• About Farm School

    "There are obviously two educations. One should teach us how to make a living and the other how to live."
    James Adams, from his essay "To 'Be' or to 'Do': A Note on American Education", 1929

    We're a Canadian family of five, farming and home schooling. I'm nowhere near as regular a blogger as I used to be.

    The kids are 17/Grade 12, 15/Grade 10, and 13/Grade 9.

    Contact me at becky.farmschool@gmail.com

  • Notable Quotables

    "If you want a golden rule that will fit everybody, this is it: Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful."
    William Morris, from his lecture "The Beauty of Life"

    "The world of books is the most remarkable creation of man. Nothing else that he builds ever lasts. Monuments fall, nations perish, civilizations grow old and die out; and, after an era of darkness, new races build others. But in the world of books are volumes that have seen this happen again and again, and yet live on, still young, still as fresh as the day they were written, still telling men’s hearts of the hearts of men centuries dead."
    Clarence Day

    "Anyone who has a library and a garden wants for nothing."
    Cicero

    "Histories make men wise; poets, witty; the mathematics, subtile; natural philosophy, deep; moral, grave; logic and rhetoric, able to contend."
    Sir Francis Bacon, "Essays"

    "The chief aim of education is to show you, after you make a livelihood, how to enjoy living; and you can live longest and best and most rewardingly by attaining and preserving the happiness of learning."
    Gilbert Highet, "The Immortal Profession: The Joys of Teaching and Learning"

    "Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment."
    Walter Wriston

    "I'd like to give you a piece of my mind."
    "Oh, I couldn't take the last piece."
    Ginger Rogers to Frances Mercer in "Vivacious Lady" (1938)

    "No race can prosper till it learns that there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem."
    Booker T. Washington

    "Please accept my resignation. I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member."
    Attributed to Groucho Marx in "The Groucho Letters" by Arthur Sheekman

    "If you can't say something good about someone, sit right here by me."
    Alice Roosevelt Longworth

    "If we bring a little joy into your humdrum lives, we feel all our hard work ain't been in vain for nothin'."
    Jean Hagen as "Lina Lamont" in "Singin' in the Rain" (1952)
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Glowing embers

Elspeth Thompson first came to my attention several years ago through her writings about the environment, self-sufficiency, and ethical living in The Guardian and about gardening in The Telegraph.  I was captivated by her idea to turn two railway cottages into a cottage — could anything be more charmingly English? — her photographs, love of poetry, and by the way, as someone at The Telegraph noted, she found the ethereal in the everyday.  She had a wonderful blog mostly about the railway cottage adventure, Off the Rails but with poems, pictures, and other bits and bobs, and a very new gardening blog started only last month, Gardening Against the Odds, where she wrote about unlikely gardens in unpromising places.  Elspeth Thompson could make a stone in a desert sprout leaves, and she could write about it enchantingly. I began to seek out her books, Urban Gardener and A Tale of Two Gardens, collections of her Telegraph columns; The Wonderful Weekend Book: Reclaim Life’s Simple Pleasures, which just came out in paperback.  And I’ve been looking forward to the upcoming Homemade: Gorgeous Things to Make with Love co-authored with Ros Badger, which I want to get for Laura’s summer birthday.  Ms. Thompson sparkled so much through her writing that I can only imagine what it must have been like to know her.

It was catching up at her blog yesterday, when I really should have been packing or cleaning, that I learned the terribly sad news of her death on March 25th from a note by her husband Frank Wilson, who wrote,

It is with the deepest sadness that I must tell you that my beautiful and beloved wife Elspeth died on Thursday 25th March aged 48.

She brought her family and friends so much happiness during her short life and she loved to share some of the things that brought her happiness through her writing. She was loving, warm, wonderful and generous and she will be missed by many.

According to the obituary in The Telegraph, “In recent weeks … she had been suffering from an extreme depression; she took her own life last Thursday.”

Several years ago, Elspeth Thompson was one of the last writers to interview Anita Roddick before the latter’s sudden and untimely death. From that interview,

“The most exciting time is now!” [Anita Roddick] declared, as we prepared to leave. And it was easy to believe that, of ourselves as well as her, as we sped down the drive. It is lined with chestnut trees – some ancient, some planted when Roddick moved in.

Typically impatient, she tried to stop the designer planting small trees: “I’ll be dead before they’re fully grown!” He persuaded her that they would grow quickly. What a great sadness that she will never see that happen.

I’m so very saddened to think of Elspeth Thompson’s death, especially in the spring, with her garden waking up and waiting for her.  In her first, and only, blog post at Gardening Against the Odds, she wrote on March 7,

Why do we garden? And why does the passion with which we garden so often seem to be in inverse proportion to the conditions in which we do it? This is a question on which I often ponder while weeding my seaside garden or cycling down London’s sooty, smelly Brixton Road. This last month, three instances of what I call “gardening against the odds” have made me ponder even more. Number one is a balcony in a concrete council block that I pass on my bike ride into the centre of town. Every summer, this tiny, unprepossessing space – it can’t be more than 6 x 4ft – and overlooking a busy road – is a riot of sweetcorn and sunflowers. I’ve never once seen the owner, but like to fantasise that it’s one of the many local residents who came over from the Caribbean in the 1950s and 60s, for whom beans and corn in the back yard mean independence. Anyway, it does cheer me up as as I ride past.

The second is a roadside verge down near the south coast, in the village where we spend most of our weekends. On a turning off the busy sea road into a modern housing estate, someone has taken the trouble to plant a narrow strip of “no-man’s land” with bearded iris, sisyrinchiums, white astrantia and low-growing grasses and campanulas. It’s such a beautiful piece of planting, I’m surprised it doesn’t cause traffic accidents. And it seems to me all the more beautiful for it being completely selfless – it reminds me of that old hippy tenet to “practice random kindness and senseless acts of beauty”.

The last instance, and one it makes me sad to write about, concerns the father of a close friend of mine, who recently died from cancer. Some weeks ago, having just been told the worst by the hospital, he became agitated that he had not been able to order and sow seeds of the balsam flowers (Impatiens balsamina) that he and his wife have always loved to grow in their garden. You could call it displacement anxiety, but I could understand this gnawing concern about his favourite seeds, which were no longer offered by the mail order company that he habitually used. Sensing the comfort he would have in knowing the garden would be full of these sweet-smelling flowers all summer, even if he might not be there to see them. I helped to track down the seeds, he sowed them and a few weeks after his death his widow sent me a small tray of seedlings to plant in my own garden.

So what is this human urge to garden – to fill our living space, no matter how small – with living plants; to embark on this passionate collaboration with nature, however seemingly inauspicious the circumstances? After 20 years of travelling to write about gardens, it is by no means just the great and grand gardens that remain in my memory. If anything, I remember all the more vividly the hundreds of tiny patches – on strips of rooftops, sun-baked shingle, even the tops of narrow boats or travellers’ converted buses – all conceived and tended with the deepest love and care. I remember the nonogenarian who was still planning (and did, in fact finish) an ambitious water cascade in his garden in Oxfordshire; the front garden fashioned from blue and white painted breeze blocks and car-tyre containers in rural Barbados; the miniature Versailles behind a modern housing estate in Holland; the woman who raises homegrown vegetables, including 20 types of basil, on a tiny roof terrace in Chelsea.

It is in honour of these and all the many other “gardeners against the odds” that I am planting out John Bloom’s balsam in my garden this afternoon.

And that, years later, I am beginning this blog.

Would that she had been able to continue living, gardening, blogging.  I’ll end here with the poem Elspeth Thompson posted this past New Year’s Eve, “Twenty Blessings” by Scottish poet Thomas A. Clark,

Twenty Blessings
by Thomas A. Clark

May the best hour of the day be yours.
May luck go with you from hill to sea.
May you stand against the prevailing wind.
May no forest intimidate you.
May you look out from your own eyes.
May near and far attend you.
May you bathe your face in the sun’s rays.
May you have milk, cream, substance.
May your actions be effective.
May your thoughts be affective.
May you will both the wild and the mild.
May you sing the lark from the sky.
May you place yourself in circumstance.
May you be surrounded by goldfinches.
May you pause among alders.
May your desire be infinite.
May what you touch be touched.
May the company be less for your leaving.
May you walk alone beneath the stars.
May your embers still glow in the morning.

Blessings on Elspeth Thompson, her husband and young daughter.  May they always be surrounded by goldfinches.

High school chemistry in a box

I’ve been poking around MAKE Magazine‘s Maker SHED online store lately, and just discovered something interesting. Actually, a few interesting things. Since we don’t live in the US, we can’t make use of it, but there’s no reason why American home schoolers or after schoolers can’t.

First, there’s the First-Year Chemistry Kit, which Maker SHED calls a “laboratory in a box” and “contains the lab equipment and chemicals you need to complete a comprehensive series of more than 30 first-year chemistry laboratory sessions described in the best-selling and critically-acclaimed Illustrated Guide to Home Chemistry Experiments: All Lab, No Lecture (included in the kit).”  The kit is “designed for home school parents who want their children to benefit from a rigorous first-year chemistry laboratory course, as well as for public school parents whose children attend schools with minimal or no lab facilities and want to provide their children with an enriched chemistry experience.” Nifty, eh?

The product helpfully notes the difference between the First-Year Chemistry Kit, for high schoolers, and the Thames & Kosmos Chem C3000 (also sold at Maker SHED), for late elementary through middle school students.  And there’s a complete list of everything in the kit noted here.

Second, once you get done with the First-Year Kit, you can move along to the Advanced (AP) Chemistry Supplement Kit. Almost worth moving to the US for, now that health care is less of a concern…

Lastly, Maker SHED has a Spring clearance sale (there are a few Snap Circuits kits in there), and is offering free US shipping on all orders over $125 (code: CLEARME) and, for international customers,  US$10 off shipping (code: MAR-10).  HowToons still available at Maker SHED, too. (Psst — according to Amazon.ca, HowToons Two by Saul Griffith is coming in August, but I can’t seem to find any other online mention.  Odd. If you know anything, please post in the comments!)

*  *  *

I wrote about the Illustrated Guide to Home Chemistry Experiments: All Lab, No Lecture by Robert Bruce Thompson back in 2008 here: Do It Yourself Science.  Highly recommended.  Kevin Kelly‘s review is here.

And a reminder that almost all of my Farm School science posts are located under the green Science tab at the top of this page on the far right (over the carrot leaves), including more on chemistry with In search of freedom and independence, and big bangs.

Times two

Last year after my father read a good review of The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, he sent a copy to Laura, who enjoyed the first Flavia De Luce mystery very much and found it to be much like The Secret Garden but with a chemistry set instead of a shovel.  And Laura the budding philatelist enjoyed the stamp collecting angle.

The good news a year later is twofold: Sweetness has recently been published in paperback, and the second Flavia De Luce book, The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag, is just out.

Our real leaders

The other day I quoted Times columnist Frank Rich on Republican leaders “of stature”: “Are these politicians so frightened of offending anyone in the Tea Party-Glenn Beck base that they would rather fall silent than call out its extremist elements and their enablers?”

If you weren’t sure of the answer, the David Frum brouhaha over his March 21st Springtime for Republicans/“Waterloo” blog post has made it eminently clear. As Frum, the son of legendary Canadian broadcaster Barbara Frum, explained to Mike Allen at Politico earlier this week (emphasis mine),

“the core of the story is the kind of economic pressure that intellectual conservatives are under. AEI represents the best of the conservative world. [AEI President] Arthur Brooks is a brilliant man, and his books are fantastic. But the elite isn’t leading anymore. It’s trapped. Partly because of the desperate economic situation in the country, what were once the leading institutions of conservatism are constrained. I think Arthur took no pleasure in this. I think he was embarrassed. I think he would have avoided it if he possibly could, but he couldn’t.”

Frum has also noted aptly that “Republicans originally thought that Fox [News] worked for us, and now we are discovering we work for Fox. And this balance here has been completely reversed. The thing that sustains a strong Fox network is the thing that undermines a strong Republican party.”

According to Frum, Arthur Brooks said he could continue working for AEI but without salary, office, and benefits — including, ahem, health care. As The Washington Post‘s Matt Miller has noted,

Talk about a two-fer. In one stroke, David Frum has become not only the poster boy for the Republican party’s incoherent tantrums, but for the need for Obamacare itself! It doesn’t get more delicious than this.

Unfortunately, as usual there’s more attention paid to the brouhaha than to the underlying truth which sparked the brouhaha.  From Frum’s “Waterloo” post:

We followed the most radical voices in the party and the movement, and they led us to abject and irreversible defeat.

There were leaders who knew better, who would have liked to deal. But they were trapped. Conservative talkers on Fox and talk radio had whipped the Republican voting base into such a frenzy that deal-making was rendered impossible. How do you negotiate with somebody who wants to murder your grandmother? Or – more exactly – with somebody whom your voters have been persuaded to believe wants to murder their grandmother?

I’ve been on a soapbox for months now about the harm that our overheated talk is doing to us. Yes it mobilizes supporters – but by mobilizing them with hysterical accusations and pseudo-information, overheated talk has made it impossible for representatives to represent and elected leaders to lead. The real leaders are on TV and radio, and they have very different imperatives from people in government. Talk radio thrives on confrontation and recrimination. When Rush Limbaugh said that he wanted President Obama to fail, he was intelligently explaining his own interests. What he omitted to say – but what is equally true – is that he also wants Republicans to fail. If Republicans succeed – if they govern successfully in office and negotiate attractive compromises out of office – Rush’s listeners get less angry. And if they are less angry, they listen to the radio less, and hear fewer ads for Sleepnumber beds.

This is, needless to say, not a new idea.  From “if it bleeds, it leads” to Shanto Iyengar’s Is Anyone Responsible?: How Television Frames Political Issues published in 1991, years before Fox News was even a glimmer in Rupert Murdoch’s eye, we’ve turned in the ballot box for the idiot box.

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