• 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.

New camera

I haven’t had a camera for a few years — Laura started borrowing mine and then just absorbed it. When I wanted a picture of something, I’ve had to borrow a camera from the kids, or ask them to take a picture for me. I noticed that Best Buy had a little Canon Powershot A1400 on sale for $70, and it has good reviews at Amazon. The viewfinder was a nice surprise, because I sometimes have difficulty seeing the LCD display outdoors in bright sun.

I went out the other evening, just before sunset, to take some pictures to give it a whirl.

One of the many welcome puddles at the corrals,

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In addition to the portable windbreaks, we also got some portable fence panels which are very handy,

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The base of the portable panel,

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Summer snapshots

A bit late, but a few photos from my summer. No hail this year for the first time in three years, thank goodness, but very dry and lots of hungry voles.

The garden and a number of my containers were full of sunflowers, none of which I planted — all came thanks to Laura’s birds and the birdfeeders full of sunflower seeds,

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The boys’ new projects. The goal is lamb chops,

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Lilac season

Laura took these for me the other day. The lilacs are finally in bloom.

I checked some old posts and was surprised to realize most of these we planted seven years ago, in May 2006; I wrote then that “Most of the little saplings don’t look like much, especially the lilac, larch, and chokecherries, which resemble nothing more than twigs stuck in the ground.” Some of the lilacs, and all of the larch, tower over us now, but the lilacs are covered with blossoms, so I can get to them easily with my snips.

You could give me any plant in the world, but the two to which I have the most visceral reaction, the two which say spring to me, are tulips and lilacs. Though clematis is now up there too, one of the first plants to bloom in the garden, especially with the success of Clematis “Blue Bird” (a Canadian hybrid), which I rescued from a Canadian Tire last year mid-summer and which is doing very well, and quite pretty.

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Winter into Spring

We’re enjoying and making the most of the longer days, especially since we’ve started calving. Tom built a new portable calving barn, which has already earned its keep because March came in like a lamb and has turned into a lion. Spring seemed on the way until winter redoubled its efforts — the last few days have been down to the -20s C again and blizzardy, with wind and snow.

Inside though we’re thinking of spring and getting ready for the Music Festival. And happy to have 4H public speaking behind us, including Laura’s stint as a master of ceremonies at Regionals. Laura and I also managed a trip to the college’s open house for its environmental science department (Laura is considering the wildlife and fisheries conservation program), and the annual naturalist society sleighride and snowshoe outing.

Work has begun on the new oil pipeline across the way. All sorts of trucks and machinery, including what the boys told me are Argo all-terrain off-road vehicles, which look like mini tanks, arrived, and a good portion of the trees and bush were cleared. The three dozen deer who call the woods home seem a bit discombobulated, missing the trees but also enjoying the new cleared terrain and playing on the new snow-covered mounds.

The household hyacinth (my grandmother’s favorite spring flower, as soon as she saw them at the store in February or March, winter was over for her) — please excuse the chamber pot,

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On the way to check the cows one evening, Laura took this picture of a Snowy Owl,

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Family Day fishing derby

Tom and the kids made it home after 10 pm last night, with fish, all sorts of prizes (jackets! ice fishing tackle! exercise equipment! tape measures! a toque!), and leftovers from a very tasty dinner. The weather was lovely, just above freezing, but it made for very slushy, very wet fishing. About 200 people at the lake altogether.

Davy had the best luck, catching two northern pike (known as jackfish in these parts), both over three-and-a-half pounds, the smallest of which won the prize for smallest fish by the youngest angler in the 11-15 age category. The prize for biggest fish caught all day went to a 4 lb, 11 oz jackfish. Davy of course arrived home quite excited and ready to go ice fishing again. Very soon. And fish on the menu here very soon, too.

All photos by Laura, except for the last one (two fish), which is by Davy,

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Winter

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After lolling and lazing about over the Christmas holidays, it was back to work for the New Year. We took several of our finished steers to the packers for customers who wanted organic beef. We’ve been selling halves and whole steers, and also combination packages. The kids helped us with some of the packages and we got a proper assembly line going. Have also sold some of our broiler chickens, and a trailer is coming for a dozen or so finished steers this weekend. Laura’s pullets, which arrived as day-old chicks in August, started laying last month and everyone, family and customers alike, are all happy that our egg drought is over. More January stuff:

:: Lots of curling. The kids have after-schooling curling on Tuesday afternoons, junior league curling Monday night (the three are curling with a friend and doing well, they start playoffs next week), and curling with Tom on Wednesdays for the men’s league. And various bonspiels on the weekend; we just had the local junior bonspiel, and the boys won the junior high division curling with two friends (and got second place overall for points), and Laura got second place in the senior high division. More curling up between now and mid-March, and my mother-in-law won some tickets to the Brier, so Tom and the kids will probably be going to at least one game in the big city.

:: Getting ready for 4H public speaking in two clubs. Laura has two speeches, one on antibiotic resistance in beef and the other on her time at the Young Ornithologists’ Workshop last summer. The boys are doing a presentation together for one club (How to Make Jerky), and speeches for the other (Daniel on M. Bombardier and his snowmobiles, Davy on the history of root beer).

:: I wear two hats for the music festival, promotions co-ordinator (getting information packages with syllabi out to families and teachers) and mother. Registration went well the other week (numbers down a bit), and after 4H public speaking is done, the kids will hit the memorizing hard. I’m going to use Laura’s help again with promotions — last year she baked some chocolate chip cookies which we delivered to the local newspapers with the press releases.

:: The big library remodel is done and it looks wonderful. The library hadn’t had a facelift of any sort since it was first built in the early eighties, so this was long overdue. We were lucky to have a librarian and staff with vision and determination to take this on. I’ve been on the board for years and have thought every now and then of stepping down, but am so glad I stuck around. Well, except for the part about being on the policy committee and starting a review of all our policies this month. Ugh.

:: Planning meetings for the fair for three of us. Committee budgets to approve, hall booklet to change, sponsors to sweet talk.

:: Laura was invited by her aunt to the season home opener of the Edmonton Oilers, great fun even if they didn’t win…

:: I had “pre-ordered” (nasty term) the latest Flavia de Luce novel, Speaking from Among the Bones by Alan Bradley, for Laura, and it arrived last week. I also bought her the dvd of the documentary, “Birders: The Central Park Effect”, since we don’t have cable/satellite television, it’s not available on YouTube in Canada, and there’s no chance any of the libraries in our library system will bring in such an American item.

:: latest documentaries for school: “Bowling for Columbine” and “Who Killed the Electric Car?”

:: latest reading for school: George Orwell’s essay, “Politics and the English Language”, which I think the kids are all ready for. I’m using my old copy of The Orwell Reader, which I bought because of the introduction by Richard Rovere, the subject of my senior history thesis in university. Happily, The Reader is still in print. I think along with the essay we’ll read this recent Guardian article by Steven Poole, and Frank Luntz’s recent Washington Post piece, “Why Republicans Should Watch Their Language”. And why citizens should watch very carefully when politicians start to watch, and change, their language.

Another book on the list, Mrs. Mike, very Canadian, very gritty, very plucky…

:: More in the learning to be a good consumer department: we’ve started watching a few older TV shows at lunchtime — last month CTV was airing episodes of Gail Vaz-Oxlade’s “Til Debt Do Us Part” and then switched over to “Princess”. Quite eye-opening for the kids on the evils of credit and spending more than you make. Followed up with “Property Virgins”, where no-one seems to have heard of starter houses and everyone wants stainless steel appliances and granite countertops.

:: The college in town is celebrating its centennial and as part of the festivities they organized what’s hoped to be a Guinness world record giant toboggan run; the toboggan itself was 36′ long (that’s Davy at the top of this post, tucked in just inside the front curve of the giant sled) and had to slide 100 meters. Tom was asked to take official measurements and the kids went along for the fun,

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The kids with the giant toboggan,

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Coming up later this month:

:: dogsledding as part of the 4H Outdoor club

:: a hands-on six-hour calving course for the kids, at the local agricultural college

:: annual organic farming recertification, aka a pile of paperwork, sigh…

Recent nifty discoveries:

Paper roller coasters

Bar Keeper’s Friend; I had used this before moving to Canada but until last fall never saw it on Canadian store shelves, at least not on the prairies. I spotted it at Home Depot a few months ago, and it’s been the best thing for my kitchen sink, which after 14 years, had some pretty stubborn stains after cherry and berry season.  It’s also the best, easiest, and least toxic cleanser I’ve found in 18 years to use on rust stains from our well water.

It’s light out now until at least 5:30. In December it was getting dark just after 4 pm. And sunrise is now around 8 am instead of an hour later, and by the end of the month the sun will be up before 7:30. Hooray!

Blueberry Oatmeal Squares, from CBC’s show, Best Recipes Ever; Laura made these twice in three days, doubling the recipe the second time. The perfect way to use the gallons of blueberries etc I froze last summer.

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Breathe

We’ve survived all the May activities, and are now looking forward to a less hectic few months, though the fair is at the end of next month and we have to start preparing.

We got all the shelterbelt trees planted; the kids had fun in the play (“Alice in Wonderland”) and despite some grumbling from the boys about not doing theater next year (the thrice weekly rehearsals for the last few months get to be a bit much), they now think they want to do theater again in the fall; we got to the city for the provincial music festival even though the two days away was quite disruptive with 4H; Laura passed her learner’s test after two tries and has her license; the spotting scope Laura bought arrived and has been pronounced excellent; our naturalist society had the May species bird count (for which Laura was awake and in town for 6:30 am); and all the cattle and kids comported themselves well at the 4H show and sale. Daniel in particular got a very good price for his steer, and Laura and her heifer won reserve champion for showmanship.

Davy and his steer,

Laura was rather distracted on the last performance day of “Alice” after learning that she’s accepted for the Young Ornithologists’ Workshop and is very, very excited, especially since only six kids from across Canada are selected each year. We’re all tickled and proud. The participants live at the field station with staff and learn to band birds and go on a variety of excursions. And she’ll finally get to meet other young birders. Now we have to get her to Long Point, Ontario, on Lake Erie, and while she’d like to have us drive — more birds to see, and the chance to stop at Point Pelee — it’s a poor time to leave the farm, and Tom’s construction work, for so long, so we’ll put her on a plane.

Usually the kids get the day off after the long beef club Achievement Days weekend to sleep in, but one of Tom’s apprentices called in sick  just as Tom was hoping to finish one of the many roofs to reshingle. So the kids were pressed into service to help. Then Laura was up for 24 hours the next day as part of the Baillie Birdathon. She saw 79 species in one day, and so far has raised around $800, including a very generous donation from Edmonton’s Wildbird General Store, which we were lucky to be able to visit on our way home for provincials.

As far as activities, we have 4H achievement day left to do, for the baking club. We’re hoping for a quick and easy cookout with members, families, and friends. The boys have been contracted to do some gardening and landscaping jobs for neighbors, and Laura is planning to disappear into the fields and trees with her scope and camera.

I’ll end off with some quotes from author Zadie Smith’s recent blog post on libraries in The New York Review of Books; the council in her mother’s London neighborhood intends to demolish the library centre along with a bookshop, in order to replace them “with private luxury flats, a greatly reduced library, ‘retail space’ and no bookshop”:

What kind of a problem is a library? It’s clear that for many people it is not a problem at all, only a kind of obsolescence. At the extreme pole of this view is the technocrat’s total faith: with every book in the world online, what need could there be for the physical reality? This kind of argument thinks of the library as a function rather than a plurality of individual spaces. But each library is a different kind of problem and “the Internet” is no more a solution for all of them than it is their universal death knell. Each morning I struggle to find a seat in the packed university library in which I write this, despite the fact every single student in here could be at home in front of their Macbook browsing Google Books. And Kilburn Library — also run by Brent Council but situated, despite its name, in affluent Queen’s Park — is not only thriving but closed for refurbishment. Kensal Rise is being closed not because it is unpopular but because it is unprofitable, this despite the fact that the friends of Kensal Rise library are willing to run their library themselves (if All Souls College, Oxford, which owns the library, will let them.) Meanwhile it is hard not to conclude that Willesden Green is being mutilated not least because the members of the council see the opportunity for a sweet real estate deal.

All libraries have a different character and setting. Some are primarily for children or primarily for students, or the general public, primarily full of books or microfilms or digitized material or with a café in the basement or a market out front. Libraries are not failing “because they are libraries.” Neglected libraries get neglected, and this cycle, in time, provides the excuse to close them. Well-run libraries are filled with people because what a good library offers cannot be easily found elsewhere: an indoor public space in which you do not have to buy anything in order to stay.

In the modern state there are very few sites where this is possible. The only others that come readily to my mind require belief in an omnipotent creator as a condition for membership. It would seem the most obvious thing in the world to say that the reason why the market is not an efficient solution to libraries is because the market has no use for a library. But it seems we need, right now, to keep re-stating the obvious. There aren’t many institutions left that fit so precisely Keynes’s definition of things that no one else but the state is willing to take on. Nor can the experience of library life be recreated online. It’s not just a matter of free books. A library is a different kind of social reality (of the three dimensional kind), which by its very existence teaches a system of values beyond the fiscal.

I don’t think the argument in favor of libraries is especially ideological or ethical. I would even agree with those who say it’s not especially logical. I think for most people it’s emotional. Not logos or ethos but pathos. This is not a denigration: emotion also has a place in public policy. We’re humans, not robots. The people protesting the closing of Kensal Rise Library love that library. They were open to any solution on the left or on the right if it meant keeping their library open. They were ready to Big Society the hell out of that place. A library is one of those social goods that matter to people of many different political attitudes. All that the friends of Kensal Rise and Willesden Library and similar services throughout the country are saying is: these places are important to us. We get that money is tight, we understand that there is a hierarchy of needs, and that the French Market or a Mark Twain plaque are not hospital beds and classroom size. But they are still a significant part of our social reality, the only thing left on the high street that doesn’t want either your soul or your wallet [emphasis mine].

Read the rest here.

Field trip

A week ago today we all went, along with Tom’s dad, on a field trip to the site of the CN train derailment not too far from here, near the hamlet of Fabyan. The bridge, which is 195′ tall, is the second longest steel trestle bridge in Canada, at 2,775 ft. long. It was built in 1908 over the Battle River by the Grand Trunk Pacific. We’ve walked around the valley and under the bridge in the summer, and so were interested to see what the site looked like today.

The road to the bridge was of course closed to all but official vehicles — CN, Transportation Safety Board, etc. — and we were waved along in the opposite direction. So we parked in an approach to a farmer’s field, and hiked through the snow and grass until we reached a point overlooking the bridge. Here are some of the photos the boys took, a few of which were published in a local newspaper.

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A trackhoe getting ready to tow away one of the derailed grain cars (photo by Davy); we stayed long enough to watch the car get pulled around the bend out of sight,

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CN workers repairing damaged track (photo by Davy); we believe this is the where the derailment began,

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Scaffolding near the support structure with damage visible (pieces of steel bent and broken), as a result of falling train cars (photo by Davy),

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Some of the train cars after they fell to the ground below (photo by Davy),

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A Hitachi track hoe with mechanical jaw righting one of the fallen cars (photo by Davy),

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Lifting a derailed grain car with two cranes; spilled grain visible on tracks (photo by Davy),

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Another shot of lifting a derailed car off the tracks with two cranes (photo by Davy),

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Working on the tracks above and in the valley below (photo by Davy)

Springing forth

The leaves on the trees are finally unfurling.  No, not all of them, but lots, and we finally have a haze of green around us.  The perennials are coming up nicely. I know because at 6:30 this morning I heard loud mooing much too close to the house and there were several cows and their calves who had squeezed through a hole in the fence and made it down to the pasture by the house where the fence, naturally, wasn’t closed.  So after shooing them back through the fence and closing it, I did a brief tour of the raised beds.  I was also pleasantly surprised at how warm it was this morning compared to other mornings, when the temperatures have been around freezing.

The greenhouse is about an hour away from being finished and pulled by tractor to its new home behind the house.  Tom and his helpers built it in front of the garage so it was easy to unload building supplies and for an easy power supply.  On Mother’s Day afternoon, we dropped the kids off at rehearsal (the performances, finally, are Thursday-Saturday for “Willy Wonka”) and then headed to the recycling center, where next to the plastics bin we discovered several large stacks of enormous black plastic nursery pots for trees, perfect for growing tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, zucchini, and eggplants in the greenhouse.  A very nice Mother’s Day present, though not nearly as nice as the breakfast in bed (heart-shaped pancakes, with bacon), flowers, greenhouse, nursery gift certificate, handmade cards, and seven-course meal.

Because I cannot do anything properly without reading about it, I have been reading my Bookcloseouts treasure, Paradise Under Glass: An Amateur Creates a Conservatory Garden by Ruth Kassinger, ordered before I realized I would have my own greenhouse to play in anytime soon. Ms. Kassinger details field trips to Logee’s and Glasshouse Works, where I spent far too much money as a single girl in the early nineties, though unfortunately exclusively by mail order and never in person; in fact, I used to keep the catalogues by the bed, and remember them well — the Logee’s catalogue was small and slim, and fit into a jacket pocket for easy subway reading, and the one from GW was large and floppy, on newsprint.  Have also ordered the following, from Amazon.ca and Chapters:

Eliot Coleman’s The Winter Harvest Handbook: Year Round Vegetable Production Using Deep Organic Techniques and Unheated Greenhouses; I’ve long been a fan of EC and have been looking for an excuse to buy his latest.

Greenhouse Gardener’s Companion by Shane Smith, illustrated by Marjorie Leggitt; as soon as I saw Ms. Leggitt’s lovely cover, I knew this was the book for me, since I am planning on putting a comfortable chair near the door for surveying my new domain.

The Greenhouse Gardener by Anne Swithinbank, which also goes by the title The Conservatory Gardener, and which I had to buy from Book Depository because it’s no longer in print in Canada though apparently so in the US. Also ordered from BD, Debo Devonshire’s Wait for Me! because I couldn’t wait any longer, but sadly not Miss Buncle Married, which I have a feeling sold like hot cakes upon its recent Persephone reissue.

Am once again reminded by Cicero’s quote over on the left, “Anyone who has a library and a garden wants for nothing.”

Tom determined that the days are nowhere near long enough, and so hired a drywaller to finish the walls in the new dining area.  The fellow has been here for three days, and the sanding has begun, so the plastic is up and the dust is flying. When I drop off the kids for today’s full dress rehearsal, I’ll swing by the paint store for chips.  I’m horribly consistent, so I am planning to pick the same yellow as the rest of the kitchen, and we’ll repaint the kitchen walls and also the cabinets (which will be the same cream color I chose 12 years ago, too). The kids and I will prime and paint, and I have to choose casing for the windows too.  Then flooring, and Tom was even talking about the Ikea base cabinets for the east and west sides of the room (there will be base cabs on either side of the table, and shelves above them; sort of a modified Welsh dresser, for dining room as well as home school accoutrements), so we may well have a trip to Ikea in our future shortly. Which is good, because I think I would like these solar lights for the greenhouse:

I’ll take some pictures of the new greenhouse and the dining room as soon as I can find a camera I am able to use, and a cable.  For all the cameras and cables floating around the house, none of them seem to be mine any more.

Also yesterday, we had our semi-annual home school facilitator visit, who managed to make me feel good, and satisfied, about our efforts even though I have been managing estate matters and a business in NYC more than home schooling my children. Since Laura will be starting Grade 9 next year, we talked a bit about high school, though in Alberta at least it doesn’t start until Grade 10. I’ll be going by what I’m used to, which is 9-12.  And I am going to try to remember to be guided by the Gilbert Highet quote, also over there on the left, from his book, The Immortal Profession: The Joys of Teaching and Learning,

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.

Finally, since this post feels rather naked without some pictures, I’ll add the ones from Daniel’s 12th birthday celebration the other week — his “hamburger” cupcakes made by his loving but not particularly crafty mother, who was egged on by Sheila, who does this sort of a thing at the drop of a hat and very well too. Surprisingly, though, they turned out quite well.  Unsurprisingly, I forgot all about taking any pictures until there were only three left, and of course they were the least successful of the bunch.  But you can get the general hamburger-ness of them,

You can see the original version here.

Summer garden tour

In 16 years, I haven’t had the same gardening weather two years in a row.  This year we’ve had very strange weather, first quite dry, which has been standard for the past long while, but then quite wet (though not as wet as Saskatchewan, thank goodness), and some very warm days and fairly cool nights.  Which has all resulted in some things growing like gangbusters, but other things rather  more slowly than in previous years.  I’m as confused as the plants.  The carrots took forever come up (though I didn’t have to seed them three times, as so many of us had to do last year), but they’re already considerably larger than at this time last year.  Apologies for the wonky light, which is different in almost each picture, which I took at various times of day beginning several weeks ago and ending today.  I’m putting these up for me for next year and also for my mother, so she can see what I spend most of my day doing (not including cutting dead branches off shelterbelt trees and running to town for baler parts).

My dipladenia, which spends fall through early spring indoors,

A mimulus,

Behold, papyrus on the prairies! An experiment this year, a small water garden.  Last year I noticed the nursery was selling plastic baskets already planted with water plants, and was intrigued. This year, I succumbed. The garden seems to be happy and doing well because the one plant is blooming with lovely yellow flowers,

Some of my many pansies,

My rose starting to bloom last week; I think told Sheila it’s the Explorer rose, Alexander Mackenzie, but now that it’s in full bloom, I think it’s Explorer David Thompson; it’s my Alexander Mackenzie coming back slowly from a bad winter kill, down to about four inches,

Mr. Thompson just before bursting into bloom,

My ornamental rhubarb has never, in all of its five or six years, looked like this — it has never put out such flower stalks, or been so tall.  And until this year it was always more horizontal than vertical.  I like the leaves on the stalks, which rather remind me of flying birds.  Here’s Davy with the rhubarb one evening last week,

I took this picture of just the stalks the week before,

Poppies everywhere,

I can’t for the life of me remember the name of this perennial, which is growing under my nicest peony, and I can’t find my tag (though the writing is probably faded anyway, drat).  Sheila, do you know?  It’s one of my favorite plants, easy to grow, lovely to look at, goes with everything, and fairly uncommon (which of course is why I can’t remember its name at the moment). The flowers look like little drawstring pouches,

Peony and mystery flower,

My other peony plant, with blooms just opening today,

The columbines, which seem to be thriving with our weather.  Some of the older plants seem to be a riot of blooms,

The simple, elegant white columbines square off against the gaudy, two-tone fuchsia hussies,

Some recently planted lettuces and dill,

The irises several weeks ago, at the height of their bloom.  They’re gone now,

My strawberry beds, on the south side of the garage (tomatoes in pots in front), newly mulched with chipped trees,

My new experiment this year — red-painted “rock strawberries” to discourage the robins,

A day’s pickings,

Earlier in the spring, I needed an extra plant stand while potting up my plants, and found the following, which Tom had rescued from garbage pile behind the supermarket; once I removed the signs/posters on the side and front for all the breads, it was quite spiffy. And it’s on wheels!

Spring scenes

I uploaded a bunch of pictures from our camera to the computer before the end of May and thought I’d post some here so you can see what we’ve been up to around here.  Most of the pictures were taken by Davy.

House (English) sparrow eggs, found in a swallow’s nest box by Davy,

In early May we went to a nursery/greenhouse after picking up our 210 shelterbelt trees.  Trees are wonderful, but a greenhouse in May is even better.  Not all garden ornaments, however, are wonderful, and the kids are under strict orders from the garden and taste police to never ever bring home dwarves or elves.

Laura’s rabbit finally, after the fourth try, had a successful litter of babies,

After a few weeks, their eyes opened and the fur came in,

We learned recently that adult rabbits love mangoes, so much so that they’ll even eat part of the pit/stone,

Our cat commune, with several mothers sharing several litters of kittens, born a few weeks apart,

A boy and his kitten,

Since the fair last year, I’ve had Daniel’s prize-winning bird house, in the shape of a grain elevator, sitting on the plant stand the kids made for me last Mother’s Day.  All this time I’ve considered it ornamental, but the tree swallows in the yard had other ideas.  Here’s a female who seems interested in taking possession,

Look around to see what she thinks of the neighborhood,

Sold!  Laura thoughtfully left a little bit of excelsior nearby for feathering the new next.

Bait and switch

Just one reason why we farm organically: “Farmers Cope With Roundup-Resistant Weeds”, from last week’s New York Times.

Daniel, who turned 11 the other week, is delighted this year to be old enough to drive the big John Deere tractor to cultivate the fields.

We’re off later this morning to pick up our shelterbelt tree order to plant around our fields.  This year, though, it’s only 200+ rather than 2,000+, to replace some of the trees the deer have eaten and trampled.  And luckily for me, the shelterbelt tree pickup warehouse is near a wonderful greenhouse…

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.

A peach tree grows near Brooklyn

but perhaps not for much longer.  In Friday’s New York Times, Susan Dominus writes,

Close to 40 years ago, Michael Goldstein, then a young dad, rented the top floor of a building on the corner of Broome and Mercer Streets, and plunked a sandbox and kiddie pool on the roof. Such was the humble beginning of what would eventually become an elaborate, fantasyland garden, complete with convincing-looking synthetic grass, peach, apple and cherry trees, blueberry bushes, and Adirondack chairs nestled among the fragrant boughs.

Long before green roofs were hot [GreenRoofs.org], long before Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg declared his goal to plant one million trees [MillionTreesNYC] across the five boroughs, Mr. Goldstein was doing his part to green New York with his 2,500-square-foot aerie atop the ninth floor.

Until now, Mr. Goldstein’s garden has been governed mostly by the quick-changing whims of the seasons. This week, his birch tree is losing its leaves, and his apple tree has been bearing sweet, mild fruit. The seasons may be intractable masters, but Mr. Goldstein, now 71, has come to expect their tyranny. Much harder to accept: that a piece of paper pinned to a door should govern the fate of the small ecosystem that he considers an extension of his home.

In July, Mr. Goldstein, who runs a merchandising business from a small, sunny office mounted on his roof, found a troubling notice from the City Buildings Department on his building’s front door. From a roof nearby, the notice read, visual inspection revealed “small housing structures built on top of this roof,” along with other concerns, including “foliage resembling a small forest.”The building was not code-compliant, the notice went on to say, and the owner would be required to provide an engineering report documenting the structural soundness of the roof.

Then Mr. Goldstein received a letter in the mail, dated Aug. 28, from the bank that bought the building when its previous owner went bankrupt. The bank was terminating his lease to the roof. He would have until the end of September to deconstruct Eden and return the roof to its natural state: black tar, the kudzu of urban surfaces everywhere.

It is no small thing to plant and maintain foliage resembling a small forest in New York City — it requires two hours of watering a day, said Mr. Goldstein, who pays $1,700 a month in rent for the roof. He never leaves town in the summer, because a day or two of arid heat would take too heavy a toll.

Nor would it be a small thing to remove said small forest through the building’s cramped elevator, to disassemble a living, photosynthesizing community. Mr. Goldstein said he has told officials at the bank that he would hire an engineer to test the soundness of the roof, and remove whatever weight was deemed problematic. But he said he has been given no leeway, just orders to remove years of history and a space that is considered home not just to him and his neighbors, but to the two mockingbirds and three robins that feed off the fruit, and to an owl that occasionally surprises them with a visit.

Read the rest of the article here. And see Mr. Goldstein’s lovely, lovely rooftop garden here,

ATrees

From the website for Mayor Bloomberg’s MillionTreesNYC program (emphases mine):

MillionTreesNYC, one of the 127 PlaNYC initiatives, is a citywide, public-private program with an ambitious goal: to plant and care for one million new trees across the City’s five boroughs over the next decade. By planting one million trees, New York City can increase its urban forestour most valuable environmental asset made up of street trees, park trees, and trees on public, private and commercial land — by an astounding 20%, while achieving the many quality-of-life benefits that come with planting trees.The City of New York will plant 60% of trees in parks and other public spaces. The other 40% will come from private organizations, homeowners, and community organizations.

How does the city plan Getting to a Million Trees? With, among other things, “homeowner outreach”:

The Parks Department and NYRP [New York Restoration Project] will introduce public education campaigns that highlight the economic and health benefits associated with trees. Neighborhood residents will be invited to participate in tree planting workshops, join community-based stewardship networks, participate in volunteer tree planting days, and most importantly register their newly planted trees online.

As a result of this new comprehensive tree planting approach, neighborhoods throughout New York City will see their streets, parks and public spaces, business districts and front yards transformed into beautiful green landscapes-providing New York City families with the positive benefits associated with urban trees.

Can you think of a better community steward than Mr. Goldstein, whose neighborhood has benefited from his trees and plantings for almost 40 years? By the way, Mr. Goldstein and his wife, and other NYC rooftop gardeners, were profiled by The Times 10 years ago, too. 

From the MillionTrees page on NYC’s Urban Forest:

Our trees and green spaces are essential to life in New York City.

Our urban forest totals over 5 million trees and 168 species. It can be found throughout the city along streets and highways, in neighborhood playgrounds, backyards and, community gardens, and even along commercial developments. There are 6,000 acres of woodlands in parks alone!

Trees in such a dense urban environment mean two things: people can directly benefit from them in their day-to-day lives (shade and cleaner air), but also trees must contend with a host of challenges that all city-dwellers face:

Competition for open space in the City is fierce, as residential and commercial developments reduce existing and potential tree habitat. Between 1984 and 2002 alone, New York City lost 9,000 acres of green open space to competing land uses.

Environmental and physical factors challenge street, yard, and woodland trees throughout the City. Construction damage, invasive species, soil compaction and degradation, drought, flooding, air pollution, vandalism, and pests, such as the Asian longhorned beetle, all impact the urban forest.

(Other challenging city pests include lawyers, banks, and city bureaucrats.) 

 … MillionTreesNYC will bring thousands of trees to streets, parks, and forests throughout the City. In addition to adding trees to the urban forest, MillionTreesNYC will raise the profile of trees to the general public so all New Yorkers not only benefit but also contribute. Together, we can create a greener, greater NYC.

Paging MillionTreesNYC, and Mayor Bloomberg too…

Back to school goodies

AOrange

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,

INY

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?

Down a lazy river

BETTER DROWNED THAN DUFFERS IF NOT DUFFERS WON’T DROWN.
from “Swallows and Amazons” by Arthur Ransome

* * * * *

As I wrote the other day, the boys were eager to take their new inflatable dinghy (on sale at the hardware store last week) down the river.  I did have some doubts about sending an eight-and-a-half year-old, ten-year-old, and even a 12-year-old, with only informal paddling and sailing experience but strong swimming skills, off for three hours on their own on the river.  No cell phone either.  But they did have life jackets, common sense, and enthusiasm, and the river couldn’t have been any calmer.  Saturday night, after a long, hot (31 degrees C) day most of which was spent helping their father shingle a roof, the boys along with their sister set sail on the river about two miles south of our house, where the river valley backs on to a farmer’s pasture.  The plan was for the kids to paddle the eight to 10 miles in the dinghy to the provincial park in town.  With leisurely paddling along the very quiet waters and lots of animal-watching, the trip took them about three hours.  We collected them just before 10:30 pm, and they were all grinning broadly.  By their count, they noted 30 sightings of beavers (Davy figured only 18 beavers in total, with lots of repeats including one who kept swimming just ahead of the dinghy), six beaver lodges, five muskrats, two deer (one mule, one white-tail), two mother ducks with ducklings, one dead female mallard in the reeds during their only portage, and 20 geese.

The kids were inspired by hearing Tom regale them again and again with his story of paddling contest down the North  Saskatchewan River when he was in his twenties, and by the Arrogant Worms/Captain Tractor song, “The Last Saskatchewan Pirate”.  Here’s to many more summer adventures.

Some pictures from the beginning of the trip.  It was getting too dark for photos at 10:30.

Loading up the dinghy,
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Laura surveying the river valley,

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A curious muskrat,

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Around the bend and away,

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Related Farm School posts:

Paddle your own canoe

But will they change Titty’s name?

A manual for childhood

Why safer isn’t always better

In search of freedom and independence, and big bangs

Outdoor life, or, How to have an old-fashioned, dangerous summer

BirdCasting

Laura has developed an interest in, and growing passion for, birds since last summer when I helped her put up some bird feeders around the yard.  Her interest in the Christmas Bird Count last year is what got our family in touch with the local naturalist society.  She spends much of her free time feeding, watching, listening to, and reading about birds.  And recently she realized that there might be birding podcasts she could make use of on her iPod; she’s become a big fan of podcasts.  So with my researching and her vetting, we came up with this list of her favorite birding podcasts:

BirdNote, on NPR

Birdwatch Radio, with Steve Moore

For the Birds and here too, with Laura Erickson

Ray Brown’s Talkin’ Birds

This Birding Life, with Bill Thompson

WREN Radio

If you have any other favorites, please let us know and we’ll add them to our iTunes list.  Thanks, and happy listening!

Organic options

From the recent Slate article, “Organic Panic: Michelle Obama’s garden and its discontents” by Christopher Beam:

“It’s a charming idea and everything, but it’s not practical,” says Xavier Equihua, who represents the Chilean Exporters Association as well as the Chilean Avocado Committee. The main problem, he says, is that local food is seasonal. For example, avocadoes grow in California during the summer months. Same with grapes. “What happens if you want some grapes during the month of December?” says Equihua. “What are you going to do? Not eat grapes?”

Well, yes. We don’t buy strawberries or tomatoes (unless the supermarket has the ones from the local Hutterite colony greenhouse) in the winter.  The  main problem isn’t that local food is seasonal.  The main problem is that we demand instant gratification in all aspects of our lives, including food.  Eating seasonally is sensible, not problematic.

Beam concludes,

And that’s the real subversive appeal of the Obamas’ organic garden. If it succeeds in shifting public perceptions about organic food, then the market for it may grow. And as with all market shifts, the most successful companies will embrace the organic movement rather than resist it. “For too long, the ag guys have said, If we raise it you’re gonna eat it. You don’t have options,” says Mitchell. “Well, now we have options.”

Moving in a common rhythm

“Don’t rule out working with your hands. It does not preclude using your head. There’s no reason why education should be incompatible with craftsmanship.”
Andy Rooney in his 2000 commencement address at the University of Virginia

Part of the reason I haven’t blogged since May 7th is that we’ve been working with our hands — looking after new baby chicks, tending our new Painted Lady butterfly caterpillars (now happily hanging from the top of their tank), planting and watering our 645 new shelterbelt trees, caring for the 4H calves which will be shown next weekend, seeding the barley crop, and planting the flower and vegetable gardens.

When I stopped this afternoon for a quick sandwich before heading back to the garden (and later tonight we have the second performance of Tom’s and the kids’ play in town), I quickly read through some New York Times headlines, and clicked on the new NYT Magazine article, “The Case for Working with Your Hands” by Matthew B. Crawford, from which:

High-school shop-class programs were widely dismantled in the 1990s as educators prepared students to become “knowledge workers.” The imperative of the last 20 years to round up every warm body and send it to college, then to the cubicle, was tied to a vision of the future in which we somehow take leave of material reality and glide about in a pure information economy. This has not come to pass. To begin with, such work often feels more enervating than gliding. More fundamentally, now as ever, somebody has to actually do things: fix our cars, unclog our toilets, build our houses.

When we praise people who do work that is straightforwardly useful, the praise often betrays an assumption that they had no other options. We idealize them as the salt of the earth and emphasize the sacrifice for others their work may entail. Such sacrifice does indeed occur — the hazards faced by a lineman restoring power during a storm come to mind. But what if such work answers as well to a basic human need of the one who does it? I take this to be the suggestion of Marge Piercy’s poem “To Be of Use,” which concludes with the lines “the pitcher longs for water to carry/and a person for work that is real.” Beneath our gratitude for the lineman may rest envy.

As someone who, with a BA from small liberal arts college in New England who strayed far, far from the norm to marry a carpenter and farmer, and whose two sons have said they want to follow more or less in their father’s footsteps, I was interested to read this bit,

A gifted young person who chooses to become a mechanic rather than to accumulate academic credentials is viewed as eccentric, if not self-destructive. There is a pervasive anxiety among parents that there is only one track to success for their children. It runs through a series of gates controlled by prestigious institutions. Further, there is wide use of drugs to medicate boys, especially, against their natural tendency toward action, the better to “keep things on track.” I taught briefly in a public high school and would have loved to have set up a Ritalin fogger in my classroom. It is a rare person, male or female, who is naturally inclined to sit still for 17 years in school, and then indefinitely at work.

The trades suffer from low prestige, and I believe this is based on a simple mistake. Because the work is dirty, many people assume it is also stupid. This is not my experience. I have a small business as a motorcycle mechanic in Richmond, Va., which I started in 2002. I work on Japanese and European motorcycles, mostly older bikes with some “vintage” cachet that makes people willing to spend money on them. I have found the satisfactions of the work to be very much bound up with the intellectual challenges it presents. And yet my decision to go into this line of work is a choice that seems to perplex many people.

Read the rest of Matthew Crawford’s article here.  By the way, Mr. Crawford’s book, Shop Craft as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work, will be published on Thursday by Penguin.

I keep meaning to post about one of my favorite blogs, and this is the perfect time to correct that oversight, especially because the blogger is quoted in the article. Woodworker and teacher Doug Stowe’s blog, Wisdom of the Hands, is a gem; as Mr. Stowe writes, his blog is

dedicated to sharing the concept that our hands are essential to learning — that we engage the world and its wonders, sensing and creating primarily through the agency of our hands. We abandon our children to education in boredom and intellectual escapism by failing to engage their hands in learning and making.

Be sure to read Mr. Stowe’ post on The Times article.

Since I haven’t posted anything for Poetry Friday in more than a month, I’ll leave you with some of Marge Piercy’s To Be of Use, which you can find in its entirety here:

I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.

I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who stand in the line and haul in their places,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.

Related Farm School posts:

Craftsmanship

Hands

Tonic and toast

Further thoughts on self-esteem and self-confidence

All roads lead to home and hard work

More thoughts on independence and freedom

(Back to work. With my hands.)

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