Home-grown Christmas tree

Our Christmas tree this year did not come from a farm or a department store. We found it in our own yard.

It’s a white pine that was shading some of our plants and dying back at the top due to a disease. Betsy had been eying it for several years as a potential Christmas tree.

img_20161222_211904330So a week before Christmas, we tromped through the snow, saw in hand, to harvest it. We cut the 12-foot-high tree three feet from the bottom, a technique called “coppicing.” We hope the tree will  grow back. Maybe it will provide another Christmas tree in 15 years.

We’ve seen Christmas trees that are so perfectly tapered I’ve felt and smelled them to make sure they are real. No one would mistake our tree for one you’d buy at Wal-Mart.

We had to cut its top off so it would fit in our eight-foot-high living room, and its limbs jut out haphazardly. Its top is a stump that’s lower than many of the branches. We think it’s beautiful.

The joy of real Christmas trees is partly bringing something from nature inside the house. In the presence of our homely tree, we imagine we are actually in the forest.

And this Christmas tree fits in well with the frugal lifestyle we describe in this blog. Part of that lifestyle is making do with what’s available, and seeing it not as deprivation but as an opportunity for creativity.

If our tree is imperfect, that seems to fit in with the Christmas story of a baby being born in a stable and laid in a manger.

And it fits in with a quotation that’s on our refrigerator: “To live content with small means; to seek elegance rather than luxury; and refinement rather than fashion; to be worthy, not respectable; and wealthy, not rich…to let the spiritual, unbidden and unconscious, grow up through the common…” (William Henry Channing, American transcendentalist)

 For new readers of this blog, here’s a quick summary of more than 150 past posts, divided into categories such as frugality, simple living, cooking, living without, gardening and climate change.


Safely gathered in

They say this is the season for making merry.  In the Christian year, the four weeks of Advent are a time for waiting and preparing for the Christmas joys ahead.  But so far this year, I haven’t gotten around to celebrating or preparing.

img_20161207_073921054Instead, I am hurrying to finish up the harvest so that, as the Thanksgiving hymn says, “all is safely gathered in, ere the winter storms begin.” We may get our first big snow of the season in a few days, so this week I picked the last of the chard and dug two buckets full of horseradish roots. Now I am processing them.

Nick added some chard and some of our little leeks to an excellent frittata earlier in the week. Then I froze 12 “chard balls,” which will be delicious in lentil and bean soups this winter.  The remainder of the chard leaves got dehydrated to be used in smoothies and soups, and I am planning to slice up the fleshy stems into a batch of kimchi.

img_20161207_073938214But what about those two buckets of horseradish roots, which are direct descendants of ones my great-grandfather grew on a farm in Deerfield? Yes, in contrast to all that merry-happy-jolly stuff, I have been up to my ears in something so strong and pungent that it’s a “sure cure for frivolity.” The thickest roots got buried in a bucket of soil and stored in the root cellar, so we’ll have a supply accessible all winter, and early next spring for Passover. Now I am making two medicines and a condiment.

This condiment, which mixes finely grated horseradish with vinegar and salt, is a familiar companion to meats and other rich foods. It is said to stimulate the gastric secretions, thus helping with digestion.

I found recipes for horseradish syrup and tincture in Richo Cech’s book “Making Plant Medicine.”  Since people in our family get stuffed-up sinuses after colds and as a result of allergies, these remedies may help us to breathe easier. Cech says that horseradish “opens the sinus passages and serves as a potent vascular stimulant, warming the extremities and accelerating the healing process.”

img_20161209_061947226I had to grate the horseradish to make the syrup and the condiment (above). All the instructions I could find advise doing so in a “well-ventilated room” to avoid tear-gas-like conditions.  This late in the season, when outside temperatures are in the 30’s, it didn’t seem like a great idea to open up all the windows in the kitchen. So out I went to the patio, all bundled up, and grated heaps of horseradish on the tarp-covered picnic table.

Then I stuffed the grated root into a quart mason jar and covered it with about a pint and a half of raw local honey.  The directions say to steep for 30 days at room temperature and then strain, pressing through a cheesecloth. Cech says to store in a stoppered bottle out of the light, and take in tablespoon doses as needed for sinusitis, sinus headache, allergies, hoarseness or cough.

img_20161209_062036976The tincture requires ground-up dried root, so I sliced the rest of the roots and am dehydrating.  Later I will grind them to a powder in a coffee grinder and mix, in stages, with water and alcohol, which will extract the active medicinal components.  After straining, the tincture will be ready to use.

So all this harvesting and processing of plants we grow is lots of fun, but in the future it would be better to get all this done earlier, maybe in November, to make straight the way to the Advent experience. No matter what is going on in the world, I always resonate with the longing and hope of this season. Oh yes, and then there are the cookies…..

For new readers of this blog, here’s a quick overview of more than 150 past posts, divided into categories such as frugality, simple living, cooking, living without and climate change. Or hover on “Index” above to read all the posts in a particular category.



Composure amid conflict

The morning after the election, I kept thinking about young girls waking up and crying as they listened to their parents explain that we won’t have a woman President after all.

Later that day, I found myself acting on several delayed plans to do nice things for people I know. And I started a fast on radio and TV news.

By the end of the campaign, I was hitting the mute button whenever the President-elect came on the screen.  I still don’t want to be disturbed by his image or voice, so I’m  giving up NPR and PBS for a while and just reading the New York Times.

The one exception is “Washington Week,” hosted for many years by the magnificent Gwen Ifill, who died of cancer shortly after the election. Her style and grace were so intimate that we spoke of “watching Gwen”every Friday night. Last night, eight journalists spent the full half-hour recalling how special she was.

I didn’t get as upset on Election Day as many people did. That’s partly because I agreed with the outcome of several state and local referendum questions. But it’s mainly because I’m immersed right now in local politics, and an attempt to change our town’s form of government is about to reach a turning point.

And I believe that the President-elect will face serious consequences if he tries to build his wall, or deport 12 million illegal immigrants, or tear up the Iran nuclear deal. I’m more worried about climate change (can Europe increase tariffs on American goods if he abrogates the treaty?) and the Supreme Court (Democrats should tell him they’ll cooperate on appointments ONLY IF the Senate approves Merrick Garland).

But for me personally, I’m trying to say No to Negativity. So I’m looking for a way to express my beliefs without demonizing my opponents, and to retain my composure in a sea of conflict, both local and national. It’s so easy to get caught up in the struggle, but I want to live a peaceful life and avoid making enemies.

One way is to regularly get away from it all. For me, this means engaging in the simple-living activities we’ve described on this blog. Yesterday, I put leaves into a slow compost pile, washed windows and made granola. I looked fondly on my piles of firewood, waiting to help us withstand the worst that winter can throw at us.

I’ll also be praying that the President-elect will remember that he didn’t get a majority of the votes, that I can respect those who disagree with me on local politics, and that I can maintain a sense of serenity in stressful situations.

For new readers of this blog, here’s a quick overview of more than 150 past posts, separated into 12 categories, including frugality, simple living, cooking, living without, and climate change. Or hover on “Index” above to read all the posts in a particular category.

Shredding leaves

We have splurged on a gadget that pulverizes leaves. We can now transform what many people throw away into a useful garden product.

This Worx electric leaf shredder really tears them apart. It cost us $120 online, and smashes the leaves with tiny strings that go round and round, like a weed-whacker. There’s a place to put a plastic bag underneath to catch the torn-apart leaves.

img_20161114_085200565We tried out the machine yesterday. We had raked our leaves into a big pile, which was supplemented with those of a kindly neighbor. We put on ear protectors, goggles and dust masks and scooped up the leaves  by hand and loaded them in.

The biggest problem we encountered was sticks. Where there are leaves, there are likely to be sticks, and it’s difficult to find and discard all of them. So periodically we turned off the machine and fished them out.

img_20161114_092253707_hdrWhen shredded, leaves shrink to about a tenth of their volume. We filled about seven big  plastic bags, but since we want to reuse them, we transferred the ground-up leaves to 24 smaller plastic bags that will be easier to lug around.

We will use the leaf-pieces through the winter to mix with kitchen waste and make compost, and then next spring and summer as mulch. I put a six-inch layer of ground-up leaves on our carrot and leek bed, and the insulation will extend the harvest. I put some directly on a bed where I grow tomatoes, to break down over the winter. Worms love shredded leaves.

img_20161114_092333620_hdrWe’ve always gathered and used leaves, but unpulverized they slow the composting process, matting down and preventing air and water from penetrating. Shredding increases their surface area, giving microbes more space to do their work. Leaves lighten up heavy soils and provide gardens with calcium, magnesium and trace minerals that trees dig up from deep in the ground.

We may try our hand at making leaf mold. This couldn’t be easier: You rake ground-up leaves into a pile, give them some water and let them sit there covered for a year. Fungi turn them into a substance that smells like the forest floor. Placed in a garden, leaf mold helps soil retain water in a drought and stay cool in a heat wave.

Leaves are beautiful to look at in New England in October, and in November we’re turning them into a free garden resource.

For new readers of this blog, here’s a quick summary of about 150 past posts, broken down into 12 categories, including frugality, gardening, simple living, cooking and living without. Or hover on “Index” above to read all the posts in a particular category.

Breathe deep, seek peace

The outcome of yesterday’s US presidential election has left some of my dear ones with the same kinds of feelings they had after the 9/11 attacks – shock, fear and grief.

People I know are dealing with this in many ways. I have heard of people  drinking wine, baking cookies, picking up their usual work routine, reading about the election on the internet, giving gifts to people, going outside for walks and trying to stay grounded. How are you coping?  What helps you?

img_20161109_102617523This morning I coped by going outside and working in the yard. Vigorous outdoor work gives me an outlet for my grief and fear. Three ways in which my outdoor labors help me deal with the election outcome include:

  1. Aerobic exercise: raking leaves, shoveling chips and pushing around a heavy wheelbarrow.

2. Aromatherapy: breathing in the powerful scent of the fresh hemlock wood chips that were delivered earlier this week.

3.  Receiving the peace of wild things as I commune with plants and birds, sky and soil. Wendell Berry’s often quoted poem is worth remembering:

When despair for the world grows in me

and I wake in the night at the least sound

in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,

I go and lie down where the wood drake

rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.

I come into the peace of wild things

who do not tax their lives with forethought

of grief. I come into the presence of still water.

And I feel above me the day-blind stars

waiting with their light. For a time

I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

I look to two other responses to help me through this time, and I invite you to join me in:

4. Connecting with loved ones – friends and family  – for hugs, listening, asking how each other are doing.  We need each other to get through this. Smiling at strangers on the street.  Performing acts of kindness and compassion and generosity.

5. Seeking comfort and courage from spiritual traditions and communities.  There’s help out there for just such times as this.  Tonight there will be a Prayer Vigil at my church in Amherst to which all are invited:post-election-prayer-vigil

Sometimes even the simple life brings us reverses and difficulties.  But together, we can find ways to cope and come through to the other side.  May it be so.