Solar Tracking

Solar Tracking
How low can you go? Snow and ice and cancelled school.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

No meat?

                Earth Day presentations at high school are fraught with issues; the usual recommendations are to change your lightbulbs and buy solar panels, with not much in between. This year, they added “Don’t eat meat.”  “Will you tell the whole school why you don’t eat meat?” they asked. “I don’t think so,” I replied. “It’s not a simple answer.” After all, it goes back to a rainy college summer….

                It was my last summer at home. I was to be a senior, graduating in June, and no longer able—or willing—to move back home after graduation. It was not the best summer. First, everyone else was doing something cool, an internship, traveling, anything but living with their moms in Hampstead, New Hampshire. I was lonely. Second, my boyfriend broke up with me via letter as soon as I unpacked my stuff.  Then, it rained every Monday all summer long; I know, I checked the records. It was damp and cool and nothing grew. And, I was a meat wrapper.

                Meat wrapping is a job that has gone out of fashion, but, at one time, all beef and pork arrived in slabs, like a quarter of a cow, to be cut to specifications in the grocery store. It was the half way point between a real butcher and pre-packaged meat. If you wanted, say, a thick London Broil, you could ask for it and the butcher would carve you off a section. They also de-boned chicken and thin sliced other cuts of meat. It was a good, blue-collar job. Men were butchers, women meat wrappers. My job was to take the Styrofoam trays of beef, pork, and chicken, toss a plastic wrap over them, and then price and display the food.  I worked with two men—one older, one my age—and an older woman. The younger guy was prone to flirting with young women at the deli counter and saying things like “I have Male Intermission. I know when it’s time for lunch.” It was a trial. On Monday mornings, I arrived an hour early, (walking down the road in the rain at six thirty am), wash out the meat case, and set it up for the week.  Honestly, it was a good job. It was within walking distance of home, paid a little over minimum wage, forty hours a week, and good working conditions (if you don’t mind being in a 45 degree room all day) and generous co-workers. However, by the time the summer was over, I was sick of the sight of meat.

                That fall, I lived by myself in a tiny two room apartment with the bathroom down the hall. It was cheap. It was cozy. It was on the bus line. My food budget was fifteen dollars a week. I made my own bread, muffins, and soup, baked beans, experimented with crepes—and realized that meat was taking a huge chunk out of my food budget every week. This is crazy, I thought. I don’t even really like pork chops! Slowly, I cut them out of my diet. Chops, bacon, sausage—no sacrifice. They went in September. By October, I was no longer buying beef or chicken. I felt great! And my food money went a lot further, even with an occasional Dunkin Donuts from the shop down the street.

                Worried about protein, I bought a copy of Diet for a Small Planet and read about combining beans and grains, dairy and nuts. I grew more intentional about my meals. I read about the efficiency of a plant based diet, how it used far fewer resources to eat beans rather than meat, wheat rather than dairy. I was convinced.  Meat was bad for the planet. I would no longer eat it. My mother was horrified.

                Even in my most extreme vegetarian days, I was never perfect. I have always eaten pepperoni pizza—pepperoni is not meat. If I was served meat, I ate it.  Now, I feel less determined to be pure. I no longer like the taste of beef or pork, so they are easy to not consume. I will eat an occasional piece of chicken or fish, usually when I am very tired and stressed. I am no longer convinced that grass fed beef, raised humanely and eaten in small quantities, is a bad thing for the planet. In fact, it might be good.  My partner eats meat—it makes him feel better. We have, after all, become adults. All things in moderation.


Sunday, April 16, 2017

If not me?

                A friend lost a dear friend this week to cancer—I knew her, too, years ago, and she glowed with life and love. Even 3000 miles away, I have thought of Donne’s words that “no man is an island” and one death can diminish us all. After she died, there was a whole series of photos of their friendship, starting twenty five years ago. It was beautiful. And I realized—I don’t take pictures of my people. Plants, dinner, trails, my van… but not my friends. So, today, at the Hot Cross Buns celebrate, we gathered in front of the camellia tree for a group photo. The last one was when Isaac was two and a half feet tall. It was time.  Because if I do not, who will?


Sunday, April 9, 2017

The Season of Grass

            ‘Tis the season of grass…Mark mows on Saturday.  By Wednesday, and the grass is an inch and a half taller and sprouting grass tweakers.  It is green, it is lush, it is fast, it is lovely.  However, it is a lot of work.

                When we first moved in, the  grass plan went something like this: Mark was in charge of the lawn and I was in charge of everything else. We bought a lightly used push mower from a friend who was moving to the big city and Mark began chasing it around the yard in patterns, some circular, some straight. He developed techniques of yanking back the handles to cut off stubborn blades and spent several summers slowly pulling false dandelions from the back yard. (The rabbits finished them off a few years ago.)  He had grass pride.

                Meanwhile, I added raised beds in all of the sunny spaces, effectively increasing the ratio of mowed to trimmed work in the yard. “You’re taking over my grass!” Mark fussed whenever I suggested a new garden bed.  And it’s true. We now have one lovely area of lawn in the backyard between the greenhouse, outdoor table, and the garden beds. We can even water it a bit from the summer shower. The rest has been lost to paths, garden beds, and shade.

                Trimming has become a larger activity. Mark started out trimming, but he trims with all of the care that he uses to cut my hair, small areas at a time and lovely and level. He also trims around plants that he likes in the lawn, like lemon balm.  I, on the other hand, have a whack it off approach. Using my right fist to grasp a large clump, I point the shears downward to the base and hack, leaving a golden strip of exposed grass behind. During breaks, I snip exposed slugs. The chickens follow behind, looking for bugs and worms.  Done right, I can reduce the hand trimming by half! In the spring, this is a compelling argument.

Come summer, growth slows down. Mark mows occasionally to open up the view. I trim after tending to a garden bed—tying up plants, harvesting, weeding, and squashing the occasional bug. The trim indicated completion so I always know where I am. As I work, I tuck clumps of grass into the beds, giving some plants a little extra mulch and care.  We talk about taking the mower in for a tune up, so that we are ready for next year.

                It is spring. The yard needs a good mow. 

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Greenhouses in March

                The best thing about the greenhouse in March—work goes on even when it rains. For years, I had to either wait for a dry day (yeah, right) or spread dirt all through the house to transplant the tomatoes and cold weather crops in late March.  For the last two years, I have been able to look at the plants, decide it was time, and go to work. On Thursday, I spent several hours in the greenhouse, bumping up plants, painting signs, and generally cleaning up. Lucy watched from her high perch. Periodically, the rain poured down, pounding on the roof and filling the buckets outside. Inside, we were warm and dry, scooping earth into four inch pots, and settling the summer crops.  When I was done, the planting shelf was full of tiny tomatoes, buried up to their noses, and ready to grow. And toady, the space is warm and lush, perfect for reading and growing. 

Wednesday, March 22, 2017


              March weather…cold, windy, bright and dark. It has always been this way, on both sides of the country.

                When I was a senior in college, I had an internship with Strawberry Banke, the historic village in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. My task was to research the introduction dates for the various medicinal herbs that were planted in the doctor’s garden, to make sure the plantings were accurate. (They were not.) I was also researching how each plant was used in around 1790. I spent hours digging through old newspapers for ports up and down the coast, reading herbals that were common at the time, and charting it all on a huge piece of cardstock. I was fascinated.

                There were gaps in my knowledge, so, during Spring Break, I went to Boston for three days. I wandered between the Public Library, with its huge and old reading room, where you waited for your books to be brought out and the Massachusetts Horticultural Library, a nineteenth century double decker in South Boston, full of old gardening books. The streets between the two were lined with brick rowhouses close to the street. Each house had a ten by twelve garden in front, surrounded by an iron fence. The tiny spaces were all planted for Spring. One would hold a blooming cherry, the next a row of bright yellow daffodils tossing in the breeze. Others had early red tulips or late purple crocus. Spots of color between dark walls and fences. Blue sky high above. Cold wind. I carried my backpack full of notecards, lunch, and some Earl Grey tea, doing research. There was nothing else I wanted to be doing.

                It has been a very long time since I conducted original research on the plants, houses, and lives of New Englanders in either the 18th or early 20th century.  It was a good life, but I have moved on. I still have the chart. I still know how all of those plants were used in early New England. And I still watch for the spring blooms, the bright daffodils, that dance by the side of the road as I walk to and from work on these March days. 

Sunday, March 12, 2017

The Kimberly Stove, round two

            Five years ago, we purchased a Kimberly stove. My partner was intrigued  because it was very cool technically and, because it is highly efficient, it could be installed in our basement using the existing chimney without interfering with the fireplace upstairs. Mark wanted to heat the basement and his little office space with scrap wood; I was hoping to dry the laundry in less than a week in the winter.

                The first winter was a disaster. We purchased the stove in November, and what with one thing then another, it was not installed until late January.  Once installed, it did not work. Mark tried and failed. I read the directions, tried, and failed. We tried different wood—no luck. Finally, we gave up. Come June, and the Mother Earth News Fair, we found the manufacturer in his booth and complained. He came out the next day, pronounced the stove flawed, and replaced it.

                The next winter, we had no trouble with lighting the stove, but it did not heat the basement. It is a full basement, surrounded by wet fifty degree clay soil, with a serious seepage problem when the rains are heavy. Nothing will heat that basement! We tried for several Saturdays, even boiling water for tea on the top, but it raised the temperature about two degrees. Mark was disappointed; I knew that it was only a matter of time before it moved upstairs.

                The stove sat, unused, in the basement for two winters before I raised the issue. We have a garage converted into dining room that we have been heating with an electric space heater. All of the literature for the Kimberly stove suggests that it was designed to heat a small cabin, or tiny home, or RV…which is about the size and shape of the dining room. Why not move it up, where it will be VERY useful, rather than keeping it in the basement, unused? Mark saw the logic. We contacted the stove company.

             In January, we moved the Kimberly upstairs. It looks lovely tucked into a corner of the dining room, against the old wooden wall. The stove pipe climbs up, bends around the rafters, and shoots out of an old roof vent. It sits on a grey stone pad, which protects the floor from embers. We hang our clothes on the rafters above. On Saturday morning, Mark starts the stove while I make breakfast. It warms the room quickly. If we turn on the bathroom fan, warm air moves through the entire house. When people come over, they can take off their coats. When we sit down for dinner, the candles are not wavering in the breeze from the space heater. Our pile of junk lumber has gone way down.

                We are, finally, very happy with the purchase. It was more expensive than a traditional stove, so I cannot recommend it for everyone, but it does work as promised—when it is in the right space. 

Sunday, March 5, 2017

March-- the month, not the action

              March—the month when storms blow in, dump hail, sleet, rain, snow on our heads, and then blow out within the hour, leaving behind green grass and rainbows. The month when the light finally tips towards the sun again, so that, even on a cold and drizzly day, you can feel spring in the air. The month when that scruffy shrub by the back door blooms and sends out the sweetest perfume ever. Daphne.  March.

                In my classroom, the seeds I planted on Candlemas are sturdy little kales and mustards, lettuces and cabbages. So cute. In the greenhouse, the same starts are leggy and just putting out their first true leaves, victims of the cold, cloudy spring.  I rigged up the second grow light over them and set the timer, so that they will have a few extra hours of light in the morning.  That should help. The peas, planted on the same day, are thriving. This morning, between gusts of storms, I covered the first garden bed with plastic, so that it can dry out and warm for a few weeks before I plant out the starts. The cover will stay on for several weeks after the planting out, until the peas need a trellis to climb.  When the weather was bad, I went into the greenhouse and planted all of the tomato seeds, ready to come to school on Monday morning. 

               In the garden, the perennials are just coming up. The first crumpled leaves of rhubarb appeared this week, along with the small daffodils. Other herbs and bulbs are slowly emerging. The plum tree is thinking about blooming, but it has not committed to the process yet. Neither has the Camellia. The slow start is all right with me—I have only just begun the pruning because of a sore shoulder. We were going to prune the laurel hedge, but dark clouds came in and the rains began again.

It is time to move inside, start a fire, dry out the clothes, and attack some reading.  Maybe knit a bit. March.

And, the next day, they cancelled school because of snow. March.