Monday, December 29, 2014

The Brown family Christmas, 2014

The family was gathering at my parents' log and stone house in central Pennsylvania.  My cousin, Fred, has been marooned there since April, recovering from a back injury, but now waiting to rejoin his life on tour as one of the dancers in Sesame Street Live.  He's been baking Christmas cookies.  Monica, Porter (16), Nico (13) and I drive across from Rhode Island - with The Amber Spyglass playing on the tape deck to speed up the five hour drive.  My sister Cathie arrives with Eric, Bridget (6), Leo (4) and their dog, Bella (that I always call Rosie).  They have swung through Berks county to pick up a mountain of tamales for our dinner.

My sister Chris would come up from Baltimore to complete this year's cast of an even dozen.

The morning of Christmas eve: on the 24th there is generally a fair amount of sitting around and chatting.  There is some last minute Christmas shopping.  It was a drab and drizzly morning, but Dad's bird feeders were active -- nuthatches, titmice, woodpeckers, finches and sparrows.  And squirrels, of course.

In our family there is a strong slugabed contingent - (small, early-rising children are the cross that Cathie and Eric bear).  The two teenagers might never rise voluntarily.

Mom and Monica went off to the farmer's market for supplies and to pick up the turkey.  I scouted the property's six acres for a suitable Christmas tree.  The bar isn't particularly high.  My father planted hemlock trees years ago, and though they are more spindly than the classic Christmas spruce, spindly hemlocks have become traditional in our family.  Last year, we took down what looked like the last passable top, but 2014 must have been a good year for growth.  I rousted Porter from his bed and he helped me saw the top eight feet from a good looking tree.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Winter Solstice

The winter solstice marks the turning of the year.  Days that have been growing shorter and shorter, finally reach a nadir, and will begin to grow longer.  The sun will arc higher in the sky. The cold will deepen, more snow will fall, the ground will become iron-hard and the ponds will freeze solid.  But the sun is coming back - and today begins the long process of re-warming these northern woods - of waking things from yearly dormancy and dearth.

It's an event that humans in the north have marked for tens of thousands of years - taking reassurance that spring will return and life will re-emerge.

We marked it in our own little way.  Friends came over to eat and drink and converse around a bonfire, which the kids fed with pine boughs until the flames reached above their heads.

At this turning of the year, if a person likes, they bring a symbol of something they want to leave behind - something to burn away in the solstice fire.  Or something they wish for the coming year.  Into the fire goes a scrap of paper, an icon, a thought.  Monica saved a pile of birch bark for people to write their notes upon.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Rocky Mountain National Park in December

Rocky Mountain National Park
I met Sarah when I lived in Kazakhstan in the mid-1990s.  She was fresh out of college with a degree in Russian studies and had taken some job down in Almaty.  Like every one of our good friends there – local or expat – she was in love with the mountains.  Almaty sits in the foothills of the Tien Shan range, which rises above the steppe to heights of 12,000 feet.  The range marks the southern border, the boundary with Kirghizstan.
Mills Lake

Almarasan, Medeu, Chimbulak, Talgar, Aksu – we did our best to explore.

Now, a couple of decades later, she's in different mountains.  Her husband is a park ranger in Rocky Mountain National Park, and for her children, elk are are more common than pigeons.  

A research trip brought me to Colorado and I took the opportunity to pay them a visit in Estes Park.  

On Tuesday, while the kids were in school we snowshoed up from Bear Lake – to Nymph Lake, Dream Lake, and finally to Emerald Lake, which nestles in its little, snowy cirque 10,000 feet above sea level. 

Short cut across Dream Lake
The next day Sarah and I hiked to Mills Lake up in Glacier Gorge.  The snow was marked with tracks of rabbits and hares and squirrels.

No one was at the frozen lake but the two of us, and the valley was silent.  You could almost hear the snow gently falling.  We drank hot cider from a thermos and were happy.

Glacier Gorge

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Fear and foreboding

Ruminating on the tragedy in Ferguson, Missouri, Brian Kaller poses the serious question of why Americans are so afraid.

We're grappling with homicides committed by policemen too frightened to serve the communities they are meant to protect - in Cleveland, St. Louis, and New York City, and communities that are themselves frightened and angry.  But as Kaller notes, fear, paranoia and divisiveness thrive like viruses throughout our society.

What Kaller sees at the root is the breakdown of social and community ties and interactions that used to enmesh people in a skein of fellow human beings.  These lent not only security, but a framework of action and understanding, which individuals and families could navigate with some competence and confidence.  Gradually, that "quilt of community" has been replaced by an anxious dependency on "strangers in distant and possibly unaccountable institutions".

As America's Age of Prosperity breaks down under the twin stresses of an empire in decline and the end of cheap oil, individuals who have little in the way of real social networks are increasingly adrift and worried about being failed by the institutions that have served to take their place.

I think Kaller is exactly right, but like most major trends this one is overdetermined.  There are other forces pushing Americans toward fear and paranoia and away from confident and courageous engagement with the challenges that beset us.

For one, consumer capitalism requires a dissatisfied customer to work upon - an insecure subject who can be bullied into buying things they don't need.  In Kaller's richly interconnected human world entertainment was a thing of human interactions and creativity, where art, gossip, confession, handiwork, story telling and just visiting filled those hours that are now filled by the passive reception of products from a corporate-owned, corporate-sponsored media - an enormous industry whose income devolves almost entirely from marketing and advertising for ever more passive consumption.  As a sideline, its "news" departments spew out an incessant flood of fear-mongering and disconcerting stories that seem custom-designed to erode even further whatever faith and respect we still retain for our fellows or our institutions.

There are other forces at play.  Fear has always been a tool of statecraft, and mature states want docile subjects. Likewise, the corporations who have aligned with the state want a docile workforce.  Up to now, instilling a fear of naked, physical violence has mostly been directed at the marginalized - minorities, immigrants, the poor, vulnerable dissidents - and women.  But fear is also wielded upon everyone else through convenient bugaboos like ISIS, surgent China, Black rioters and Mexican drug lords, which are paraded in front of us on the one hand - and shadowy billionaires, militarized cops, Vladimir Putin and the NSA on the other.  Fear is used to divide us against ourselves as hostile caricatures of race, class, region, faith and politics replace first-hand experience.

In the closing years of the Cold War it was said that the West had been better at leading people around by their appetites than the East had been at pushing people around by their fears.  Today people are not being led anywhere by their appetites, except perhaps in circles.  The aspirations of consumerism are weighted down by busy-ness, anxiousness and clutter.

The Archdruid,  John Michael Greer, maintains that people are, or will be, adapting to the end of material progress for all but a tiny minority, to the reversal of US political ascendancy, and to the broken promises of science and technology.  The resultant breakdown of our guiding religion of Progress is throwing people into spiritual and existential crisis.

I suspect that here is another primary cause of the great American fearfulness and one which serves to give it its particular odd flavor.  Fear can be a helpful and adaptive response when a lion stalks you or an avalanche threatens you.  But the fear among Americans doesn't seem like that sort of response.  We don't seem afraid of any of the things that actually do threaten us.  It is more akin to a neurosis.  The anxieties that accompany neuroses are not constructive, well-directed fears that motivate us to avoid dangers or find solutions.  On the contrary, neurotic fears are promiscuous, misplaced anxieties that come from an unwillingness to confront a reality that we fear and want to reject.

And what we fear is the failure of - for lack of a better word - Progress.  But Progress is a thing so engrained in the American sense of ourselves and our futures that we cannot confront such an idea openly or honestly.  We pretend that our fears apply to other things - like, for example, lazy crazy Blacks or vicious homicidal cops, Islamic terrorists, Frankenfoods or black helicopters.

As yet, people are not being given any vision or any project of future-building that they could embrace in an honest and clear-headed way.  So legitimate fear and neurotic anxieties both build.  Anyone who's ever tried to handle a terrified animal can understand the dangers inherent in such a moment.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Winter moths

On my recent hike I'd noticed the yellow-rumped warblers were acting like flycatchers and I wondered what they could be preying on after the recent hard frosts.  Lately the temperatures have been milder and in the past few days I've noticed dozens of small, drab brown moths gathering at the windows and at the porch light.

a male winter moth
It turns out that this is the aptly named "winter moth."  Around Thanksgiving, in mild weather the adults emerge to fly and mate - gathering at trees that the females (who are effectively wingless) clamber up.

Unfortunately, they are an invasive species from Europe that has established itself in New England.  Without the predators that control them in Europe they have become a significant pest - able to defoliate trees - including oaks, maples, apples, crabapples and blueberries.

I was already familiar with gypsy moths and tent caterpillars, both of whom I've seen strip entire hillsides, but the winter moth is a new one for me.

The larvae's most nefarious habit is to creep into buds as they swell in the spring - and if the budding process is delayed by cool or wet weather, the caterpillars can kill off a plant's flowers and leaves before they even have a chance to unfurl.  (For this reason they are especially detested by blueberry cultivators.)

So - something else to pay attention to in the spring.  I wonder what predators I can encourage to come discourage them.  Where are those yellow-rumped warblers when you need them?

winter moths at night

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Hiking Ninigret NWR

bittersweet berries

Yesterday in the yard a woodcock flew up from the leaves at my feet.  Switching from invisible to visible in a sudden whirring of wings.

It reminded me that I need to go hiking in the woods.

Auntie Beak, a prolific local hike-blogger posted recently on the nearby Wahaneeta Preserve and Woody Hill Wildlife Management Area, and I thought about going up there.

But it's late November and my instinct is that even decked out in orange blaze it's the wrong time of year to walk the gamelands of the WMA's.

Instead I opted for a National Wildlife Refuge down on the coast, where I was unlikely to run across any hunters.  The central parcel of Ninigret NWR is a complex of old WWII airstrips.  Most of these were stripped of their paving decades ago and are slowly being overgrown with laurel, grasses and birch.

birch catkins
Along, around and between the scars of the airstrips, several miles of trail roam through salt marsh, woodland, kettle ponds and by the shores of Foster Cove and Ninigret Pond.

I walked the western half of the Foster Cove loop, the fishing access trail, the cross refuge trail, and returned along the runway trail that marks the northeastern border of the refuge.  Some of the paths are grassy and mossy, some paved and some gravel.

rose hips
Much of the landscape is enough to break a botanist's heart - overrun by a rouge's gallery of invasive plants:  great swaths of trees decked with Oriental bittersweet, beneath which sprawl tangles of honeysuckle, autumn olive, and mulitflora rose.  Phragmites abound, but haven't driven all the cattails from the lilypad pools.

But it's a wonderful place for birdwatching even in the winter.  (There's a reason many of those plants are so successfully invasive - they create seeds and berries that birds and other wildlife eat and disperse.)

White throated sparrows scratched noisily in the dry leaves below the brambles.  Jays and gulls called. A pair of hairy woodpeckers pounded on a resonant maple and yellow shafted flickers swooped by high overhead.

a chickadee in the brambles
Gold finches flitted in their demure winter plumage.  Yellow-rumped warblers were rising up like flycatchers, though I never saw any insects active down at ground level.

a northern harrier
A cottontail rabbit disappeared into the rose thickets.  And plenty of deer tracks marked the trail.
in flight

 On Ninigret Pond out past the resting gulls, a raft of restless hooded mergansers paddled and dived.

I spied a moth's cocoon, birch leaves wrapping silk and dangling from a twig.  Is it next spring's Luna moth?  or a Polyphemus - oak silk moth?

Whatever it is, I wish it luck evading the squirrels and the birds through the long winter.



Tuesday, November 18, 2014

A climate of collective idiocy

Today the Senate debates the merits of an oil pipeline disastrous to the common good.  The Keystone pipeline and its cousins will enable the development of Canadian tar sands, helping to make catastrophic climate change inevitable and irreversible.  Except for the momentary fever dream of an ephemeral energy boom, it offers Americans nothing but the prospect of oil spills and higher energy prices.  But the fossil fuel companies invested  hundreds of millions of dollars in this legislature, and so we get fossilized fuel public policy.

Last week's hallucinatory agreement between the US and China to start considering getting semi-serious about fossil fuel emissions is already receding into the carbon dioxide haze.  

For those of us who have hoped that humans might act to ensure our grandchildren's well being, it's enervating stuff.  We almost certainly doom our civilization if we don't start moving it away from fossil fuels starting . . .  well, starting years ago, actually.

I am no longer surprised.  We have a bad habit of assuming that since individual humans are capable of intelligence, forethought and planning - that this means we should be equally capable of intentional collective action. Unfortunately, collectively our species demonstrates the cognitive abilities of a toxic lichen. Civilizations, perhaps achieve the blind tropisms of a nematode or a pea plant - sometimes able to evade a fatal obstacle. A nation or a government can often lurch around with the spastic enthusiasms of a poorly coordinated toddler . . . 

I don't place much hope in the plans of our leaders or their critics, but hey, sometimes yelling at toddlers helps - if only as a personal tonic.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

November greens

I've mentioned that it wasn't a banner year for growing vegetables, but I did make some effort at an autumn garden.  We've had a couple of nights down in the twenties and this afternoon I went to have a look at the state of things, and to gather some salad for dinner.  

The greens don't seem to mind the chill.  There was a patch of mustard and mesclun mix that went to seed and since I had no particular need of those few square feet, I never pulled it out.  The lettuce, once it had bolted got intensely bitter, but the mustard greens just got more mustardy and other greens also deepened into interesting flavors.

Quite a number of the plants in that tangle seem to have caught a second wind and are still putting out leaves.  They are much more vigorous actually than the greens that I planted in August for the autumn.  Better established with some reserves to spend on foliage even in November's declining sun.

I assumed these would be tough, but not at all - they're substantial, but not stringy.  And no need for salad dressing with these.  I believe I'm going to make the bed of gone-to-seed greens a staple of the autumn garden.

Monica went off the Nature Center's yearly fundraising gala, to offer moral - if not financial - support and to grace the happening with her presence.  Nico was lobbying for a box of "Annie's Organic Mac  & Cheese" for supper.  I can sympathize with some mid-November comfort food.  Most of these greens were chopped up and folded into my portion of the Mac & Cheese, transforming it from typical kids' fare into something more pungent and interesting and satisfying.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Bad Gardening, a post-mortem

This was not a good year in the garden.  Or, more accurately, not a good year for human gardening.  I suppose it was a good year if you were a deer, slug, grasshopper, blister beetle, squash bug, vole or caterpillar.  And a great year if you were crown vetch, lambs quarter, sedge or wood sorrel.

mustard in flower
I spent too much time traveling and when I was home didn't make time for the garden.

The parsnips mostly didn't germinate (my fault for not soaking the seeds this time).
The weeds took over, the pests chomped unmolested.  The tomatoes vined upon the ground for the slugs.

Deer ate the beet tops and the tomatoes, blister beetles ate the potatoes - or vetch roots speared them - and everything ate the snow peas.

I did get a nice crop of peppermint and spicy Thai peppers.  And there were plenty of mustard and salad greens when I was around to enjoy them.  A Black Prince tomato plant that the deer had trimmed off exploded into some late productivity in the early autumn before the frosts took it.

This morning, I made Monica and myself a delicious goat cheese omelet with spinach and mustard greens from the fall garden.  In September, grasshoppers ate most of the mesclun mix before I ate them, but the spinach and argenta chard has been in pretty good shape.  This morning was 29 degrees, but that doesn't seem to bother the greens.  I have some cold frames out there, though I haven't made any effort to make them less drafty.

The garlic patch, mulched with leaves
For the first time, I put in a patch of garlic - Spanish Roja, German Extra Hardneck, and Czechoslovakian.

One project for the winter is to figure out and construct a deer fence.  Or get a dog that wouldn't mind sleeping outdoors.  Or learn how to use a crossbow and turn the problem into venison.  The fence seems the most practical at the moment.  More on this later . . . .

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Election Day 2014

I cast my votes today in the gymnasium of the local elementary school.  One of the women with the registration lists reminded me that I'd known her back when I was a cub scout leader and our sons were in the troop.  I'm sure she's right.  We chatted as the others got my ballot ready.

Southern Rhode Island is a conservative part of the state, most of which is more or less reliably Democratic.  In fact, at the state level Republicans are mostly a rump party without much influence or appeal except as a way to punish the occasional politician.

I voted on the offices being contested - and a few that were uncontested.  Voted no on a casino, abstained from one on bonds for higher education facilities (how about for faculty instead?), voted yes on some other bonds for conservation and cultural events.  It took two or three minutes to complete and I slipped the paper ballot into a machine that digested it with a whirr and a beep.

I don't have a TV, don't read a printed newspaper these days, and the only radio I hear is when I'm taking Nico to school in the morning.  So I've been spared the campaigning and the stupefying effects of most of the corporate-owned, corporate sponsored media.  I understand it's been the usual misinformative mudslinging.  In any case, there was nothing that the moneyed players and professional pundits were going to say to change my vote.

Unlike other elections I'm not paying close attention to the minutiae of it all.  The Democrats have had a majority in the US Senate, which they are expected to lose. But they never seemed motivated to do anything with that majority.  For the past 4 years the Democrats have claimed to be unable to do anything without 60 votes - allowing the Republican minority veto power over every action.  I fear the Republicans will be less passive with their majority.  Perhaps Obama will have to find satisfaction in vetoing conservative lunacy for his final two years.  It may well be what he deserves.

As I've interviewed people these past months, I find myself speaking with thoughtful, politically-aware people.  People who value diversity and democracy, who hold progressive ideas about our collective responsibilities and our ability to solve problems through collective action, community and government.  People who would readily acknowledge the importance of collecting taxes and using them to make a better, more prosperous and more civilized place for us, our neighbors and our children to live.

And at some point I would ask them whether they hear anyone out there in public life who is advocating for this point of view they were articulating.  Anyone speaking to that familiar, if old-fashioned, American quality of civic responsibility and government problem-solving?  And they would wrinkle their brow, and try to think, but almost never could they recall hearing anyone talking about these things, much less fighting for them.

That's why the Democrats lost the House of Representatives and why they are going to lose the Senate.

The Democratic party is unable or unwilling to push forth an unapologetic progressive or populist or even liberal vision for governance.  Instead they settle for being less bad than Republicans.  Less crazy, less intolerant, less extreme, less partisan.  Rather than staking out liberal positions, they take conservative positions and try to moderate them.  Tame Republicanism.  We'll cut taxes and reign in spending (but not as recklessly as conservatives); we'll be tough on crime and secure the border (but not be as racist as Republicans); we'll shrink government (but won't drown it in a bathtub).  They convince no one that they have a plan to end the unpopular wars, the surveillance state, or the corruption of politics.  Not to mention reversing the destruction of the labor movement, halting the erosion of women's reproductive rights, or putting an end to the shame and racism of our prison-industrial complex.

Outside the elementary school I chatted with a woman running for the school board.  She was smart, progressive, articulate, and running as an independent.  I felt a twinge of guilt that I haven't taken part in any of this local politics.  My activism, such as it is, has been much more diffuse and aimed at changing the discourse in other states and at the national level.

I'm going to get back to reading transcripts today.  My job - one of my jobs - is to help to construct a progressive discourse that politicians would be willing and able to articulate, and which would resonate with regular citizens.  Give them an alternative plan - something with which to build democracy and good governance - rather than tearing it down.  I'm glad I don't have a TV.

UPDATE: Dean Baker pretty much comes to the same conclusion.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Autumn days like this one call

The back field at Pine Point school
After we drop Nico off at school, Monica has been walking to get some exercise.  I'll either go to the gym or join her.

Behind the school, the trails for the cross-country runs go along fields and down into the woods.

On the morning of the first real frost the hedgerows were alive with sparrows, towhees, thrushes and jays all in an uproar about the sudden freeze.

Icy grass hunkered in every tree-shadow, but turned to dew in minutes as the sun would strike.

Phoebes fluttered - a migrating flock - picking off any cold-sluggish insects that might take flight or climb a blade of grass.

There'll be enough days to go to the gym as the weather turns foul.  Autumn days like this one call.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Eating grasshoppers

I'm making an effort at an autumn garden this year - spinach, chard and greens mostly.  Our only frost so far did no damage, though I have cold frames standing by.

The more immediate problem is that the grasshoppers are relentlessly gnawing on my greens and turning them to lacework.

A few years ago at this time of year a coyote visited the yard - and I wondered what brought him out in broad daylight.  A few days later I found his scat and saw it was composed entirely of grasshopper and cricket exoskeletons.

I'm taking the coyote's cue and experimenting with eating these greedy critters.  The sustainability folks (including those at the UN) insist that humans' living lightly (or living at all) on the earth is going to involve eating more insects.  As an anthropologist I know that our own culture is pretty odd in its aversion to making use of this otherwise ubiquitous food source.

I had a small butterfly net, and I quickly jerry-rigged a foraging container.  I had an old water-cooler jug sitting around, so I cut the top off at the shoulder, inverted it and duct-taped it in place to make a kind of fish-trap style grasshopper container.  A lacrosse ball settles into the opening perfectly as a handy lid.

I gathered a few dozen in and around the garden - hopefully enough to put a dent in their depredations.  I let them sit for a day, so they could pass whatever greens were in their system.  (Real aficionados give them some hominy or some other starchy grain to eat, I think.)  I dumped them into a plastic bag and put them into the freezer to expire.

Our grasshoppers are fairly petite, so pulling off legs and wings was a niggling and tedious process, toward the end of which I had no interest in eating grasshoppers.  (The next time I won't bother with that labor, since wings and legs come off much easier once they've been cooked.)

We rubbed them with olive oil,  sprinkled on some cajun spices and popped them into the oven at 250 degrees until they turned a crispy magenta (the lone katydid turned golden instead).

I won't lie and say that I took to it right away.  They sure look like bugs, and their texture is fairly . . . um . . . complex, especially if the wings and any legs are included.  But the flavor is actually pretty good.  Eventually, I got into a rhythm - like eating pistachios, but instead of shelling each nut, you  pull off the papery wings, roll any remaining legs off with the side of your thumb and pop it into your mouth.  And I have to say - as far a garden pest measures go - it's a pretty good solution.

I may have another go at it this weekend.  There is still no shortage of grasshoppers.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Eulogy for a Farmhouse

Fred W. Brown
Margaret Metz Brown
There's a valley in central Pennsylvania named the Kishacoquillas.  But that's far too long a name for a landscape of farmers and so it's simply called Big Valley.  It's a broad vale of limestone farmland between two forested ridges of sandstone and shale - Jacks and Stone mountains.

At the Reedsville end you can fit a dozen large farms between the ridges, but Big Valley narrows like a funnel and by the time you get to Airydale, the valley is a single farm wide.

Porter with his parents and older sisters
By 1909 my great, great grandfather, Cyrus Brown, had acquired a couple of these farms for his sons, and Fred W., being the elder, was given first choice.  His wife Margaret, my great grandmother, considered the two farm houses.  One was built of brick and one was built of wood.  But from the brick house she looked down upon the 110 steps to the spring, and at the wooden house she admired a springhouse that stood right alongside the stone foundation.

And so it was there, in the wooden house, that my grandfather, Porter Brown was born a few years later in September of 1913.

Porter and Fred W.
No one is quite sure when the house was built, though best guess is in the 1850's or 1860's.   The springhouse, with its icy reservoir of clear water, was convenient in the days before refrigerators, but a house built on a spring means a cellar that is never dry, and living a hundred yards from the valley's watercourse means that heavy rains and winter floods fill the basement right up.  A surveyor measured from the bank of Saddler's Run to the threshold of the cellar door and found an elevation of a mere six inches across marshy pasture.

The Brown Farm

The house itself was dry and stayed mostly solid.  In 1939 Porter spirited Marian Metz away from her resistant father.  Though she lived only a couple of miles away, in order to marry her he'd had to drive down to Florida to where she was traveling with her sister and they'd turned that into an elopement.

By the summer of 1940 they were moved into the farmhouse and had a new baby, Richard, who would grow up to be my father.  Brothers Bob, Fred and Tom would follow.  To make way, Fred W. and Margaret removed up the lane and across the road to a hewn-log house at the foot of stone mountain - still in view of the farm.   Their move set a pattern that is still holding after three generations.

Dick Brown and his brother Bob
In the late 1950's, my father had left the farmhouse behind to go to Penn State, where he studied science.  He would go on to became a teacher and settle in Lancaster county.  For me, growing up in Lititz in the 1960's and 1970's, the old house was Grandpa and Grandma's.  It was a place of summertimes and holidays and visitings, and of course the Reunion in July, which anchored the summer-half of the year just as Christmastime anchored the winter.

More of my own memories are of the barn and the fields and the creek and the mountain - and fewer of the house itself - probably because that was a place where Grandma would put you to work if you lingered too long - shelling peas on the back porch or sent off to pick blackberries for a pie.  I do well remember the oval, oaken table of the dining room, creaking under the weight of enormous family dinners.

In the 70's, Porter and Marian made the move up above the road, and my uncle Fred and aunt Vicki took the farmhouse as their home.  There they raised their three children, patched up what needed to be patched and put up with the crooked walls and the little, cramped kitchen.  They accepted the now decades-deep responsibility of hosting July's Metz family reunion, when two hundred relatives gather at the farm.

I returned for a couple of summers when I was a teenager - working for my room and board (and a couple of pigs to show and sell at the Huntington County fair).  My cousin Scott was 8 years younger, and he would soon be the one to grow into a farmer.

The front porch: Porter the elder holding his great grandson Porter, 1998
Grandma Vicki
When Fred and Vicki had had their share of the decades, they in turn took the old hewn-log house (now significantly expanded), and the farm passed to my cousin Scott and his wife Emily.  And there they raised their own children, and made their own changes and their own repairs and renovations.

But the crooked floors, the flood-prone basement, the entire old, creaky building has had its day.  This autumn it is coming down.  Scott and Emily have built a new house - higher up, farther from the creek - and plumb.

After Reunion this summer the descendants of Porter and Marian gathered one last time there in the front room and we shared our stories about the house - experiences we'd had there or lore we'd been taught.

Dad and his brothers reminisced about squirming into the furnace housing after the coins that would fall from their father's pockets when he dozed above the grate.  They related much and more of the history that I've just summarized.  Floods were recounted; renovations and rearrangements; tearing out the horsehair plaster; the mysterious extra front door that was paneled over; the clearing of the attic; the party telephone line that was conduit and source of gossip.

I think Scott and Emily might have feared - when the extended family conspired to descend upon them on a Sunday evening and reminisce within the doomed farmhouse - that there might be ill-feelings about their decision to raze it.  But on the contrary, the togetherness served to prove that all these memories and the continuity and strength of family don't adhere to the boards and beams of this structure - but to the people and the connections between them.  And the ability to get together and share stories that murmur down the generations.

It was a good house.  It did what it was meant to.  It sheltered, and in its shelter were created such families and memories and stories.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Tending to things

Before the sun clears the trees there is an autumn chill in the air and the bees looked cold and clustered this morning when I opened the top to remove some empty feeding jars.  I tipped the hives gently and they felt good and heavy.  They ought to be.  Neither colony put away honey this summer, but in the past few weeks I have fed 120 lbs of sugar to them in the form of heavy syrup.

 I looked over the late remnants of my garden - an abundant crop of green tomatoes that will never ripen now, I fear.  Nearly all of my other vines have long since withered, but the deer kept this one pruned most of the summer, which seems to have made it green and vigorous.  A little garter snake was there glistening in the sun, but clearly he's not keeping enough of the slugs at bay.

withered brown-eyed susans
More of the Thai peppers are still ripening.  I already have a hot sauce in the cupboard and there should be enough to experiment with another and still have peppers left over for the winter's kimchi.  One of my few successful crops this neglected summer.  That and peppermint.  I have three quart jars full of dried peppermint for making tea.  A bit of sage, basil and oregano dried as well.

The fall greens are doing well, though the grasshoppers are starting to hit them hard.  Maybe that will finally motivate me to take the butterfly net and harvest some to toast up.  They scatter with every step in the un-mown grass.

I pulled apart an empty beehive that I had left to sit all summer, and of course half the comb was wrecked by mice and moths and the rest was inhabited by spiders and earwigs.  I set it all in the sun in case any birds or wasps wanted to help me clean it out.  The phoebes and a family of bluebirds were lingering here last week, but I think they have moved on.

Ducking back inside, I put myself on a half-hour timer on the laptop, so I wouldn't while away too much of a pretty day.  Catching up on the too-many blogs I read, writing on my own, checking the news.  I added my two cents to an Ebola thread at the Archdruid Report.

I helped Nico pack for his school trip this week.  They'll be in Washington DC from Monday to Thursday.  I got him oriented on our little point-and-shoot camera.  Through the window he spied fat wood frog trapped in a bucket of rain water and went out to free it.

small milkweed bug nymphs congregating
Afterward I walked into the woods in search of hen-of-the-woods, but it's been a dry year and fungi were few.  I didn't see any of my quarry, but I also saw no tell-tale signs of any being harvested.  Either they are late or not fruiting this year at all.  The nuthatches and titmice were in an uproar about something.

On my laptop I listened to most of the early football game.  Sometimes I'll go in to Westerly to watch a game at the bar, but I find I'm just as happy to putter while I listen.  My shop was all sawdust and chaos, so I brought some order to it. And my team won.

No birds were helping clean out the beehive, so I settled down in the grass with my hive tool and began scraping and cutting.  I had gone to a biodynamic beekeeping workshop yesterday put on by Gunter Hauk.  I take his Rudolf Steiner mumbo jumbo with a grain of salt, but I'll listen to any beekeeper with 40 years of experience, and Herr Hauk is clearly a thoughtful and observant bee man.   As I snipped and pulled old comb out of the frames, I considered which of his techniques I'd adopt.  Doing without foundation, for one.  I'd reassemble these frames without wired foundation, or rather just a little starter strip at the top.  Raising my own queens obviously.  But for that I need to get these colonies through the winter.  Formic acid treatments for varroa mites, certainly.  Making a charm out of varroa mite ash and using dowsing to inquire into the hives?  not so much.  The next time I have to feed sugar, I'll use his recipe and mix in some of their honey and some chamomile.
small milkweed bugs

I took the old comb over to the fire circle, which reminded me that I have been meaning to clear the ash out, since it is beginning to form a bit of a mound.  I dug out three wheelbarrow loads and shoveled them onto the big hugelkultur, which has been swallowed by vetch.  I figure winter rains will wash the ash and charcoal down into the body of the hugel.  In the spring I'll cover it with more dirt from somewhere and plant on it.

I need to finish digging out the last of my paltry potato crop and ready a bed for planting garlic.  I need to stack three cords of wood that are sitting in a pile and put on the storm windows.  I'll get to it.  Now it's time to write in my journal and toast the year's impending dormancy with a glass of whiskey.

UPDATE:  in an early version I had mislabeled these insects as boxelder bugs, but a reader pointed out that they seem to be small milkweed bugs instead.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Metz Family Reunion 2014

For the past fifty years the clan has gathered in Airydale, Pennsylvania at the end of July.

(Photos courtesy of Kimberly Brown)

And of course, the square dancing on the barn floor . . .