Visits

It was a memorable spring for visits.  The most remarkable was a visiting snowy owl, whose magnificent presence mesmerized our neighborhood for several weeks in April and May. 

We have had snowy owls on our hill in the past.  But only glimpses for a day or two.  This spring, he stuck around, patrolling from house, to house, to farm, taking advantage of the rodent-rich year.  He usually spent his nights across the street at the house highest on the hill. 

In the mornings, he would move to our side of the road, at various hunting stations, and usually concluded the day at the high peak of our next-door neighbor’s roof, seemingly content to just sit. 

Everyone in the neighborhood tracked his whereabouts, traded photos, and speculated about why he was staying so long.  He was not at all shy and did not seem to mind having people or dogs around. 

Sitting on a rock on our back yard.

But after two visiting photographers stalked him one day, he packed up and left, presumably for summer on the tundra.

Perched in our big back yard oak

In the meantime, we had a lot going on.  In April, we finally had our kitchen redone.  It had cheap oak cabinets and dark formica countertops that we had long wanted to replace. 

We had debated expanding the kitchen or opening it to the living room, but eventually decided to leave the layout the way it was.  It is a great kitchen for cooking—very compact, efficient, and cool in the summer. 

We did need more storage, so put in additional cabinets under the island and along one wall.  We love to cook and now it is such a joy to be in the kitchen with everything just where we want it.   My favorite addition is the table George built for one wall. 

The top is from a cherry tree from our land and is simply gorgeous. 

After the kitchen was completed, in May, I drove to Pennsylvania to visit museums and antique wheel collectors. 

The Germanic buildings at Ephrata Cloister, a religious settlement requiring celibacy, scant meals, and sleeping on narrow benches.

The drive down was hair-raising—torrential rain on highways clogged with 18-wheelers (there seem to be a lot more trucks on the road since covid hit).  I vowed never to drive through New Jersey again, but it was worth it.  

Ephrata Valley wheels and a tape loom

People who collect antique wheels have developed a “railroad” system of volunteers who transport wheels when traveling.  I railroaded a car-load of New England wheels to Pennsylvania and exchanged wheels there with another railroader from Michigan.  So, we moved some mid-western wheels to New England (where they are hard to find) and vice-versa

Landis Valley Farm Museum in Lancaster

We both met up with two other wheel enthusiasts for tours we had arranged of the textile equipment at Ephrata Cloister and the Landis Valley Farm museum. 

A tape loom in the Landis Valley Museum collection

I spent another amazing day visiting with two different wheel collectors–talking wheels and weaving. I managed to fit nine wheels (for three different people) in the car coming home. It was a wonderful trip, especially sweet after a year without travel.

Nine wheels in the car

Once home, gardening was in full swing.  Last fall and this spring, George has been planting trees, for screening and beauty. 

He planted redbud and shadblow in the understory and what we laughingly call an archipelago of evergreens and a Japanese stewartia along a slope in the front lawn. 

They look like a tree army vanguard, slowly working their way across the yard.  A star magnolia George planted in the fall survived two snowfalls while budding out,

to give us quite a show. 

In fact, it was a very blossomy spring all around. 

The lilacs were spectacular.  

It has been very dry and hot, though—a continuation of last year’s drought.  

We had a heat wave while the apples were in bloom, which may be the reason we are seeing fire blight on some of our apple trees. 

Fire blight, a bacterial infection, was unknown in Maine until about a decade ago.  Now, it seems to be spreading fast in the north and we will surely lose some of our old wild trees from it.  I feel terrible for the commercial growers having to deal with it.

This ancient wild apple, beloved by the waxwings for its cidery yellow fruit was hit the hardest by the blight

The climate is certainly changing here—new insect pests and diseases are moving north every year.  It felt as if we had no spring this year–we went straight into hot and humid summer (too hot for me). At this rate, in a few years, we may only be growing peaches and pawpaws.  

I am experimenting with bagging peaches, pears, and apples this year—trying three different types of bags and leaving some unbagged for comparison.  I’m hoping for a good crop. And finally, five years after planting, we will have our first tiny crop of northern kiwis.

While searching for kiwis, I noticed this mourning dove peering out at me from a nest in the vines.

As usual, we have lots of nesting birds this year.

To avoid the house finches nesting in our hanging basket as they did last year, we decided to go with window boxes this year.

George made them for the house and a shed.

When not outside, I am always spinning, weaving, and rescuing wheels.  This amazing cannon-shaped Ontario great wheel had been languishing in someone’s shed for years. 

It is inside now, and spinning. 

I wove my first rug from wool I had dyed over the last two summers with plants from our land. 

The most exciting weaving, however, is this small piece.

It is linen I wove from flax that I grew, processed, and spun myself.  After learning to turn flax into linen, I will never think of the clothing the same way again.

After a somewhat frenetic early spring–we always seem to take on too much–we unwound on a week-long vacation Downeast. 

We rented a cabin at the end of a dirt road, on its own beach, not far from Cutler, Maine. 

We loved the area—no traffic, few tourists, lots of beauty. 

We visited Quoddy Head lighthouse,

at the easternmost point of the contiguous U.S. and Jasper Beach, an unspoiled crescent beach of round rocks, that make the most extraordinary rumbling sound with the waves. 

The dogs thought it was paradise, with their own beach playground. 

Alice adores the water and would fetch until she dropped if we let her.

Capp prefers to fish,

mostly for seaweed. 

I went swimming—with a wetsuit, after the first frigid dip. 

Mostly we just enjoyed being by the water, with lots of reading and relaxing.

We are back home now working on gardening and projects and looking forward to family visits here in July.

Emerging From the Covid Cocoon

With a year of plague-induced seclusion under our belts, we are ready to start venturing out.  We are still patiently waiting to be vaccinated, however. Just today, Maine extended vaccination availability to those under 70, so we are hoping to be jabbed before the month is out.  Although we are eager to see our family again and to savor the pleasures of eating inside a restaurant, moseying around stores, and browsing through the library, our year at home has been productive, creative, and satisfying.  And it has changed us. 

I have an even deeper appreciation of the life we have created here, shed layers of stress, embraced my reclusive nature, and have less itch to travel.  I have become far more attuned to the weather and the seasons, to the point of following the sun as it tracks across the room—morning weaving at the big loom in full southern sun,

midday weaving tapes and spinning wool as the sun hits the eastern side of the room,

and afternoons at the flax wheel, which sits in the western dormer.  It will be interesting to see what long-term behavioral changes come out of this upside-down year. 

Our weather these past three months has been as unsettled as the political scene (my fear that our democracy might not survive this year turned out to be well-founded—but we did squeak by).

We have had a few snow dumps—which make the dogs crazy with joy—

followed by melting back to bare ground. 

We had one spectacular ice storm,

some frigid patches,

warm patches,

and lots and lots of high wind. 

A December wind even blew the outdoor shower off its foundation. 

It is well-secured now. 

Christmas was quiet, but lovely. 

With the cold weather, George moved his projects indoors. 

When we had our garage built, the plan was for George to use one bay for a woodworking shop.  He finally had the time to get it fully up and running this winter. 

He made a bookcase for the bedroom,

installed an additional shelf in my loom room,

and has been working on my spinning wheels, including making a curvaceous treadle for the pendulum wheel

and fixing the wooden axle on this more-than-200-year-old bobbin winder.   

For me, winter means spinning and weaving. 

I finished a small coverlet that had been in the works for years.  It started with a lustrous Nash Island fleece that I brought home and washed two summers ago. 

I spun it last winter and spring and dyed the yarn late last summer with madder, woad, and Japanese indigo from my dye garden, and goldenrod, which grows wild here.   

The final step was picking a traditional coverlet design—pine cone blossom, also called pine burr—and the actual weaving.   

Alice approves. 

I have also been weaving more fabric for clothes,

weaving tapes,

and doing lots of spinning—wool and flax. 

I have added a few wheels to my collection, but do not have them yet.  They are being fostered with other wheel collectors until we can really start traveling again.  I am fostering several wheels for others, too, so there is going to be a lot of wheel railroading going on this spring. 

As if my wheel collecting is not enough, I discovered the world of Conder tokens recently.  A weaver posted a photo of one on Instagram and I was instantly intrigued—a graphic piece of history captured in a coin. 

The bobbin winder on this 1790s token looks very much like the one George repaired above

Because of a scarcity of small denomination coins in the late 1700s due to increasing industrialization and population growth in England, Ireland, Wales and Scotland, business owners, merchants, and local governments started minting their own. 

They are often intricately designed, representing local industries and trades,

anti-slavery pleas, and political satire.  I have collected a few of the textile related designs and one political one, which I will be using as weights on orifice hooks for my spinning wheels.

We are still eating food that we put by from the garden—we have enough winter squash, frozen and dehydrated vegetables and herbs, tomato sauce, carrots, and ginger to last until spring.  

In fact, we had so many pumpkins and winter squash that we donated them to a local farmer friend for her pigs.  Sadly, we had to give up on greenhouse greens this winter, because the mice kept devouring them.  We have not had any signs of mice in the greenhouse for the last six weeks, though, so I planted seeds for spring greens.  We will keep the traps well peanut-buttered, spread the minty mouse deterrent, and keep fingers crossed. 

Pruning and outside spring chores are just around the corner. 

The mourning doves are coo-cooing, foxes are barking and looking for places to den,

and I put wool on my apple branches in hopes of keeping the spring-hungry deer from nibbling the shoots.

In the meantime, we are enjoying the final month or so of hunkering-down, while planning our reemergence into society. 

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”*

A storm walloped us last night.  The house vibrated and shuddered in the strongest sustained winds that we have seen since moving in.  Sometime after midnight, we started hearing thwacking and whumping sounds, as if some large creature wanted its way inside.  George investigated and found flashing had broken apart and was flailing wildly against the roof and gutter. 

Nothing we could fix in the storm, so we sat snug in bed, warm and dry, with the dogs snoring at our feet, wondering how much damage we would see when the sun came up. The noise and worry kept me mostly awake and I could not help but think how the night felt much like the past months—worrying about a whirlwind of damage, while we are tucked up in our little sanctuary.   It has been a terrible year in so many ways, but also, for us, one with rich moments of contentment and joy. 

It is a little disconcerting to feel overwhelmed with worry, disbelief, and disgust on the one hand and feel oddly happy on the other hand.  But this grim year has given us two things that we never had before—luxury of time and stability of place. 

We had endless uninterrupted weeks at home to really dig in and do things the way we had planned and dreamed, but never quite had the time to pull off.  And, after a lifetime of moving around, we now live in a place where we can make long-term plans.  This has been the year in which our plantings and plans are coming to fruition. 

So, covid and crazy politics be damned, we made it a satisfying and fulfilling summer and fall. 

For example, George built a garden shed. 

I have long wanted one, but we never had the time or place to build one before. 

He designed and built the shed of my dreams, small, but with plenty of shelves and hooks for storage and tools and a workbench where I can look out the window while potting, wreath-making, and puttering. 

To top it off, it is adorable, with a red door topped with a rabbit head. 

It has saved me loads of time to have everything in one convenient place.  And, for the first time this year, I feel caught up. 

Everything was harvested on time, my garden paths are properly mulched, my compost is turned, my bulbs are in the ground, my perennials are divided and put to bed, and I’m ready for winter.   

But winter has yet to arrive.  The weather continues its weird ways—an unsettling harbinger, perhaps, of much worse to come.  Our drought continued into the fall—days on days of unvarying sunshine. 

Even the trees were suffering.  Several strong windstorms whipped through.  One uprooted the beautiful old wild russet apple that George had left as a signature tree at the top of our driveway and tore off a side trunk of the giant oak that frames our view. 

George planted a flowering crab where the apple had been and, because the damage to that oak trunk was on top of previous damage, we had to have it taken down.  

Our stately oak now looks oddly amputated and bereft of its other half. 

November was freakily mild, feeling more like September, or even May.  We had one hard frost that took out the tomatoes and peppers, but the garden continues to produce lettuce, carrots, chard, spinach, and brassicas even though it’s now December.   

September garden

Overall, we had a good year in the garden, especially for squash, pumpkins, and the carrots that the mice did not taste test. 

Despite the Japanese beetle damage to the leaves, the edamame did really well

Because generations of mice continue to plague us.  They taste tested almost everything, but liked my precious peanuts best, leaving only a trail of shells behind.  For the first time, they got into the greenhouse, decimating overnight the seedlings for our winter greens. 

Greenhouse in September–the ginger and turmeric are on the right

The greenhouse must have seemed like mouse heaven—abundant food, warm, dry, safe from predators.  When I cleared the dense greenhouse tomato vines, I found an empty mouse nest of cotton and milkweed hidden behind them. 

A few mornings later, I found a mouse drowned in my watering can.  I was not happy. 

Some mouse relief came in the form of a Cooper’s Hawk that moved in for several weeks in October, patrolling the gardens and yard.  One morning he disemboweled a mouse on a fence post right outside our window.  After eating every bit, he daintily wiped his beak on the post, one side,

then the other,

before taking his hunting stance again.

Fortunately, the mice did not touch the greenhouse ginger and turmeric and we had a bumper crop. 

We used a dehydrator this year for quite a few vegetables and had enough ginger to dry some for our own ginger powder, which packs amazing flavor.  Our little ginger patch grows enough to keep us in ginger all year. 

Aside from making powder, we freeze it, cover it in vodka and refrigerate, and have enough to give some away.  It is one of my favorite crops. 

My flax also did well this year, even though it was so hot and dry. 

I’m getting more knowledgeable about processing it and this year’s crop has been the best yet for spinning—long, smooth, and much less hairy than previous years. 

I’ve been weaving fabric for a dress

and am working on a small overshot coverlet with the wool that I spun and dyed earlier this summer. 

I have been happily immersed in collecting, repairing, researching, and writing about (in my other blog) antique spinning wheels and textile equipment and am always spinning—right now some beautiful Gotland, Cormo, and Clun Forest fleeces.

Sadly, my bees, which had been a good strong hive all summer, swarmed at the end of August, which is not good for the bees left behind (or those that swarmed).  Although the remaining bees left continued to bring in pollen, their numbers dwindled as the queen was not vigorously laying.  The weakened hive was robbed clean of honey by other bees—a quick but ugly ending.

As usual, October and November brought vivid sunrises

full moons

and golden light pouring in our windows. 

Capp continues to be healthy, which is a great relief. 

He is packed with personality and enriches our lives every day.  And our quirky, sweet Alice is now a celebrity mom.  We bought her when she was three years old from a breeder, who was retiring Alice from breeding after one litter.   

We were a bit stunned to learn that one of her pups from that litter, Click (aka Grampian’s Up on the Rooftop (it was a Christmas Day litter)), won Best in Breed at the National Dog Show.  The show was televised on Thanksgiving Day and Alice sat in my lap and watched her son Click on TV.  An extra Thanksgiving treat. 

Despite that excitement, we really missed being with our kids and grandkids on Thanksgiving.  Next year we hope to toast to vaccines, a change in government, and a new year that isn’t quite so memorable.  Cheers to all (and *apologies to Charles Dickens for using his amazing opening line from A Tale of Two Cities to title a blog post). 

Wreaking Havoc

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No half measures this summer—everything has hit with ferocity.  A normality-ending disease, human wrecking hammers smashing every aspect of our system of government, life-sucking heat and drought, and new garden pests have all been wreaking havoc.  Even George has created a little havoc with massive tree clearing.  It’s exhausting.

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All summer, it has felt as if we are existing on two levels.  On the one hand, we have been enormously productive, working on things we love, which brings deeply satisfying contentment.

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On the other hand, there is an underlying current of tension, anger, and disbelief over the state of the world that never really leaves.  I have never felt so powerless in my life.

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So, we do what we can to improve the world where we do have some power—our little hillside domain.

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Staying home, with no visitors, has given us ample time to really dig in and do things right.  In previous years, I had so many things going on in the summer, that I was always playing catch up in the gardens.

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Flax in July

This year, with George’s help, I finally managed to get enough mulch in the walkways to keep the weeds under control.

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Most everything has been thriving, despite the crazy weather.

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June started with weeks of wet, dripping fog, leaving things feeling sticky and smelling moldy.  When the fog lifted, the heat settled in.

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My experimental peanuts like the heat

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The peanuts grow underground off of these pegs extending down from the stems

Week after week of brutally hot sun and high humidity.

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It is not weather we are used to in Maine.  We soldiered on, working outside through the heat, dripping sweat and fending off black flies and deer flies.

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It finally got so bad that the heat was making me feel slightly sick and I ended up retreating inside in the air-conditioned sanctuary of our garage loft.  The dogs were uncomfortable, too, parking themselves in front of their personal fans.

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We were not the only ones to notice that the gardens are thriving.

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The chipmunks and mice discovered them, too, this year.

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Tunneling their way under everything, they decimated my brassica seedlings, ate bean plants down to nubs, and nibbled and gnawed their way down every bed.

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Tunnels everywhere

They aren’t picky eaters—peas, strawberries, melons, flax seeds, carrots, beets—I even found a wee mouse with huge feet nesting among the potatoes when I dug them up.

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Fortunately, they can’t climb up the corn and we now have a small solar electric fence to keep the raccoons out.  So far, so good.

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Aside from the rodent mayhem, insects have created some havoc, as well.  Seemingly overnight, plum curculios descended on my cherry trees, leaving not one cherry unmolested.  I had never had a problem with them before, so wasn’t prepared.  I will be next year.  Since I only have a few fruit trees that are mature enough to bear fruit, I decided to bag some of the fruit against pests this year as experiment.

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Plastic bags on the apples, cloth on the peaches.

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It looks weird but seems to be working.  While it has been a record year for Japanese beetles, we only saw one monarch butterfly all summer.

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Japanese beetles made lace of the soybeans

We had so many last year, I don’t know how this year’s migration got waylaid, but something must have happened.  I miss them.

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Our birds and bees have been thriving, though.

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Every year we have more birds nesting on the property.  They seem to like it here.

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House finch hatchlings in the hanging basket

The robin that had been nesting in the sauna wood box, moved her subsequent nests to under our deck, much safer from predators, and raised two broods there.

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Baby robin under our deck, ready to take the leap

I harvested my first honey this year.

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Tastes like home.

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Birds aren’t the only creatures who like it here.

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All sorts of animals have discovered our trails—deer,

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We are hoping the coyotes don’t get this fawn

coyotes,

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Coyotes (sometimes called coywolves) appear on the camera day and night

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domestic cats, a bobcat,

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porcupines, raccoons, foxes, skunks,

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Young skunks

rabbits—all right behind our house.

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Young porcupines jousting

We rarely see the larger animals—only their tracks—but the game camera gives us a glimpse into what is going on when we aren’t around.

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George has been a whirlwind all summer, mostly clearing out highly overgrown areas,

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to give space and light to our screens of evergreens, wild apples, the new orchard trees we are planting, and to maintain our view and that of our neighbors.

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When our neighbor moved into his house in the early 70s, the hillside was almost entirely cleared, with blueberry fields and pasture.

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In the years since, trees have grown up at an amazing rate and much of the hillside now is heavily wooded. The growth rings on this large maple show that it is about 45 years old.

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George hasn’t just been taking down trees, he put in a welcoming light and new sign at the head of our driveway,

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built me a grape trellis, stacked and split four years’ worth of firewood, and created what we’ve named our “industrial drive” along one of our trails, where he processes wood and parks equipment.

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It feels good to be getting so organized.

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Aside from the gardens, I have continued to focus on my flax and spinning two fleeces for natural dyeing.

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Drying flax

I processed most of last year’s flax and will finish it and this year’s harvest in September.

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Flax tub retting

I should have enough to actually weave some fabric this year.

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Some of last year’s crop, ready to spin

My dye gardens are thriving

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Harvesting Japanese indigo

and I’ve had two dyeing days,

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one with weld and indigo and one with madder.

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Yellow from weld, blue from Japanese indigo and green overdyeing weld with indigo

Because this was the first year the madder bed was old enough to harvest,

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I wasn’t sure what to expect for color.  It wasn’t exactly what I was aiming at, but I love it.

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We have not stayed home all the time.  I’ve picked up a couple of spinning wheels,

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we socialize with neighbors,

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I’ve been kayaking and swimming,

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and George and I went to the coast for our wedding anniversary, enjoying a walk on the beach and some fried clams.

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We’ve been fortunate to have very few Covid-19 cases here in Maine, so far.  Let’s hope it doesn’t escalate too much in the fall.

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Figs in the greenhouse

I’m looking forward to cooler fall weather and inside weaving time but dreading the upcoming months until the election.   It is going to be ugly.

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I will try to focus on the beauty here and hope we make it out the other side with our sanity, health, and government intact.

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Sweet Alice

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Are we there yet?

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Often these days, the news–and social media–make me feel like a powerless child on an endless car ride through hell, crowded into the middle of the backseat with quarrelsome, nasty little brats fighting on either side of me (“I know you are, but what am I?”), scenes of suffering flashing by the windows, while the car careens all over the road, the adults up front bickering over directions–the driver a nearsighted incompetent, who never took driver training, constantly checking his hair in the rear-view mirror, while driving along a cliff’s edge, with fewer and fewer guardrails, an increasingly bumpy road, and ominous thunderheads ahead.

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I alternate between outrage, disbelief, profound cynicism, anger, and, occasional glimmers of hope.  It’s probably just that I’m getting old, but I feel as if we fight the same battles over and over, only now things are taking on weird and frightening new twists, and it makes me weary.

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But we are fortunate personally, because the reality of our day-to-day life has stayed much the same, despite the craziness in the larger world.  In May, we reached our five-year mark of living on our beautiful hillside.

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We have worked hard these years, front-loading our projects, knowing that our fitness and stamina would be declining and that it would takes years for some things to reach fruition.

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At this five-year point, we are really starting to reap the benefits of that early planning and work.  Lazy composter that I am, I finally have a working rotation of compost bins providing much of what I need for the gardens. George has firewood drying according to species, so that it will be properly seasoned when it’s time to burn.

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Our slow-to-mature crops are bearing now.

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We have rhubarb, asparagus, blueberries, blackberries, honeyberries, elderberries, cherries, and peaches, and are only a year away from pears and apples.

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We’re still waiting on the hazelnuts, figs, and northern kiwi—but are getting closer.   My dye gardens are mature—madder (for red dye) should grow for three years before harvesting the roots.

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The yellow flowers are woad (for blue) and the plants in the front are madder (for red)

I have planted madder beds every year for the past three years, so will be able to harvest it annually from now on.  The bees are thriving.  We are hoping for honey this year.

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We are getting close to our vision for this place—but that vision is always evolving, so will always be a work in progress.

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Our spring weather was almost as crazy as the outside world.

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April 10th storm

We had two very late snowstorms.

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After the snow, the temperatures soared and new growth exploded.   Then we had a hard frost on June 1.

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Now, it changes day-to-day, hot, cold, dry, wet, fog—all over the place.

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We lost a lot of big branches in one of the late storms, mostly where bittersweet had grown up into the trees and became weighted down with the heavy spring snow.  So, George has been cutting down the bittersweet and opening up areas around many of the old wild apples to allow more light and air circulation.

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The bluebirds were peaceful this year—thank goodness—successfully raising a brood.

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And the swallows are back in their usual box, babies born, but we haven’t seen their hungry heads peeking out yet.

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We had a robin build a lovely, mud-lined nest in our sauna wood box.

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We were afraid that it would be within reach of some nestling-eating animals,

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but she appears to have raised her brood to fledglings.

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A phoebe is nesting under the eaves of a dormer window

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and the house finches decided to nest in a hanging basket on our porch.

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The male finch.

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Female finch checking out the hanging basked from the nearby apple tree.

I didn’t know the nest was there until I used the hose to water it a few days ago and a very agitated bird flew out.

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As usual, George is working on building projects,

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George enclosed the area under the deck–a huge improvement.

the lower orchard,

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the lawns, and maintaining the trails, while helping me finally get the paths in the vegetable garden covered with enough chips to keep the weeds under control.

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I’ve been gardening like mad, spinning for summer dyeing, doing a little weaving, sewing clothes from my woven fabric,

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and continuing to rescue old wheels.

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We have really missed visits from our kids, grandkids, and friends.  On the other hand, the gardens have never looked better and I’m finding time to blog.

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I started another blog as a way to document my antique spinning wheels and textile tools and have been enjoying digging into research for it.  If you’re interested, the link is here: exquisitemachinery. I also finally got started on processing last year’s flax crop and hope to have enough after this batch to spin and weave fabric for a shirt.

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All in all, we are hanging in here quite happily, keeping our home fires burning, and hoping the world doesn’t melt down in the coming months.

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It feels as if our country may be reaching several tipping points and anything could happen.

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One thing that is certain, however, is that our votes have never been more important. Make your voices heard through voting—at every level, local to national.  It’s the most effective way to turn collective grief, anger, outrage, and approval into tangible change.

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And continue to find solace and joy where you can.

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Time keeps ticking by.

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Becoming a Recluse

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I started to write a blog post about six weeks ago entitled, “Becoming a Recluse.”   I never dreamed it would become so apt.

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The gist of the post was my decision late last fall to forego all outside commitments so that I could focus on my projects at home—spinning, weaving, dyeing, and gardening.

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Because there aren’t many people giving presentations on antique wheels and flax production, those that I gave last year led to multiple offers for talks, projects, and articles.   While intriguing, what I really wanted to do was hunker down at home with my fleeces, wheels, loom, and plants.  So, I said “no” to everything, with the explanation that for the next year I wanted no commitments, but rather to stay at home to make things, grow things, and do nothing at all.

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George and I decided that we would ease up on the projects at home, too, planning to spend more time relaxing and savoring the seasons.  I should have been more careful with what I wished for.

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All of those outside obligations (had I taken them on) have been cancelled.  My wish became a mandate.  And doesn’t that change everything?  What had been a wonderful few months of very sweet contentment, waking every morning to do just what I wanted–mostly weaving and spinning–is now infused with worry.

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The slow motion aspect of this disaster makes it especially surreal.

IMG_4520A tsumani of illness, turmoil, and economic devastation is headed our way and we can’t do much but watch and hope that it won’t be as bad as we imagine.  Sometimes lack of imagination is a good thing.

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We are well suited for this lockdown, by our natures and the relative self-sufficiency of a life in rural Maine.  I have enough books to read and fleeces to spin to last for years.

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Our neighborhood and town are supportive and caring.  But so many lives will be devastated.  I fear that the coming year will be horrific and hope that our democracy survives intact.

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Still, spring is coming, virus or not.   I will be starting my garden seedlings this week, with plans for a big garden.

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I spin and weave every day and continue to work on my rescue wheels (which will outlive us all).

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The dogs are their usual charming, sweet selves,

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and the sky continues—as always–to put on a glorious show.

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Please stay healthy, sane, creative, and resilient.   Take care of yourselves.

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Transformations

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As usual, summer whirled by.  We took on too much, but are feeling the sweet satisfaction of transforming our slice of hillside into our long-dreamed-of ultimate home.  It feels good.

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George capped off a summer of building projects by finishing the sauna.  He put an amazing amount of time, thought, and work into it.  And it’s a beautiful creation, with gorgeous wood inside and out, nestled in the trees, promising hours of bliss—soaking in heat, hot cedar fragrance, and the flickering light of the woodfire.

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To accompany the sauna, George also built a deluxe outdoor shower.

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Beginnings of the shower (with the dye garden and fleece washing station behind)

There’s nothing like watching eagles soaring overhead while showering.  Getting clean has never been so sweet.

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While George was busy building, the butterflies moved in.

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The Eastern Tiger Swallowtails appeared first

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Eastern Tiger Swallowtail caterpillar–the only time I’ve seen one–the “eyes” and swaying head were a bit creepy

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Black Swallowtail caterpillar

We were besieged by monarchs.  In their caterpillar incarnation they ate our milkweed to desolate skeletons, every tender bit devoured.

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We were fortunate to catch the moment of metamorphosis from caterpillar to chrysalis while the grandchildren were here.

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Attaching to form a chrysalis

I hope it didn’t give them nightmares of alien transformations.

IMG_3205Lots of writhing and pulsing, as a massive chrysalis (where did that incredible hulk come from?) shed the vivid caterpillar skin, leaving a shriveled bit of tissue-paper debris in a matter of minutes.

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Ouch.

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By August, Monarch chrysalises were hanging everywhere—from perennial stalks, siding, windowsills, and even a wheelbarrow.

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As good hosts, we left them alone—no cutting back of perennials or bumpy wheelbarrow rides during chrysalis-hood.  On the final day before butterfly emergence, the chrysalis becomes a deep blue, with wings and colors visible.

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But the actual emergence is very fast—it’s over in minutes.  Although I kept on eye on ripe ones, I kept missing the magic moment.  I finally camped out on our deck steps shelling tiger beans, next to a chrysalis looking about to burst, determined to wait until the moment of emergence.

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After about an hour, there was a sudden twitch and the chrysalis listed to one side.

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Then, in an eerie similarity to the caterpillar-chrysalis transformation, in minutes the butterfly shed the chrysalis and burst out—BOOM—into a crumbled color of wings with an outsized body.

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After a few hours drying, it was off, feasting on nectar for the migration south.

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Some evenings more than a dozen would be dancing over our Joe Pye Weed.

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They stayed well into October.  I hope they made it to Mexico.

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It was a good summer for growing—monarchs, flowers, and vegetables.

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The gardens produced wonderfully and I swear the vegetables get tastier every year.

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Flax

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In the summer, we filled the greenhouse with tomatoes, cotton, a fig tree, passion fruit vines, bay laurel, herbs, turmeric and ginger.

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Passionfruit flower

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Curing sweet potatoes in greenhouse

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Hoping for tomatoes into November

Now it’s also planted with greens for fall, winter, and spring.  I’m looking forward to seeing how much it extends the season for us.

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Sweet Alice

The dogs and bees are thriving, too.  Capp appears to have recovered completely from his mystery illness last year, which is such a relief.

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Capp sunbathing

He and Alice are our best buddies, making us rich in love and dog hair.

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My adopted bees settled in beautifully and are going into fall as the strongest hive I’ve ever had.  I’ll wrap the hive next month and hope they make it through the winter.

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Samuel Morison great wheel

Much of my summer was textile-related—most of it outdoors.

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Gotland fleece ready to wash

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Dew retting flax

I went to two natural dyeing workshops, washed fleeces, spun a lot of wool for dyeing, worked on wheels, grew and retted flax, and taught a class on antique wheels.  In late summer, I set up my outdoor dye kitchen for two dyeing sessions, using plants from my dye garden and our land.

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Simmering goldenrod

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Japanese Indigo–notice the blue tinge to the water

What a range of colors emerged: blues from Japanese Indigo and Woad; yellows from Weld, Goldenrod, and Queen Anne’s Lace; gold and orange from Dyer’s Coreopsis; and green from overdyeing the yellows with the blues.

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Dye day one, Woad, Japanese Indigo, Goldenrod, Queen Anne’s Lace and overdyeing for greens

There’s a wonderful sense of witchy-ness in hovering over a brew of plants transforming them to potions of color.

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Dyer’s Coreopsis

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Dye day two–Japanese Indigo, Dyer’s Coreopsis, with overdyeing and afterbaths of washing soda and iron

I was so busy with outside activities that I had little time for weaving.  In September, however, an antique wheel friend offered to sell me her Leksand loom, a beautiful 19th century Swedish loom for weaving bands.  I was thrilled.

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Beautiful old Leksand–I’m very fortunate to have this loom

They are very hard to find and really fun to use.  It took some time to figure out how to set it up and weave on it–all the helpful books were in Swedish.  I also rescued an old Maine tape loom that had been covered with 70s-era painted flowers and have a line-up of spinning wheels waiting for my repairs.

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Cape Breton wheel needing work

Last week I finally warped up my big loom.

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It’s still too beautiful, though, to spend much time inside.  The leaf colors are spectacular this fall.

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But, winter is coming.

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And I plan to be a recluse—home with George, dogs, snow, wheels, spinning, sewing, and weaving.  And the sauna, of course.

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Busy

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Two words for this spring—cold and wet.

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Late snows, hard frosts, frigid mud, and a miserly portion of sunshine delayed our yard work and gardening, again and again.  When the weather finally began to warm up a bit (only a handful of days have teasingly felt like summer), we were in catch-up mode, trying to get everything done at once.

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Preparing the greenhouse pad.

Although I held off on planting, the ground remains unseasonably cold and wet.  My potatoes and flax have stunted patches and the warm weather crops are struggling to get established.  New growth for deer browse was late and some deer—looking for spring nutrition—girdled several of the apple trees that I planted last fall in the lower orchard.

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They didn’t touch any other saplings—that sweet young apple bark must be especially tasty.  I tried to do some cleft grafting to save them, but it doesn’t appear to have taken. So, we will plant more in the spring and fence them well.

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I was hoping the grafts would take, but it doesn’t look good.

I also had another fail with my bees this winter.  They had swarmed last June and the remaining bees in the hive never seemed to get up to full strength.  I was happy that they made it into January, but then I lost them in a long, deep freeze.  I reluctantly decided to take a year off from beekeeping for several reasons:  I would be out-of-state when the bee packages arrive; we want to move the hive to a new area that won’t be ready until later in the year; and we want to do perimeter work around our fence (near the hive) to keep our tick population down.

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There are other hives in our area, and plenty of bees came to pollinate our wild apples, but I really missed having our own.  I put off cleaning out and storing the hive and in a wild, unlikely hope that maybe a swarm would take up residence.  And, sure enough, that’s what happened.  One morning in mid-June, I noticed some bees at the hive.  I could not tell if they were robbing the little honey left or if they might be scouts for a swarm.

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A few hours later I heard a massive buzzing sound and the air was filled with a bee swarm descending on the hive.

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It was pretty exciting.  They now are happily established.  So much for moving the hive—I’m so happy to have these new arrivals, it’s staying where it is.

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The other insects of note this spring are the brown tail moths that are invading midcoast Maine.  They make ticks seem like pleasant little nuisances.  The moth caterpillars have toxic, barbed hairs that become airborne and can create a nasty itchy rash and a cough if breathed.  They favor oaks and apples, of which we have plenty.  Up until this year, they weren’t a problem for us and we did extensive pruning this year on our old apples—not worried about moths.

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Early spring pruning on the wild apples in the yard.

Unbeknownst to George, though, one of the trees was moth-infested and when he was cleaning up the downed branches, he developed a horrible rash.  To finish up the job, he has had to hose down all the wood and wear a moth hazmat outfit.  Yuck.

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Despite the cold and toxic moth hairs, we have never had so many nesting birds.

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Sparrow nest I stumbled on when clearing orchard weeds. Fortunately, I didn’t scare the mother, she’s still sitting on the nest.

The birdsong has been amazing—it goes on from earliest pre-dawn until the evening.  We have nesting wrens, cardinals, sparrows, phoebes, chickadees, mourning doves, yellowthroats, thrushes, catbirds, vireos, towhees, various unidentified warblers, woodpeckers, robins, goldfinches, waxwings, evening grosbeaks, and a a very vocal melodious Baltimore Oriole for the first time this year.

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We put up two nesting boxes with trepidation, hoping that our pugnacious bluebird wouldn’t return.  He didn’t.

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Bluebird fledgling about a minute before his first flight.

We had a friendly bluebird couple take up residence and a gorgeous pair of swallows.

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George has been going non-stop all spring with pruning, putting up next winter’s wood, improving the drainage down the driveway and around the new garage, building beds for my new dye garden,

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Dye garden and fleece washing tubs.

building screen houses for the brassicas,

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The screen enclosure in the background has been wonderful to protect the brassicas from cabbage moth caterpillars.

working on the sauna, planting trees and shrubs, preparing foundations for a new shed and green house, on top of the usual yard, trail, and house maintenance.

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I’m in love with our new greenhouse.

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While George has been giving the tractor a workout, I’ve had a textile-rich spring.  With help from a friend, I put together an exhibit highlighting weaving, spinning, flax production, and antique textile tools for the local library, which recently acquired a trove of new books on these subjects for its craftsmanship collection.

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I didn’t take photos of the exhibit, but we had antique wheels and a tape loom.

In late April, Jan and I also did an evening presentation on antique spinning wheels at the same library, hoping to gain converts to rehabilitate the old wheels and get them spinning again.

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Current herd of great wheels.

Soon after, I went to Vavstuga weaving school in western Massachusetts for a course in Swedish Classics.

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Learning rosepath.

It was wonderful to be back there, immersed in a week of nothing but weaving.

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Monksbelt variation.

When I returned, I got going on taking and collecting photos for a presentation on Connecticut wheelmakers for an Antique Spinning Wheel Symposium at Marshfield School of Weaving in Vermont in early June.

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The presentation also involved countless hours of genealogy research and deciphering probate records and inventories from the 1700s, to try to track down the identity of wheelmaker J. Platt.  I still don’t know who he is.

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But, we had magical weather for the symposium and what a treat to get together with a bunch of antique wheel nerds.  The talking was non-stop, it was such a rare opportunity to all be speaking the same language of scribe lines, double-flyers, hub shapes, spindle supports, chip carving, maidens, mother-of-alls (mothers-of-all?), and, on and on …

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At Lone Rock Farm in Marshfield.

I stayed over the next day for a flax workshop with Norman Kennedy, the 86-year-old grand master of weaving, flax, stories of textiles in Scotland, and song (among other things).

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Norman dressing a distaff.

And I stayed at a wonderful farm B&B, where I got to enjoy morning visits with the cows, pigs, chickens, and kittens.

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Marshfield was beautiful, I loved being with “my people,” and enjoyed an amazing three days, but—as always—it was so sweet to get home—with flowers and dogs to greet me.

IMG_2536IMG_2221Capp is doing wonderfully now.  It’s such a relief to have him back to normal.

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Throughout the spring, I’ve been spinning and weaving,

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and finished up processing last year’s flax.

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Bottom batch was dew retted (twice) last fall and the top batch was retted on snow this winter.

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I bought this wonderful flax break at auction last month for $10. The auctioneer had no idea what it was.

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Snow retted flax being hackled. It’s a lovely color.

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From left to right: early dew retted (under retted), tub retted, double dew retted, snow retted.

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I was engulfed by lilac fragrance while processing the flax. We had a bumper crop of lilacs this year.

Now that summer is officially here, I’m just about caught up on spring chores and hope to have a less busy, more relaxing summer.  We’ll see.

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Spinning on the porch, watching thunderstorms and rainbows.

Spring Ahead

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I have not died or otherwise disappeared off the face of the earth. I simply have been engrossed in worlds other than blogging. Now my challenge is to condense nine months packed with living into one blog post.  We have gone from spring mists

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to fall mists

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to this

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since I last wrote.  Here goes …

One reason I dropped out of the blogosphere was because Capp became terribly ill in July. Seemingly overnight, he went from a happy-go-lucky, just-turning-two-year-old lab, full of mischief and swagger, to a ball of misery who didn’t want to leave his crate.

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After time at the local dog emergency clinic and with our local vet, his mystery condition was bumped up to the veterinary specialists in Portland, an hour-and-a-half from home. He almost died.

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Home after tests with lots of shaved spots.

He spent three days at the Portland vet on an IV and undergoing a battery of tests. At first the fear was cancer, but it turned out that he had immune-mediated neutropenia, which was causing his white blood cells to drop to treacherously low levels. After six months on prednisone, and other drugs, he is finally back to our old Capp.

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We still don’t know exactly what caused his condition. The theories are a reaction to immunizations or perhaps a tick-borne disease (although he tested negative for all the common ones). He remains on a low dose of pred and must have regular blood tests, but we are so relieved that we didn’t lose him. He has become quite popular with the wonderful vets and technicians caring for him. One tech calls him “Cute Adorable Puppy Prince,” and it has stuck. Amazingly, we had pet insurance–the first we’ve ever had for a dog–and they really came through for us, too.

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Throughout Capp’s illness, Alice has remained her sweet affectionate self.

Because of Capp’s illness, we have been sticking pretty close to home. In the spring, we consolidated our vegetable beds into two fenced-in gardens. “We” meaning George–he did all the fencing and leveling.

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The gardens were lush and productive this year.

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Flax.

We were eating our garden potatoes, sweet potatoes, squash, and onions well into February. I tried growing cotton this year, and it did well, but frost hit before the cotton fully developed.

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Cotton blossom.

Next year, I will try hanging the bolls inside to continue to mature.

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The vegetable beds. Much neater than last year.

George is getting really good at putting in trails.

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We have a whole system that now reaches each corner of the property.

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The first set of trails were named after the grandchildren. The next will be named after the dogs.

He also is building an outdoor, wood-fired sauna–something that I became enamored with during our years in Alaska.

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Preparing for the sauna.

But the biggest project this year was building a garage.

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We hired contractors to do most of the work, but George did much of the prep and finish work himself (he’s still doing finish work) and oversaw everything–not an easy task. The upstairs is an open space that will be half guest room and half an area for sewing, my small loom, and my really big spinning wheels. I inaugurated the space two weeks ago with a gathering of nine great wheel spinners from around mid-coast Maine. It was wonderful.

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I have fallen deep into the spinning and weaving world. Old wheels just seem to follow me home and it gives me a thrill to work on them and get them spinning again.

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Amazing wood on Shaker wheel from Alfred Lake, Maine.

They fascinate me with their beautiful wood, colors, craftsmanship, and history.

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This European wheel, likely from Austria, was singed by being too close to the fire.

I am planning on doing a few presentations and classes on antique wheels with another friend this year.

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Canadian Bisson wheel.

We’re hoping to convince lots of spinner to rescue these lovely wheels, so that they won’t be lost to future generations.

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It’s amazing how beautifully the old wheels spin. I have continued to buy local fleeces–this year Romney/Finn, Gotland, and Cormo–because I enjoy the whole process of scouring, processing, dyeing, spinning, and weaving.  It’s so satisfying to do it from start to finish.

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Beautiful Cormo fleece.  I will spin with this on the great wheels

And flax, well, I’m just in love with flax.

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About a third of my line flax this year, all processed and ready to spin.

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Home grown and dyed flax woven into tape on an antique tape loom.

In the spring, before Capp’s illness, I took an amazing flax course at Snow Farm in western Massachusetts with Cassie Dickson–a flax guru, coverlet weaver extraordinaire, and all-around wonderful person.

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The flax Cassie brought was retted in various ways so that we could compare them.

The course was for five days and covered everything–planting, processing, spinning, dyeing, and weaving.

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Classmate Victoria, an amazing textile artist.   A link to her site: victoriamanganiello

I felt so fortunate to learn from Cassie, she usually teaches in the South, closer to her North Carolina home.  Here’s a link to Cassie’s site: CassieDickson.  People in other Snow Farm classes were fascinated by the flax.

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Flax that we processed, spun, and dyed at class.

There was in class in welding sculptures out of all sorts of found objects, aka junk, and the instructor and one of his students kindly made us stands to keep our cups of water for flax spinning.

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I treasure mine.

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In the fall, weaving took the spotlight.

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I wove these on my small loom in the summer.  Destined to be chair cushions.

I again traveled to western Massachusetts–this time to Vavstuga in Shelburne Falls for the introductory weaving course. What a treat. Having been–until recently–totally self-taught in weaving, I just soaked up all the years of knowledge shared through this wonderful weaving school.

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A tablecloth being woven by a returning student.

The focus there is on Swedish weaving styles and looms, so it was especially timely for me because I had decided to buy a Swedish Oxaback loom. I was able to bring one home with me from Vavstuga and get right to work with it. Bliss.

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Putting the first warp on my new loom.

I also really enjoyed Shelburne Falls. Every morning I went out early to the Bridge of Flowers, which spans the river right in front of the school, and chatted with the head gardener.

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Every evening I walked down to the Falls, which were swollen with water after torrential downpours that we had on the second day.

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I’m returning for another course in May. Can’t wait.

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Current project on the loom.  Overshot with handspun and  naturally dyed wool and handspun linen tabby.

We have been rich in guests these past months, which has also kept us busy. We had family reunions in Connecticut and Massachusetts in July and both of our children, with their spouses, and the grandchildren were here for Thanksgiving. We had a big dump of snow, to the delight of the grandkids, who have never lived with snowy winters

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Soap Sally, our creepy Thanksgiving snowperson, freaked out the dogs.

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday, so I really savored having the whole family here.  The granddaughters took to weaving like fish to water.

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Our daughter returned again in December with the grandkids and, while George stayed home with the dogs, we took a two night trip to Quebec City right before Christmas.  It was magical.

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And, of course, I brought home a beautiful Quebec wheel.

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This post is starting to sound an awful lot like one of my mother’s holiday letters. But rather than edit it, I’m going to post it, as is. Or I may never get it done. I will try not to go so long between posts again.  I have been posting pictures on Instagram under “olddogsnewtruck.”  It’s more my speed these days.  Happy Spring.

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May Hap

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Maine in May. A morning walk brings a full-on explosion of plant and bird procreation in all its colorful, musical, hustling glory.

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No sinful secretive New England Puritan sex here, but an unabashed in-your-face sensory overload of fecundity–mating calls, mating chases, seed-flaunting,

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and the perfection of miniature leaves unrolling from their womb buds, still perfect and unmarred by disease or insects.

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Birdsong wakes us in the morning and peepers put us to sleep at night.

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I love the catbirds, because of their incredible vocal gymnastics and the mourning doves–who travel everywhere as a couple.

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Our swooping, gurgling swallows are back.   We weren’t sure they would be because our aggressive male bluebird chased them all off last year. After he harassed us all winter, we took down the nesting boxes in hopes that he would move on. He did.  But not far.  He is now harassing our across-the-street neighbors and launching himself at their windows. He thoughtfully finds time to visit us periodically to attack our cars and windows, just so we know he hasn’t forgotten us.

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The female bluebird with the injured foot is back.

We still have lingering cold and the flowers are late to bloom, so the poor hummingbirds have been lining up at our nectar feeder.

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The soil has been so cold that I’ve only planted a few vegetables, but we have overwintered parsnips, and green onions and spinach in the cold frame.

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Our asparagus is up and in its third year, so we can harvest a decent amount. What a treat to have it fresh out of the garden. We are consolidating our scattered vegetable gardens this year into two big gardens. I’m ridiculously excited about it.

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This 1950s tractor has its original engine, without even a rebuild.  It will be drilling our fence post holes.  It’s not ours, but we get to admire it.

There’s something about having fenced-in vegetable beds, with wide walkways–and plenty of room for flowers–that makes my heart happy. I’m growing more flax this year, a dye garden, and trying cotton–a wild experiment. This spring, we planted paw-paws, persimmons, more pears, hazelnuts, goji berries, maypops (passionflower), and mulberries (for silkworms). All of last year’s bushes and fruit trees survived the winter and appear to be thriving.

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The peaches are covered with blossoms.

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Spreading apple branches.

This is the time of year for morning fog and gathering, cutting and splitting next year’s firewood.

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George is constructing an impressive fort of firewood, which we hope will get us through next winter.  We ran out of wood this past winter, with its prolonged cold spells, and had to buy a cord.

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We are finally having a garage built this year. We are NOT building it ourselves, thank goodness–we have enough on our plate without a major construction project. George is designing an outdoor sauna to build this summer, which is something I’ve been wanting for years. And he’s continuing with trail building, which makes the dogs very happy. Things are taking shape around here.

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I have been spinning and weaving in the evenings and on rainy days and continue to grow my flock of wheels. My latest find was another dusty antique store treasure imprinted with the “Thomson” in the table.

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I was thrilled. There was a Thomson family of wheel makers in Massachusetts in the 18th and 19th centuries, headed by the patriarch Archibald, who is reputed to have made the first treadle spinning wheel in this country. They were Scots-Irish from Ulster and, interestingly, George has Thomson ancestors who settled in the same area of Massachusetts a few decades after these Thomsons. An “H” Thomson migrated to Maine at some point, likely around the time of the Revolutionary War, and made beautiful wheels, with simple Shaker-style lines. This wheel looks like one of his, although the “H” is worn off.

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Amazingly, the flyer assembly was all intact, although the wooden tension screw was totally frozen. I cleaned her up and finally got the screw unbound.

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She is one my sweetest spinners and her wood is exquisite.

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There are some gorgeous modern wheels with beautiful wood (that cost a small fortune), but–to me–they just don’t compare to the glowing wood on these old beauties (which go for a song), that has been mellowed by time and the touch of so many hands over hundreds of years.

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I also bought a little 19th century tape loom. It’s amazing to think that just a few hundred years ago, every imaginable kind of tie and strap was woven at home on these little looms–often by the youngest and oldest family members.

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The loom I bought has a foot pedal that raises and lowers two shafts and has a small beater for fast, efficient weaving. The two shafts are only designed for eight warp threads, which means it was used to weave a very simple straightforward tape.

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In fact, the loom likely was used to make lamp wicks, with no design at all. I have been experimenting with putting multiple threads in each heddle and some warps between the heddles, to create a middle shed that I can manipulate with my fingers to make some simple designs. I’m quite enjoying it.

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Happy May … and June … and July. At the rate I’m going, it will probably be midsummer before I post again!

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