What else are you going to do?

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Most of the previous mid-April snow had already melted, and we were hopeful for spring.

But then yesterday more snow began to fall in the morning, and we stayed hunkered down by the fire with our homeschooling. The kids had asked for spelling, math, and science (yes, asked – I’m happy to discuss our educational model more for those who are interested!), so that was what we were working on as more and more snow fell.

We refilled the bird feeders. We pulled out the field guide to identify a few visitors that we hadn’t seen in a while. We marveled at how many birds our feeders can hold at one time, then refilled the feeders again.

And despite ourselves we were captivated by the beauty of the falling snow.

Around Lunch time, Sage (winter’s #1 fan) said that he wanted to walk to the creek while the snow was still falling. So we did a bit more homeschooling, working on our herbalism class, and then set to bundling up in our winter gear (that we were either wise – or lazy – enough to not have packed away yet).

And off we set!

We picked up Pete along the way, who was working from home (because: blizzard), and the four of us embarked – with two barn cats and one farm dog in tow (as often happens).

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There was a snowball fight to have, gigantic snowballs to roll up and into the creek, and a family of snow Totoros to sculpt into life. There were belted kingfishers to marvel at, wood ducks to watch descend, and snipe to see winging across the pasture.

We stayed out for hours.

Despite it being dinnertime. Despite it being April. Despite there being a very distinct possibility that we were feeling quite done with winter and ready to move on into flowers, gardens, foraging, and sunshine.

And yet…

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This day was magical.

It was one of the best days we had all winter, never mind that we’re already well into spring.

Because here’s the thing: we’re given one day to do with what we will each morning.

And how we spent it – how we interpret its meaning – is completely up to us.

And we could have spent it worrying about the birds that are hungry on account of the snow, but instead we filled the feeders. And we could have been frustrated that with the Narnia-esque spring we are having and grumped about the weather, but instead we found magic.

We bundled up and got into it. We found the magic and mystery; laughter and beauty in those falling flakes, and we savored every bit. We found connection, creativity, joy and wonder in this wintery spring magic.

Because honestly, what else are you going to do?

You always have two choices of how to play the hand you’ve been dealt, and one of them most certainly feels better than other. The choice of where you dwell is up to you.

Are we done with winter?

Most definitely.

But did magic happen yesterday on account of that unexpected snowfall?

Oh my, yes. Did it ever. And for that I am so glad.

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Prairie burn!

The kids and I hurried home from town last night, arriving to see the hillside above our house already in flames.

That’s a good thing, I assure you.

Pete, two neighbors, and two other area prairie enthusiasts were already at work, burning fire breaks and raking debris to prepare our shared prairie for a prescribed burn.

(All photos are expandable. Click to see a larger view.)

The project began many weeks ago, and truly culminated last night in this long-awaited burn.

Pete, our friend Alan, and our next door neighbor Jeff had spent the past many weeks working tirelessly to restore an expanse of goat prairie (that spans our and Jeff’s land) that was being slowly but steadily covered in juniper trees. Invasive honeysuckle was waiting in the (wooded) wings.

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Alan, who lives just up the valley from us a couple of miles, (pictured here in green) has been champing at the bit to restore this prairie for some 20 years.

His delight was evident – and contagious.

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We’ve done prescribed burns with Alan in years past, burning pastures and bottomlands below our barn. But this time was different.

This was an ecosystem built by fire, but one that had not been burned (in Al’s estimation) for 75 years.

We know that the original homesteaders grazed sheep and goats here (old fences still remain, tangled in the forest at the ridge-line), but other than that it’s been abandoned, largely due to it’s steep slope and shallow, rock-strewn soil.

With the junipers gone, it was time to give the prairie one last push toward health.

With fire.

Moments after we arrived, Sage was “voluntold” (as he good-naturedly put it) to grab a water pack and work a firebreak. Lupine and I skirted the edges, keeping our eyes peeled for any sparks or embers jumping the boundary. (We had lived that experience before, the four of us and Al, and never wanted to do so again.)

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This burn, thankfully, went according to plan.

The excitement in the air was as thick as the smoke, and this remnant scrap of prairie was lovingly – yet dramatically – coaxed back toward health.

From a homeschooling perspective, we couldn’t have asked for more. It’s been a couple of years since the kids were involved in a burn. (Look at how young they were during this one!)

And they jumped in with enthusiasm.

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It was impossible to stop smiling.

The very real sense of community; the feeling of being true stewards for the land; the knowledge that hard work pays off; the contagious spirit of volunteerism – all of it came together as the sun slipped behind the smoking hillside.

I went to bed feeling grateful for good neighbors, old prairies, and no surprise gusts of wind.

What a night! And what a project.

Around the maple fire

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If the photos above are any indicator, we'd have twice as much syrup in the pantry if we hadn't developed such a taste for hot sap at all stages of cooking.

In truth, this ritual is more of our spring celebration than the one that involves hidden eggs and bunnies. This is the one that draws us out, year after year, as the snow retreats. 

I'm so glad.

And I'm happy to give up some syrup for the feeling that it creates.

Because after the long winter cozied before the fire, it awakens us at our core to go out into the chill and spend all of the day, reading aloud, sipping sap, and trading stories as the geese and cranes soar above us.

And so last week, while Pete was busy with bookkeeping and taxes for LüSa, the kids and I headed outside to cook the first of our sap. 

"Bring three mugs!" Sage called from the yard, gathering kindling. I grabbed four, knowing full well that maple cooking was more enticing than taxes in Pete's book. I was right. We weren't outside for 15 minutes before he emerged to fill his cup. (In more ways than one.)

It was also the first run of the new cooker that he made, and I couldn't imagine he'd want to miss that.

It is welded of two steel drums (food-grade drums that our organic coconut oil and other organic oils are delivered in for soap-making) and two stainless steel chafing dishes from a restaurant supply store. It worked brilliantly, and we were so glad to have him join us.

There we spent the day, cooking sap, making syrup, and welcoming spring.

I'll even forget for the moment that there's snow in the forecast for tomorrow. 

 

 

 

When we grow up

When I was 15 a well-intentioned woman in a business suit told me, "Someday you'll grow up and have to get a real job and wear a suit." 

I laughed.

"Mark my words," I told her, "I will never have a job where I need to wear a suit."

She was unconvinced. I was not.

I forgot entirely about this conversation for a decade. And then, as a naturalist working at a field station (my very first job out of college), I stopped mid-stride on the trail, remembering. I was walking through the woods, so happy, so grateful, listening to a pileated woodpecker weaving through the branches overhead. The sun was streaming through the trees. I was at work! In the woods! This was my life.

And standing there in my t-shirt, blue jeans, and hiking boots, I remembered her words. "Someday you'll grow up and have to get a real job and wear a suit." 

Or, maybe not.

What if instead we gave our kids the message that whatever it is they love can be a central part of their world - yes, even in adulthood? What if we encouraged them to find their passions and discover their joy now, instead of arriving in adulthood lost and wondering what makes their soul sing?

I thought of her comment again yesterday, as I sat in knee-high muck boots beside a campfire on a Wednesday morning. (I was here on Monday, too, possibly wearing the same clothes.)

I am a homeschooling parent, a writer, a photographer, a teacher, and a small business owner of 15 years. And still – no suit. 

I think of her comment and how my own kids would feel as they move steadily toward adulthood to get the message that "someday you'll need to suck it up and live that life you don't want to because that's what growing up means." 

But does it? 

What if instead we gave our kids the message that whatever it is they love can be a central part of their world – yes, even in adulthood? What if we encouraged them to find their passions and discover their joy now, instead of arriving in adulthood lost and wondering what makes their soul sing?

I think that message would fall on hungry, welcoming hearts.

All that I wanted at 15 (or 9, or 40) was to be a photographer. And now I take pictures everyday. That was my singular dream from 4th grade onward, and now it is a part of my daily joy. 

Am I the exception or the rule?

And if I am the exception, why?

What if instead we gave our kids the message that whatever it is they love can be a central part of their world - yes, even in adulthood? What if we encouraged them to find their passions and discover their joy now, instead of arriving in adulthood lost and wondering what makes their soul sing?

I hope my kids land on the same side that I have – knowing and living their joy.

And so yesterday, instead of talking about suits or futures or jobs they won't love, my kids and I headed back to the woods.

Like everyday this week.

Because October and childhood only lasts so long.

What if instead we gave our kids the message that whatever it is they love can be a central part of their world - yes, even in adulthood? What if we encouraged them to find their passions and discover their joy now, instead of arriving in adulthood lost and wondering what makes their soul sing?

What if instead we gave our kids the message that whatever it is they love can be a central part of their world - yes, even in adulthood? What if we encouraged them to find their passions and discover their joy now, instead of arriving in adulthood lost and wondering what makes their soul sing?

What if instead we gave our kids the message that whatever it is they love can be a central part of their world - yes, even in adulthood? What if we encouraged them to find their passions and discover their joy now, instead of arriving in adulthood lost and wondering what makes their soul sing?

What if instead we gave our kids the message that whatever it is they love can be a central part of their world - yes, even in adulthood? What if we encouraged them to find their passions and discover their joy now, instead of arriving in adulthood lost and wondering what makes their soul sing?

The first thing my kids do when we get into the woods is take off their shoes. They stalk quietly barefoot through the leaves, they listen, they are still.

They are building forts right now, one dug into the cool forest floor and the other woven of invasive honeysuckle we have cleared. I pull garlic mustard and listen to woodpeckers in the branches above us while they work.

On this day we built a campfire, then began carving spoons from a freshly felled hickory. It was delightful and if we had brought lunch I doubt we would have headed home before dinnertime. Sure, back home there were other lessons and tasks to attend to, but for the morning anyway, nothing was more important than this.

What if instead we gave our kids the message that whatever it is they love can be a central part of their world - yes, even in adulthood? What if we encouraged them to find their passions and discover their joy now, instead of arriving in adulthood lost and wondering what makes their soul sing?

What if instead we gave our kids the message that whatever it is they love can be a central part of their world - yes, even in adulthood? What if we encouraged them to find their passions and discover their joy now, instead of arriving in adulthood lost and wondering what makes their soul sing?

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What if instead we gave our kids the message that whatever it is they love can be a central part of their world - yes, even in adulthood? What if we encouraged them to find their passions and discover their joy now, instead of arriving in adulthood lost and wondering what makes their soul sing?

What if instead we gave our kids the message that whatever it is they love can be a central part of their world - yes, even in adulthood? What if we encouraged them to find their passions and discover their joy now, instead of arriving in adulthood lost and wondering what makes their soul sing?

What if instead we gave our kids the message that whatever it is they love can be a central part of their world - yes, even in adulthood? What if we encouraged them to find their passions and discover their joy now, instead of arriving in adulthood lost and wondering what makes their soul sing?

What if instead we gave our kids the message that whatever it is they love can be a central part of their world - yes, even in adulthood? What if we encouraged them to find their passions and discover their joy now, instead of arriving in adulthood lost and wondering what makes their soul sing?

Barefoot, dirty, and smelling of woodsmoke, they learn. They discover and explore things that they love. They learn to value silence, stillness, and nature. They ground themselves in the quiet wonder of the woods.

And me right along with them.

Will my kids grow up someday, put on shoes, buy suits, and go to work?

Perhaps.

But only if it is the thing that speaks to their hearts with the clearest song. Because if I have done my work properly, they will both grow up knowing the value of hard work, yes, but also the value of people and feelings and forests and joy, and of following their own path – not the one they are told to take.

 

I may have earned more dollars in a business suit, but at what cost to my heart?

Because life, I believe, is about so much more than just paychecks. 

 

Mulberries

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Since moving to our farm some five or so years ago, we've fallen in love with mulberries. They grow in abundance on our land and new trees appear every year. Like weeds, some would say! But this sort of weed (like many others) is welcome by me.

Ripening earlier than all of the bramble fruits (like raspberries and blackberries), they catch us before we're buried in produce to can, freeze, or process. And because they grow on thornless trees, the picking is painless!

What's not to love about that? 

Despite my mulberry affections, we found that for every berry we harvested in a rainstorm of ripe berries cascaded down around us, directly onto the ground. Mulberries hang on so tenderly when ripe that it was impossible not to lose more to the grass than we placed in our baskets.

And then someone gave me a tip that involved bedsheets and tree-shaking. And that sounded like just my sort of picking! 

Yesterday we gave it a trial-run. And our results? Well, I'll let the pictures below speak for themselves.

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It was the easiest picking ever! We simply spread three large sheets on the ground, then shook like mad to loosen the fruit. And? It worked! Like magic, I tell you. 

For those who want to give it a try, here is the process in four easy steps:

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1. Spread out your catching cloths (psst – they're bedsheets)

Choose some large pieces of fabric (king or queen-sized bedsheets work best). Whatever you use will be stained with dark purple juice by the time you are done – especially if you bring young helpers along – so plan ahead. Use your own rejects or pick some up at the second hand store. And please don't freak out about your food on someone else's bedsheets. Actually, just don't think about it. Instead, simply wash them twice in the hottest water your washer can manage, then dry before use. That should do the trick of prepping both your brain and your "catching cloths" nicely.

Overlap your sheets on the ground so you don't lose many berries between them.

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2. Shake!

If you can reach the berry-laden limbs of your tree, simply stand on your cloths (we kicked our shoes off first), grab a branch, and give it a vigorous shake. Brake yourself for the rain of berries! If you can't reach (or if climbing sounds like more fun), then up you go!  

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3. Gather 

When you've shaken all you can from a particular section, gather your berries up in your sheet. Simply grab the corners and carefully lift so the berries all pool in the center. Then with a stead hand (or four), pour them right into your basket, using the cloth like a fabric funnel. 

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4. Repeat

Repeat this process as you work your way around the tree or around the neighborhood.

I promise you it will be the quickest fruit harvest you've ever experienced! 

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5. Eat!

With your berry stained fingers, hands, and fingernails, eat great handfuls of your glorious harvest. It doesn't get much better than this! 

The part of our harvest that the kids didn't eat right off of the gathering cloths we brought home for jam, and froze the rest for winter smoothies. And truly – it was so fast. We gathered pounds of berries in under 1/2 hour!

That's my kind of foraging.

 

 

Garlic mustard crusaders

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Occasionally something rises to the top of the "to do" list that simply can't wait.

In this case that meant pulling an acre or more of garlic mustard that sprung up seemingly overnight in one section of our woods. They had already flowered and were threatening to set seed, so it was now or never. (Perhaps literally.) 

Garlic mustard is an invasive species. Throughout much of the US it is in the midst of a decades-long forest forest floor and forest edge takeover. It chokes out the ephemeral wildflowers and understory and threatens forest diversity. So when we found this patch in full bloom (the seeds washed in on a flood two years ago) we knew we had to deal with it – and fast.

The crazy thing about garlic mustard, however, is that once it has gone to flower it will set seeds even after it's pulled. That means you have to bag it or burn it. Since we were dealing with an acre, bagging was an unreasonable prospect. So the kids each grabbed their fire starter pocket knives and some fire-starting supplies. (Because it's way more fun to pull an acre of invasives if you get to light a flint and steel fire, don't you think?) (I promise not to make a habit of this afflink business, but honestly. We're crazy about these. Each of us has one and loves it.)

I packed a picnic, and off we set. 

I thought we'd pull weeds for an hour or so before the complaining kicked in, but those campfires – and seeing the progress as our happy, healthy woods slowly reemerged - spun some magic. Before I knew it all of us were wet and muddy (with a few too many nettle burns and bramble scratches) and still working. We'd been at it for four hours. The kids took a break to swim in the creek and cool off, and we pulled and burned, pulled and burned all afternoon long.

Bizarrely, Lupine loved it. As in: was in her bliss. Garlic mustard is surprisingly satisfying to pull, with one tug yielding a huge clump of shoots, and she felt like every jack-in-the-pulpit she found beneath the garlic mustard was whispering it's thanks to her. I could hardly get her to stop to head back home for dinner. Sage enjoyed starting one of the fires and helping tend both, feeding it with fallen branches and plenty of garlic mustard. He brought a huge bag of leaves home and plans to spend today making a giant batch of pesto. 

This morning my body is sore, from my shoulders and back to my arms and my legs. But it's a satisfying soreness. It's satisfying to know that the work we did yesterday will protect not only our woods, but the forests and farmyards downstream. There's more work yet to be done, for sure (starting with looking upstream and figure out where the seeds are coming from), but for now I'll just be satisfied in a half-acre cleared and burned, and – at least for the moment – restored to what it was meant to be.

I wrote more about garlic mustard (including some recipes) here.

 

New rhythms (and some practical tips about ticks)

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Spring is such a mix, isn't it? The rushing about with excitement for projects and planting and plans, alongside the slow savoring of each sunny day, as we slip off our shoes and step gently in the grass.

The season awakens not only the birdsong and frog calls and spring ephemerals throughout the valley. It also awakens our sleepy winter spirits and our desire to be outside all day in the sunshine.

So we've been finding a fresh, spring-flavored rhythm to our days. We built a new campfire circle down beside the creek and are burning (ever so slowly) some of the wood that washed up along the banks in the last flood. There's so much piled along the banks that we could have a bonfire each day for a month and hardly make a dent! But it's a challenge I'm willing to take. Because no day is finer than one we spend here, lazily chatting by the fire.

Oh, yes. Spring has my heart. And this new rhythm is just what I needed. 

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A word on ticks: Many of you have asked how we can still be comfortable heading out into the tall grass and underbrush with our Lyme disease history. Lyme is scary. I get it. Lupine, Pete and I have dealt with more than our fair share of Lyme.

But what I wrote about my tick philosophy here still holds true. I can't let the fear win. Not when the woods, when life, when childhood are waiting.

Please note: For the first time ever I added affiliate links below (to the supplements we take each morning). I have gone back and forth about doing this, as I feel it runs the risk of reducing credibility when I share something that I love with you. But the truth is, I've always posted links. It's just that now a small percentage of your purchase (and anything else you buy) goes toward our medical bills. Yay! (Your price is the same either way.) Please let me know how you feel about this. Honestly. I'd love to hear how it sits with you. 

On a more practical side, here's what we do these days to prevent ticks (none of these are magical, they're just the combination that we've found that works for us):

~ Even when it's not mosquito season we spray our skin and clothes with Shoo before we head outside. (FYI: this is a product that I make and sell. I create it with Rose Geranium essential oil, added specifically for its tick-repellent properties, plus other helpful EOs for insect repellency). We bring it along and if we're out for more than an hour or two we reapply. I also spray this on my dog when he heads out to romp.

~ We wear light colors when possible and tuck our pants into our socks. Hats are a good choice, too. 

~ We throw all of our clothes into the laundry when we get back home, do tick checks for each other, then we each take a quick shower. Things that can't be laundered (hand knits or other wool, for example) are checked for burrs; then they go into the dryer on hot for 10 minutes to kill any ticks before coming back upstairs. (If woolens are wet line dry first, then throw into the dryer.)

~ And since we started this sulphur protocol two years ago we've had almost no tick bites. (Really. We went from five bites for Lupine alone by mid April one year, to a single bite the whole next year. Yes, one bite is still one too many, but it's certainly an improvement.)

The protocol is as follows:

Week 1: Take 1/8 teaspoon of powdered sulphur daily (We stir it into water with a bit of Magnesium Calm instead of the molasses recommended in the link above (for flavor, and because we supplement with magnesium daily anyway). We also add our other daily powdered supplement, collagen gelatin, since it's convenient to do it all in one mug at the same time. The whole mix tastes just fine, even to my super-taster kid.) * The collagen and magnesium have nothing to do with ticks, it's just a convenient – and tasty – way to double up our supplement game in one glass. 

Week 2: Take above dose every other day.

Week 3: above dose every third day.

Week 4: Take above dose once per week.

Week 5 through Autumn: Take above dose monthly.

I don't know why it works, but it seems to work well for us, so I'm keeping with it. Even if it is some woo-woo folk remedy. As long as it works! 

 

Tapping maples (flu be damned!)

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Some years springtime comes early and tapping comes late. This combination, of course, boils down to less syrup in the pantry come next season (see what I did there?). But that's just how things shook out this year. I can't get worked up about it.

Indeed, I'm grateful that we tapped at all.

We've been saying it was time for sugaring since we rolled in from our road trip at the end of February.

We thought it would still be winter for another three weeks when we returned, but we were greeted with mud instead of snow upon our arrival, and the sap already flowing. But there was unpacking to do and work to catch up on and laundry (mountains of laundry!) to wash after being away for so long.

So tapping waited. 

And then the flu hit my people, one after another, and suddenly it's March, and I feel like the maple season will be over in a flash based on the warm weather forecast.

So every day I asked: "Should we tap today?" "How about tapping a few trees before lunch?" "…before dinner?" "…before bed?"

"We really should tap today if we're going to tap at all."

But the answer was always "no".

Someone in our crew would spike a fever or fall asleep on the floor by the fire. They were just too sick to drag themselves outside. I understood. But no one wanted to miss tapping, so it was indefinitely on hold instead of simply benched for the season.

Finally, as Lupine neared the end of her illness this weekend I threw down the idea that maybe we should skip tapping all together this year. We can buy syrup from our friend Mary (or countless other locals who make much of their livelihood from sugaring). We have so many good, sustainable options available aside from tapping here.

Let's just skip this year.

 

And just like that they were ready.

 

With faces still red from fever, coats and drills and boots were found, and we headed out the door. In a moment we were outside, tapping the handful of trees that we do each year.

Copious amounts of sap were sipped right from the spiles, and somehow everyone felt just a little better for having rallied and gone outside to greet the spring.

Let's home the sap magic doesn't wear off any time soon. It was such a treat to have my crew up and out the door for a couple of hours (droopy as they were). 

Happy Monday to you, my friends. Whatever season greets you where you call home.

 

Love,
Rachel

P.S. Tapping is easy! I give you a step-by-step tutorial here

 

A Standing Rock fundraiser

Water is Life fundraiser

Water is Life fundraiser

Water is Life fundraiser

Try as I might to keep this page as apolitical as possible, there are somethings that warrant a small step out of my comfort zone for the sake of the greater good.

With that in mind, I am humbly sharing with you a small fund-raiser that I have in the works.

"Water is Life" t-shirts.

Much like the "Kindness" tees shown above, the Water is Life series will be printed in the US on organic cotton (navy for adult sizes, medium blue for kids). I'm offering them in child's sizes as well as men's and women's. 

100% of profits will be donated to the Standing Rock Legal Defense Fund.  You can find the details and pre-order your shirts here

Pre-order closes on November 10, so don't wait. I'd love to send one your way. 

 

 

Much love,

Rachel

 

Edited on Monday to add: We've raised nearly $400 so far! Bravo, you. Keep those orders coming! Remember, the pre-order will close on Thursday and the shirts will no longer be available.