• 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 16/Grade 11, 14/Grade 9, and 13/Grade 8.

    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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  • Copyright © 2005-2012 Please do not use any of my words or my personal photographs without my express permission.

Science songs, updated

I just had a comment from Monty Harper on an old post about science songs. The original post was about his 2010 Kickstarter science music CD, “Songs from the Science Music Frontier”. Monty wrote yesterday that he’s recording a follow-up science CD for kids, “More Songs from the Science Frontier”, and is running another Kickstarter campaign to fund it, now through December 13th. As Monty writes, “A pledge of $5 or more will get you an immediate download of the first CD!” You can also find Monty on YouTube to hear his songs.

That 2010 post also mentioned the early sixties six-LP “Ballads for the Age of Science” series by Hy Zaret and Lou Singer (covering space, energy and motion, experiments, weather, and nature), which we loved when the kids were little. You can read about the songs here. The original online link we used is now unavailable, though you can find it through the Wayback Machine. Not sure if the music files are still available there, though.

I imagine the link was taken down because because the albums have all been re-released, likely due to the popularity online thanks to nostalgia buffs and home schoolers among other, on iTunes and, since last month, as a CD set (at Amazon here), thanks to Argosy Music (headed by Hy Zaret’s son Robert), Harbinger Records, and Naxos. According to Argosy’s website, “These albums and their songs are available for sale as meticulous digital restorations, done by Irwin Chusid, of the original 1961 recordings in all their monophonic glory. One happy listener of these new restorations asked ‘How did you get such amazing quality on the iTunes songs?’.” There’s a nice, long (two-page) article here at Broadway World, from which,

For the first time in over fifty years, Harbinger Records will release “Ballads for the Age of Science,” the most successful educational recordings of all time, as a six-CD box set.

Featuring more than four dozen original songs written by Hy Zaret, co-author of the iconic popular song “Unchained Melody,” and Lou Singer between 1959 and 1961, the albums introduced scientific concepts and terms using catchy, easy-to-learn lyrics and music to grade school students across America in the early 1960s.

The CD box will be available in stores nationwide on Tuesday, October 15, 2013. The albums are available from Harbinger Records and through downloads on iTunes. They are distributed by Naxos USA.

The article has more biographical information on the late great Hy Zaret and Lou Singer.

Shift in focus

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The one or two people who are still checking in here from time to time will know that with life getting busier and also a shift in priorities (kids getting older, with fuller schedules, among other things), there hasn’t been much blogging around here for several years.

But we have a new project and a new shift in focus for our family, which I’m planning to document on the blog; just as well, I suppose, since my youngest will be 13 before the end of the month and our home schooling is on the downward swing. We’re building a new house on the farm, which has been in the plans since we first married 19 years ago. We’d hoped to get started several years ago, the spring after my father died, but between being away from home and then my mother dying, and spending more time than any of us could have thought possible looking after estate and business matters, there wasn’t enough time or energy. We’re starting now and over the moon to finally be able to do this. Tom is a builder so we’re building it ourselves. The kids are helping, and the past month or so, since finishing harvest, we’ve been moving trees (fruit trees and shelterbelt trees) out of the way, stripping top soil from the site (which until now has been an alfalfa field) and hauling it away. Yesterday Davy hauled 40 loads of soil excavated by the backhoe. So this will definitely be a home school project — very hands on! Speaking of which, one book we’ve been using over the years and highly recommend is Math to Build On: A Book for Those Who Build by Johnny and Margaret Hamilton.

The other week Tom laid out 2×4’s on the ground so we could get an idea of what the floorplan would look like. Two days ago the backhoe arrived, and yesterday the excavating finished and forms preparation, for the concrete. We’ll be working on the house while Tom looks after project for clients, so it’ll be about a year for construction, but we want to get the concrete done before winter settles in.

My lovely new hole in the ground,

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The backhoe and operator were hired, the dump truck is ours is being driven by Davy,

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And our new driveway (in this picture, leading toward the house),

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Tom in the Case, and Daniel (age 14) in the yellow loader at right,

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Driveway between the vehicles,

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The digging turned up another digger, this Northern Pocket Gopher. The kids took him to safety, but he turned up again yesterday afternoon while they were working on the forms. Apparently he likes company. Northern Pocket Gophers, unlike Richardson’s Ground Squirrels (which around here are colloquially called gophers), don’t hibernate over the winter.

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There are no words for how excited I am finally to start. The new house will be only the second I’ve ever lived in (third if you include my parents’ house in the West Indies where we stayed for eight months 10 years ago), and will likely be the only house I’ll be involved in building. I’ve dreamed of houses for about 40 years, and when I left for college, I took my binder of shelter magazines with me. I still have some of those pages, and can’t wait to see them come to life.

*  *  *  *

Book recommendations for those thinking about building a house:

Designing Your Dream Home: Every Question to Ask, Every Detail to Consider, and Everything to Know Before You Build or Remodel by Susan Lang

Home Plan Doctor: The Essential Companion for Anyone Buying a Home Design Plan by Larry W. Garnett

Get Your House Right: Architectural Elements to Use & Avoid by Marianne Cusato and Ben Pentreath, with Richard Simmons and Leon Crier

Creating a New Old House: Yesterday’s Character for Today’s Home by Russell Versaci 

Summer’s last gasp

Summer gasped its last sometime last month, but I’m only now getting around to posting these pictures.

I have boxes and boxes of tomatoes still, here are a few, and the last of the eggplants. This was the first year I grew eggplants, and they did surprisingly well.

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Yes, that is a propane tank at far right. No, that’s not where it belongs.

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A small garter snake took up residence this summer under our deck, and liked to sun itself on the concrete pad in front of the house,

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A blog reader recommendation: my blog reading is down considerably but I still prefer a blog reader for speed and efficiency. When Google Reader died, I went back briefly to Bloglines (of course, I ended up at Google Reader when Bloglines was first killed off). But I just couldn’t get comfortable reading there. I tried all the new options and didn’t like any of them, and finally (can’t remember how, maybe here?) found InoReader, which I like very much, and which is easy, fast, free, and good looking.

September

It’s been so long since I last blogged that I nearly forgot my user name and password for Word Press. Oops.

It was a fast, and extreme, summer. One minute it was June, now it’s already September. We had heavy rains, heavy wind, and hail. Severe thunderstorms almost daily. Our garden and crops, including hay, were hailed out; fortunately, the hay crop on land we rent from Tom’s father about 10 miles north of here wasn’t as badly affected, so we were able to get a second cut.

It’s been so wet and damp that in early August I ended up buying something I never thought I’d have to, a dehumidifier. This, after all, is the prairies, where the air is so dry that one of my wedding gifts from my inlaws 18 years ago was a humidifier. The idea seems ridiculous now.

The hail took off all of the paint on the west side of the house, so some of Tom’s crew and the kids repainted the house, so all looks nice now. I’d been thinking of repainting the front door for some time, and having the entire house repainted was just the kick in the pants I needed. I was tired of the dark green door after all this time (white house, dark green trim and door, and dark green deck), but needed a color that would play nicely. I liked yellow, but it’s too light for a farmhouse door. Red seemed too Christmassy year-round and would clash with the (non-red) flowers in the spring and summer. I finally settled on a dark purple, Benjamin Moore’s Peerage, which makes me very happy, though Tom and the kids — especially Laura, who’s never been a fan of purple — have reserved judgment. I’m just glad I didn’t have to go through five, or 50, shades of eggplant or plum to find the one I like. We’re still waiting to reshingle our roof while Tom looks after all of his clients; besides, if we’d been in a hurry to reshingle after last year’s hail storm, it would have been a huge waste of time.

In early August, Laura attended her 10-day Young Ornithologists’ Workshop at the Long Point Bird Observatory in Ontario and had a wonderful time. If you have a young Canadian birder, we highly recommend this program, which is free (except for travel costs) to the selected participants. The kids learned to band birds, including hummingbirds, and make study skins. Here are a few pictures of and by Laura from her stay,

Did you know that placing a hummingbird on its back immobilizes it?

Laura banding a bird in the lab,

Making a study skin of a red-winged blackbird that died hitting a window,

The lighthouse at Long Point,

Laura also went off with the provincial turkey vulture specialist to check on nests and young vultures in July, and then several weeks later returned to help band them,

The kids each had a week at 4H camp and loved it, as usual, Davy on his own to junior camp and Laura and Daniel to intermediate camp. And Laura and Davy won at the club level for the beef project books. This coming year, Davy and Daniel will be intermediates and Laura is a first year senior.

Laura turned 15, the boys were responsible for cutting and baling most of the hay again. The boys also looked after a neighbor’s grass, and Daniel had a job limbing a neighbor’s spruce trees with the chainsaw. While the boys were haying, a oil company set up a lease for some exploratory drilling. Tom’s parents’ stopped in to survey the work, and the older supervisor told that on one of his first days, he saw a tractor apparently driving around on its own. He went back to his work trailer for his binoculars, and realized it was just a very young, smaller than usual driver (Davy), and he told my inlaws how impressed he was with the boys’ care and stick-to-itiveness, especially when dealing with breakdowns and especially in comparison to his own crew.

We’re all looking forward to getting a new sofa, from the Crate+Barrel sale; with any luck we can place our order next week on a trip to the city. Our current sofa is 22 years old, from Macy’s in NYC, and in dire need of reupholstery and slipcovers — the arms have no padding whatsoever, and the cushions have tears, rips, and the edging/cording that has popped its confines. But I’ve been able to find only one place nearby (sort of) that does reupholstery. The downside is that they don’t do slipcovers, and, the deal breaker for me, it’s a smoking establishment so the workshop reeks of cigarettes. I’m not about to take a down-filled sofa there. So it looks like it’s a new sofa for us, hurray. We’ll move the old sofa to the basement and keep our fingers crossed that a new non-smoking reupholsterer moves to town!

My mother-in-law decided to cut back on her canning, so I made 30 quarts of dill pickles, in addition to the usual mustard pickle and Evans (sour) cherry jelly. I have a case of peaches in the kitchen at the moment, and when they ripen, I’ll can those. I ordered a case of green BC pears, also for canning, and they’ll come later this month. We like crunchy pickles, so I don’t use a hot water bath. But I worry about poisoning my family so like to keep the jars in the fridge and yet who has room for an extra 30 quarts of pickles in the average fridge? So I bought another refrigerator from Sears (some people have wine fridges, we have a pickle fridge…), the cheapest model, then realized I could swap our 18-year-old fridge for the new one. Of course, only after we made the switch did we realize that the old refrigerator was much better arranged, and I should have paid a bit more for more than the bare bones model. Oh well. But now we have room for all of our pickles and no worries about botulism and salmonella.

Some flower pictures from July and August, most from the greenhouse. These are my little water gardens, which I’ll overwinter in Rubbermaid tubs in the basement (it will be the third year of doing this),

I was excited to find a small container of pitcher plants at the nursery in May,

Laura’s canteloupe’s at the end of July; they’ve grown so much since that one has a t-shirt “sling” to keep the stem from breaking,

Datura, very toxic but very interesting to watch as it grows; that’s a little metal hedgehog garden ornament hanging onto the side of the pot,

Datura seed pod, which prompted the kids to rename the plant Audrey; we’re going to save the toxic seeds to start more toxic plants next spring,

The pink mandevilla, which likes to climb. I tried to overwinter both of last summer’s mandevillas but failed; however, the lobelia in last summer’s pots must have reseeded itself, because blue blossoms starting blooming in March and haven’t quit,

The red mandevilla, which has no climbing desire at all,

Because of our short summers, in June the nurseries around here start discounting plants like mad; I found this night-blooming jasmine for a song at Home Hardware on one of Tom’s quick tool runs. It’s now about a foot-and-a-half across, and I’m hoping it doesn’t do too poorly in the house until next spring,

Lophospermum, one of my favorite plants. I overwintered one, and found another this spring for $5,

One plant I don’t have a picture of is a passionfruit vine I found at one of the nurseries in town, another June “rescue”. It has been going great guns and has taken over one corner of the greenhouse, all the way up to the roof and back.

The Virginia creeper is turning red and has lovely dark bluish purple berries, the geese are flying loudly and thickly overhead…

Looking more like a lamb

I see I missed blogging last month, but our immune systems deserted us from the beginning of February for five weeks, and I’m still coughing and hacking away and variously tending ailing kids and husband when they aren’t tending me. The worst part was being seriously under the weather, with yet another bad case of the flu, when JoVE and her daughter were here from Ontario for a visit. I felt like a cross between Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Typhoid Mary, prone on the sofa, unmoving except to spew germs. JoVE said she doesn’t blame me at all for infecting her, but I don’t really believe her! We did have a lovely visit and she brought beautiful blue and white presents to remember them by. I’ll have to photograph them and put the pics up here.

Fortunately, though Tom has been sick too, we’ve managed to take turns so that whenever we needed to get the kids anywhere, there’s an able, driving adult. The kids were tough, learning to deal with 4H public speaking, curling, and other things through sickness. Some recent things we’ve been up to:

:: the boys surprised themselves by winning first place at 4H district public speaking for their presentation, “How to Make Yorkshire Pudding”. By rights they were supposed to go on to the 4H regional competition two hours away (yesterday), but it was the same day as 4H district curling, which they decided would be more fun. And it was. Curling is winding down and will be finished in the next few weeks. In fact, the high school curling provincials were held in our town the other week, and the kids were each asked to carry a flag for one of the teams when they were piped onto the ice at the start.

:: Laura’s 4H cow had her calf, a little heifer named Phoebe, on Friday. We’re in calving mode now, going out at night twice to check on the heifers and cows. The sleep deprivation gets harder each year as we get older. But we may not have this problem next year — cattle prices are at a record high and we are worried about drought conditions (see below), so Tom’s thinking about selling some of the herd. Something to talk about in the middle of the night when we’re wide awake after checking  on the cattle.

:: We’re all gearing up for the Music Festival. The kids are busy practicing their pieces. The boys have two poems each and Davy is playing O Canada on the guitar, while Laura has nine entries: one of her 4H speeches, a sacred reading from Confucius on art and music, “The Walrus and the Carpenter”, “Dulce et Decorum Est”, a prose passage from one of the Flavia mysteries, and Roald Dahl’s revolting rhyme about Little Red Riding Hood; as well as three songs — an English art song, an Italian art song, and a musical theater piece. Aside from working with the kids, am also sorting out all the publicity/promotions for the festival. Is it wrong to focus on the fact that in one month it will all be over?

:: Our current readloud is To Kill a Mockingbird, which all the kids are enjoying. I couldn’t find the PBS American Experience documentary “Scottsboro: An American Tragedy” in our Canadian library system, but I did find it on YouTube, which has been helpful. Also helpful is the PBS teacher’s guide for “Scottsboro”, and the following online lesson plans: Library of Congress lesson plan, To Kill a Mockingbird: A Historical Perspective”; Edsitement’s “Profiles in Courage”.

:: Our weather and seasons usually don’t respect the calendar, but it has been such a oddly mild winter that it does seem for the first time in most people’s memory, we will actual Springlike weather to coincide with the equinox. We had about an inch of snow the other week (where as much snow fell in one day as we’d had until then this winter), but it didn’t last long. On Thursday, the temperature was +8 Celsius (46 F) , and +6 C yesterday. The forecast for the end of the week is 10-11 C (about 50 F). And on Friday the kids spotted the first arriving Canada goose. I think everyone had been expecting that winter would eventually arrive, but we may get Spring first before Winter ever comes. Though we usually do have a Spring snowfall in March and/or April, with a heavy branch-breaking snow…

:: We are still mulling over our flooring choices for the new addition and rest of the kitchen and entry. Until yesterday we were considering vinyl groutable tile from Home Depot or Lowe’s, but while at Home Depot yesterday to pick up stair nosing for one of Tom’s upcoming commercial project, we came across Allure’s vinyl plank option, and it is now in first place. It would be much faster, without the grouting and with the fact that it’s a floating system, and fairly comparable in price to the vinyl groutable tile, which is quite inexpensive. The planks are flexible, which would be helpful for our 60-year-old house with uneven floors. And I’d definitely prefer a wood look to a tile look for that part of the house. We decided on the Hickory colorway, which is in stock; I prefer the Barnwood colorway, but it’s special order and with Home Depot an hour away, too difficult to co-ordinate. If we like it, I can see trying to convince Tom to use it to replace the 18-year-old carpeting in the living room, hallway, and three upstairs bedrooms. Well, at least the living room to start.

:: The kids are on a judging team with their 4H beef club for the Western Canadian Judging Competition later this week, with a number of intercollegiate and other 4H groups. They’ll be judging livestock and crop classes (beef , dairy, sheep, horses, seeds, forage, crop ID), and a mystery class.

:: We are getting close to done with 4H baking club, which has its achievement day in about a month. We have one last project meeting this week, and have to plan achievement day. We’re thinking of something along the lines of an “Iron Chef” potluck, where the kids do the cooking at home, focusing on a particular type of meal (main course, dessert, salad) with a particular/secret ingredient, and bringing the results in for dinner with family and friends.

January daybook

A very happy belated new year to all.

I have to admit I’m glad to see the back of 2011. I had high hopes for it being better than 2010 — I didn’t have any more parents to lose, after all — but in the end it seemed I spent most of the year hostage to lawyers, accountants, bankers, and two executorships. And worrying as Monopoly-like amounts of money went flying about to pay bills and taxes. Soul sucking and exhausting.

For such a long time until last year, our days, weeks, months always seemed to expand as necessary, magically, to fit our various activities or adventures. Whenever it seemed we were, or I was, at a limit, that limit would move out just a bit, like a favorite pair of sweatpants. But in 2011, I learned that life is not an endlessly expanding pair of pants. There are indeed limits to limits, and the elastic snaps like a rubber band, which smarts and also sends a whole bunch of things flying in the process. This year, I need to get out of the hostage situation, by any means necessary.

Outside my window…

it looks more like spring or autumn than winter. There’s no appreciable snow, thanks to an unseasonably warm December and January, with temperatures just around freezing. Today was 5 C above zero, and last Wednesday the temperature climbed up to 11 C (52 F) which was, unsurprisingly, record-breaking. The kids spent some of the holiday days skating on the frozen slough (pond) across the road, but in general the boys are quite unhappy with the lack of snow, going to bed every night with hopes of waking up to a blizzard for proper winter fun. It has been great weather, however, for adults, especially adults who need to drive.  And with the solstice, a wee bit more of daylight every day, which is most welcome. But this is Canada, so I’m assuming winter will be here soon enough, and I’d rather have my snow in January and February than May and June.

I’m thinking…

of my father, who died two years ago this week. It doesn’t seem like two years, but then a year ago we were preparing our cross-continent odyssey. I thought of my father often last month as we baked cookies, because the workhorse of the kitchen is the Kitchenaid mixmaster he gave us for Christmas five years ago. Especially handy for double recipes of my grandmother’s Viennese vanillekipferl, ground almond crescents, without which it isn’t Christmas around here.

And of Tom’s uncle, who is dying of kidney failure. Our holiday preparations and festivities alternated with hospital visits. Tom’s uncle, wanting to end the pain and misery, had originally refused to continue with dialysis. But the doctor persuaded him to continue through Christmas, for the sake of his family. We sit and wait, but we also tell stories, remember, and laugh.

I’m thankful…

for our relatively peaceful Christmas at home. It was lovely, and much needed. We went off to the woods for a tree, which the kids put up by themselves and then decorated. They had great fun planning Christmas gifts for us and each other, and put much thought into their choices. Laura made a lovely quilled (paper filigree) picture of two chickadees, Daniel ordered a lovely pair of blue and white earrings from Etsy for me, and Davy picked out the perfect pair of beeswax tapers for our silver candlestick holders. Much thought, and much love, in evidence.

Laura sang beautifully two of the songs she’d been practicing all autumn, “Gesù bambino” (in English) and “Blow, Blow Thou Winter Wind” (some verses from “As You Like It” set to music), at her December recital, and also at a women’s holiday breakfast, the annual Christmas dinner at the nursing home for residents and their families, and the town’s Christmas dinner for the public. While Laura sang at the town dinner, the boys helped deliver meals for shut-ins.

Laura also had a table at one of the December farmer’s markets in town, to sell her quilling (greeting cards, ornaments, gift boxes, and some framed quilling pictures) and also birchbark candle holders. I had seen some on Etsy and told the boys I’d love something similar as an early Christmas present. We had a birch tree that blew over in a storm, and the kids became so proficient and had so much fun turning out the log candleholders for me that they figured they could make some to sell. The candleholders proved so popular I wasn’t left with many for myself; here are a couple I managed to pinch, with cedar from the garden,

In the kitchen…

things have slowed down considerably. We made braided loaves of Christmas fruit bread, mince tarts, kipferls, rum balls, thumbprint cookies. Laura made several batches of gingersnaps, for her voice teacher and the library staff. Davy made brownies with crushed candy canes for the guitar teacher. Although we had turkey on Christmas Eve at my inlaws’ house, Christmas Day dinner was roast beef and Yorkshire pudding here. For New Year’s Eve, we had our usual hors d’oeuvres buffet, with devilled eggs, hot crab dip, smoked salmon, crudites, and more.

Chili and rice tonight. I’ve been smitten for the past few months with my new Le Creuset 5.2 liter red enameled cast iron Dutch oven, though Le Creuset of course would prefer it to be known as a French oven. I had no say in the size or color, since I got the lovely heavy beast for Air Miles in the last chance/clearance section. Just when I had become despondent about finding anything I liked and could actually use, after sorting through the entire Air Miles rewards website, I found the magic pot and grabbed it immediately. It arrived almost as quickly, and we have been making good use of it every since — chili, baked beans, soups, stews. I can finally see what all the fuss is about for such an expensive pot. Not only does the pot make everything taste better, but it is ridiculously easy to clean. With its layers and layers of enamel, there is, apparently, no such thing as “baked-on grime”. Truly magic.

I’m wearing…

a brown Fair Isle cardigan and sweatpants (elastic intact, thank you very much)

I’m creating…

a bit of order. We spent several days over the holidays at Home Depot for in-stock, ready-to-assemble cabinets for the dining area, and then assembling them. It took us three trips, including one to the big city after exhausting the supply of the HD in the little city. We had bought the Ikea butcherblock countertops over the summer.

Now I’m deciding where to put what. I’ve already put away all the board and card games, which used to live on the floor under the roll-top desk in the living room, and the kids’ home school books and things, which I used to keep in plastic dish tubs on the kitchen floor under the china cabinet.

Speaking of creating, last month I made an advent calendar for the kids, which is about as crafty as I get. We would usually get the German paper kind, with a glittered woodland scene (no candy), the same sort I’d had as a child. From time to time I could find them in the drugstore at Christmastime, but it’s been getting harder. And I decided it would be nice to have something we could reuse, and also something particularly fun for the kids, considering our holidays of late. On a number of blogs I’d seen the kind made with muslin bags, so I decided with the help of Etsy, a hot glue gun, and rubber number stamps, to try something different,

A few bags had candy, but most had things like Christmas kleenex packages (from the dollar store) and mini Christmas crackers and nutcracker ornaments (from Loblaws). Great fun.

We also hung snowflakes from the windows in the dining room. I found some lovely laser-cut wooden ones I found on Etsy (here and here) and at Chapters, which Daniel spray painted white for me,

I’m going…

slightly less crazy, I hope.

I’m reading…

Death Comes to PemberleyP.D. James’s Jane Austen confection, just perfect for the holidays; I was so keen to get a paperback edition rather than hardcover that I didn’t look carefully at the cover on the Chapters website and ended up with the large print version, which made me laugh when I opened the parcel and realized what I’d ordered. But it’s perfect, very easy on my old eyes, and delightful to read without drugstore reading glasses. The large print aspect is considerably more exciting than the actual mystery, which isn’t one of James’s best. She’s worked well around the constraints of the very basic early 19th century policework, but Darcy and Elizabeth are, sadly, both stiff and anemic.

For Christmas, I gave Laura the latest Flavia de Luce novel, I Am Half-Sick of Shadows, and as soon as she’s done with it, I’m going to borrow it to read. In the meantime, I’ve started it on audio CD from the library, and was delighted to find that reader Jayne Entwistle appears to be channelling plummy-voiced Joan Greenwood when voicing the character of British film actress Phyllis Wyvern, who has come to Flavia’s run-down house, Buckshaw, to shoot a movie.

A few blogs, including Alicia Paulson’s Posie Get Cozy and Lisa’s Amid Privilege. I’ve long been a reader of Posie, and this year had been following along as Alicia and her husband came very close to the adoption of a baby they had long hoped for, only to have things fall apart at the very last minute, after the baby’s birth. It has been more than a year of waiting followed by heartbreak and dashed hopes. In her year-end blog post, Alicia wrote,

Almost twenty years ago I had a panic attack on an airplane in mid-air. Tears streamed down my face. I closed my eyes and was back in my grandma’s spare bedroom, in the warm dark with the night-light left on in the hallway, my grandparents sleeping in their twin beds on the other side of the wall. Safe.

I’ve conjured that place several times this past year, trying to find purchase in my life and in what has, at certain times, felt like being in free-fall. I think that’s how most of life is, in a lot of ways. You step forward, and step forward, and then you touch back — everything still here? Still here. Okay. Forward again (then). Life pulls you forward, even when you feel tired. I never was an adventurous person, in my own opinion; I always had big plans but only for little, mostly prosaic things. I always was and still am happiest in slow, mostly quiet places, with long, mostly quiet days. Winter suits me. When I look back on 2011, I am, I have to admit, still sort of bewildered and shaken, not sure what happened or even what to do next. I’m trying to be at peace with that gauzy, half-blurred feeling, and on certain days think it is easy to just — let it go away from me, a long piece of crinkled muslin tossed up and carried off into the wind. On other days I seem to wear it, spiraled and close, like a scarf. Maybe I’ll just lose it somewhere, and not even notice. Leave it on a bench or a bus. I won’t mind.

I kept nodding as I read this. The last year has been one long panic attack, it seems, with safety on the other side of the door but for some reason so many hurdles, probably banker’s boxes full of files in my case, in the way of that door. I too, am happiest in slow, mostly quiet places, with long, mostly quiet days. Of course, my version of quiet days includes a number of extracurricular activities for the kids (two 4H clubs, what on earth was I thinking?) and various volunteer projects for Tom and me. But it works for us. Or at least it did, until all sorts of other things got tossed into the mix. I’d love to leave the lawyers, the business, the house, on a bus. One going fast, and far far away from here.

At Amid Privilege, Lisa wrote the other day,

Only a reminder that in the New Year, we can resolve to enjoy, again, taking care of those we love. To revel, again, in all the ways learned to fold laundry, change sheets, and make Nina Simmond’s Chicken Hot And Sour Soup. At 55, years of good work give us the right to ease up, but we can also serve without obligation. Teasing out those specifics is the greatest privilege of our later years.

Yes, we can resolve to enjoy, again, taking care of those we love and I shall. To borrow from Emily Dickinson, hope isn’t just the thing with feathers. Hope is also the thing with fabric swatches, with a full soup pot, with another chapter in the math book, with new green shoots.

That’s my amaryllis Limonia (cream with yellow throat) coming up, in an old chamber pot. And the new Ikea butcherblock countertop in the dining room, with the original Ikea finish. I’d hoped to sand it off and try some Waterlox, but Tom was too fast for me. We’ll see how it holds up. I may yet try Ikea’s own Behandla.

I’m looking forward to…

finishing up the dining room. We still need flooring, as you can see in the pictures below. And cushions (probably no-sew) for the window seat, though I did order some blue fabric, Waverly’s Barano Indigo, which is on the way,

Tom wasn’t too crazy about the idea of window seats but the kids and I insisted; it’s a wonderful place to sit and read, drink a mug of something hot, eat a bowl of soup, and look out the window and watch the birds in the spruce tree at the feeders. I can’t remember which one of us came up with the idea of using the Home Depot in-stock over-the-fridge cabinets, they are just the right height.

Ignore the little ghostly squares from the picture frames in each photo, and apologies for my poor picture taking. The plants (you can see the banana in the top photo, far right, and the Boston fern on the window seat) are some of my greenhouse refugees. The rest are in my bedroom, the office, and the basement. The ones in the second photo are sequestered on old cookie sheets so the butcherblock stays dry and undamaged.

You can see just where the remaining drawers need to go. As spring approaches and the sun gets stronger, we’ll need bamboo blinds on the east and west windows, because, as we learned last year, the sun is blinding at mealtimes.

Oh, and Tom is still working on our new farmhouse table, which is still in the shop. The new table will take up much more floor space, especially width-wise between the cabinets, but am sure we’ll be able to manage.

The hardboard placemats, below, we found in Hereford on our honeymoon 17 years ago, and had lived in a closet until Tom put them up the other week. The blue and white transferware prints by Australian artist Kerri Shipp I found at her Etsy shop early last year, just after our return from NYC to clear out the apartment; I was in need of cocooning and retail therapy, and I thought the prints would be a fun nod to our Spode and Burleigh plates. Laura was very impressed with my taste when the prints arrived just before some others by Kerri appeared in a Spring issue of Martha Stewart magazine. It’s wonderful to have some of our favorite things up where we can enjoy them every day.

Around the house…

One of my favorite things…

A Christmas present, for the dining room of course, a new-to-us old clock, via Etsy. Made in England, c1940-1950, I think,

A few plans for the rest of the week:

Back to school, as well as music festival work, a 4H meeting, lots of curling, getting started on 4H speeches and presentations, a visit to the orthodentist, some hospital visiting.

I suppose if I were blogging more regularly, this wouldn’t be such a giant post, would it?

Daybook

Outside my window…

the garden is dead. We had the first killing frost last night, -6 Celsius (it was -10 at my inlaws’ house). The sweet peas, cosmos, clematis, lavatera, sunflowers, rudbeckia, and even the zinnias under sheets (had we known it would be lower than -1, we would have used two layers) are all gone. I moved much from the greenhouse into the house, and it looks sad in the greenhouse now. But the kitchen looks like a florist’s shop, and the banana plant is wondering why it’s in the living room.

I am thinking…

how quickly the cold weather came on, after 30+ temps last week, though it has been autumn here for the past month.

I am thankful…

that Tom got the propane heater late last night for the greenhouse, when we realized the thermometer wasn’t finished moving at -2.

for a warm oven, containing peach cobbler.

From the learning rooms…

we are doing a quick run-through the 20th century before beginning another cycle of ancient history. We are focusing on the perils of populism, in the 20th century, and now.

We watched “All Quiet on the Western Front”, the version with John Boy. We are bouncing around a bit, based on what’s available and when from the library. Next up is the 1998 Disney movie “Miracle at Midnight”, about the Nazi occupation of Denmark in WWII, starring Sam Waterston and Mia Farrow.

In the kitchen…

more dill pickles, and canning peaches.

I am wearing…

an apron, and longer pants, because it’s cold in the house. I finally succumbed and turned on the furnace this morning.

I am creating…

good food and small skeptics.

I am going…

to town quickly to pick up a parcel with Laura’s newest voice book for lessons, and batteries for her camera.

I am wondering…

how to fit all my greenhouse plants in the house.

I am reading…

Elle DecorTraditional Home, and Noel Streatfeild’s Saplings, which though terribly sad goes well with our history readings (writing in The Guardian, Sarah Waters called it “A study of the disintegration of a middle-class family during the turmoil of the Second World War”).

Also, new from the library, 101 Things I Hate About Your House by James Swan, and How to Write a Sentence, and How to Read One by Stanley Fish.

I am hoping…

I have enough Ziploc bags on hand for the sliced peaches.

I am looking forward to…

cabinets in the dining room. We may have found some at Home Depot, the sort you can pick up in boxes and walk out of the store with. As long as everything is in stock, which is the rub.

And at Ikea on the weekend, we managed to get the long out-of-stock Numerar butcherblock countertops for the dining room. They’re oak, which I wouldn’t want for a kitchen, but for the dining room they’re fine.  The plan is for base cabinets on the east and west walls, topped with the butcherblock countertops, and then open shelving on the walls.

I am hearing…

the hum of the furnace. Very odd after so long without it. The kids were delighted, and ran to the registers with quilts.

Around the house…

there are plants, fruit, and vegetables in every spare nook and cranny.

I am pondering…

Professor Helen Zoe Veit’s editorial in favor of a return to Home Economics in the classroom, originally published in The New York Times. From which:

One of my favorite things…

peach cobbler

A few plans for the rest of the week:

Laura has her second babysitting engagement, which she finds thrilling.  Putting together the Ikea sideboard, which will be our under-the-chalkboard table, since it is not too deep. I may have the kids sand the sideboard, so I can stain it, because it’s a light pine which doesn’t go with much in the kitchen. And possibly painting the chalkboard, which is an old school board and green. Am thinking black might be a nice change.

Happy new year

A new school year started today. Well, at least that was the plan, until haying and fixing fences kept Tom and the kids out until 11 pm last night, which is when they finally came in the house and had dinner. So I let the kids sleep in today and we had a slow, relaxed start, especially since we still have another week to go to get the haying completed and the cattle moved to the new pasture.

Also, since I’ve been such a wretched blogger, I thought I would give something new a try, borrowing some of the daybook prompts I’ve seen at other blogs. But I am hopelessly consistent and live on a farm, so I will likely avoid regular updates of the “what am I wearing” prompts.

FOR TODAY

Outside my window…

The goldfinches are gathering up and preparing to migrate. We’ve had so much fun in the past few weeks watching the juveniles learn their way around, having baths in the gutter, learning to open sunflower seeds, flapping wings to get a parent’s attention.

I am thinking…

that I have some more decluttering to do. It has been a decluttering summer, especially since we had two old TVs, and one “entertainment center” to move out as Canada moved from analog to digital television. Unlike most of our family, friends, and neighbors, we did not have any flat screen TVs or satellite service. And cable is a dream out in the country. I am delighted with the new streamlined look, and my old eyes are loving the larger screens. The small TV in the bedroom, from my NYC days, was ridiculously small.

I am thankful…

that we don’t have to travel this autumn/winter (that sound you hear is me knocking on wood). This will be the first time in three years that we are/I am home for our traditional family celebrations of Canadian Thanksgiving, American Thanksgiving, Davy’s birthday (which has reached new lows for the past two years, poor kid), and Christmas. I am relieved and grateful, since I found being away for these terribly discombobulating and somewhat unrooting (disrooting? deracinating?).

From the learning rooms… 

We are starting over again with ancient history. Laura, who starts ninth grade, has formal science for the first time. Though tomorrow she is spending the day in the provincial park to observe the fall bird migration.

In the kitchen…

Over the weekend I made quarts of mustard pickle — my mother-in-law’s mother’s mother-in-law’s recipe, so venerable — and dill pickles.

In the new addition, across the three windows on the north end, we put up our new autumn banner (which I bought from Jaime Mancilla at Etsy),

to replace the summer banner, also from Jaime (and both photos from Jaime’s Etsy shop),

I am wearing…

oh dear

For today I will play along. An old navy blue Leon Levin polo shirt that used to belong to my mother, and yoga pants. Though not because I do yoga…

I am creating…

disorder with my decluttering, and with any luck out of disorder will come order. Unless I quickly learn some much needed reupholstery and slipcovering skills (not very likely), we need a new sofa, which may come from the new Crate and Barrel opening next month in the city. I would like to paint the living room, but we’ll see how far we get with the new addition (see below).

With luck, I will be creating a nicer version of the house. Between home schooling and farming, we live hard in this house. And with all our absences from home over the past two years, much has been put off and ignored. We need to fix things up, for ourselves and for the house.

I am going…

Nowhere for the next few days. Laura has music lessons half an hour north of here on Thursdays, and has moved her egg delivery day in town to Fridays, which is also the boys’ day for guitar lessons.

I am wondering…

if autumn can be remotely unharried. I get better each year at saying No, though lately with estate matters there have been few things to which No has been an acceptable reply.

I am reading…

The Three Weissmans of Westport; Sense & Sensibility updated for 2010, with two daughters who help their aged mother navigate the realities of divorce.

Thoreau’s Method: A Handbook for Nature Study by David Pepi; originally published in 1985 as part of Prentice-Hall’s wonderful PHalarope natural history series.

I am hoping…

that our calico cat Callie doesn’t bring me any more presents of headless gophers,

that autumn will not be too busy and overwhelming,

to keep the depression at bay, or at least to minimize it. In which case a busy autumn may not be a bad thing, as long as the busy-ness doesn’t make me anxious and overwhelmed. A fine line, I think.

I am looking forward to…

the new season of “Downton Abbey”, which begins in the UK on the 18th of this month and on PBS in January

the weekend arrival of the fruit truck from BC, with nectarines and peaches

the return of Michael Enright on CBC Radio’s “Sunday Edition”

 

Laura getting her learner’s permit

I am hearing…

goldfinch twitterings, sandhill cranes trumpeting and rattling as they make their loops, the neighbors’ combines rumbling down the road, three young voices singing along to “Eleanor Rigby” on the radio.

Around the house…

we still need to finish the kitchen addition. I pestered Tom this morning to order the flooring (vinyl) for the entire area — kitchen, addition, and front entry. And we still need the kitchen base cabinets for the addition. I had hoped (ha…) to have this done in time for the beginning of our school year, but at this point I will be happy to have it done in time for Christmas.

I am pondering…

what color to paint the front door. It has been a dark green these past 17 years. When Tom bought the house, he painted it white with dark green trim. I am tired of the green door, though, especially on the inside.

One of my favorite things…

homemade dill pickles

A few plans for the rest of the week:

more hay to cut and bale

fixing fences so we can move the cattle to another pasture

insurance adjustors arriving to inspect damage to house and cargo trailer

music lessons, voice on Thursday and guitar on Friday

egg delivery

a trip to the library

start moving greenhouse plants indoors

Blogging with substance

I haven’t been very good about blog awards, and I think I missed acknowledging the last one which arrived last year some time (my apologies to whoever sent it along).  This time I thought I’d better be more timely about acknowledging it, so a big thank you to Subadra at Library of Books, Links & More for thinking of me along with nine others for the “blog with substance award”. Subadra definitely blogs with substance — head over to her blog for hundreds of home schooling links, especially for science and math.  Thanks so much to Subadra for thinking I blog with substance.  At this point I’m happy to be blogging, period!

I’m supposed to acknowledge the rules of the award:

1. Sum up your blogging motivation, philosophy and experience in exactly 10 words.

Oh dear, motivation, eh?  I haven’t exactly been motivated.  I suppose I have to give the award back now…

(I’m not very good at coloring within the lines, either. So much for 10 words, or 10 blogs.)

2. Pass it on to 10 other blogs with substance.

I’m going to do something different and instead of picking friends who blog — usually other home schooling bloggers, or kidlit bloggers — pick blogs by bloggers who don’t know me at all.  If you’re at all interested in science, you might already read some of the best contemporary science writers, many of whom have blogged at ScienceBlogs.  In which case you probably know about the recent PepsiCo blog fiasco, and if not, you can read all about it here, and at The Guardian too.  A number of ScienceBloggers decided the situation was untenable, opting to remove their blogs from ScienceBlogs.  They are the blogs with substance I’m choosing, and while they don’t need a pat on the back from a home schooling mother, I think their actions deserve recognition and their new homes deserve publicity.  And they are always science writers worth reading, wherever their blog homes are:

Bora Zivkovic  at A Blog Around the Clock; his farewell post at ScienceBlogs is a thorough explanation of the situation

David Dobbs at Neuron Culture

Rebecca Skloot at Culture Dish; Ms. Skloot is the author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Blake Stacy at Science after Sunclipse

PalMD at White Coat Underground

GrrlScientist, one of Farm School’s favorite science bloggers because she’s “an evolutionary biologist/ornithologist who writes about E3: Evolution, Ecology and Ethology, and the subtle relationships between these phenomena, especially in birds”

Deborah Blum at Speakeasy Science; Ms. Blum is a Pulitzer Prize-winning science reporter and the author of the recent The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York

Maryn McKenna at Superbug; Ms. McKenna is an award-winning science writer and author of Superbug: The Fatal Menace of MRSA

Suzanne E Franks at Thus Spake Zuska

Mark Chu-Carroll at Good Math, Bad Math (no new home as yet)

Chris Rowan and Anne Jefferson at Highly Allochthonous

Travis Saunders and Peter Janiszewski at Obesity Panacea

Eric Michael Johnson at The Primate Diaries in Exile

Dave Bacon at The Quantum Pontiff

Mike Dunford at The Questionable Authority (no new home as yet)

Scicurious at Are You Scicurious?

Brian Switek; author of Written in Stone: Evolution, the Fossil Record, and Our Place in Nature (to be published in November 2010)

Abel Pharmboy at Terra Sigillata

Alex Wild at Myrmecos Blog

(Thanks to Carl Zimmer for his round-up post at his Loom blog — if only I had found it before getting halfway through the list piecemeal!)

Spreading the word

I belong to the Sciencesongs group at Yahoo and today had word from songwriter Monty Harper at the group:

I’m working on a new CD of unique science songs for kids, and I’m  writing to ask for your help.

The songs are unique because they focus on every-day scientists and  current scientific research. Most of the songs were inspired by the  scientists I’ve had as guest speakers in my “Born to Do Science”  program at the Stillwater Public Library over the past two years.

Specific topics include phototaxic bacteria, stress hormones, wheat genomics, bacterial biofilms, bat taxonomy, x-ray crystallography, and luminescence dating! The deeper messages are that science is a process done by real people; science is important, cool, fun, and relevant; and science belongs to everyone!

I’m trying to raise the money to make a really top-flight recording, one that families will want to hear again and again.

You can watch Monty‘s pitch video for his “Songs from the Science Frontier” here.  I figure home schooling families are a pretty natural audience for a project like this, so if you’re interested, let Monty know.

*  *  *

More science songs to listen to this summer:

Singing Science, science songs from 1950s-60s LPs; we love these.  EEK — no link any more!  Here’s the old link which apparently no longer works. Try this too, from the Wayback machine. I have these already, but have no idea where to send you so you can get them if you don’t already have them. Drat. If anyone knows, please leave information in the comments. You can read about the songs, from the six-LP “Ballads for the Age of Science” series by Hy Zaret and Lou Singer (covering space, energy and motion, experiments, weather, and nature) here.  You could probably, it occurs to me, find them somewhere online to download if you Google “singing science” and “torrent”.  Just an idea…

You can find oodles of science songs if you just Google “science songs”.  Some of the better sites:

Kiddie Records Weekly, where you can find some vintage LPs to download, including “By Rocket to the Moon”, “Space Ship to Mars”, and “What Are Stars?”

PhysicsSongs, more general than just physics; Prof. Walter Smith’s labor of love

Science songs at Songs for Teaching

And some Charles Darwin and evolution songs in my old Darwin Day post, which includes information on MASSIVE: a database for “Math And Science Song Information, Viewable Everywhere”. The database, which is maintained by Greg Crowther and is part of the National Science Foundation’s National Science Digital Library,

contains information on over 2500 science and math songs. Some of these songs are suitable for 2nd graders; others might only appeal to tenured professors. Some songs have been professionally recorded; others haven’t. Some are quite silly; others are downright serious.

A delight, which you can also listen to all day, all week, all year at MASSIVE Radio — many thanks to Greg Crowther (of the Yahoo Sciencesongs group) and the band Science Groove for putting it all together. Read more about them here.

And don’t forget the granddaddy of them all, the great Tom Lehrer’s “The Elements”, here and here.

High end

The great William Zinsser, in a recent “Zinsser on Friday” column/blog post, “Life and Work”, over at The American Scholar,

I’ve never been–perhaps to my shame–a citizen of writing. I don’t belong to writers’ organizations, or attend writers’ talks and panels, or lunch with publishing potentates. I don’t hang out with writers. Writers tend to be not as interesting as they think. What they mainly want to talk about is their own writing, and they also have a ton of grievances, their conversation quick to alight on the perfidy of publishers, the lassitude of editors and agents, and the myopia of critics who reviewed–or didn’t review–their last book.

I’m a lone craftsman, not unlike a potter or a cabinetmaker, shaping and reshaping my materials to create an object that pleases me–nobody else–and when it’s done I send it forth into the world. I don’t have an agent. I never show my writing to other writers; their agenda is not my agenda. For the objective judgment and emotional support that every writer needs I depend on the individual editors of my books and magazine articles–fellow craftsmen–and on a few trusted friends. …

It may seem perverse that I compare my writing to plumbing, an occupation not regarded as high-end. But to me all work is equally honorable, all crafts an astonishment when they are performed with skill and self-respect. Just as I go to work every day with my tools, which are words, the plumber arrives with his kit of wrenches and washers, and afterward the pipes have been so adroitly fitted together that they don’t leak. I don’t want any of my sentences to leak. The fact that someone can make water come out of a faucet on the 10th floor strikes me as a feat no less remarkable than the construction of a clear declarative sentence.

Read the entire piece here.

Find the Zinsser on Friday archive here.

Find a list of William Zinnser’s books here, and read them.  He is one of the best writing teachers around, for the price of a book, and, nowadays, a rare fount of common sense.  As his Zinsser on Friday pieces prove.

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.

Trip report, part 2: NYC, still wild

On our second day, Sunday, we were up bright and early to go birding in Central Park with Deb Allen. We met what seems to be a devoted group of regulars by the Turtle Pond dock near Belvedere Castle, where I spent many high school Saturdays climbing the castle and the rock walls below. Laura was delighted to be in the midst of the fall migration, surrounded by her favorite warblers, and found it interesting that some of the birds we take for granted and enjoy in full summer plumage, such as goldfinches, are simply visitors in New York in the autumn.  Also novel was birdwatching as a large group activity.  

We started off at the Turtle Pond,

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Laura with her new binoculars, a belated birthday gift from Grandpapa,

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While everyone else looked at and for birds, I happily admired all of the plantings and the garden furniture near the Shakespeare Garden,

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The lack of binoculars didn’t hinder Daniel,

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and I can tell you that by the end of our birdwatching, that backpack was full of acorns, all of which made the journey home with us.

The group zeroes in on a new specimen,

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Laura in her element,

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We walked through the Ramble, then out onto the very new Oak Bridge (which is really steel and aluminum).  Here’s the view from the bridge,

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On the way toward Strawberry Field,

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Laura kept a list in a notebook of all her sightings for the day, which included ruddy ducks and gadwalls at Turtle Pond, brown creeper, golden-crowned kinglets, a swamp sparrow, a northern water thrush, winter wren, brown thrasher, eastern towhee, and pine warbler. I’m sure there were more, but I’m not the official birder in the family. Between the birds and the lovely New York birders we met, it was a wonderful morning.

We left after two hours (the walks usually last three hours) to head over to my parents’ apartment to make pancakes for brunch. As it was, we ran into a 10-block street fair at Broadway and 86th Street, which slowed us down considerably,

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Making Nutella crepes with hygienic gloved hands,

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Not tiny, shiny vegetables and fruit but magnets,

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Woven baskets,

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Physics at home

You might already know that author and home educating mother Kathy Ceceri has a couple of very nifty home school science blogs, Home Chemistry (“Making science fun for my homeschooled kids”) and Home Biology (“for homeschoolers and anyone else who wants to learn about life science without a lab!”).  

Now she’s added Home Physics to the collection, billed as “All kinds of info on teaching and learning physics at home for homeschoolers, students, and hobbyists”.  Be sure to check out her collection of physics links in her sidebar.

*  *  *

You can also find Kathy at her Crafts for Learning website, her Family Online blog, and at Wired’s GeekDad, where she’s one of the few GeekMoms.

Math milestones

As I just wrote over at Melissa Wiley‘s blog, Here in the Bonny Glen, I can’t keep up with with Boing Boing no matter how hard I try, so I’m glad she picked a few to highlight, including Mark Frauenfelder’s recent brief review of the latest Clifford Pickover book, The Math Book: From Pythagoras to the 57th Dimension, 250 Milestones in the History of Mathematics. As Mark writes, “I have to get rid of most of the books that come in my door (I get several a day sent to me). This is one I plan to keep.”

I’m a big fan of Clifford Pickover, whom I last mentioned here, with his 2008 title,  Archimedes to Hawking: Laws of Science and the Great Minds Behind Them (Oxford University Press).

If you hop over to Dr. Pickover’s website page for the new book, you’ll see that he has an autographed book giveway on Twitter.  And also this blurb for the new book from the great Martin Gardner,

Clifford Pickover, prolific writer and undisputed polymath, has put together a marvelous reference work. Its 250 short entries provide a veritable history of mathematics by focusing on its greatest theorems and the geniuses who discovered them. Topics are chronological, starting with the calculating abilities of ants 150 million years B.C. and ending with Max Tegmark’s recent conjecture that our universe is not just described by math, it is mathematics. Dr. Pickover’s vast love of math, and his awe before its mysteries, permeates every page of this beautiful volume. The illustrations alone are worth the book’s price.

Back to school goodies

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I’m slowly, very very slowly catching up with some of my blog reading (and I have to admit I’ve been choosing the blogs with less to read and more pretty things to look at, because it’s faster and I don’t get as involved).

One of my favorite design blogs is Jessica Jones’s How About Orange*, where I found the following goodies:

* Free printable bookmarks, designed and offered by Sharon Rowan at lemon squeezy

* Free printable lists and recipe cards, designed by Erin Vale.  Includes a To Do list, Groceries To Buy list, HoneyDew list, and several recipe cards (with and without birds).  You can find all of Erin’s freebies here.

* Free printable calling cards (which you can also use as gift tags or place cards) at Creature Comforts, designed by Susan Connor

Thanks to Jess and all the designers for their talent and for sharing with the rest of us.  By the way, you can find all of the free downloads Jess comes across here at her blog.

* How about orange indeed, since one of my more successful container gardening ideas this summer was a chartreuse green tin pail, found at the local Bargain Shop in the spring filled with orange marigolds and hot pink verbena.  I had one pail on each of the deck steps, and they made me smile every time I went up and down the stairs this summer.

Dipping a toe

… back into blogging after what has turned out to be a two-month sabbatical.  No apologies, no regrets.

It has been a marvelous summer, and at the moment we’re marveling that, here on the prairies six hours north of Montana, not only is summer still hanging on but we’re having a heat wave —  high 20s Celsius, with a forecast 33 C for Thursday.  The farmers’ crops are are drying in the fields, but the weather is perfect for the tomatoes and peppers as long as I can keep the water coming.  And it’s getting dark now disturbingly early, just after eight o’clock.

Our own crops are harvested, such as we could this year.  After we finished cutting and baling the alfalfa for hay, we cut and bale our barley crop early, several weeks ago, for greenfeed, instead of combining the grain. The boys are out as I type, with the water trailer, giving the shelterbelt trees a good soaking, and weeding the rows.

Speaking of the shelterbelt, in early July we took our first ever summer vacation, a whopping two-and-a-half days through Saskatchewan.  Our main destination was the shelterbelt tree center at the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration in Indian Head, SK, which holds an open house every summer.  It’s the first time in the four or five years since we’ve started planted trees that we’ve been able to make it, mainly because of the drought which meant the hay wasn’t ready yet for cutting.  We attended seminars, took a tour of the center, watched demonstrations of the equipment — including the where-have-you-been-all-my-farming-life Weed Badger, which we are thinking would mean an end to endless weeding — and went home with all sorts of goodies, including notepads, water bottles, posters, and more little trees to plant. The town of Indian Head not only has a lovely ice cream parlor on Main Street, but has some of the most gorgeous Victorian houses, and beautifully tended gardens, on well-treed streets I’ve ever seen in a prairie town. We also stopped at Moose Jaw for a tour of the Tunnels and (even better) the Burrowing Owl Interpretive Centre at the edge of town, where we met and handled George, the ambassador owl, fed grasshoppers to some others, and were able to buy very inexpensive owl pellets for dissection.  Next stop was Rouleau aka Dog River for the kids’ sake, though admittedly we were about two years late with that one.  On to Regina, where we managed to make a 6 pm tour of the legislature building and afterwards strolled through the lobby of the Hotel Saskatchewan since Laura has inherited from her mother and grandmother a love of grand old hotels.

Various other goings-on since my last post, but not in any sort of order (not much for pictures though, because either the camera hates the computer or vice versa and I can’t figure out which or why):

– Tom directed the kids to take the majority of the new-crop kittens to the fair, to Old MacDonald’s barn where they would be adopted. Only to turn into a softie when at said barn said kids discovered rabbits.  Laura asked first — “Dad, could I have a rabbit please?” But instead of a direct “No”, Tom mumbled something about having to make sure she’d do all her other chores first, etc. Which sounded, to Laura’s ears (and to mine) very much like “Yes”.  Which is all the boys needed to hear.  Which is why we now have two bunnies, Verbena and Claudia, happily munching on carrot tops, kohlrabi leaves, and other garden scraps.

– The rest of the time at the fair was equally exciting.  All three kids showed pens of chickens, their calves (on what turned out to be an exceedingly hot day), won prizes, spent two days riding the rides on the midway, showed off their handiwork at the exhibit hall (Laura displayed an example of handwriting, flowers, her quilling, and other things I know I’m forgetting; the boys displayed Lego creations, including Davy’s manure spreader made out of bricks, as well as first-prize winning birdhouses, one shaped like a grain elevator, and other assorted items; and all three and Tom displayed pint sealers of threshed grain, and sheaves of grain and forage).  We all ate homemade pie from the United Church booth and drank lemonade, and watched the show on the grandstand with good friends who came in from out of town to take in the festivities. And, as usual, we brought home the chicks hatched out at the incubator display.

– The kids spent the latter part of the summer getting ready for children’s day at the Farmer’s Market in town, when anyone under 14 can get a table for free, instead of the usual $10.  The boys decided to take what they learned from making my birthday present, a plant cart made from an old barbecue (I had seen the idea in the June 2008 issue of Harrowsmith magazine, and kept reminding the boys that it would make a dandy Mother’s Day or mother’s birthday present), and turn it into a business.   The first project they did with Tom’s supervision and help, and then they knew enough to set out on their own.

– Davy fractured his wrist in early August, jumping off a swing at a friend’s house.  His first injury in six or so years of professional swing jumping.  But the new doctor in town said all he needed was a splint and an ace bandage for three weeks, which was very easy to manage, especially for showers and baths. The splint and bandage just came off, and the wrist seems to be as good as new.

– Tom’s aunt and uncle in town took off for a 10-day vacation, telling us we could pick all of their raspberries.  One of the  most delicious presents we’ve ever received.  I went in every other day for an hour and a half of picking, and by the time they returned we had eaten as many fresh raspberries, and raspberry crisps, crumbles and clafoutis as we could, and I had canned the rest as jam and preserves to enjoy until next summer.  Ditto with saskatoons, some which we picked wild and others from friends’ bushes. Chokecherries, Evans cherries, peaches, and pears are up next for syrup, jelly, and canning.

– We started up our formal studies yesterday, a bit earlier than usual, but then we’re taking off for a few weeks next month to visit grandparents in NYC, and then on to Washington, DC.   Since Farm School is going to Washington, it seemed appropriate to spend our first day watching “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”, which will be a springboard to the next two months of civics, folk songs, vocabulary, and more.  Next up, “Much Ado About Nothing”, in preparation for the Folger’s new production.  Oh yes, and math, grammar, writing, spelling, science…  For Laura, science will be based on around one of her recent 12th birthday present from her grandparents, Birds of Central Park. I’m looking at a bird walk or two with Dr. Bob DeCandido, and have already found the perfect city souvenir for Laura,

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Many thanks to the two or so readers, in addition to my parents, who’ve stuck it out over here in the barrens. Any point in a (not) back-to-school roll call in the comments, just to see who’s still here?

Studying invention and innovation

Once a month the Smithsonian’s Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation sends me an email newsletter, and once a month I think, oh! I should mention that here. This month, I’ve remembered.

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The current newsletter includes word of the publication of The Spirit of Invention: The Story of the Thinkers, Creators, and Dreamers Who Formed Our Nation by Julie M. Fenster with the Lemelson Center, published this month by HarperCollins.  The book’s 224 pages include not just well-known inventors (a young Thomas Edison is featured on the cover) but also more obscure ones.  As the newsletter notes,

Pick up Fenster’s book and find out about the improbable and little-known career of Robert Switzer, a Berkeley student who made a hobby of magic tricks. In 1932, an accident in a part-time job at Safeway put him into a coma, from which he slowly recovered in an unlit room. To amuse himself in this darkened convalescence, he played with the spectacular rainbow emissions from fluorescent rocks. Turning on another light in his mind, this led to his invention of glow-in-the-dark paints that he and his brother marketed at first to magicians. Soon after, dropping out of college, the Switzers discovered a way to use ordinary sunlight to bring out fluorescent colors — DayGlo, patented in 1947.

(This is the perfect place for me to mention that if you’re looking for a children’s book about Day-Glo and its inventors, there’s a new picture book just out by my online friend Chris Barton, The Day-Glo Brothers: The True Story of Bob and Joe Switzer’s Bright Ideas and Brand-New Colors brightly illustrated by Tony Persiani [Charlesbridge, July 1, 2009], and according to Amazon it’s in stock now.  You can read all about the book at Chris’s blog, Bartography.)

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The Lemelson website has a page of Resources, including educational multimedia and print materials for classroom use, invention stories, the invention archives at the National Museum of American History Archives Center, and lists of invention-related books and websites.

There’s also a page for video clips and podcasts; one of the recent podcasts is an interview with Julie Fenster about her new book, The Spirit of Invention, and one of our favorite podcasts (in two parts) is an interview with biographer Walter Isaacson on Benjamin Franklin’s contributions to democracy and technology.  On the same page, you can find a link for a PDF podcast activity guide.

From the mailbag

I had a very kind invitation by email earlier in the week from Persephone Books, which celebrated their 10th birthday today with a party in London I was unable to attend.  And very sorry about that too, what with the promise of “champagne and cups of tea all day plus cheese scones for elevenses, salads for lunch, brownies and cupcakes for tea and canapés for the evening”.

And Persephone is offering a special all week, for readers abroad as well: three books for the price of two. For international customers, “the third book will be sent surface mail even if the other two are sent airmail.”  For those ordering online, write ‘free book please’ and the title of the third book in the Additional Info box on the website.

Best of all, Persephone Books has (have?) a new blog, The Persephone Post.

I think I started but never finished a post about my Christmas present to myself, an assortment of Persephone books, which included:

The Children Who Lived in a Barn by Eleanor Graham, published originally in 1938 and reissued in 1955; I’d heard lots about this but had never read it.  Rather earnest and well before the end of the book you realize the children are behaving like adults and the adults like children.  A nostalgic oddity.

The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher, author of my beloved Understood Betsy; a 1924 adult novel about a wife and mother who is desperately unhappy at home with the children, and a husband and father who is desperately unhappy at work. Circumstances first tragic but then fortuitous allow them to change places, and DCF’s interest in the Montessori method is evident throughout.

The Shuttle by Frances Hodgson Burnett; another adult novel by a woman known now primarily as a children’s author, and another work ahead of its time.   An American heiress, Rosalie Vanderpoel, is wooed and wedded by an impoverished — and, we later learn, nasty and cruel — English aristocrat.  In a delightful twist, her spunky younger sister sets out to rescue her.  Because the novel was said to have been inspired by the true-life story of heiress Consuelo Vanderbilt, who married the Duke of Marlborough, after finishing The Shuttle I set off to read the double biography Consuelo and Alva Vanderbilt: The Story of a Daughter and a Mother in the Gilded Age by Amanda Mackenzie Stuart and Marian Fowler’s Blenheim: Biography of a Palace, quite the rabbit trail. But still think I might be interested in FHB’s The Making of a Marchioness.

Few Eggs and No Oranges by Vere Hodgson; her “sparky and unflappable” diary account of World War II.

The Country Housewife’s Book: How to Make the Most of Country Produce and Country Fare by Lucy Yates; all sorts of handy hints and recipes, including — for JoVE — how to skin a rabbit and how to make a haybox, which makes an appearance in The Children Who Lived in a Barn.

Good Evening, Mrs Craven: The Wartime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes by Mollie Panter-Downes; my favorite hands down of my selection. The stories are sometimes funny, sometimes tragic, but always moving and elegantly distilled. Next on my list are Minnie’s Room: The Peacetime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes also from Persephone, One Fine Day probably from Book Depository, and working my through The Complete New Yorker on disc in search of all of MPD’s “Letter from London” essays (1939-1987).

Down another rabbit trail, of interest to anyone who enjoys Jane Brocket‘s blog and books, the second issue of the Persephone Biannually (Autumn/Winter 2007) featured an article on her latest book, The Gentle Art of Domesticity, which included writings on “the literature of domesticity” in general and Persephone Books in particular. By the way, Jane is following up her last summer’s title, Cherry  Cake and Ginger Beer: A Golden Treasury of Classic Treats from favorite children’s books with this summer’s Ripping Things to Do: The Best Games and Ideas from Children’s Books.  No word yet if one of the ripping things includes making your own haybox.

More for the “to read” pile

One of my favorite book bloggers* Colleen Mondor, at her blog Chasing Ray, wrote recently,

Scott Wiedensaul’s Of a Feather is more than a history of birding in America – it’s an excellent piece of American history, a gossipy (in tone but not in fact) look at ornithology and includes so many bits of society and culture that my head was spinning with glee as I read it. This will be front and center in the that feature on birding lit this summer at Bookslut.

I need to remember to check back at Bookslut for that, since I know Colleen will have some great choices.

In the same post, Colleen writes,

Lisa Hamilton writes about being a traveler and witness in her essay for Powells. I just finished her book on three original farmers, Deeply Rooted and will be submitting a review for it for July. Every book on farming I read just makes me shake my head over how distance we have gotten from food and real life. It’s so odd to me how we watch Jon and Kate (and please – everyone has at least once) and that seems real to us. A staged show about a family is reality tv for families to watch. Why real farming and real food and real questions about both of those subjects (plus life and general) matter is what Deeply Rooted is all about. It’s very good stuff.

Colleen, if it makes you feel any better, I’ve never seen Jon and Kate except on magazine covers at the checkout counter.  One of the benefits of having (and, until the antenna is fixed, having had) only two TV channels!

By the way, here’s a link for the farming book,

Deeply Rooted: Unconventional Farmers in the Age of Agribusiness by Lisa M. Hamilton (Counterpoint, May 2009)

* after doing some more catch-up reading, I see there is now a distinction between “book bloggers” and “lit bloggers”.  Heavens. Will need to give this some wine-soaked thought.

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