Sky and Wind, With a Little Mustard

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Many New Englanders dread winter and muddle through it with a sort of grudging resignation, mixed with stir-crazy frustration and patches of downright hatred.  Others leave.  But we love winter in Maine.  After years of living in Anchorage, where days are short, sunlight scarce, and glum gray skies the norm, the constantly changing, brilliant winter skies here are a continual–and still unexpected–delight.

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Soon after the leaf colors fade, the skies come alive.  October and November seem to produce the year’s most brilliant sunrises and sunsets.

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They linger with changing colors, highlighting the gorgeous filigree of our leafless oaks and maples.

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October’s morning fog settles in the valleys below us, revealing folds in the hills that are otherwise obscured.

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These months also bring wind–and weather–from all directions.

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Massive fronts move over us, the edges of which are often visible as a line on the horizon.

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Hills on the bottom, clouds on top, with a sliver of light in between.  This was a particularly ominous looking front that ended just at the edge of the ocean over our hills.  The smudge in the middle is rain.

The end of October treated us to a massive wind storm.  Fortunately, we had enough warning to prepare and cover our equipment and bring in outdoor furniture.

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Alice knew something was going on when the deck furniture disappeared.

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There were lots of bluejays seed-gathering before the storm came in.

It was quite a dramatic show on hillside, with whipping winds and sideways rain.

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Storm coming in.

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The oak leaves were blown horizontal.  And then stripped.

Unfortunately, along with much of the state’s population, we lost our electrical power early on.  We have a wood stove for heat, propane for cooking, and candles and battery lamps for lighting.  Our water is from a well on our property, pumped by electrical power, so we have no water when the power goes out.  But the town provides water from a tap at the fire station, so it’s not too much of an inconvenience.

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Our real worry was our two freezers, packed to their brims with garden produce, sauces, and meat for the winter.  George pulled out the portable generator that we had from our RV days, which managed to keep the two freezers going and to charge our phones and computers.  We went four days without power.  Not bad compared to others in the state, and nothing compared to Puerto Rico, but enough time, nevertheless, to remind us to appreciate all the little luxuries that power brings.

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On the day after the storm–Halloween–the bees were bringing in huge loads of orange pollen.

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We had a small birch come down on our woodpiles.

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Hydrangeas were ripped off of their stalks …

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… where they gathered in an eddy by the porch.  Otherwise, we had little damage.

Our street lost power because of a beautiful old maple that fell across the power lines.

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It was a magnificent old tree, turning brilliant red in the fall.  I always wanted to get a good photo of it for the blog, but couldn’t because the power lines ran right across the tree, ruining any chance of a good shot.

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Now most of the tree is gone, taking the lines with it—temporarily—but leaving one beautiful back portion as a reminder of is previous glory.

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Soon after the power returned, and we were getting back to normal, I was excited to learn of an antique flax break for sale.  I have been looking for one since spring, with no luck at all.  This one came up at an auction in Massachusetts, where they were selling pieces from the American Textile History Museum, which sadly closed last year.  I wasn’t able to attend the auction, but a fellow spinner and wheel collector from the online group, Ravelry, was there and offered to bid for me and the bring the wheel home with her.  I couldn’t believe it when I had the winning bid of less than half of what I was willing to pay for it.

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Aside from a few worm holes, the break is in good condition and nice manageable size.  

It’s rather depressing to the see the museum collection scattered all over the place at auction, but nice to know that many of the pieces are going to spinners who will use and appreciate them.

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George has been making me peg boards for hanging yarn.  It’s beginning to look like my own museum.

To make room for my new flax break, I took down the drying rack that had been full up with mustard pods.

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The first batch.  I ended up with about five times this amount.

I grew two very small rows of mustard this summer, for a mustard-making experiment.

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Mustard’s on the left.

The pods had been drying for months and it was easy to crush them with a rolling pin, leaving the seeds.

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The difficult part was separating the pod chaff from the seeds.  I winnowed them in the wind outside and then handpicked pieces out.

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I got most of the chaff out by sifting through colanders.

It wasn’t too tedious because I only had about 2/3 of a cup of seeds when all was said and done.

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But the pods are spiny little devils.  Next year, I will have to find a more efficient and less prickly way of cleanly separating the seeds from the mess of pod bits.

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I tried two different mustard recipes—one with white wine and vinegar and maple syrup, and the other with apple cider, cider vinegar, honey and coriander.  The initial tasting was pretty good.  They are now “working” in the refrigerator, where the flavor is supposed to develop and mature.  If they turn out as well as I think they will, I am going to grow more mustard next year.  We don’t use it as a condiment, but do cook with it, and it’s fun to be able to experiment with exotic mustard flavors.  I will have horseradish ready to harvest next year.  Horseradish mustard—yum.

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The dogs enjoyed Thanksgiving, with a fat Turkey and all the trimmings.

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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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