• 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, home schooling, and building our own house. I'm nowhere near as regular a blogger as I used to be.

    The kids are 18/Grade 12, 16/Grade 11, and 14/Grade 10.

    Contact me at becky(dot)farmschool(at)gmail(dot)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"

    "‘Never look at an ugly thing twice. It is fatally easy to get accustomed to corrupting influences."
    English architect CFA Voysey (1857-1941)

    "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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Belated Europe

After the New Year, we spent four weeks in France and Germany, Tom’s and my first visit in 19 years, and the kids’ first ever. Home base was the house of an old family friend outside Paris, near Fontainebleau, and we took a variety of trips, to western France near Angers for a visit to a farm family, to Paris, to Tom’s family (his mother’s cousin) near Bremen, and back to France (Morzine) for some skiing.

One of the highlights was the stay in northwest Germany, which we all enjoyed very, very much — meeting some family members again, many others for the first time, the architecture, the food, and mostly the very warm welcome. And the kids were delighted to be able to help with farm chores, which helped with missing their animals at home. We had a lovely time, lots of fun and adventures, and made the most of our rental car, a BMW with GPS which turned out to be indispensable. The kids got to do a number of things on their wish lists — driving fast on the Autobahn, birding (Laura had several outings with local birders, and added 70 new species to her life list), and skiing in the Alps.

A few photos from the trip (in chronological order):

One of the houses down the lane in France, with moss everywhere (photo by Laura),

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A stone wall, more moss,

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The village’s outdoor Sunday market; yes, the butcher sells horse meat,

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During one of our drives through the forest of Fontainebleau, we came across one of the regularly scheduled hunts for deer and wild boar, necessary to keep the populations down in the area, for the safety of the humans and health of the habitat; we met the hunters who talked to us about the hunts and showed us some of the animals from that morning,

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We took a walk along the Loing river,

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Visiting a farm near Château-Gontier, in the Mayenne region, with Rouge des Prés (formerly known as Maine-Anjou) cattle,

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At the farm of a distant cousin, where they grow organic potatoes, onions, and carrots; lots of very, very old brick in northwestern Germany,

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Laura birding with some virtual friends made real,

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Peat blocks drying in stacks at the Drebbersches Moor near Lange Lohe; Black Grouse is now extinct in the area because of habitat loss caused by the peat harvesting in the moors,

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While Laura and I were birding, Cousin H. taught the rest of the family to make brooms with twigs, very good for sweeping out the barn stalls,

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The family farmhouse near Bremen is more than 100 years old, and had these lovely encaustic tiles in the main hallway,

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I drooled over the kitchen’s 1920s aluminum storage drawers/bins, a hallmark of the celebrated Frankfurt Kitchen,

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At the neighborhood beekeeper’s, old terracotta roofing tiles salvaged for a new project,

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The beekeeper also restored a 19th century bake house on his property,

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From the bake house door,

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Scenes from a French village,

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For skiing, they made do with a combination of regular clothing we brought for the trip and rentals,

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The view from our hotel room in the Alps,

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We tried a variety of local cheeses every evening and I was able to attend a cheesemaking demonstration,

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Snowing steadily in Morzine,

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Back in Paris,

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All three kids had a great appreciation for the various fast and fancy cars,

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View from the Arc de Triomphe,

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Another fast and fancy car,

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which we discovered was possible to rent,

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At the Louvre,

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An eye for an eye,

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More BirdCasting

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Exciting news for us — Laura is in Washington, DC to help celebrate the 500th show of Ray Brown’s Talkin’ Birds, and will be part of the live broadcast tomorrow from the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. Talkin’ Birds is a live interactive half-hour radio show about wild birds and nature, airing Sunday mornings at 9:30 Eastern, on WATD (95.9 FM); you can read more at the Facebook page and listen with live streaming on Sundays here. They’ll be joined by Smithsonian ornithologist Bruce Beehler.

Ray has been an extremely generous, kind, and encouraging mentor and friend to Laura ever since she discovered the show about five years ago and then started calling in. I wrote back in June 2009 (“BirdCasting”), when she was 11,

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…

It didn’t take long for Talkin’ Birds to become her very favorite. And for the past while, she’s been part of the crew as a far-flung correspondent; when Ray gives her advice on how to speak on the radio, he knows what he’s talking about. I keep thinking how I, at her age, would have taken an invitation to take part in a live broadcast in front of a theatre full of people. I’m fairly certain that I would have said, thank you so much for asking, but no, and spent the rest of my life kicking myself for missing such a wonderful opportunity. The differences between extroverts and introverts!

Tom is with her, since while we have no problem sending her alone to the wilds of Ontario, we figured a major city is probably more enjoyably and safely negotiated with an adult travelling companion (the show staff are in town just for 36 hours), and Tom needed a holiday anyway. Good reports back from the hotel, the Liaison Capitol Hill (which has a pillow menu believe it or not), and also their restaurant last night, Cafe Berlin. They’re hoping to get to Bistro Cacao, not too far from the hotel, before they leave on Tuesday. Huge thanks to Talkin’ Birds for underwriting her flight and part of the hotel stay.

I’m writing this post as a thank you for so many things that have become an enormous part of my daughter’s life, and also as a reminder for any other home schooling parents who might still be reading — if your child has a particular interest or passion, even if you as the parent have little knowledge of (or interest in) the subject, modern technology has made it possible to reach out and find those who can inspire, guide, and teach your child. And if you teach your child about internet safety and writing skills, he or she can do much of the reaching out himself or herself, which is a good skill to learn. Living on a farm in rural western Alberta hasn’t been any sort of impediment, and a flexible home schooling schedule has meant Laura could take advantage of spending a month last fall as an intern at the Long Point Bird Observatory in Ontario, banding birds and working on an independent research project, or participate in an event like tomorrow’s festivities. Age isn’t a barrier either, as most home schooling families know; she’s been able to write bird book reviews, receiving printed and e- books regularly, and when she realized that there wasn’t a Facebook group for Alberta Birds (and birders), though most of the other provinces and states had something, she started one; the group now has more than 2,000 members who share their photos and videos, as well as sightings, birding stories, and blog posts. She’s made lifelong friends and learned more than my husband and I could have ever taught her, and we continue to be touched and amazed by the support and generosity of so many adult birders so eager to take young people under their wings and nurture this budding interest. It reminds me very much of gardeners I’ve met the world over who are always so quick to offer seeds and cuttings, in order to spread not just a love of nature but the joy of a passion shared.

In their absence, the boys and I are holding down the fort and farm, more like hunkering down, since winter finally arrived today, with a high of -5C and some snow that won’t be melting any time soon. Tomorrow’s daytime high is to be -11C with an overnight low of -15C. Welcome, winter. I think…

Birds, classes, hearts and more

Laura did a four-week internship from mid-August to mid-September at the Long Point Bird Observatory in Ontario, on Lake Erie, helping with migration monitoring as a volunteer field biologist. It was a follow-up to the 10-day young ornithologists’ workshop she did there last summer. This year’s internship was considerably more intense, not just because it was longer, but because Laura and the other interns and volunteers were working out of a bird banding station located on the tip of the Long Point peninsula, accessible only by motorboat. While they had electricity and running water, they didn’t have cell phone or internet service (so Laura was incommunicado for the first three weeks, which was an interesting experiment for me), and bathing and laundry happened in the lake.  They worked long days, seven days a week, doing bird and Monarch butterfly censusing, banding, data entry, as well as facility upkeep and maintenance (which meant that all the work around the house and farm, ability to cook and do chores, and a cheerful attitude came in handy). While I didn’t know about the incommunicado part, I did know that Laura would be out in the wilds for several weeks, and figured a first aid course might come in helpful, not only for her but for the people around her.

In May I started looking into the two-day St. John Ambulance first aid course. It’s generally offered as part of a local continuing education program, but they weren’t offering the course when I wanted it (late June, after 4H and theater wrapped up). A friend teaches the course and when I asked about hiring her privately, she asked if the boys would take it too. I figured why not, and then the course turned into a home schoolers class, with at least half a dozen other kids. It was a certificate course, which all three kids achieved, but I’m more interested in them having the knowledge and information they can use than the certificate. Very reassuring knowing that the kids, who are often on their own around the farm and the countryside (the boys each have a quad and motorbike now), have this knowledge, and it was one less thing to worry about with Laura several provinces away.

So it was interesting to hear a CBC radio news report this morning that more people survived cardiac arrests in Denmark after the country encouraged bystanders to step in and perform CPR. The study’s lead author, Dr. Mads Wissenberg of Copenhagen University Hospital Gentofte, said, “The main message from this study is that national initiatives to improve cardiac arrest management seem to have an impact with an increase in bystander CPR rates and survival rates.”

Medical officials in Denmark had noticed about 10 years ago that few people stepped in to perform CPR, with only a minority of cardiac arrest victims surviving for more than 30 days. In the United States, and I imagine numbers are proportional for Canada, about 300,000 people go into cardiac arrest every year and around 90 percent of those die, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The American Heart Association says immediately starting CPR when a person goes into cardiac arrest  can double or triple that person’s chances of survival.

Denmark decided to start a campaign to increase the number of people who could perform CPR. The campaign included introducing mandatory training for elementary school students and driver’s license applicants, as well as distributing instructional training kits, offering telephone assistance to bystanders, and putting defibrillators in public places.

The radio show host discussing the news showed considerable surprise that elementary students would be targeted, and the show’s medical contributor said there’s some evidence that kids that young aren’t strong enough to do chest compressions. But from my own experience, not only are younger kids able to absorb and remember this information well — better than most distracted, multi-tasking adults can — but more enthusiastic than most adults about their knowledge. And if you start with elementary age kids, who take refresher courses as necessary, those without the strength will soon (by junior high and high school) have the strength to go with the knowledge.

When the boys found out that the continuing education program in town was offering a two-night/seven hour Canadian Firearms Safety course (a requirement to acquire non-restricted firearms, though not for a hunting license, which the kids are working toward, some more diligently than others). While I don’t expect the kids to be acquiring firearms any time soon, I did like that the course teaches basic firearms safety practices; safe handling and carry procedures; firing techniques and procedures; care of non-restricted firearms; responsibilities of the firearms owner/user; and safe storage, display, transportation and handling of non-restricted firearms. Laura returned just before the course and asked to take it too. Definitely a worthwhile course.

Daniel got his learner’s permit recently, and Laura will be able to get her graduated license next spring, two years after getting her learner’s permit (age 14 around here).

And later this month Laura takes a two-day women’s self-defense course, which seems like a good idea if she’s going to (as seems likely) spend more and more time far afield, in fields and elsewhere, on her own. So just a few courses and an internship the kids have taken since June.

In other course news, Laura has made arrangements to borrow a copy of the out-of-print, horribly expensive to purchase secondhand Handbook of Bird Biology so she can take the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s home study course in bird biology this year; it’s generally a six- to eight-month course.  A new, third edition of the the textbook (which is a doorstop) has been in the works for several years now, and Laura has been disappointed several times as the publishing date gets pushed off again and again. She doesn’t want to take any chances (the current publishing date is listed as spring 2014, but if they’re wrong, she won’t get a chance to finish the course by the time she graduates from high school, which is her goal), which is why she’s borrowing the book. Which wasn’t easy, either, and required considerable networking in the provincial birding community.

Back

We had a productive week in NYC, getting reacquainted with the building maintenance staff (we were frequent users of the service elevator, and made good use of the building dumpsters and hand trucks). Tom and the kids also got to know the staff at the nearby Goodwill and Salvation Army stores, hauling 60 boxes with about 1,500 books.

The first full day, with a bird walk for Laura and boating for the boys all in Central Park, we learned on arrival back at the hotel that there had been an extreme heat/humidity alert. The heat and humidity continued for the rest of the week, until Friday.  We never made it to Trader Joe’s (since there was a line to get into the place and life is just to short) or to Lincoln Center or a movie, because by the time we were done at the office every evening, we were hot, tired, and hungry. We did, though, get to hear and meet one of Tom’s favorite authors, Mark Kurlansky, who gave a talk at the nearby Barnes & Noble about his newest book.

The kids discovered the magic that is Halal food carts. And we had some very good Chinese and Indian food, and picnic lunches and dinners with great bread, cheese, pickled herring from Murray’s Sturgeon Shop, and beautiful blueberries (from New Jersey, three pints for $5). And lots and lots of walking.

We all enjoyed the vet clinic with entertaining calico kittens in the window just steps from the hotel, and Laura had fun at the Sephora across the street (able to try on nail polish and eyeshadow to her heart’s content), and Davy tried on every pair of sunglasses at Eastern Mountain Sports, also across the street. Appropriately enough, there are little trees growing in the sewer on the corner by EMS (all photos by Laura),

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Aside from the Upper West Side location, laundry room, and great breakfasts (very good bagels and croissants), our room came with a small balcony, which was a pleasant surprise. And good for bird watching and listening, according to Laura.

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While I’ve noticed a bit on other trips, it was quite apparent for this first summer trip in 20 years how much NYC has put into landscaping its public spaces, from the Central Park Nature Conservancy (the restoration efforts in the past two decades are truly a marvel) and whoever looks after Madison Square Park, to the garden areas outside the First Baptist Church at Broadway and 79th Street,

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Our welcome back to the prairies last night on the drive home from the airport,

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Good to be home.

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)

Thank yous

to JoVE at Tricotomania, for the Christmas present of a hand-knit pair of mittens,

inspired by the colors of the Caribbean my parents loved so much. As you can see from some of my West Indian pottery, JoVE’s color sense is bang on,

JoVe and her daughter are coming for another visit next month, for a weekend, and we’re all very excited.

And thank you to Sheila at Greenridge Chronicles, for feeding my Downton Abbey fixation and letting me see what all the “Military Wives” fuss is about. “Military Wives” is heart-warming and inspiring, but I have to admit my heart belongs to Downtown, season two and especially the special Christmas episode. Find a cowboy in the middle west, indeed!

The return

We returned home late on February 14th, after about a month away.  While the rest of North America was celebrating Valentine’s Day with chocolate, cards, and crafts, we were driving west from Regina and just relieved to be home, from which we have been absent for four months since October, which seems crazy when I think about it.  My husband and kids have been absolute rocks to put up with all of this coming and going, emptying almost 50 years’ worth of furnishings and memories from a New York City apartment, getting on a first name basis with the staff at the nearby Salvation Army, and, the worst part of all, driving on the NJ turnpike from the Lincoln Tunnel to Jersey City, the trip’s true low spot.  We left last Wednesday, and made it to DuBois, PA the first night; our other stops each night, after driving about eight hours a day (except in North Dakota, where we had to keep driving past Fargo and Grand Forks until we finally, finally found a hotel room) were Danville, Illinois, Des Moines, Iowa; Grafton, ND; Regina, Saskatchewan; crossing the border into Canada north of Grafton south of Winnipeg, and home.

To counter the lows, which also included unhelpful apartment building staff (thanks to co-op board regulations and union regulations) and legal action taken by the landlord against us although my sister and I tried to explain that we had no interest either in the apartment or in prolonging the clearing out process (thank you co-op board and union), some of the highs:

* the vastness and beauty of the Canadian Shield, and the beauty of northwestern Ontario, especially Kenora, where we spent a night (all photos by the kids, often from a moving truck),

* some other sights we saw, including the Terry Fox statue in Thunder Bay, where he was forced to end his Marathon of Hope by the return of cancer; the Big Nickel in Sudbury, Ontario; and the CN Tower in Toronto,

* the magic of Niagara Falls in winter, when everything in the path of the mist is transformed into an ice sculpture,

* Le Roy, NY, the home of Jell-O, which I discovered just a few miles outside of LeRoy while reading through the AAA guidebook, because Davy has always been a keen fan of Jell-O.  We made it to the Le Roy museum just minutes before their 4 pm closing time, and the staff were gracious enough to let the kids have a quick look around the Jell-O gallery while I made a quick tour of the museum shop and made some purchases. Le Roy is a beautiful village in Genesee County, with lovely old houses

* AAA guidebooks and maps, which are all free when you join CAA/AAA, and the free online Triptik service, which was a great help in planning our route;

* meeting Susan Thomsen of Chicken Spaghetti after about five years of online friendship, because she was kind enough to let us park our 16′ cargo trailer in her driveway for more than a week, and during a crazy snowy month which shrank driveways considerably.  We also got to meet her husband, and son Junior (who quickly took in the boys and shared some Lego with them, much needed and appreciated after a week in a truck), and inlaws, who were all so warm and welcoming.  And we saw her chickens, and she and Laura talked about birds together. Thank you for everything, Susan!

* Laura’s and Tom’s bird walk with “Birding Bob” DeCandido, through a snowy and icy Central Park, where they saw an adult male Cooper’s hawk, brown creepers, a white-crowned sparrow, brown-headed cowbirds, red-wing blackbirds, and wood ducks.  Laura and Tom were the ones to spot a male yellow-bellied sapsucker.  Although Laura was disappointed not to spot the celebrated varied thrush, she was pleased with all the other birds.

* the kindness and pleasantness of motel clerks to NYC and back, despite our lack of reservations, and modern m/hotel thinking that makes a swimming pool, free wifi in rooms, and free hot breakfasts the new standard.  A special thank you to the woman at the Travelodge in Kenora who let me use the coin-operated laundry well past the 9 pm deadline to wash clothes after Davy lost his breakfast outside of Regina; and to front desk staff at the AmericInn in Des Moines, Iowa, who gave me two rooms with queen beds for $50 each, so that the kids each had a separate bed for the first time since leaving home.  If we are ever in your neighborhoods again, we will be back.

* the kindness, pleasantness, and professional manner of staff working at truck stops throughout the U.S. Remarkable people who probably don’t receive enough thanks and appreciation;

* being in NYC and being able to go to Barnes & Noble on the publication day of  the latest Flavia de Luce book, A Red Herring without Mustard by Canadian Alan Bradley.  I bought it for Laura who started reading it as soon as possible, and it’s at the top of my “to be read” pile now.  And now that we’re home, I’ve ordered, from the library, the Book Depository, Amazon.ca, and Chapters.ca, for my own reading, which at the moment seem to be limited to escapism (of the genteel and also the more murderous sort); sentimentality and nostalgia about leaving New York, the apartment which my parents had lived in since I was born, my parents; and planning our new house*:

* lobsters at Fairway, which are inexpensive and which the staff will steam and crack for you.  It was Laura’s idea, and made for a delicious dinner on one of our last nights in the apartment;

* our overnight in DuBois, Pennsylvania, which I didn’t know until our arrival was the hometown of Tom Mix — my father would have laughed;

* our afternoon visit in Moline, Illinois to the John Deere Pavilion in the city’s downtown and to Deere’s world headquarters, which also had a nice display. Laura found mute swans swimming in the lake near the building.

* the beautiful barns, graineries, and corn cribs in Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Minnesota

I’m sure I’ve forgotten some things, and I know the kids have more pictures, so I may have to have another post.  I just wanted to post a bit about the journey, and say thank you to

* which will be a combination of these two house plans, this one for the outside details, and this one for the inside floor plan (though it needs lots more rejiggering), especially on the main floor.  Work to begin in late May, and all I can say is that after having a new house as our five-year plan for the past 17 years (oy…) and everything we have gone through in the past 18 months, I am beyond excited to plan the new house.  Even better is the fact that we decided the other year to keep our current house, so we get to live in it during the building process and not live in a trailer or  a shipping container.