bayard Tewksbury, James Sanford, George Atkins.  These Pennsylvania farmers, carpenters, lumberman would have known the War between the States, even if they were too young to go and join a regiment.  William Gilchrist was old enough, but he broke both his legs in a tree felling accident before he and his friend could run away to enlist.  He was bow-legged ever after, and his friend never returned from the southern battles.

Did my Scots-Irish great great great grandfathers, Francis Gilchrist and John Brown ever take up arms in the North of Ireland?  There’s no record of it.  Nor any record that William Brown or Martin Fleming or Isaac Wagner or John K. Metz or Samuel K. Metz or Matthew McClintic or Heddings left their farms to wear a uniform.  Nor Ben Tewksbury, or Zedekiah Gardinier, or Joseph Burrel Sanford, William Watkins or Ben Holgate.

In that generation of three times great, the only trace of a uniform persists in a family tale of my grandmother's great-grandmother, seduced by a boarder, a French soldier named Philips in 1847.  He was driven off at gunpoint by her father, Roger Haynes.

At least, among the four-times great grandfathers, there are finally guns being pointed at other men.  And a pocket watch that sits upon my bookshelf was carried by a grandfather of that generation, William Brown, in the skirmish that was dubbed the War of 1812. 

But otherwise the list of four-times great grandfathers grows to a thicket, and there’s little sign of soldiery: Amos Tewksbury, Henry Benson, Jacob Gardinier, Samuel Alexander, Elias Sanford, James Woodmansee, Robert Gilchrist, Samuel Ralston, Thomas Brown, John Brown of Strabane, Edward Holgate, Robins Douglas, Robert McCoy, Joseph Fleming, William Hazlett, John Wagner, William Schilling, John Metz, Eli Wakefield, James McClintic.  These were mostly men born into the new United States in the years after the Revolution when there was little call for warfare.

It’s only in the previous generation, 7 generations back, among my great great great great great grandfathers that soldiering makes any real appearance in my ancestry, notably during the War for Independence.  Benjamin Haynes fought the Lenni Lenape in the valleys of the Delaware River – and is said to have crossed the Delaware with Washington. Barnard Worthen carried a rifle for Massachusetts in the Revolution, and Jacob Gardinier was wounded in the battle of Oriskany in 1777.  Doubtless, research into the records would show more of this among 64 branches of ancestry. 

Perhaps it is not surprising, given how the Indian wars and the Revolution were the last to play out across the landscapes of the Northeastern US.  It was the last time that war occurred at the farms and villages of my forbears – where they didn’t have to go and meet it somewhere else.  It seems remarkable that with so much of history written of blood and bullets, so many men should live, like myself, without ever having been a soldier.  I’m not entirely sure what to make of that.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Monica wanted to show her mother and sisters some pictures of the outcome of our summer DIY adventure -- tiling the bathroom.  

I hoped it would take two weeks, figured it might take three, and in the end, it took about four weeks of showering at the YMCA.

Yeah, so here are the results - better than we had any right to expect.

Its stone-hard porcelain, so it had better last friggin' forever.

All the cats like this spot.
They watch us shower.
To be obnoxious I assume.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Butterfly weed waiting for the wind.

A pair of bats were flitting around in the gloaming.  Some believe that what's been killing the northern bats these last fifteen years are these winters that are too mild for hibernation.  But moths are flying too in November.  Maybe their adaptive prey will save them from their white-nosed plague.

Friday, November 9, 2012

To carry their presidential standard, the Republicans selected a Mormon plutocrat - a man who made his fortune by gaining control of companies, driving them as far as possible into debt, enforcing draconian cost-slashing and sales of assets, and then selling off whatever was left of the companies if they survived or leaving the carcass and their creditors for dead if they didn't - a man who couldn't be bothered to more than half-heartedly disguise his tax evasions and off-shore accounts - a man who seemingly has no connection to, or empathy for, the lives of most Americans - a man who was completely bought and paid for in a billion dollar campaign underwritten by billionaire interests with political axes to grind - a man who was, in short, a caricature of country-club Republicanism . . .

. . . and 58 million people chose him to be their next president.  Or at least they detested Obama enough to cast a vote for Mitt Romney and his backers.

Nevertheless, Obama is president. Although I wish we had a leadership that was working toward creating a sustainable future for us - rather than pretending the status quo is somehow sustainable - It's obvious that Obama will do more good and Romney would have done more harm - so I can at least take that away from this very, very expensive year of political theater.

Monday, November 5, 2012

They say when life gives you lemons, make lemonade.

When life drops a tree on your house, make firewood.

Sunday, November 4, 2012


Our cool and shady summers aren't the best for raising chiles - and the handful of harbaneros that matured this summer succumbed to some blackening blight.  

But whatever it was that was troubling the plant seems to have gone away and I've been using a cold frame to keep it going through the frosts.

I took a harvest of orange and green.

Last year I made a hot sauce by stewing parsnips with dark beer and blending in the peppers, and it gave marvelous, earthy heat to winter soups.

This time I'm going with the essence of simplicity -- a fermented hot sauce made with peppers, salt and a bit of juice from the sauerkraut crock.

We'll see.  So far it is green pain.

Two weeks ago I pickled some beets from the garden.  One with parsnips, one with turnip and one with beets alone.  

Many people like them sweet, but these are savory with only the slight sweetness of the beets themselves.  After two weeks in the refrigerator the beets have staid crunchy and somewhat raw tasting -- in a good way.  The one with the parsnips took on a carroty flavor -- and the parsnips have gone soft, but with good flavor.  My favorite is the one with turnips, the whole jar of which has a spicy, radishy flavor.

The recipe for these pint jars of beets -- 
  • Peel the beets and slice them up the way your significant other likes them -- in this case, thinly.  
  • Pack them into a jar that's been more or less sterilized with some boiling water.  (Beets tend not to float, but if you include turnips or parsnips, put them in the bottom under the beets.)
  • Prepare a brine 
    • -- a cup of good, warm water and a tablespoon of salt  
    • OR -- a cup of water, a half tablespoon of salt and starter like whey (I added three tablespoons of juice from the kimchi I made
  • Pour the brine over the beets, leaving at least an inch or so space.
  • Cover the jar with a lid, loosely so air can escape as the ferment bubbles.
  • Leave it on the counter for a couple of days (or forget about it and leave it as I did on the counter for over a week if you don't mind lifting off a raft of mold from the surface).
  • Put it in the fridge.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Friends of ours went to meet old friends of theirs who were visiting from Morocco, and only finally managed to extricate themselves from New York after weathering hurricane Sandy there.  They arrived home to find a neighborhood with no electricity.

So our house has been the refuge, clamorous now with French as well as English and Spanish.  And we have been eating and drinking and talking and listening to music.  And the kids have been entertaining each other running around in the dark playing kick the can.

And today of course the climbing tree was a magnet.

A short video of the tree in action:

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The power went out, of course, so it was dinner by candlelight

and ghost stories.

Monday, October 29, 2012


Now why did I go and assure people that no trees would fall on the house.

It's tempting fate, and I should know better.

Have I learned nothing from my father?  

The storm ripped out two of the three top spires of the pine tree and threw them down.

But no one was hurt and the roof looks more or less waterproof.

Though José was startled to find pine branches so suddenly outside his window.

Rhode Island is being dealt a glancing blow by this "hurricane wrapped in a nor'easter" as the governor of Pennsylvania called it.  She's enough to flood the coastlines and drive most people inland.  So far, she packs enough wind to rattle the windows and cause the trees to dance, drunk and dangerous.  I don't expect the power to stay on much longer.

But we keep a hurricane pantry in the cellar, with a good supply of food and fresh water.  The rain barrel has forty gallons or so -- another barrel of 25 gallons in the basement.  The freezer is packed with frozen bottles of ice to coast a ways through any power outage.  If it gets cold, the wood stove will supply warmth, the camp stove will heat our coffee, and we have solar lanterns, candles and oil lamps for the light.

As long as no trees tumble down upon us, we should come through fine to the other side.  (And for any anxious friends,  stop worrying! no trees are going to tumble onto us.)  Our thoughts are with those who are really in the direct path of this thing.

Friday, October 26, 2012

I was eating a last few raspberries from the yard.  You can't pick them after Hallowe'en because the fairies will have pee'd on them.  At least that's what the Irish told me.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

I was always struck by the fact that the Soviet Union and other Communist countries went to the trouble to send poets and artists to prison.  Generally, poets and artists in the US can only dream of being taken seriously enough to trouble the powers that be.  I chalked it up to European culture or totalitarian paranoia, but I suspect there was more to it than that.  Most communist systems, once they were well established and bureaucratized, relied on a rigorously enforced pretense that everyone was on board with the utopian project of building socialism.   Depending on how fragile they were feeling, the state might at various times attack or ignore forms of private resistance, like kitchen table dissent, Schweikism, or gray marketeering, but in public the consensus was always supposed to be inviolable.

Poets and artists often couldn't resist violating that pretense with their satires and critiques and their play with multiple and alternate meanings.  And that was a mortal threat to the Communist system.  Once people dropped the pretense of consensus about building socialism, and once each person could publicly acknowledge that "Yes, I too have noticed that our system might be viewed a rotting betrayal of every principle that it pretends to espouse," then the system threatened to become unworkable or even collapse.

That's why I find this tale of artistic suppression in Wyoming so fascinating.  Chris Drury had his work dug up and burned, because his critique threatened the public silence that powerful people are trying to enforce about climate change.  The installation, Carbon Sink, was constructed out of coal and the remains of trees killed by bark beetles, and was interpreted by officials as a concretized indictment of the destruction of our climate and our life support systems through a blind addiction to fossil fuels.  

The artist says he hoped to bring about a conversation concerning the costs of fossil fuel use, but it turned out that that conversation was not to be sanctioned by any kind of publicly supported body, not even a university.  Powerful energy companies used their political and economic power to pressure administrators to tear it up and burn it.  Legislators lambasted and threatened the university for its dissent from fossil fuel orthodoxy.  The work was to be erased and forgotten, and so it is gone.

Two Presidential and one Vice-Presidential debates have passed with not a single mention of climate change.  The coverage of global warming in the corporate-owned media has fallen to absurd levels, even as drought and heat waves dessicate vast swaths of the interior of the country.  But despite this silence, gardeners, skiers, birdwatchers, city councillors, hunters, and anyone who takes note of the weather and the seasons, have seen that the climate is changing.  According to recent research, the majority of Americans now view climate change as real and as a real threat to this country.

For now, however, that private realization is not a public acknowledgement -- there can be no official, public conversation about this, and that is why officials in Wyoming react to a work of art in the style of Soviet bureaucrats.  The suppression was ham-fisted -- and it exposed their weakness as well as power.  For now, I will take it as a good sign that an artist wanting to prod a conversation, was able to provoke such a histrionic reaction from the defenders of the status quo in Wyoming.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

A moment of silence for this evening's salad tomato - scarlet red and full of biting flavor.  It was the last of the garden tomatoes.  Now comes the long dearth.  I rarely eat a winter tomato - the supermarkets' lying doppelgängers - cheery red globes that mislead so artfully to pink, flavorless pith.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Monica's Borscht

My borscht has always been vegetarian so I just use water and my onion sauté to create the stock.  It keeps it very fresh and healthful and relies on the flavor of the veg.  You may of course use another stock but I'm not sure what would work best.

1 whole onion chopped

about equal amounts (though I prefer a little more beets)
approx 4 cups each of:
chopped potato and 
beets and 

fresh beet greens (whatever you have)
fresh dill to taste
optional fresh flat leaf parsley
sour cream or plain yogurt (greek works best)

Sauté chopped onions in oil in the soup pot until tender.  
Add a little salt.
I add fresh crushed garlic, tsp of cumin, tsp dry dill. Stir.
Add fresh dill and peeled, chopped potatoes. Stir.
Add enough water to cover twice to three times the height of the potatoes depending on whether you like it brothy or not.
Add salt and adjust spicing. 
Allow to reach soft rolling boil.
Add peeled, chopped beets.
Allow to reach soft rolling boil.
Add chopped cabbage.
Soft rolling boil.
Add chopped beet greens . (these are very tender and cook up right away)  (sometimes I have also added grated carrot here too) Add fresh pepper and optional parsley and more fresh dill if desired.

Serve in bowls and add spoonful of either sour cream or plain thick yogurt to each bowl.  
Each can adjust salt and pepper.

A frost was creeping in Friday night, hard enough to murder nasturtiums and nudge the trees to shed their leaves.  So, I transplanted basil, thyme and chives to a pot, stuck in a few cilantro seeds and placed it on the kitchen windowsill for winter herbs. I put a cold frame over the habanero in hopes that it might still ripen a few chiles.

Only the beets and parsnips look happy.  I pulled up two handfuls of the beets for borscht, and dug the last half-row of potatoes.  The few turnips in the ground had turned to an odorous, gelatinous goo.    Carrots had been poorly, and half-heartedly planted in drought and never amounted to much.  Instead, I had let purslane and a couple of stray stalks of lambs quarter spread and mature - two weeds that are good for eating.

Nuthatches, chickadees and titmice had already been working on the sunflowers, but I cut off the tops and stuck them in the bird feeders outside the kitchen so we could watch.  The cat was most entertained.  


Saturday, October 13, 2012


Absconded?  One of my honey bee colonies has vanished.  Possibly it disappeared weeks ago, and the bee traffic I had been seeing was the other hives robbing out the stores.  But today, there were yellow jackets going in.  And when I peered down between the frames I could see clear through to the ground below.  There was no cluster of bees.

Yellow jackets rob out the abandoned comb.
It was my most cantankerous hive, and nearly every sting I received this summer came from there.  I assumed it was the queen's temperament, and was thinking of re-queening if they survived the winter.  But maybe it was just a hive under stress.  

Inside the hive there was no sign of disease or damage.  The bottom board had a hundred or so dead workers, but that counts for nothing in a colony that numbers in the tens of thousands.  The bees seems just to have left or faded away - nothing but the eerie emptiness of colony collapse.

I took what honey remained and gave it to the lighter of my two remaining hives.  I put the rest of the frames - either empty comb or filled with pollen - into the shed for spring.  If no raiders loot it in the meantime, the pollen might help a new colony launch when the nectar starts to flow again . . .