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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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.

Tapping In and Warping Up

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We are waiting for our third snowstorm in two weeks. Even so, the air, light, and birdsong feel like spring. Our earliest seedlings–onions and leeks–are lined up in front of the upstairs southern window, with kale, chard, lettuce, and peppers soon to follow. And this year, we were even more aware of signs of spring because we tapped maples for syrup.

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The sap has been running for several weeks and there’s such a good flow this year that we actually have too much to use. We only tapped three trees and one–the big house-side maple that turns brilliant crimson in the fall–had such thick bark that we didn’t drill deep enough and gave about a third of the amount of sap of the other two. But, even so, we are drowning in sap.

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The dogs love to go gather the sap.

On our first boil, we used our lobster pot on the grill-side burner outside. It is supposed to take about 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup, so it has to boil for a long time. A very long time.

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We finished it off on our kitchen stove indoors.

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We ended up with about a quart and a half of syrup on the first boil.

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We decided to do all of the second boil on our kitchen stove. It was much faster and we can use the added moisture in the air.

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Our trees are red maple rather than sugar maple and the syrup has a distinctive vanilla-like flavor different than commercial syrup. Since we have so much sap, I’ve been drinking it. Delicious.

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Right from the bucket with its own ice.

Aside from gathering sap, gathering wood, and our usual walks, we have been enjoying the last of winter’s snowbound inside days. As soon as the snow melts, we’ll be out pruning , readying the gardens, and starting building projects.

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I have loved the inside time.  I made a small quilt to cover the couch for the dogs.

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Note the wine for basting.

But I spent most of my winter blissfully spinning, restoring wheels, and weaving–for the first time in decades.

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George resurrected my old loom.

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The poor thing has been stored for about 40 years.

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Before.

He made a new square beam, tightened up joints and glued a break, and made new dowel pieces for the sectional beam.

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I made a new apron and replaced the old cords and tie ups with texsolv, a wonderful easy system using eye-looped cords and plastic pegs.

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It’s a unique and wonderful little loom. The woman I bought it from in the 1970s said that her grandfather made it for her grandmother early in the 1900s.

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The loom was thoughtfully made, and includes lights conveniently placed front and back. When George brought the lights in to have the wiring brought up to code, we found that one of the lightbulbs had a tungsten filament and dated from the 1920s. It’s still working.

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Even the light clamp looks like it’s from the 20s

I had forgotten how much I love to weave.

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Unlike some weavers, I enjoy all of the preparation steps–

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winding the warp,

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threading the reed and heddles,

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and seeing the neat warp all wound on, miraculously untangled and ready to weave.

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For this first weave, I made twill dish towels, without any set color or treadling pattern, just experimenting with both.

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Ready to hem and clip the strays

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I also took some Soay yarn that I have been spinning and did a quick sample, thinking I might use it in my next project. But I liked it so much that I wove enough to cover the seat in my spinning chair. Soay sheep shed their wool in lumps rather than being shorn, and the wool is fine and crimpy but with lots of short strands and little clumps.

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I spun it nubbly, thinking it might look interesting in a traditional twill, and was surprised at how much I liked it in this rosepath twill.

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My wheel herd continues to grow bigger and I have all of them spinning. Now to find new homes for some of the rescues.

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Our aggressive male bluebird continues to plague us daily. He continued to attack the windows even on the most frigid winter days. I wish we could have him neutered.

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Scutching, Hackling, and Bee Graveyards

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Our string of sunny days continues, but the afternoon light is dense and golden enough to let us know that that the season is changing. Fall is breathing down our neck and we feel the need to finish up outdoor chores. George has been working on a drainage trench and rain garden to siphon the spring sogginess from our little orchard.

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I have been processing the flax from my small patch so that I can spin it this winter.
After harvesting, retting, and rippling–removing the seeds–I bundled and stored the flax.

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I had searched antique stores and barn sales for months this summer to try to find antique flax tools.

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I found three hackles and bought a scutching knife on ebay.

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But I was not able to find a flax break or scutching board, so George made them for me.

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A flax break uses leverage to smash and break the woody portion of the flax stalk into pieces–the boon, while leaving the fibrous strands intact.

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The top half of the stalks have been broken here.  The stalks are then turned to do the other  half.

George made a table-top break, which I initially set up on plywood. I later moved it to sit directly on sawhorses (which was what George had in mind).

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That allowed the boon to fall to the ground rather than getting re-tangled in the flax bundles.

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After breaking.

The next step was scutching. The term apparently derives from an obsolete French word “escoucher,” meaning to “shake out.” The process requires an upright board–slightly angled worked well for me–and a wooden scutching knife to whack and scrape at the flax to remove the woody bits.

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I did a great deal of shaking out, feeling as if I was grooming bits of chaff out of some lovely horse’s tail.

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Close up of the bits off boon being broken up by the flax break.

For me, scutching was the real test for whether I had retted the flax properly.  Too much retting time, and the spinnable fibers start to break down, too little retting and the fibers remain ribbony, rather than thready, and the hard boon doesn’t easily separate.

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Over-retted, with broken frizzled fibers before any processing.

The retting process uses soaking or nightly dew to break down the pectin in the fibers. I retted the flax in three different batches. One was submerged under water in a kiddie pool, the second was dew-retted on the ground where it was grown, and the third was dew-retted on our front lawn. I suspected that I had over-retted the kiddie pool batch by about a day and that proved to be right. The fiber was more fragile and broke up more than the other batches.

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The batch that was dew-retted where it was grown, was slightly under-retted, with more ribbon-y strands. It also included the largest plants, at the outer edges of the plot, which tend to produce coarser fibers.

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Under-retted, with ribbon-like strands.

The front yard dew-retted flax was the Goldilocks “just-right” batch. It was in a sunnier and drier spot than the other dew-retted batch and I let it sit for about a week longer.

Each batch had a different color. The water-soaked batch was white and looks like gorgeous shining platinum-blonde hair (with lots of split ends). The batch from where the flax was grown received more overnight dew and was quite yellow (tow-headed) with some silver. The front-lawn was a gleaming silver.

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All of the colors were beautifully lustrous.

I like the silver, but traditionally it would have considered undesirable and bleached out. Apparently, to have avoided the dark spots on the flax that resulted in the silver coloration, I should have waited until cooler weather for retting.

George made a perfect scutching board and I whacked, scraped, and shook. I don’t usually buy things on ebay, but I couldn’t find any scutching knives locally. The knife I bought is from Sweden and is supposed to be from the 1800s.  It looks to be old, perhaps with a newer paint job. I didn’t buy it for authenticity, but as something I could use, and was delighted to find that it felt perfectly weighted in my hand and worked beautifully. It’s nice to look at, too.

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After scutching out most of the woody bits, the final step was hackling. Hackles are metal combs of varying degrees of fine-ness that cull out remaining boon, rat’s-nesty stuff, and short bits.

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What is left after hackling, are long strands of shiny line flax–the most desirable end product–and lots of tow flax–the combed out portions of fiber that are shorter, but also spinnable.

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Tow flax–what’s left on the hackles.

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Tow flax ready to spin.

From my small flax patch, which was about 6 X 12 feet, I ended up with 5 ounces of line flax and lots of tow flax. I didn’t expect to get this much, so I’m delighted. Now I have to learn how to spin the stuff.

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Line flax

Now that I have finished with the flax, I need to put the gardens to bed. Our tomatoes are still producing, we have parsnips, leeks, and carrots to pull, and we have fresh greens in our cold frame.

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My bees seem to be doing well. We still have lots of flowers blooming and I’ve stumbled on several bees that died in the performance of their duties–while gathering nectar from Queen Anne’s Lace or pollen-dusted in a cup of hollyhock.

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Not a bad place to die.

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This bumble bee died in a hollyhock.

In the cool mornings, my honey bees sleep late, but the bumble bees are out early, scouting the remaining flowers.

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Covered with pollen.

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In the dry afternoons, the honey bees congregate at the bird baths, sucking up water.

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Our red October moonrises have returned.

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And the dogs are happy.

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Bookmark

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We have been busy, busy, busy.

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With our usual exuberance of planning and ideas, we again find ourselves scrambling to get everything done this summer while still fitting in some mellow relaxation time.

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I’ve had little time or inclination for blogging,

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but things are starting to slow down a bit. I think.

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In the meantime, this post is a bit of a bookmark–a place-holding glimpse into a part of what we’ve been doing.

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Our winter wood is in. The gardens are bursting with more than we can eat and promise of much more.

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We have been drying herbs, digging potatoes, freezing beans, corn, and squash, and planting fall vegetables.

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My new herb drying rack.  I think it’s designed for marijuana growers.

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I have been washing fleeces, obsessively searching for antique flax processing tools, and had a lovely visit with a local farmer and spinner on Maine’s Open Farm Day. I brought home two beautiful fleeces, a bag of interesting wool from a Soay sheep, and some Woad seeds for planting a dye garden next year.

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The small sheep is a Soay and the large curly one is a Leicester Longwool

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The Soay’s wool is pulled off in clumps rather than sheared.

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The glossy locks of the Leicester Longwool.

I finally made it to the the Windjammer parade on Rockland’s breakwater this year.

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In the 1800s, sailboats owned this coast–whalers, traders, fishing schooners.  Maine was a sailing hub–sending its boats and captains to every ocean and building some of the fastest clipper ships in the world.

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Now the windjammers primarily provide entertainment for tourists, but it gives me an ache to watch them.

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Looking down from the lighthouse over the breakwater to shore.

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If I had a bucket list–which I don’t–it would include time-travel back to sailing ship days.  IMG_5219.jpg

Since that will never happen–I really enjoyed the parade.

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Back home, in our yard, the aggressive male bluebird continues to harass us while his mate sits on her birdbox nest looking as if she wants someone to rescue her.

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A noisy nest in the apple tree by the side porch turned out to have baby waxwings.

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Our gardens are full of insects and the hive has the summer smell of honey and brood.

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The ant is moving towards this waspish creature on the tansy …

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as the ant approaches, the waspish creature lifts his leg and then brings it down.  I’m not sure what happened to the ant.

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I had thought that the hive might be ready for honey harvest this week, but it needs a few more weeks.

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These past weeks we’ve celebrated an anniversary, a birthday, and have had several visitors, including blog friend, Eliza, at Eliza Waters.

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She patiently endured a (very complete) tour of our little property, down to and including the compost bin, and we fit in a short hike.  I neglected to take any pictures, but she kindly brought us this begonia,

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which for now adorns the table on the porch where I rock, flick wool, and look at the view.

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High Summer

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When we first moved to Maine, someone told us that for five months of the year, it has the best weather in the world.  He was right.  I cannot imagine more perfect summer days. Warm, breezy, and sunny with enough afternoon thunderstorms to keep everything watered, followed by mellow, thick, golden evening light and then … fireflies.

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True water dog that she is, Alice adores playing in the sprinkler at the end of a hot day.  

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Last summer was marred by Zoe’s illness and death, so we were not able to really appreciate how magical summer is here. This year is different. The mixture of sun and rain is producing the most magnificent garden vegetables I have ever grown.

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This fennel self-seeded and is growing out the sides of the raised beds.

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The only challenge has been keeping the dogs from chowing down on them.

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They especially like to graze on the peas.

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Our flowers are blooming like mad,  becoming so big and crowded that I am going to have to tackle some serious digging and division this year.

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But, right now, I’m enjoying the riotous mish-mash of flowers, including the milkweed that sprung up on its own last year.

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I love its fragrance, beauty, and butterfly-value, so it is welcome to stay.

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I have never been a big fan of yarrow, but grew this as an orchard companion and love the subtle colors.

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Our new clematis is doing well.

We still have some nestlings, although most of the young birds have flown.

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I thought that I spotted some unusual woodpecker with a brilliant orange “W” or “M” mark on its crown.

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Turns out it is a juvenile Hairy Woodpecker.

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Unfortunately, the aggressive male bluebird continues to plague us and seems to have chased off our beloved swallows. He looks a bit disheveled after hours of window and car attacks but nothing seems to faze him.

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He is a gorgeous but such a bully, I’d like to wring his neck. Bluebirds have now joined chipmunks on my “cute but evil” list.

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George has been  working on the trail system through our woods.

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About five acres of our land is wooded and we want to put in trails so that we can cut firewood, tap maples in the spring, and enjoy the woods all year round.

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In our first year, George built a loop trail from our front drive to the back garden.

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Original loop

This spring we mapped out several other trails leading off of that one.

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New trail

He is now working on one that will run around the perimeter of the property. There are some amazing, huge old trees back in there and a few impressive giant boulders.

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The bees are thriving this year.

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No bees on this bee balm, but I love the double-decker flowers

On very hot days, the workers line up near the hive entrance, lift their bee butts, and fan their wings to cool the air.

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Hive air conditioning

I have a few vegetable experiments underway. I am growing yellow mustard for seed this year. I will grind some and use some to make our own mustard (I hope).

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Yellow mustard seed pods

I am most excited, though, about my small patch of flax. I hope to process it for spinning. It has been maintenance-free so far, with no pests or disease to worry about. And it is sowed thickly that weeds have not been an issue. It’s in full bloom right now and is exquisite, with lovely blue flowers and curving stems.

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It anticipate that it will be quite a job to process the flax. The seeds need to be removed and then the stalks must be retted–a soaking process that rots the hardest part of the fibrous stem. After retting, the tough fiber must be removed through a process of breaking, scraping, and combing, which is called “dressing” the flax.

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My little patch

I’ve been on the hunt in antique stores for old flax processing tools. They have medieval names–hatchel (or hetchel, hackle, heckle), scutching sword, retting tub, and ripple. Most places don’t have much familiarity with flax tools. So, I was thrilled yesterday to stumble on a small store in which the owner broke into a large grin when I asked if he had any flax processing tools. After moving various items off a tiny set of back stairs, we climbed into an attic room where he had a collection of a dozen hatchels.

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The spikes on this hatchel are fairly close together.  If you look carefully on the left you can see scribe marks  for lining up the spike rows.

They resemble torture devices and are used for the final combing stage of dressing. Ideally, several hatchels should be used, starting with wide spacing of spikes to very fine spacing. I was thrilled to bring home two.

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I fell in love with this hatchel made of striped maple, with a cover, and initial stamps.  It’s likely about 200 years old.

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Capp had his first birthday.

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He’s an amazing dog.

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Stitching, Sleuthing, and the Cuckolds

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It is sunny now, but much of January was cold, cloudy, and icy.

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Not inviting for outside activities.  But there were wild turkey tracks,

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brilliant skies,

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windy blue water breaking up the ice,

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bluebirds in the apple trees,

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bluebirds checking out the swallow boxes,

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and I was happily engrossed in sewing baby quilts for my niece’s twins.  Transforming fabrics I love into fox and hedgehog faces.

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Those faces greeted me every morning for weeks and I admit that I felt a pang when I wrapped up the quilts for their new home.

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I finished the quilts just in time for my niece’s baby shower in Connecticut. There were several quilters at the shower (including my niece) and I know the quilts will be well-used and well-loved.   Twins.  My best friends when I was young were twins.  How sweet to welcome twins into the family.

After handing off my quilty creatures, I stayed overnight with my brother and sister-in-law and came home with a new treasure–another antique spinning wheel. This wheel is personal. It has been in my mother’s Connecticut family for generations.

IMG_1131.jpgWhen I was growing up, the wheel stood at the corner of the living room, a decorative antique curiosity. It was a petite, pretty wheel, with black striping and a whorl of flax. When I was 16 or 17, I became interested in spinning and weaving. The wheel must have been in decent shape then because I set it up with a drive band and learned to spin on it. Soon after, I left home, went off to college, and then Alaska. The wheel stayed behind. I continued to spin with a drop spindle, but that also was left behind on one of our cross country moves.

I went decades without spinning. So, it seemed serendipitous that after retirement and our move to Maine, we spotted a neglected old wheel in our town’s only antique store. Cleaning that grime-encrusted wheel to bring out her lovely, glowing wood was rewarding on its own. But to get her sweetly spinning again was a real thrill.

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The Maine wheel has similar, but simpler, lines than the Connecticut wheel.

There is something about these old wheels that captivates me. I am not the slightest bit “spiritual,” whatever that means, having apparently received the skeptic gene instead. Yet, in the tactile, soothing, rhythmic occupation of spinning, it almost seems as if the wheel has a personality, infused from the generations of people–probably women–who touched and worked it before me.

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And, in fact, the wheel’s quirks and feel today may be a result of the way those women spun.

To me, spinning is a lovely, soothing occupation. I imagine women, maybe old, with weakening eyesight and muscles, gently working the wheel, grateful to sit with the musical whir and clutter-tap sound of a task so familiar as to be second nature. But who knows. Maybe the spinners, old or young, were gritting their teeth in frustration as they had to sit inside, housebound on a glorious day with hours of tedious, endless, mindless spinning. Whatever they felt, I will never know. All the spinners are long dead, but the wheel remains.  And the imprint of their feet.

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My brother and his wife have taken good care of the old family wheel. I had been thinking of getting it spinning again. I took a look at it while I was staying overnight with them in Connecticut. A flyer arm had broken off, one of the leather maiden bearings was missing, but it seemed to otherwise be in good shape.

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So, we decided to get it fixed and spinning again. I wrapped the wheel for a trip to Maine. It is probably the first time the wheel has left Connecticut in 200 years.

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Once I got home, I decided to see what I could find out about the wheel’s maker, “J Platt,” whose name is prominent on the front side. What followed was two days totally immersed in internet research up and down various family trees–my own and those of Connecticut spinning wheel makers.

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I immediately found a Pennsylvania woman with an antique spinning wheel blog, who several years ago had restored a J. Platt wheel almost identical to mine. She had tentatively concluded that the wheel was made by a Josiah Platt, who married Sarah Sanford in 1758. Sarah’s brother Samuel made spinning wheels.

My sleuthing–I became obsessed for days–turned up another possibility. There are a few well-documented Connecticut spinning wheel makers in the late 1700s and early 1800s.
Samuel Sanford, John Sturdevant, Solomon Plant, and Silas Barnum, for example. I looked at examples of their wheels and found that the lettering and placement of Silas Barnum’s name on the wheel was almost identical to J. Platt’s. Interesting. Silas Barnum’s mother was a Sturdevant and his sister married wheel-maker John Sturdevant, so there was a family wheel-making connection. And Silas’s wife, was–BINGO–a Platt. Martha Platt, with a brother named James Platt, who was born in 1775, just a year after Silas, and living in the same town. So, my bet is on James.

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Cleaned and beeswaxed.

I discovered that antique wheel obsession is not an uncommon malady. There is a Spinning Wheel Sleuth newsletter, a similar group on Facebook, and various other on-line resources. I have also been trying to find out more about my Maine wheel. It has simpler lines than the Connecticut wheel, a result of Shaker influence. But I don’t think it is a Shaker wheel. The research continues …

Yesterday we carefully wrapped the Connecticut wheel again. I unwound the wool from the bobbin. I had spun that wool “in the grease,” meaning that the fleece had not been washed, over forty years ago. It was pretty stiff and crusty now–more like a dense twine than yarn. I removed the distaff with its flax, which is brittle and musty-smelling, likely a hundred years or so old.

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We loaded up the wheel and Capp and drove to Wiscasset to drop the wheel off with Mudd Sharrigan for repairs. Mudd is a master and I feel fortunate to have him nearby.

Since we were in Wiscasset, we decided to explore the Boothbay Region and to check out a supposedly dog-friendly beach. The beach was a disappointment–short, narrow, and right on the road.

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Capp was entranced with the smells.

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Lots of stinky stuff.

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He started to venture into the water, and then danced back.

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The water was frigid, so we we didn’t encourage him. Plenty of time for swimming come spring.

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Boothbay Harbor is charming. Really charming. And it has the feel of money. Some Mainers refer to the “Volvo line,” a north/south demarcation below which the Volvo/BMW/Mercedes/Audi-driving tourist and second-home people from lower New England states tend to cluster. The area below the line just feels different. More money on display, more high-end shops and restaurants, more people who exude entitlement, and more impatient horn-honking drivers. Boothbay is right about on the line. Midcoast, where we live, remains above the line. Just barely.

From Boothbay Harbor, we drove to Southport Island and Cape Newhagen. Off the Cape, with its tricky waters, lies the Cuckolds Light. Such a name. The light sits on the Cuckolds, two small rocky outcrops in a string of reefs and shoals.

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The name supposedly comes from a point of land on the Thames River granted by King John to the cuckolded husband of one of his lovers. Maybe. I wouldn’t be surprised, with the Maine dry humor, if there wasn’t more to the name than a longing for the Thames River.

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Name aside, Cuckolds Light is notable for the rockiness of its underpinnings. Nothing there but the light and the rock. It must have been a limiting world for the lightkeeper and his family. The light was decommissioned as a working lighthouse in the 1970s. Now it is the Inn at Cuckold’s Light, a place of “pampered luxury,” which is available for about $1500 a night. I guess that puts the Boothbay area firmly below the Volvo line.

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