buccaneers of buzz

Category : Nature
Date : May 18, 2016
Bees are black - with Gilt Surcingles-
Buccaneers of Buzz-
Ride abroad in ostentation
And subsist on Fuzz-

Fuzz ordained - not Fuzz contingent
Marrows of the Hill.
Jugs - a Universe's fracture.
Could not jar or spill.

Emily Dickinson (poem 1426)

When leading a recent wildflower walk on Bartholomew’s Cobble, I asked the group to be quiet for a moment and listen for the ‘buzzing’ of the Bumblebees. Wild Ginger, Spring Beauty, Dutchman’s Breeches, Trout Lily, Bloodroot, both Purple and Yellow Violet, and the odd Dandelion carpeted the forest floor. All of the spring ephemerals provide fodder for the early foraging Bumblebee.

Wouldn’t you rather hear the buzz of the Bumblebee instead of summer’s omnipresent sound of the lawn mower, trimmer and leaf blower? As you may recall, dear reader, we have been replacing our lawn with flowerbeds and wild areas. Lately, our patch of Ajuga is the major gathering ground for the hard-at-work Bumblebees.

Bumblebees pollinate many of our foods including “…every cucumber, aubergine, runner bean, black currant and pepper…” reports the scientist Dave Goulson in his book A Sting in the Tale. Goulson, founder of the Bumblebee Conservation Trust in England, encourages all of us to consider planting “an old fashioned cottage garden” filled with “lupines, hollyhocks, scabious, lavender, chives, sage, thyme and rosemary” for the foraging Bumblebee.

One queen Bumblebee may visit up to 6,000 flowers a day. When she emerges in early spring, she gathers nectar and pollen from the early flowers in order to feed herself, lay her eggs, and store feed for the young as they incubate, thus starting the process of making a hive of new Bumblebees.  Bumbleebees don’t dither. Venture outside and watch them. They forage with vigor and direction.

Go ahead, give up the ‘american lawn’ for a patch of flowers!

“We need worms to create soil; flies and beetles and fungi to break down dung; ladybirds and hoverflies to eat greenfly; bees and butterflies to pollinate plants; plants to provide food, oxygen, fuel and medicines and hold the soil together; and bacteria to help plants fix nitrogen and to help cows digest grass. We have barely begun to understand the complexity of interactions between living creatures on earth, yet we often choose to squander the irreplaceable, to discard those things that both keep us alive and make life worth living. Perhaps if we learn to save a bee today we can save the world tomorrow?”


The Poems of Emily Dickinson, edited by R.W. Franklin, (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1999), pg. 541.

Dave Goulson, A Sting in the Tale: My adventure with Bumblebees, (Picador, 2013), pgs.186, 222-3, 16-24, 240-1.

Note: The Emily Dickinson Museum is restoring her gardens. Incredible article in the New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/17/science/emily-dickinson-lost-gardens.html?ref=todayspaper

preserved, conserved & landmarked

Category : Nature
Date : March 28, 2016

Our feet have trod the paths of Bartholomew’s Cobble from time to time over the last eight years, but not until last week did I realize it is designated a National Natural Landmark. The National Park Service bestows this honor on sites “for their outstanding condition, illustrative value, rarity, diversity, and value to science and education.”

The Cobble, as it is affectionately called, started underwater as part of a sea, with sand and coral reefs, as much as 500 million years ago. At the forming of two mountain ranges, the Taconic and the Berkshire, the Cobble was born. The Cobble’s calcareous rock (formerly the ocean floor) now supports a specific diverse ecosystem and, in the spring, the calcium loving ephemeral wildflowers burst forth along the Ledges Trail. Indeed, we marvel at these wonders every year, but also savor visiting the Cobble monthly, often climbing up Hurllburt’s Hill to be awed by the sweeping northern view of the Berkshires and noting the seasonal changes in the landscape.

What is it about rambling around in the woods and up mountains, going on ‘expotitions’ as Christopher Robin termed them, that gives one great joy? Kathryn Aalto notes:

“Walking sets the mind adrift, clarifying and organizes thoughts—a vital process for writers. Walking allows a pace for discovering small, new things: how gorse has the faint smell of coconut in spring, that the red dragonflies hovering over bogs are actually rare, and that the nocturnal bird calls are from the threatened night jar.”

Indeed, it was a pleasure to wander the pages of her latest book, The Natural World of Winnie-the-Pooh, exploring the fictional landscape of The Hundred Acre wood and to learn that A. A. Milne (the author of the Winnie-the-Pooh series) was inspired by the very real Ashdown Forest (East Sussex, England). Ashdown Forest, it seems, is not dissimilar to The Cobble, for its geography and geology support a particular rare ecosystem, thus designating it both a “Site of Special Scientific Interest” and a “Special Area of Conservation.”

We as walkers are most fortunate to have organization such as The Trustees of Reservations (managers of the Cobble) and Friends of Ashdown Forest to maintain and support these landscapes for us to savor and ramble upon. Often, we take for granted that these and other sites will be preserved forever. However, as Heather Bellow warns in her recent article, another natural area — the Otis State Forest in Otis, MA – is now under threat by the ‘claim for eminent domain’ by Tennessee Gas Pipeline. Bellow notes that the forest, with a stand of 300-year old hemlocks, is protected under Article 97 of the Massachusetts Constitution; as you can guess, Tennessee Gas, Kinder Morgan, and their stable of attorneys will be fighting the legality of Article 97 and any other law to ensure that nothing stands, literally and figuratively, in their way of seeking revenue.

Kathryn Aalto, The Natural World of Winnie-the-Pooh: a walk through the forest that inspired the Hundred Acre Wood, (Timber Press, 2015), pgs. 110, 198-199, 214, 209.

Heather Bellow, “Kinder Morgan pipeline project scorns state constitution, could set precedent,” The Berkshire Edge, accessed on 3/25/2016

Note: This spring, trained guides (myself included) will be giving daily tours of the wildflowers during the Cobble’s Spring Wildflower Festival, Saturday April 16-Friday May 6. Tours depart at 10, 12 and 2pm. For more information, Bartholomew’s Cobble, 105 Weatogue Road, Sheffield MA 01257, 413-298-3239 x 3008.

Note: As of Friday March 25, FERC (Federal Energy Regulatory Commission) has issued a Request for Additional Information to Tennessee Gas Pipeline (Kinder Morgan’s subsidiary). For the full request letter, please read, “FERC to Kinder Morgan, ‘Sandisfield Pipeline? Not so fast,” in the Berkshire Edge.

winter metabolism

Category : Nature
Date : January 7, 2016

Greetings & Best wishes for 2016, dear Reader. We very much appreciate you following along with our musings and workings through the seasons on our colonial farm.

All across the northeast, temperatures dropped dramatically this past week and each morning dawned brisk and crystal clear. Heavy frost clung to the grasses and reeds in the field, and a thin glaze of ice formed on the ponds.


As I walked out the back door this morning, a group of startled chickadees burst from the nearby cedar shrub. I wondered if and why they had rested in the shrub, rather than in some seemingly more snug nests in tree cavities, during the preceding evening. Thankfully, Bernd Heinrich explains this behavior in his eloquently written book, Winter World: The Ingenuity of Animal Survival. Apparently, black-capped chickadees (Parus atricapillus) do not use their nests in the winter for shelter and warmth, but instead “…may sleep in almost any tight cranny or cavity (as can sometimes be deduced from their bent tail feathers in the morning); in dense vegetation such as vines; in conifers; and possibly in snow.”

Heinrich further explains that chickadees, as do other small birds and mammals, activate torpor in the winter, setting down the body temperature to conserve energy. Chickadees stoke up their body fat during the day by foraging for food and, as evening comes on, lower their body temperature by two degrees, thus allowing for winter survival. By visiting our bird feeder, these active birds hopefully eat enough on a daily basis to make it through each night.   And, Heinrich further notes, that in addition to their dense plumage, they tuck their heads under their shoulder feathers to maintain warmth during the night.


So, during cold winter months, eat well during the day and plump up your feathers in the evening.

Bernd Heinrich, Winter World The Ingenuity of Animal Survival, (Ecco Paper Back, 2004), pgs., 9-11, 135-139.


Category : Nature
Date : January 10, 2015

Bundled up with my walking stick in hand, I head out each morning for a brisk stroll. During the winter months when the trees display their trunks and branches like dark lines on a white sheet of paper, I play the “nest game.” Bird’s nests are now visible in the crooks of branches and wedged amongst brambles. Weather–rain, snow and wind–causes unfurling, and strands of straw and grass hang and move in the breeze, and it is this movement that I catch out of the corner of my eye, stopping me in my tracks, so that I may examine the nest. The nests are made of varying materials, and come in all shapes and sizes. Without binoculars it becomes hard to see the details, but happily one can reference America’s Other Audubon by Joy M. Kiser.IMG_2182

Kiser explains in her Preface that she happened upon a display featuring a copy of Illustrations of the Nests and Eggs of Birds of Ohio at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History en route to begin her new job as an assistant librarian. Perhaps it was the visual juxtaposition of the oversized book next to the tiny label that caused her examination. The label “explained that the book was the accomplishment of the Jones family of Ohio: the daughter, Genevieve, had conceived of the idea and had begun drawing and painting the illustrations with the assistance of a childhood friend: the son, Howard, had collected the nests and eggs; the father, Nelson, had paid the publishing costs; and after Genevieve died, the mother, Virginia, and the rest of the family spent eight years completing the work as a memorial to Genevieve.”

It is no wonder that Kiser lingered at the display, for each delicate plate shows a nest rendered in exquisite detail in its natural setting, as well as the Latin and common name of occupying bird. Rows of eggs are drawn and painted to scale with three views per oval. We are treated to informative text with poetical descriptions of the birds, their nests, eggs and habits (flying pattern, songs, mating, nocturnal or not, etc,).

One of my favorite plates shows the nest of the Parus atricapillus (the Black-capped Chickadee) in a cut away view inside a tree trunk. Chickadees place their nests in the cavity of a tree and it “…is composed entirely of moss and very fine downy feathers, the lining being similar to the exterior except that the fibers are more numerous within.” A perfect bowl of moss lined in feathers–what more could one want? Of course, the Chickadee’s nest will be much harder for me to see on my morning walks, for only the exterior hole is evident to the passerby. I will watch more closely the openings, ever hopeful to see one emerge from a nest hole.

Likewise, I will keep my eyes alert at yard sales and antiquarian bookstores for a copy of the original book made by the Jones family. Kiser notes only twenty-six of the fifty-three hand colored copies and eight of the thirty-seven uncolored have been located. Pay attention.

Joy M. Kiser, America’s Other Audubon, (Princeton Architectural Press, 2012), pgs. 10,13, 160-161.

Note: Kiser’s full introduction as well as selected plates are on view on line courtesy of the Smithsonian Libraries—http://www.sil.si.edu/ondisplay/nestsandeggs/index.htm


Category : Nature
Date : May 15, 2014

Recently, M has been asking me a series of “when” questions:

–when did the hummingbirds return last year?
–when did we move the chickens to the summer coop?
–when did the cat birds come back?
–when did we plant the peas and other spring crops?

When indeed? In order to answer each question, I pull out my ‘Record’ book. For the past four years, at dawn, I record the daily temperature as well as notable natural occurrences. Gathered over time, these become invaluable, for we know when to put out the hummingbird feeders (May 17, 2013 & May 4, 2012) and when to look at dusk for the first lightning bugs (May 21, 2013 & May 9, 2012). This past winter was particularly harsh, and we seem to be experiencing a consistent two-week delay this Spring in many of Nature’s “events”.

Seasonal notes and marks may take on many different forms by using the actual ‘windfall’ leaves and flowers on an observer’s paper and cloth. India Flint describes this process in her article in Surface Design Journal, “Marking the Way Home” through the art works of Roz Hawker, Isobel McGarry, Judy Keylock and myself. Silversmith Roz Hawker lives in Australia and gathers both plants and weeds from her garden, dyes both paper and textile, and binds these into delicate books with silver covers. Similarly, flora finds it way onto my pages. Flint states:

“These exquisite pieces are as much a record of Honeycutt’s environment as they are lyric odes to the plants whose memory is ingrained in the surface.  They echo her daily journal entries, in which she notes the minutiae of the weather along with the plants and animals that make appearances on her property.  In the tradition of a hortus siccus, her reflections, together with the work of the day, literally become arrangements of dried botanical delights.”

If one is seeking advice on starting a weather journal, pick up a copy of This Book Was a Tree:  Ideas, Adventures, and Inspiration for Rediscovering the Natural World by Marcie Chambers Cuff.  In chapter 6, she walks one through the steps to make an “Ecological Calendar,” not only how to construct one from recycled materials, but how to hone one’s observational skills.  Cuff notes that one does not have to live in the country to do so, but one can adopt a nearby tree in a park and watch as the leaves unfurl, noting the monthly changes.  Branch out, and note when the nearby flowers bloom, when the honeybees are active and when the butterflies appear.

Note:  For further inspiration, visit the Yale Center for British Arts for their current exhibition, “Of Green Leaf, Bird, and Flower”: Artist’s Books and the Natural World, on view from May 15-August 10, 2014.

India Flint, “Marking the Way Home,” Surface Design Journal, Nature Bound/Spring 2014, Vol. 38 No. 3, pgs. 28-33.

Marcie Chambers Cuff , This Book Was a Tree:  Ideas, Adventures, and Inspriation for Rediscovering the Natural World, (Perigree Book, 2014), pgs. 79-93.

And, thank you to Resurrection Fern for alerting me to Cuff’s book.


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]

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