Thursday, December 31, 2015

Handmade Holiday ~ Sent and Received

I didn't do much hand-making the Christmas. All I made was gnomes. Lots and lots of gnomes.

Gnomes for E and Z and M's St. Nicholas Day gifts.

Gnomes for the ornament exchange my aunts, sisters, mom, and I have every year (sorry about the poor lighting...these gnomes were made late into the evening all the week before Christmas and put into the mail before the weekend came...I never saw them in the light of day.

And a gnome each for C and my brother who was here for Christmas. C also made a set of coasters from slices of an American hornbeam log, finished with hard wax oil. They came out quite beautiful, but I didn't think to take a picture before he sent them off.

Coincidentally, my aunt made a gnome, too, an aspen tree gnome.

And, finally, as per tradition, my mom made the boys flannel pajamas. 

Z's goal is to see if he can make it to March without me washing the softness out of them. Guess who will  win that one.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Wild Wednesday ~ Holiday Weekend

Up until Monday, when winter finally came, we've had warm weather that made for lots of walks in the woods over the long weekend. We walked with friends and family, C and I walked together, taking pictures with our new toys, and I walked alone in dusky drizzle. Before yesterday's snow the ground was alive with dried leaves, evergreen ferns, and moss. And also this dead crow foot. I found the carcass (wings, part of the spine, the upper bill and skull, and one leg, all picked clean of any flesh) a few weeks ago and learned that the boys had found it a few weeks earlier. It's hard to tell how long it's been there--it looks as "fresh" now as it did in November. I'm not even positive whether it's a crow or raven. And I wonder, what would take down such a large bird? Hawk? Owl? A mystery, but a kind of fun, creepy thing to find in the woods on a rainy day, which wit was the day I first spied it.

Leaving behind the dead bird, C and I found these gorgeous cinnabar polypore (Pycnoporus cinnabarinus) growing on a  dead birch tree. 

My parents got me a mushroom field guide for Christmas, but this one has me stumped (ha ha, get it?)

As does this one. I need to spend some time with the book, learn the organization and vocabulary (and actually bring it out in the field with me).

In addition to lugging the mushroom book into the field, it's the time of year I need to start taking the winter weeds book out, too. I think this is Epilobium

And I can't help myself taking pictures of Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides) whenever I run across them. This is the only specimen I know of on our property. A friend of mine proposed a theory that it's name comes not from it looking a little-kid's-drawing-of-a-Christmas tree nor from the fact that it's green at Christmastime, but from the pinnae being shaped like Santa's sleigh. I think I like that theory.

What's wild in your neck of the woods?

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Christmas Low-Down

We had a strange, warm, play-football-outside-with-no-coat kind of Christmas.

It was also a too-much-of-everything kind of Christmas. Too many presents. Too much wrapping paper. Too much food. Too much candy. Too much wrapping paper. Too much trash. Too many gifts, given and received. Too much money spent. When all the guests had left and all the mess (sort-of) cleaned up , I was left with a feeling of, not abundance, but of emptiness. How do we let this holiday get so out-of-control year after year? I was tempted to, for the first time ever, clear away all of evidence of the festivities the next day (though I didn't).

I decided, instead, to take stock of what I enjoy about this season, so that in coming years I can focus on what's important (to me, that is; what's important to my kids is still getting too much stuff).

I like decorating my house. I like getting the tree and adorning it with ornaments collected over a lifetime. I like making cookies. I like the little mini celebrations we hold throughout the month of December, for St. Nicholas Day, St. Lucia Day, Hanukkah, Solstice. I like our Christmas Book Countdown Advent tradition.

I like setting a beautiful table.
I like making a beautiful dessert (or two).

I like stockings. No. I love stockings. Especially these Jan Brett-inspired ones that Mrs. Claus (aka my mom) made the boys a couple of years ago. I love filling stockings. I stuffed M's so full this year, that the lining tore away from the outside (oops). It was mostly socks and underwear, a few used CDs, a tiny building kit, a chocolate bar, a star fruit. Little things, but it makes me ridiculously happy to find and stuff them. I would love it if our Christmas giving was only stockings--but I might be drummed out of the house if I suggested it.

I like spontaneous art-making. This doesn't happen as often in our house as I'd like it to, so when it does, I'm thrilled.

I like the little rituals we've developed over the years, like lighting candles on the tree Christmas night and singing carols.

And lighting candles and adding an animal to the tree each night for the twelve days of Christmas.

I'm not sure how keeping these things in mind will help combat the too-muchness next year, but it helped combat the post-Christmas Grinchiness that was threatening to overtake me.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Wild Wednesday ~ Christmas Bird Count

In days of yore, it was a tradition to go out on Christmas day and shoot as many birds and animals as you could. The person with the most corpses on hand at the end of this "side hunt" was the winner. 'Cause nothing says "Christmas" like killing stuff. 

Enter Frank M. Chapman, an officer in the Audubon Society, who in 1900 proposed that instead of killing birds, people should go out on Christmas and count them. Thus the Christmas Bird Count was born. Each year around Christmastime, birders in the Americas head out for one full day of bird censusing. The data gathered over more than 100 years of CBCs helps scientists assess changes in populations over time. It's the original citizen science.

Doesn't it sometimes seem like all of human history is made up of half of humanity doing really terrible things and then the other half trying to repair the damage? The key is to be on the right side of history, I guess. The CBC is on the right side.

C and I participated in a couple of CBCs a long time ago, first in Colorado, and then again after we moved to Maine. Then things got in the way (ahem, kids) and we didn't do a count for years. Last year, as part of my Maine Master Naturalist training, I joined a couple of friends on the count, and then this year I signed C and myself up for the same old route we took 16 or so years ago.

Our count territory was a crooked sliver of pie cut from a big circle drawn around Augusta. It was mostly a rural route, so we mostly drove, but got out and walked now and then, from 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. E and Z joined us for the first few hours, but when they started getting antsy in the back seat and hurting each other, we took them home (with strict orders to play outside and do their housework--no screen). Over the course of the day, we saw 21 different species. The highlights were a red-tailed hawk (which we found due to an insiders tip-off), two bald eagles, a great blue heron, and a brown creeper.

C made a short video about our experience:

To find out more about the Christmas Bird Count, including how to join in next year, see the Audubon Society.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

November-December Knit ~ Legwarmers

My final knit of the year was a pair of leg warmers made from a skein of cloud-soft angora/mohair blend. The lace at the top gave me fits at first, but once I got that under control, they knit up pretty easy and were a good watching TV/riding in the car knit. I've worn them around the house a bit, and they are a bit slouchy, due, I think, to a combination of the pattern not being really stretchy, the yarn not being super springy, and my knitting style being really loose. But, oh!, they are so warm and so, so, so, so soft. I almost want it to get really cold so I can take full advantage of them.

I had set myself a goal, at the beginning of the year, to knit one thing per month for 2015. I managed nine knits, which, while not quite hitting my goal, is pretty good for me (even if some of them are dinky little things. Baby steps--or baby stitches, as it were). As always, summer was my Waterloo. I should just face the fact that I'm not a summer knitter (or find something cool to knit--cotton or silk--in the summer). I had started up another project as soon as I finished the leg warmers, thinking I might get one last knit in this year, but I haven't even finished the first round, so that's not going to happen. Oh well, it can be the first knit of the year for 2016.

I'm happy to see that only four of the nine I knit for myself--I was starting to feel like a selfish knitter (but not feeling too bad about that). You can find pattern info and minimal notes on all these projects on my Ravelry page.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Weekend Things ~ Holiday Making

Last week, in response to the sudden realization that Christmas was just two weeks away, I went into a flurry of activity--shopping, ordering, card-sending, gift-wrapping--moving on autopilot, staying up too late every night, drinking more caffein than usual (which isn't hard to do, since I don't drink much). Thursday I purchased the last gift and put a box in the mail, sure to arrive (touch wood) in time. In celebration, I bought some rum to go in the eggnog and looked forward to a weekend of enjoyable holiday preparations--sans credit card.

In the end, it still felt a bit like ticking things off the list--but they were enjoyable, low-pressure things to check off: wreath-making, cookie-baking, solstice-tree-decorating (including the requisite birdseed ornament fails), and last-year's-wreath-burning. These are the kinds of traditions that mean more to me than the endless buying and giving and getting of stuff and are, I hope, what my kids will remember about the holidays long into the future.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Wild Wednesday ~ Conifers

When we were in the woods getting our Christmas tree on Saturday, Z and I collected a few branches for making a wreath. I like to mix up my wreaths with a variety of evergreens, so we gathered a bit of four different species. 

Balsam fir (Abies balsamea) is the traditional Christmas tree species around here. I've always tried to talk C into letting us get a different type of tree, but he insists on balsam, which, I admit, has certain advantages. One is the smell--that classic evergreen fragrance that gives the tree its name ("balsam" comes from the Hebrew for "perfume"). The other is the gentleness of the needles. The way to tell fir trees from spruce (they both have shortish needles that grow individually from the twigs) is that fir needles are "fine, flat, and friendly."

Spruce needles, by contrast are "sharp ands spiny." If you pluck a needle from a twig and can roll it between your fingers, it's a spruce--the needles are triangular in cross-section, unlike flat fir. Spruce needles also grow all around the twig, while fir are arranged pretty much in a single plane. Hanging ornaments on spruce branches would be rather painful. This is a white spruce (Picea glauca).

Eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) needles are flat and grow in roughly one plane, like fir needles, but they are both shorter and more varied in length than fir needles. Hemlock trees also lack the nice conical shape of fir trees, but are rather shaggy, haphazard beasts. It would actually be kind of fun to have one for a Christmas tree, but you'd have to let go of all Christmas tree expectations.

Eastern white pine (Pinus strobes) looks a bit like Charlie Brown's tree, with long, feathery needles. The way you can tell you have a pine tree is that the needles grow in bundles, rather than individually from the twig, like other species of conifer (with the exception of tamarack, or larch, Larix laricina, whose needles also grow in bundles, but they have a distinctly fire-work-shaped growth pattern, and they wouldn't have needles this time of year, because they shed theirs in the fall). White pine needles grow in bundles of five, which you can remember either because there are five letters in "white" or because there are five points on a W.

Pines wouldn't be ideal Christmas trees because they are very sappy--you ornaments and presents would get covered in pitch. It turns out that, as much as I hate to admit it, balsam fir is the best Christmas tree around here. The others we can enjoy our in the woods--and in the wreath Z and I will make this weekend.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Weekend Things ~ Christmukkah

First: More pictures of my new kitchen shelves. I was finally home when the lovely afternoon light was shining on them this weekend and I had to take more pictures. What can I say? I'm in love.

(And I'm extra in love with this totally adorable little strawberry pitcher.)

Okay, onto the weekend. We had a very busy Christmas activity-filled weekend, starting with a performance of Annie at M's high school Friday night and wrapping up with The Nutcracker Sunday afternoon. In-between we got our Christmas tree.

At around 55 degrees F, it was very much not Christmas-tree-getting weather. We've had a few snowless tree-getting expeditions, but never one so warm as this.

I found myself wandering around, taking pictures,

And forgetting what our mission was.

But C kept us on track and found us this nice little tree.

We said our traditional words of thanks, sang "O Christmas Tree," and the boys took turns sawing through the trunk.

When we got home, C and I partially decorated it while the boys played outside for hours--such a treat this time of year. Then we set aside the Christmas decorating and prepared latkes and gingered beets and fresh, hot applesauce for a Hanukkah dinner with friends. We started celebrating Hanukkah a few years ago because I wanted to introduce my kids to different cultures (and because latkes), and it's turned into one of my favorite events of the season--an evening spent with good friends around good food with absolutely no expectations, no giving or getting of gifts, no baggage of Christmas past. No need to worry that the tree is half-decorated, the cookie dough is half-mixed in the fridge, the presents are 1/4 purchased and 0% wrapped. C made our traditional Yule log menorah (this year he found a great branch with a natural hump in the middle), we spun some dreidel, ate some gelt, listened to klezmer music and Adam Sandler, and just generally enjoyed ourselves.

The next morning I snuck out of bed early and put some saffron buns in the oven for St. Lucia Day and we finished decorating the tree.

It's a spindly guy, I suppose, compared to farm-raised trees.

But we managed to fit most of our ornaments onto it, even some glass balls that I don't usually bother with.

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