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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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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Summer’s Bounty

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Hearing of all the weather turmoil around the world these past months, we have had an embarrassment of fine weather. It feels as if we are living on an island of perfect summer days, leading to a startling bounty of goodness to see, smell, and taste.

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I only had to water my vegetables one time the entire summer and I have never in my life had gardens produce such large and luscious yields.

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We barely kept up–a frenzy of chopping, slicing, blanching, and freezing–and then giving the rest away. Our freezers are full of beans, eggplant, zucchini, fennel, corn, roasted tomatoes, tomato sauce, tomato paste (a first), salsa verde, chopped basil and parsley rolls, and corn.

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Our agribon-covered tunnel for the brassicas was a great success, giving us pest-free cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage, and kale. The cover is still up over the brussel sprouts, which are just about ready to eat. We had bumper crops of potatoes and shallots and continue to have more tomatoes than we can eat. Our okra plants ended up doing pretty well, despite a slow start. But I didn’t know that you are supposed to harvest the pods after just a few days and left them on far too long. Hard as a rock. So George bought and froze a case of okra from our local farmer’s market. Only peppers are left to process–roasting and drying–yum.

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Our latest harvest came today when Capp noticed mushrooms sprouting from a wood-chip bed. We had spread the bed with wine cap mushroom spawn earlier in the summer but didn’t hold out much hope because the mushroom spawn that we had carefully pegged into logs last summer had failed to do anything. The chip bed is along our woods trail and Capp sometimes pees on one corner–the same corner in which the mushrooms have sprouted. Perhaps he has a magic elixer. His pee seemed to deter the raccoons from our corn this year, so I’m all for it. We haven’t eaten wine caps before. Let’s hope we like them. We’ll do a tiny taste tonight to make sure they don’t kill us and go from there.

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My little flax patch grew happily without any attention from me.

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When the stalks were about 2/3 yellow, I pulled the plants by the roots and bundled them into stooks to dry.

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Almost harvest time.  Some seed heads are brown, some yellow, some still green.

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After drying, I took the seed heads off, a process called “rippling,” with two wooden tools I bought on ebay.

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Before rippling.

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I really have no idea what they were originally used for–they were advertised as “flax hackles,” but I’ve also seen them for sale as Turkish weaving beaters, so who knows? In any case, they are beautiful hand carved tools that worked very well to comb the seed heads off of the flax.

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Seeds on a sheet.

After I removed the seed heads, I retted the flax. Retting is essentially a process that rots the stems a bit, breaking down the pectin to leave long fibrous strands for spinning. I retted my flax in three batches.

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One was submerged in water in a kiddie pool–held down with rocks. The other two were retted by the dew–one in the flax patch and one on our front lawn.

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Interestingly, the batch in the flax patch, which is lower down on the property, retted faster than the batch on the lawn.

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I then dried each batch again and have it waiting for the next stage–when it’s smashed and combed–called “breaking” and “hackling.”

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Although I scoured every antique store in mid-coast Maine for a flax break, I had no luck in finding one. So, George has kindly offered to make one for this year, while we continue to look. The break smashes the stems, separating the spinnable fibers from the rest.

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A small bit of flax that I processed is hanging from the distaff.  

As our vegetables and flax grew, so did our flowers.

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It was a wonderful year for bees and butterflies.

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We had lots of monarchs this year AND lots of these milkweed tussock moths, which turned some of the milkweeds into skeletons.

Berries are thick, bringing berry-eating birds, including our waxwing babies.

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Wild cherries over the bee hive.  

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Unfortunately, our cursed bluebird continues to hang around and he may be training up his progeny to be just as nasty as he is. After months of enduring his assaults on our house and car windows, we hoped that he might calm down once his babies fledged.

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I grudgingly admit that he was a good provider and was surprised to see, when I pulled up the photos, that the female had a damaged claw–it was always bent under.

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Was his aggression protective of her injury? Or did he cause it? I have no clue, but he was one incredibly aggressive bird. The two of them raised three chicks and they went off in the world.

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We didn’t see anything of them for several weeks. The past few days, however, the whole crew is back and a male with a short tail is attacking house and car windows again. I fear he is the next generation.

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We haven’t been entirely immune from weather woes. My mother’s water-front Florida house was slated for demolition by Hurricane Irma at one point. We spent some helpless, nail-biting hours wondering if the house and its contents would be swept away, while our weather continued sunny and glorious.

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But, Irma danced a bit eastward and the house was spared. Fortunately, my mother wasn’t there and–due to her dementia–didn’t know that her home was imperiled. A small benefit of extreme age, I guess.

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Clouds crimped like fleece.

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Crimpy fleece like clouds.

Our weather was like summer today, with an overlay of fall smells and colors. I love fall and look forward to slowing down after a hectic summer. I am already planning inside activities–spinning, weaving, and sewing. I processed all the fleece that I bought this summer, using George’s loam separator to pick the vegetable matter, crud, and poop from the fleeces.

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CVM fleece (California Variegated Mutant–awful name, lovely wool).  

Actually, with one exception, the fleeces were extremely clean and washed up beautifully.

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The wood is in. Bring on fall and winter.

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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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