Wednesday, May 29, 2013

A young garter snake basks in the late afternoon sun.
photo A Brown

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Update on the bees

I have three colonies of bees going strong in the yard.

For a noob-beekeeper like myself, it's worth having three colonies rather than one or two just so I can get a sense when something is off in one.

For the most part they all seem to be doing fine.  Plenty of brood and plenty of activity in each.  Though the southernmost hive is lagging behind.  

That queen was the last to arrive so there's that.  Still, she strikes me as an odd queen.  There's plenty of brood, but it seems more scattered throughout the brood chamber.  Whenever I've opened the hive I've never failed to find her (she's dabbed with a red dot of paint) and she is always on the move, always without any apparent retinue of attendants.  Maybe that's just her style.  Or maybe the old comb I gave her hasn't quite cleaned up to her satisfaction.  There was a fair amount of old pollen packed into it I think.

But the two stronger colonies now have their full brood chamber up (two deep bodies for one and three mediums for the other).  I'd been feeding them honey from last year, but that's about exhausted (or moved down into the brood chamber) and so I'll give them some sugar syrup while they finish outfitting their homes.  The weaker colony still hasn't filled out the single deep box I've given them, and I will definitely be feeding them until they gather momentum.

A skipper sips at the chives

Monday, May 27, 2013

Boarding School

Porter has been in a private school since 4th grade and Nico since 1st.  The boys are smart, well-mannered, charming in their own ways, and their test scores help the place buff its image as a good school.  It may, as one local Blueblood scoffed, be the kind of school that turns out Peace Corps volunteers, but it can also run rough with currents of privilege and class.

My own background is from a kind of rural intelligentsia - teachers, shopkeepers and farmers.  But they were educated to whatever degree life allowed, and they owned books, which they read and could quote.   From white settler stock (English, German, Dutch, Scots) they were mostly modest people of local consequence and not given to class anxieties or feelings of inferiority toward those "better off" than themselves.

I mention it because I wouldn't have set them into a private school - given our modest means, small house, and '97 Saturn station wagon - if I thought they would be afflicted by the more poisonous aspects of class and its divisions and oppressions.  And they don't seem to be - they can sort the friends from the knuckleheads, and not confuse wealth with a person's quality.  They can recognize our own privilege (the travel, the education, the network of relatives and friends) -- even in comparison to their wealthier classmates.

The boys' school only goes up to 9th grade, so this was always going to be Porter's last year there.  Still, it came as a surprise to me when he choose to pursue boarding school.  He applied, interviewed at schools, visited and so on -- aided by a guidance counselor schooled in these things, of course.  And the Cate School in California wants him to join them and they have the resources to make it happen.  So in August we'll settle him in - one of eleven sophomores joining a class of about 55.  It's one of the best high schools in the country (and certainly one of the most expensive) and will give him the springboard into whatever combination of education, social milieu, and avocation he chooses to reach for.

He follows a family tradition of pursuing the best education within reach, and I wouldn't let him go if I didn't think he was grounded enough to take the best of it and leave the worst.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Rhubarb wine recipe (updated)

Brian Kaller over at Restoring Mayberry is touting uses for rhubarb today, so I thought I would chime in with last year's excellent sorbet and this spring's experiment in winemaking.

12 pounds of rhubarb
I'm trying my hand at rhubarb wine, because I have an under-used rhubarb patch and some extra bags of sugar I bought to feed the bees.  I cannot vouch for the process, because I haven't tried the wine.  I adapted the simplest recipe I could find on the web -- rhubarb, sugar, yeast and a bit of nutrient to keep the fermentation going.

chopped into a bucket
I'll post the full recipe beneath the fold, but here are the basics for a 3-gallon batch.  

You harvest a dozen pounds of rhubarb and chop it up into a bucket.  No need to peel it - though I found peeling a strip off made it easier to chop up.  You add 6.5 pounds (about 14 cups) of sugar as you go and make sure it's well covered at the end.  Then you let it sit for a day or two while the sugar leaches out the rhubarb juices into a rosy syrup.  

Strain the syrup through a cheesecloth.  You can rinse the rhubarb with some water and add that water to the syrup as well.  Maybe you can find a use for the discarded sweet rhubarb - I snacked on some and composted the rest. 

6.5 pounds of sugar
You put that syrup into your fermentation jar, top off with enough clean water to make up the 3 gallons, add your wine yeast and a couple of teaspoons full of nutrient and put on a stopper with a fermentation lock.

Mine's been bubbling vigorously for two weeks now.  When it stops bubbling I'll decide whether to rack it (siphon it to another jar minus the sediment) or just bottle it.  Sometime next winter or spring I'll know if the experiment was successful or not.

a 3-gallon carboy with a fermentation lock

UPDATE: June 19.
A few days ago I racked it into a couple of gallon jugs and bottled three bottles of it.  That's just the scientist in me wanting to add a few variables.  I tasted it and it wasn't vile - tasted like a slightly harsh hard cider.

UPDATE: December 29.
Opened the first bottle at Solstice. It was very nice - crisp and dry - with only a slight hint of rhubarb undertones, if you searched it out.  Crystal clear as well.  The experiment is hereby deemed a success!

Full recipe below the fold:

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Marbled Salamander

I met a marbled salamander in the tall grass,
and picked her up before the cats did 
(though it was a young rabbit they were more concerned with).

I put her into the pile of wood that will someday be a fertile hugel
and told her to eat as she liked, 
but if she could help herself especially to any slugs I'd be grateful.

(Poor rabbit, 
but I'm developing a gardener's callouses.)

photos by A Brown

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Gray Tree Frogs

lichen on maple

With a chainsaw I was cutting fallen branches
when a patch of lichen moved
and changed into a frog.

A gray tree frog

They have been gathering here,
trilling and maybe arguing with that kingfisher
who returned again today.

The neighbor's little backyard pond,
must have spawned this noisy lot
who now return. 

photos by A Brown

Monday, May 20, 2013

Rhubarb's gaudy decay


I carved into the rhubarb

to make a backyard wine.

Discarded leaves, 

their pigments 

and their poisons

gaudily decay.

photos by A Brown

Saturday, May 18, 2013

The boys


The house is full of boys.  Two fifteen and an 11-year old, so  Monica took Mother's Day and bought a train ticket to New York City.  The boys chipped in spending money as their Mother's Day presents.  

I put them to work clearing off the last of the firewood mess from the driveway - knowing that putting them to work would warm Monica's heart.

After that they took their pocket money down to Pete's, the store down on the corner, and bought junk to eat and drink.  And alternating between shooting basketball and fighting to the death in Minecraft, they whiled away their afternoon.


Friday, May 17, 2013


We live half a mile from the Pawcatuck River, but I'd never seen a kingfisher on the property until today.  At dusk I was burning some brush in the fire circle and the bird came flying in circles over our yard - making the racket that excited kingfishers make.  It lit in one of the oak trees and continued to call out in its squawkish rattle.

A gray tree frog began answering the call.  (I think the gray tree frog's call and the belted kingfisher's rattle have a rhythm in common).  As soon as it heard the frog, the kingfisher's crest flared up and it glared downward in the direction of the sound.  They called back and forth for a minute before the bird flew up into the moonlit gloaming and noisily made its way back toward the river.

I returned to breaking up the branches of forsythia and maple and sassafras that form the brush pile.  Our pair of bats were out, maybe keeping the mosquitos in check until more dragonflies can arrive.  Nico and his friend Sam were running in the yard, battling with foam swords.  Loud thwackings and laughter.  I told them how we used to spit up into the air when the bats were close to get them to mistake our spit for moths - because I think boys should know about such things.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Frost Warning

There was a warning about frost last night.

So the herbs were tucked away in their mini-greenhouses, just in case.

testing out the cold frames

Sunday, May 12, 2013



Is there a more springlike green than the glow that imbues sautéed asparagus?

Here with olive oil, garlic and backyard morel.

When I lived in Munich, I didn't really understand why the Bavarians were so excited by the first Spargel of the season.  It was just a vegetable, after all, coming into its season, but they treated those days as a veritable religious holiday.  Now, so many years later, and in possession of an asparagus bed of my own, I am a convert.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Is civilization just a bubble?

Does anyone else notice the sour smell of failure emanating from the prostrate body of our civilization?

I've been planting trees, so I have that much optimism in me.  And I have great faith in humans' ability to muddle through whatever crises and disasters we encounter and create.  We are, after all, a species that colonized the Arctic with nothing but the materials at hand, that thrived in deserts, jungles, savannah, delta marshes and mountain slopes.  It will take utter cataclysm to wipe us out.  Of course, that's never out of the question.

I've written here about my pessimism -- a year ago, two years ago, three years ago, five years ago.  Civilization is a much more fragile thing than a species, and there are epochal challenges rising.

Now certainly, as the man said, "prediction is hard - especially about the future," so I have to take my misgivings, my readings of graphs and tea leaves and blog posts with the proverbial grain of salt.  But it is not all of that which fills me with pessimism -- rather it's the yeasty smell of a civilization-wide speculative bubble.

I've seen a few economic bubbles -- Tokyo real estate in the 1980's, the dot-com enthusiasm of the late nineties and the recent real estate crash.  Today a higher education bubble has inflated so gradually that people are barely aware of it.  (To say nothing of the global financial industry, which seems to have papered over global economic contraction with a vast bubble of its own.)

The economists will tell you that a bubble is caused by "exaggerated expectations of future growth," when the market value of a thing becomes deranged from the "intrinsic worth," and it all ends in a crash or the bursting of the bubble.  But it's not market failure I'm thinking of.  What the economists don't dwell on (because it would be embarrassing) is the amount of jargon-laden lecturing and hand-waving that goes on during a bubble about why the normal fundamentals can be waived as obsolete and how the trajectory this time is just upward and upward because - well because this time it's different and the critics and doomsayers are just lacking in faith, imagination and knowledge. 

But none of the arguments and reassurances put forth within the bubble really make sense.  If you are not caught up in the enthusiasm it can look implausible and delusional from the outside, and you can wonder about the powers and dangers of wishful thinking.  

What gives me the most qualms about the future is that we are surrounded now by that smell of inflated bubble.  We are encased within the familiar, heady atmosphere of sparkly, ungrounded optimism with its subtle acrid taint of flop sweat and curt defensiveness.  Climate change, energy depletion, the increasing fragility of the food system and our life support systems, economic contraction -- each one alone could threaten to derail or destroy our civilization, and yet each one - to the extent it even rises to a moment's prominence in the public discourse - is waived aside with airy assurances that all that needs to be done is being done - or will be done when it is necessary and convenient.  Critics and doomsayers are ignored or mocked as worrywarts lacking in faith and clarity of understanding.  

I've diagnosed these bubbles in the past.  Then I could stand aside from such speculations with wry complacency -- not so much when it takes down the food system.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Dandelion Wine (updated)

Dandelion Wine

Photo A Brown

My first attempt at wine-making will be dandelion wine.

There are scores of different recipes for making use of these unloved weeds.

But many of them seem to make things very complicated - or rely on grapes and other additions.

(If I'm going to use grapes, why not just make grape wine, I wonder?)

I adapted one of the simplest that I could find 
(from a place called the Twin Eagles School
-- dandelions, citrus, sugar and yeast:

•              1 gallon dandelion flowers
•              Juice and thinly sliced peels of 4 oranges
•              Juice and thinly sliced peels of a lemon
•              Small (approximately one inch) piece of ginger root
•              3 pounds sugar (6.25 cups)
•              One packet of yeast

"On a spring or summer day when it is sunny, go out and gather a gallon of dandelion flowers. Separate the yellow flower petals from the green sepals (the small green leaves under the flowers). The reason for this is because the green sepals are bitter in flavor and you don't want to put that flavor into your wine.
Put flower petals in a 3 gallon crock and pour a gallon of boiling water over them. Make sure that the dandelion flowers are fully covered and soaking in the boiling water. Cover and steep for three days.
After three days strain the flowers from the liquid and squeeze flowers to get all the juice from them. Pour into a cooking pot. At this stage in this dandelion wine recipe, add the ginger root, lemon and orange juice and peels to the liquid. Next add in sugar and gradually boil for 20 minutes.
Pour liquid back into crock and let cool. Now add the yeast. Pour into a fermenting jug snugly fitted with an airlock.
This will ferment anywhere from six days to three weeks while your liquid begins its' process of magically transforming into wine.
When the fermentation stops, transfer to sterilized bottles with caps or tightly fitted corks. Let stand for six months. During this process your wine is going to season. This is when the true alchemy of this dandelion wine recipe comes to completion."

 The only adjustments I made were to forgo the ginger, since I had none on hand - and I topped off my gallon fermenting jar with a couple of cups of honey water, since the recipe as written didn't quite make up a full gallon.  

This recipe calls for a lot of dandelion petals, but by the end - once I'd learned to pluck only the biggest, plumpest blossoms - and gotten down the proper petal-removing twist - I could harvest a quart of dandelion in 20 minutes.

It put not a dent in our supply.

The rule of thumb is that after you've bottled the wine, you can try it out at the winter solstice, but not before.  I'll have to post an update then!

UPDATE: June 19
It kept bubbling for quite a bit longer than 3 weeks, more like 5, but I finally bottled it a few days ago.  It's a pretty yellow color - though cloudy.  So now we wait.

UPDATE: December 29
One of the bottles blew it's cork at some point in the autumn, but the rest survived.  We opened one on mid-winter night.  It was cloudy (since I hadn't learned to rack wine properly on this, my first try) and sweet -- more port-like than wine like.  A decent sipping desert wine, maybe, but I'm going to give it to the spring equinox before I open another of the bottles.  It was far inferior to the rhubarb wine that I also opened that night.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Spring Images


Beech leaves unfurl
Peach tree in blossom

One of the newly planted cherry trees didn't survive the spring's drought.  But the little peach tree has been in full pink blossom for two weeks.
A morel among the violets

The black currant bushes are abuzz with bees.
If we put in a sun porch, I hope to move them successfully from their place.

Black currant in full plethora
Sassafras flowers

My father remembered his grandparents drinking sassafras tea as a spring tonic, so in the last April days before the sap fully rises and they flower and leaf, he had me dig up a couple of saplings for their aromatic taproots.  I cleaned them off, boiled them in well water, mixed in some of the backyard honey, and we had a refreshing tea.  To me it was like an earthy sasparilla, to Dad it was nostalgia, but a skeptical Porter thought it tasted too much like medicine.

Porter vs dandelions with a trowel

photos by A Brown

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Phenological notes . . . 

The soil is as dry as dust and I was watering flowers that I had transplanted out of the herb garden. A hummingbird, first of the year, came to flit along the spray and drink from a stray purple blossom, but whether he wanted nectar or a drink of water I couldn't tell.  And two of the little plum trees that I planted began to blossom.