Category : Nature
Date : November 3, 2013

A few dandelions are popping out on the lawn and the bees are very grateful for this needed dose of pollen, as they hurriedly gather the last morsels of outdoor food to tide them over the winter.  The little jenny wrens are chirping by the woodpile in the mornings, and frost has covered the blades of grass and fallen leaves.  We are moving into the long days of winter here in western Massachusetts.

Earlier in the week, I began reading Christian McEwen’s World Enough & Time and have not been able to get this passage out of my mind:

In 2009, the editors at Oxford University Press removed a swathe of nature-related words from their latest Junior Dictionary……The familiar names of flowers and trees and birds and fish and animals vanished from the page.  Primrose and dandelion, hazel and walnut were replaced by terms like blog and voicemail, BlackBerry supplanted blackberry.  The heron and the kingfisher, the magpie and the raven, even the tiny wren flapped their ancient wings and flew away.”

How would Emily Dickinson have been able to write her poems without knowing the names and the qualities of countless plants, flowers and birds, I wondered.  One might argue that writers use the words, and the technology, of their time.  Today, writers undoubtedly pull out their handy Blackberry or Android to jot down verses as they hurriedly go about their day.  This is not dissimilar to the method Dickinson employed, for she would reach into her pocket, pull out her pencil and write snippets of verse upon saved scraps of envelopes; however, she probably relied upon her own erudition as well as the dictionaries and encyclopedias of the day in her explorations.  If words are eliminated from the landscape of the Junior Dictionary, how then will children know about what they are observing and write their poems?

detail for Euell #8--Brece Honeycutt, work on paper, 2012

detail for Euell #8, Brece Honeycutt work on paper, 2012

If Dickinson were alive today, would she use her PDA to write about the wren?

For every Bird a nest —
Wherefore in timid quest
Some little Wren goes seeking round —
Wherefore when boughs are free,
Households in every tree,
Pilgrim be found?
Perhaps a home too high —
Ah aristocracy!
The little Wren desires —
Perhaps of twig so fine—
Of twine e’en superfine,
Her pride aspires —
The Lark is not ashamed
To build opon the ground
Her modest house —
Yet who of all the throng
Dancing around the sun
Does so rejoice?


Christian McEwen, World Enough & Time:  on creativity and slowing down (Bauhan Publishing LLC, 2011), pg. 65.

The Poems of Emily Dickinson, ed. by R. E. Franklin, (Harvard University Press, 2005), pg. 50

Thanks to India Flint for alerting me to McEwen’s thoughtful and provocative book.  An antidote to the harried world of the now.


Category : Nature
Date : August 4, 2013

The nasturtium was not native to the Colonies, but instead would have been brought from the “Old World,” according to the National Park Service’s ‘Roger Williams National Memorial’ website describing the kitchen garden.  In fact, the nasturtium seeds were brought from Peru to Spain in the 16th century.

nasturtium in the kitchen garden

nasturtium in the kitchen garden

The website lists and describes many plants that were selected and brought over to the Colonies:

Horehound, Angelica,   Winter Savory,  Lady’s Mantle,   Sage,  Hyssop, Calendula/Pot Marigold, Oregano/Wild Marjoram,  Borage/Bee Bread, Tansy, Spearmint,  Violet, Clove Pink/Gilly flower/Border Carnation

Our kitchen garden includes the lovely nasturtium, and we find the pickled buds of the Nasturtium quite tasty, reminding us of capers.

Here is a “receipt”, or recipe, for you to try from Mrs. Gardiner’s Family Receipts—a personal manuscript book that Anne Gibbons Gardiner began keeping in 1763 in Boston, MA:

Nasturtium Buds, to pickle

“Gather the Nasturtium Berries soon after the blossom are gone off, and before the Berries become old or hard, put them into cold Salt and Water, and change the Water once a Day, for three successive Days, Make your Pickle with white wine Vinegar, sliced Nutmeg, Mace, Pepper, Salt, Shallots, and Horse-radish. You must make your Pickle strong, as it is not to be boiled.  When your Nasturtium Berries have drained, put them into a Jar, and pour the Pickle over them.”


Category : Nature
Date : June 17, 2013

One thing leads to another.  Yesterday one of our young chicks flew the coop and we had to corral her back in.  As I walked along the fence line to head her off, I noticed a swarm of bees clinging to last year’s morning glory vines.  My husband checked one of his two hives, and sure enough, the swarm contained “his” bees.  If the chick had not escaped, I would not have seen the swarm.

Our swarm of bees

our swarm of bees

Bee swarms send out scouts to find a permanent location, and then swarm off to begin their new home.  Typically, bees swarm in May and June, once the hive has become overly populated – too many bees for too small a space – or when the existing queen is nearing the end of her reign.  The workers sense this, begin preparing a few brood cells with royal jelly, and when a new queen makes her way to the fore, she leaves the hive with about half of the hive’s bees.  According to Edwin Way Teale in his book, The Golden Throng, this is a euphoric time in the hive.

The machinelike routine of the hive is forgotten.  Caution, common sense, all the virtues of their everyday lives, are ignored. A holiday spirit sweeps over the insects.  They gorge themselves with honey. They seem drunk with joy, delirious at the approach of a great adventure.  The frugal, provident, hard-working bees are seemingly caught up in a mad, reckless mood of abandon.  They hazard all in one rash gamble with fate.

A time of excitement, of adventure, of dancing and freedom, is at hand.  This is the one playday, the only Sunday know in the world of bees.


smoker ready for action

smoker ready for action

Teale also states, “It is a hardened beekeeper who can remain calm at such a moment.” M quickly moved into action and prepared to remove the swarm into a ‘nuc’ box by first smoking them — directing bees’ attention to the uptake of honey (rather than defending the nest against assailants) in preparation for fleeing the hive from, say, an approaching forest fire — and then slipping them into the nuc box.  It was exciting to watch from afar, as the bees did indeed swarm again around M’s wax foundation and frames, which he put into the nuc box.  Since the queen and a large part of her “court” moved to the new box, her other workers and drones have followed, and this morning finds the entire hive apparently in the nuc box.  Tomorrow morning, M will move them to a larger hive for their new, more permanent home.


transferring the swarm to the nut

transferring the swarm to the nuc


Edwin Way Teale, The Golden Throng, (Dodd, Mead & Company, New York, 1940), pgs 99-105.

paper mosaicks

Category : Nature
Date : May 14, 2013

On May 14, 1700, in Coulston, England, Mary Delany was born.

Mrs. Delany lived quite the aristocratic life and was a friend of Handel and Swift. Her letters provide a first hand glimpse into the court of George III and Queen Charlotte. If you are so inclined, the letters may be downloaded for free from Google Books.

At the age of 72, she began to make paper mosaicks of plants. Her Flora Delanica comprise over 1000 botanicals; for each, she painted the paper, cut out exquisite, minutely detailed plants, and glued each to a black background. The plants vibrate wioth life, and upon close inspection, one can see the variations in color and shape. She handled her scissors with extreme precision.

Paper Garden by Molly Peacock

The Paper Garden by Molly Peacock

Molly Peacock’s illuminating book, The Paper Garden: Mrs. Delany Begins Her Life’s Work at 72, examines Delany’s life via her mosaicks–each chapter entwined around a plant and written with the poetic prose by this award-wining poet. The book itself is the perfect size to hold in one’s hand as one examines Delany’s botanicals.

wake robin

Category : Nature
Date : May 2, 2013

This morning I glimpsed a grouping of wake robins, or trillium, out of the corner of my eye on my morning walk, and my mind jumped back to another walk.

One May day, we were invited to Emily Ramey’s for a wild flower walk and luncheon.  She led us across her beautiful spring green field and into the woods. It was magical, with the hillsides covered with trilliums–white, pink, red–high lit by the dappled sun coming through the new leaves. We walked amongst may apples and lady slippers.  Now I realize that this was virgin forest, as there were hundreds of trilliums on the land that she watched and tended.

vintage wildflower card foraged from the 25 cent table at my favorite thrift store

vintage wildflower card foraged from the 25 cent table at my favorite thrift store

After the walk, we were treated to a spring lunch–biscuits, corn pudding, country cured ham, peas and iced tea with lime-juice as a sweetener. To me, the lime-juice was exotic.

Mrs. Ramey knew the land like the back of her hand.  She was petite, not more than five fee tall, and wore skirts with sensible shoes.  She mowed the fields on the large tractor, cared for her cattle and raised the crops to feed them.

dandelions, part 2

Category : Nature
Date : April 29, 2013

Lawns are greening and yellowing up.  The hated dandelion has arrived.  Today, I watched bumblebees hum over the lawn seeking the needed pollen.

In his book, Stalking the Wild Asparagus, Euell Gibbons discusses the dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) at length.  He speaks of its ability to give the body much needed iron in the spring months.  Dandelions—the entire plant: buds, leaves, roots—can be used.  One can roast the roots for a coffee-type beverage; sauté the early spring leaves; and make wine from the yellow flowers.

When I was a teenager we moved from the suburbs of Washington, DC, to a very small town with a tractor repair shop, post office and general store, and a population of 100 people.  Our home was at the end of two-mile dirt road.  Our next- door neighbor–if there is such a thing on a rural route–Mrs. Williams, gave us divine fudge and dandelion wine bottled in re-used ‘White House’ vinegar 8 0z. bottles at every Christmas.  I recall tasting the dandelion wine and found it sweet and fragrant, reminiscent of the beloved flowers and of spring.

Taraxacum officinale

Taraxacum officinale

This year marks our fifth year here and the soil is finally free of the chemicals that made the lawn ultra green, sans the worms and microbes so important to the chain of life. It is time to make the wine, to remember Mrs. Williams, and we’re using Euell’s recipe.


Category : Nature
Date : April 27, 2013

When did the dandelion become so evil?

the evil dandelion

the evil dandelion

Emily Dickinson so loved her dandelions that she transplanted one into a pot and tenderly tended it in her conservatory.  She “pressed a dandelion and tied a ribbon around it, enclosing it with a poem.”

The Dandelion’s pallid Tube
Astonishes the Grass,
And Winter instantly becomes
An infinite Alas —
The Tube uplifts a signal Bud
And then a shouting Flower, —
The Proclamation of the Suns
That sepulture is over—


Now most people despise the valiant dandelions and spend hours trying to eradicate them from their lawns.  Instead, we rejoice in hopes that many bees derive their first nectar and pollen from them. Honeybees are having a rough go of it these years and many beekeepers are losing half their hives each winter. We lost our two hives in one winter and now we are eagerly awaiting the delivery of two nucs in early May.


[Marta McDowell, Emily Dickinson’s Gardens, (McGraw-Hill, New York, 2005), p. 38]

double duty

Category : Nature
Date : April 20, 2013

Perhaps it was the hours spent pulling weeds and invasive vines that led me to natural dyeing and foraging.  As we worked, I wondered what can be done with these weeds?  It seemed a shame to ‘gather’ these plants and essentially throw them away, and quite ‘un-colonial’ not to use everything.

Coincidentally, I happened upon a copy of Euell Gibbons’, Stalking the Wild Asparagus.  Do you remember the Grape Nut commercials in the 1970s, with Gibbons talking about eating a pine tree?  He poetically outlines uses for many so-called weeds (more on the dandelion in a later post), but he does not mention the now-prevalent garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) and maybe that is because it was not as invasive then.  My research tells me that the deer won’t eat the garlic mustard, promoting its overtaking of the forest floor, and to add insult to injury, the scattered seed lasts for five years.

new season garlic mustard

new season garlic mustard

On the new book shelf at the Library sat a copy of Urban Foraging by Ellen Zachos, a perfect guide for modern foragers with color photos and recipes.  She adores the garlic mustard plant, for “it’s insanely nutritious, higher in fiber, beta-carotene, vitamins C and E, and zinc than either spinach or kale. It’s also very high in calcium, iron and omega-3 fatty acids.”  She recommends making pesto from the foraged new season leaves and so we did.  Put your foraged garlic mustard leaves, salt, pepper, olive oil, Parmesan, and I added a dribble of honey, into the Cuisinart and voilà, yummy pesto.

[Ellen Zachos, Backyard Foraging, (Storey Publishing, 2013), pgs. 42-43]


Category : Nature
Date : April 11, 2013

At the moment, we have peepers inside & out.  The swamps are coming alive with the spring peeper. At night as you drive home with your windows rolled down, the noise is down right boisterous. When one hears the peepers, it is a sure sign that we have passed into the next season. However, we have a forecast for more winter weather on the way.

I continue to ponder about the inhabitants of this home—of what signs did they take notice? Did they mark the chorus of peepers as the coming of spring?

Two days ago, a small box arrived at the post office and M came home with 8 chicks. They are very active and when racing around their circular pen, they make peeping sounds—peeppeeppeep.  And then they sleep.

We heard that our kitchen was formerly a chicken coop, in the late 1800s. In the area above the kitchen, the floor used to yield corn kernels, for that area was the barn loft. A few years ago, we found corn cobs in the walls!


Two day old chicks

april fools

Category : Nature
Date : April 1, 2013

60 degrees at high noon. Hail at 1pm and snow showers at 3pm. Mother Nature’s April fool day joke, I wondered.


Martha Ballard diary page from Maine State Library

So I turned to see what the day brought in another year and picked up my well-worn copy of A Midwife’s Tale The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812 by the brilliant historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. Ballard, a midwife, lived on the river in Hallowell, Maine and thankfully Ulrich found her diary and brought it to us.

April 1806, Ballard writes:

1 3 At home

Clear and spring like. Grew cold at Evening. Snowed some. I have been at home. Irond my clothes &C.

2 4 At home
Clear and very Cold……. got up some wood for us. I have wound 3 skeins hoes yarn, wound & double 3 ditto

As the first of each entry, the weather is a constant character.

Ulrich, Laurel Thatcher, A Midwife’s Tale The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812 (Vintage Books, New York, 1991), p.286.


Category : Nature
Date : March 31, 2013

The New England Cottontail is becoming extinct, losing 86% of its young forest habitat in the last fifty years due to man’s development and succession forest. Ironic, on this Easter Sunday, to ponder the fact that Peter Rabbit might not be a threat to one’s garden anymore.

What would Beatrix Potter think about this? Not only did she write and illustrate captivating  books, but she also saved over 4,000 acres of land in England’s Lake District. Her sketchbooks and letters were recently on view at The Morgan Library—a feast for the eyes. Her letters to young Noel are filled with charming illustrations and one can see Peter Rabbit hopping across the page.


From the Coast to Coast Ramble in the Lake District

We need more people like Potter to save valuable land and leave it to the animals that roam.

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