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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Yardbirds and Going Undercover

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We stopped feeding the birds sunflower seeds this spring after a chipmunk (or red squirrel) had an air-filter-and-hood-insulation feeding frenzy in our car. We hoped that the rodents that normally forage for sunflower seed debris under our feeders would move on down the road and, so far, it seems to be helping. We see very few squirrels now and our chipmunk population is down to two.

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The goldfinches survey the garden but haven’t eaten the chard yet this year.  Perhaps they did so last year to get moisture during the drought.  

I dragged myself kicking and screaming into the decision to stop feeding the birds. George and I love watching the birds at our feeders. But now, several months later, I have found an unexpected boon to taking down the seed feeder. We seem to have a greater variety of birds in the yard now and an increase in the nesting population. It’s possible that I am simply more observant of bird behavior around the yard now that the bird feeder playground has been closed. But I think it is more than that and we actually have had a change in the resident bird dynamics.

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A robin nesting in an apple tree in the middle of our yard.  

We still feed suet and added two more birdbaths, so continue to see most of the usual suspects. We see far fewer chickadees and cardinals, but now the more elusive warblers–which I usually hear but don’t see–have been putting in appearances in trees near the house. The biggest change, however, has been the increase in nesting couples.

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Robin eggshells?

Aside from the bluebirds, swallows and wrens nesting in our boxes, I believe we have bluejays, robins (at least two pairs), mourning doves, catbirds, sparrows, nuthatches, and phoebes nesting in trees in and around our yard.

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This past week, the late-nesting goldfinches and cedar waxwings have been gathering string and wool for their nests. I don’t know why we have become such a bird nursery this year. Perhaps there are less predators with our large fenced area and without the attraction of a feeder. In any case, I am glad that we took the feeders down.

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Mourning dove nesting in the apple tree behind our compost bin.  The male sits on it during the day and the female takes the night shift.  

We were fortunate again this year to see the first flights of some of the swallow nestlings. They don’t fool around with little short flights to a neighboring tree.  They carve a wide arc into the sky, trying out all the swooping, gliding, turning, fluttering swallow acrobatics in that first amazing flight. It’s looks like utter exhilaration in motion. Imagine how it must feel to go from a crowded nest box to dancing on the wind like that.

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Getting ready for the first flight with a meal of dragonfly.  The swallows are feeding constantly in the days before they leave the nest.  

The increased bird population has not been without its problems. Our male bluebird became crazed after the birth of his brood and starting attacking our house windows with mind-numbing (his and ours) zealous hits–boom, flutter, boom. Over and over and over. It looked as if it would hurt, but he persisted–for hours–then days. We leaned a piece of plywood against his favorite window to cut down on the reflection.

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But he simply moved to our vehicles’ side mirrors,

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becoming so enraged at his reflection that he couldn’t contain his poop, leaving us with cascades of lovely fecal matter down both sides of the car and truck.

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I finally had to cover the mirrors.

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The babes have flown and I suspect he thinks he’s warding off competition for a second brood.

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Our other bird issue was not unexpected. We had our first real crop of strawberries this year and as they started to ripen, it was apparent that something was eating them. I didn’t know if it was birds, chipmunks, or mice until I caught a cedar waxwing redhanded. We quickly cobbled together a funky netting system to cover them, which has worked beautifully. Except for the fact that I have to crawl around to pick the berries and weed.

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The netting is hard to see but so far it has kept the birds out.

We also covered our brassicas this year with agribon fabric.

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They were devastated by cabbage moth caterpillars last year. So far, the plants are thriving under the fabric.  The agribon does raise the temperature, so may end up being too hot for the cool-loving brassicas.

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We’ll see.

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The wet weather last month may have contributed to the shoot blight we’re seeing on young poplars in the woods

Weatherwise, the past weeks have been perfect, with lots of gorgeous sun and warmth punctuated with afternoon and evening thunder storms.

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George put in a water line to the vegetable gardens, but we haven’t had to use it yet, there has been such a nice mix of sun and rain.

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Trench for the water line.

The bees are thriving,

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flowers blooming,

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and the dogs are doing their doggy things.

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It’s been a good June.

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First peach.

 

Practicing Patience and Waging War

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I am tired of March. The weather has been properly capricious, with spring advancing, receding, advancing, and disappearing altogether. More than anything, it is the unvarying black and white landscape that is wearing me down. Gray skies, soggy snow, black trees, sleet, ice, fog–all color has been leached away.

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We had a couple of days with brilliant blue skies and robin song.

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I took a delightful, leisurely walk comparing birch and poplar bark and admiring pussy willows.

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This birch bark had Frankenstein-like stitches

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This birch’s bark looked like petroglyphs or Roman numerals

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Delicate peels

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Golden peels

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The poplar looks like it’s bursting out of its bark

It seemed as if we might be on the brink of spring.

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Poplar

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Willow

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But another cold front moved in, coating everything in ice.

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Ice-coated pussy willows

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Pussy willow-cicles 

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Apple buds

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Azaleas

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Queen Anne’s Lace

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I should be grateful for all this precipitation after last summer’s drought, but I am starved for color and a few flowers.

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While we tried to become resigned to out-waiting winter’s siege, we faced a sneak attack on another front. Some wily chipmunk decided to have a vacation under the hood of our car.  This was not the first time we have had rodents in our vehicles. It is a hazard of rural life in Maine. We don’t have a garage and our parking area is bounded by stone walls and a wood pile, which provide perfect cover for mice and chipmunks.

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We have tried every kind of deterrent, from peppermint oil, to dryer sheets, to fox urine.
Our previous damage, including chewed wires for our car’s moon roof, was from mice. After setting some traps, we thought we had it under control.

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The chipmunk was another story. Exactly one week ago, last Wednesday, our car’s heater fan started making an alarming noise. It is still cold and icy here, and we need that heater and defroster to get around. So, I brought the car in immediately and found that some little critter had torn out most of the cabin air filter for nesting material and the filter debris had been sucked into the heater fan. The mechanic cleared out the material and put in a new filter. All good, we thought.

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The second destroyed filter.  One day’s damage.  There were maple seeds and pine needles stashed in it.  

Not so. By the next afternoon, same noise. Another trip to the mechanic on Friday, another eaten filter, and this time, there were bits of hood liner added to the mix. Another clean out, another new filter, more smelly deterrents, traps set. The mechanics all surmised that it was a chipmunk, not a mouse, that was the causing the damage.

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Hood liner.  Lovely, soft nesting material.

Now, I hate to trap a chipmunk. They peg the adorable meter for rodents. Charming, fun to watch–I LOVE chipmunks. But this little rodent was costing us a lot of time and money. We had tried to peacefully coexist, but we cannot provide our car as chipmunk housing.

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It burrowed under the hood liner here.  Again, one day’s damage.

The traps seemed to work. Not in actually catching anything, but they must have made the chipmunks wary. We saw no signs of them.

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Until Monday. A third trip to the mechanic, a third filter destroyed, more hood liner gone. This time the mechanic installed wire screening across the entire opening for the heating ductwork. We have our fingers crossed that it will work. So far, so good. In the meantime, the car smells like a balsam-scented laundromat (we may add mothballs to the mix). We will move our woodpile and stop feeding the birds for a while in hopes that will clear out some of the chipmunks. The war continues.

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Maybe we should have gotten Terriers

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Weather

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One of the reasons we moved to Maine was because it had “weather.” No monotonous parade of days, one just like another. Instead, here we are treated to wildly careening weather moods, a bipolar medley, where an afternoon can seem to change seasons in just a few hours. These past weeks have been weather-filled, shaping our days around the world outside.

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We had too many days with low-ceiling clouds, reminding me of Anchorage winters, dark and gray. It’s my least favorite weather, making me feel a bit gray myself. Even the starlings looked a bit depressed.

img_0819Of course, being Maine, the gray didn’t last long.  The skies cleared, with brilliant sunrises, acting like rose-colored glasses on the morning.

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On winter solstice, the sunrise was particularly spectacular, with a light pillar, created by ice crystals in the air.

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It started smallish and very red.  Soon the pillar grew much taller and turned golden, with the ice making a partial rainbow over to the left.

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Then a jet, with its contrail, appeared to fly right through the pillar.  A nice way to mark the return of light.

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The clear days brought frigid temperatures.  Too cold for photographs. I tried in vain to get pictures of the cardinals, brilliant on the snow and all fluffed up red against the cold. But my fingers gave out before the camera-shy birds ventured close.

img_0909We had several heavy snow dumps, silencing and softening, challenging our snowblower, and making lace of our fence.

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One night brought a nor’easter, a stormy turmoil of warm Atlantic and cold polar winds, making the house creak and groan through the dark hours and leaving, mysteriously, caterpillars on the pristine morning snow.

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Where they came from, I don’t know. But some were still alive and crawling futilely across the frigid crust. Capp was fascinated. He may have eaten one. **Update** the caterpillar mystery was solved by arlingwoman.  They are Noctua pronuba, or winter cutworms–a nasty garden and agricultural pest.  Yuck.

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The snow was followed by rain, then a quick temperature plunge, which transformed twigs and berries into icy works of art.

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More gray days, more frigid days, and then–boom (the winds actually were somewhat booming) –today we had a January thaw. In Alaska, we called the warm southern winter-melting winds Chinooks. I don’t think the thawing winds have a specific name here, but they feel like Chinooks, transforming winter into a brief spring in a blink.

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My walk today was warm, blue and blustery overhead, mud-filled at feet level, and lichen-filled at eye level.

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Somehow the warm weather and sun seemed to make the lichens and moss pop with map-like landscapes and fractal faces.

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As we roll with the weather outside, we remain busy–too busy actually–with hunting for another dog, pup-training, quilting, spinning, tree and seed ordering, library volunteering, spring planning, snow-clearing, fire-wood gathering, cooking, and winter maintenance.  Maybe, just maybe, we will slow down for a month in February.

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