Archive | November 2013


???????????????????????????????At Thanksgiving I always consider the first feast on the sandy shores of Massachusetts.  Plymouth is so sandy it would have been difficult for settlers using European methods to coax much sustenance from the ground without the horticultural aid of the natives.

The settlers had much for which to be grateful.  The natives hadn’t bashed their heads in, had actually befriended them.  A few did not starve to death or succumb to disease during the first miserable winter.  They could pray the way they wished there among the dunes with no one to disparage or condemn their beliefs.  And they had some pretty radical ideas.

I imagine the natives approaching the strangers warily, but drawn to the feast and the benefits of sociability.  Little did they suspect the flood tide of invasion soon to occur, the destruction of their way of life and their very lives.

Today’s celebration little resembles the first lengthy event, although women usually do most of the work, as back then.  I have often wondered if we need this over-blown holiday with its rush of travel and glut of overindulgence.  Yet, no matter how much football and balloon float parades and Black Friday try to take over the day, for a brief time all Americans are reminded that survival is an occasion for celebration.  Every moment we live truly is a gift and we should be thankful, even if just once in the year.

Wonderful Wood Ash

Here in Maine the rain can be acidic.  Power plants and other coal-burning enterprises in the Mid-West and South produce sulfur that mixes in the clouds to form sulfuric acid which then drops on us. The rain is not so caustic that it burns holes in things, but the lower pH makes a noticeable difference in the soils and waters of our state.  To combat the acidification, we farmers must sweeten the soil by raising the pH so certain plants will grow better.

Some plants love low pH:  blueberries, azaleas, rhododendrons, all thrive on more acidic soil so don’t sweeten around those plants.  Many garden plants and trees need soils closer to neutral pH and in this area require soil amendment to do well.  The primary additive for raising soil pH is lime.  Finely ground or pelleted, farmers and gardeners spread this mineral liberally.  Lime can get expensive, especially if there are large areas needing attention.  Here at Phoenix Farm we have a free neutralizer:  wood ash.

Our efficient, low emission, wood burning stove heats the whole house all winter and produces a plentiful supply of ash.  Ash is the powdery, whitish-gray residue of wood burning, not the black chunks that are coals of incompletely combusted wood.  Wood ash is a very potent pH neutralizer. The alkaline properties of ash were discovered thousands of years ago when people first learned to extract lye from the ashes of their cook fires.  Ashes are more efficient at neutralizing than lime and are spread more thinly on the soil.

My pear trees are an example of the power of wood ash.  For years they bloomed and did not fruit. Pears require boron in the soil to set fruit so I added borax around the bases with limited results. Then I learned that too much acid in the soil can damper fruit set.  I spread wood ash around the bases of the trees during the winter and as soon as that following spring, the fruiting improved. Now, several years later, the trees produce copious harvests, more than we can use!pear

I’ve spread wood ash on grass areas where moss is trying to take over.  If moss is allowed to grow, the built-up layers of dead moss will leach more acid into the soil until only moss and other acid-loving plants will grow there.  The wood ash effectively ruins the soil for moss, killing it and encouraging grass to grow.  I have greatly improved places in the lawn and pastures where moss was trying to take over.

Lilacs, fruit trees, grapes and most garden plants benefit from wood ash application to the soil. I’ve found that the best time to apply the ash is in the winter.  The snow catches the powdery ash and prevents it from blowing away.  At the spring thaw, the ash causes snow to melt more quickly.  The ashes rapidly settle onto and then into the ground.

An example of the power of higher soil pH in the garden is my experience with tomatoes.  When I began gardening, the tomatoes I got were very acidic tasting, so strong that they were nearly unpalatable.  The next year I added lime in the holes dug for the transplanted tomato seedlings.  The tomatoes grew better and their fruit was sweet and tasty, the way it should be.  To keep the garden pH up, I broadcast wood ash over the plot in the winter.  The ashes improve my tomatoes, corn, beets, carrots and squashes and cause the snow to melt more rapidly in the area, warming the soil sooner for earlier planting.

So, don’t throw those wood ashes away.  If you burn wood, save the ashes and use them yourself or give them to local farmers and gardeners.  Wood ash is not trash, it is a valuable commodity.

First Grandchild Sleepover

aLia and Gramma, barnboot people

My grandaughter Lia is twenty months old and already a little farm hand.  She loves to be outside and looking at animals.  And her animal sounds are excellent, she can even do a horse really well.

Last night was her first sleep over so her parents could go to an out-of-town show.  I was a bit trepadatious, since she is still nursing at night and Gramma doesn’t have what it takes in that department.  But she was perfect.  She played hard all afternoon, got very tired, had a warm bottle of milk before bed and slept like a log.

Today she was up at seven and ready for another fun-filled day.  What a great little kid she is!

Free Book Giveaway Day Three

createcoverInto day three of my free Kindle ebook promotion, Nov 18-20, I have given away more than two hundred electronic copies of The Tidewater Possession. Some have even gone to other countries: the UK, Germany, Canada and Italy! I am hoping to give some books to Australia before the end of the day.

It’s very exciting to have so many people reading my book!  My work had so far been very personal, shared only with family and friends. Launching into the public arena is exhilarating and a bit frightening. Will people like it?

Free Book Days Nov 18-20

createcoverThe Tidewater Possession, set in Virginia of 1795, tells a tale of greed, callousness and vengeance. 

Free ebook on Amazon now through Nov 20.


“Parlen jogged his mount into the yard of the old Browne farm.  He slid from the saddle, tied the bay, then stared at his purchase.  An oppressive air of vacancy permeated the old stone buildings.  All was silent.  Not a breeze wafted or insect stirred.  No bird call broke the quiet.  Hollow, dark windows gaped at him.

The horse shook his head.  Parlen’s heart jumped at the abrupt, loud jangle of bridle hardware.  He gave a low laugh.  What a weak fool. He strode to the cottage door, and pushed lightly on the weathered wood.  The door didn’t move.  Irritated, he thrust his shoulder against the planks.  The door flung back and slammed the wall.  Echoes resonated from the shadowed depths of the house.  He hesitated in the doorway, suddenly reluctant to step inside.  The echoes died.  All was still.

“Foolish,” he said aloud, and was comforted by the sound of his voice.  His skin prickled.  His instincts screamed—flee, go!  What did he fear?  Bravery on the battlefield had won advancement to officer.  Colonel Parlen never backed from a challenge and he certainly didn’t turn tail and run.  He stiffened his spine and entered the kitchen.

A curious sound like a silver door chime tinkled in the air around his ears.  He froze. Only his eyes moved as he searched the gloomy reaches of the room, trying to locate a bell, an explanation for the metallic peal.  Leaves rustled in the yard behind him.  A draft gusted through the door and slithered around his body.  The cold air carried a fetid tang of rotting meat.  Chill dug through his fine linen overcoat, his layers of clothing, his flesh.  A frozen hand grasped his heart and squeezed the quivering rhythm to a stop.  Parlen couldn’t breathe or move a muscle.  Suspended paralyzed, an eternity passed in seconds before the painful pressure released.  He staggered against the wall, gasping for air.  A cold burn lingered in his chest.

Wildly, he scanned the kitchen, knees loose and shaking.   The room was silent as the tomb.  A cool breath at his ear whispered his name.  With a shout, he fled the building.  He fumbled the horse’s tether loose and vaulted into the saddle.  Frantic kicks set the animal to a run.  A faint rumble like distant thunder, a deep, throaty chuckle, raced after him and spurred his retreat.”

Also available on Amazon:  Sin of the Father, the sequel and final book in the Tidewater Possession series.

Jewelry Find

Jewelry made by native peoples of the Southwestern US is a particular passion of mine. I have a collection of more than 25 rings in sterling silver and turquoise representative of many different styles created by various artists from several different nations working with gems from mines in the Southwest. I prefer vintage jewelry and prize pieces that have been marked by the artist.
Imagine my surprise when I spotted this in a case at the local second-hand shop. The bracelet was mixed in with a tray of cheap costume and junk jewelry. The workmanship of the piece stood out. These photos were taken under a lamp with a yellowish cast to the light. The stones are more white.a
I believe this is howlite, though it could possibly be what is known as white turquoise. I am thinking howlite because the matrix is mostly a dark gray where white turquoise has a black matrix. These stone are unusual because the matrix has veins of what appears to be pyrite, and perhaps even some copper. The clasp is marked 925–sterling silver and I am fairly sure the whole piece is sterling.
This bracelet has strong characteristics of native artist work. The links are hand soldered, the smooth bezel edges are somewhat irregular. This piece is handmade with care.I can find no maker’s mark, unfortunately.e
I paid $13 for the bracelet and would expect it to retail for $50-$75. However this is an early Christmas present for me. It will need to go to my local silversmith for a few extra links so it will fit. Merry Christmas to me!cb

Congress of Crows

Here come the crows! Every morning and evening, large numbers of crows fly over our home. I have seen more than a hundred on occasion, flapping in groups or long bands. They are moving to or from the nearest major town, Waterville, where they spend the night.  We are situated seven miles from town, and apparently, along a main crow flyway.

As predictable as clockwork, the morning exodus from town brings the birds over us just about sunrise, or one-half hour after the skies lighten.  So, it takes a crow approximately a half-hour to go seven miles–as the crow flies.  In the evening their numbers fill the air above us perhaps an hour before full dark.  This phenomenon occurs every day, no matter the season.

Researchers have found that crows tend to congregate in roosting areas mostly during the fall and winter.  The rest of the year they break off into smaller breeding and family groups.  It is mostly the younger crows that gather in large quantities to spend the nights together, in congresses, as big raucous groups of these birds are called.  (Can’t imagine why something making high levels of noise with little accomplishment would be called a congress.)

Our crows’ routines seem to vary from what researchers have discovered.  The season makes little difference to their behavior.  They fly to the warmer, lighted city to spend the night and spread out each morning to hunt and scavenge.  I have seen their loud nightly urban gatherings in the tops of leafless oak trees in fall and dead tall trees during other seasons.  Pity the poor home owners living near these congresses, they must get a rude awakening every pre-dawn.  The crow’s call is one of the most piercing and far-carrying of birds.

Among all animals, the crow’s intelligence stands out.  Parts of their brains are as large, by body volume comparison, as our own.  Corvus brachyrhynchos, the American crow, has the same smarts as any of its many relatives around the world.  These crows have learned that intown is warmer than the country for sleeping purposes and the bright lighting used in cities provides a chance to spot the owls that prey on crows.  Many towns have mature trees evenly spaced in large clearings (parking lots, lawns and parks,) providing great vantage points for vulnerable roosting crows to spot predators.

Their brilliance and ability to survive on the foulest of carrion gives crows a distinct advantage. I suspect their species will continue to flourish long after we humans have brought about our extinction. Finding a new safe sleeping place will be a puzzle for them once the cities go dark. As they observe our destructive behavior from on high, I imagine the crows have already set their avian brains to the problem.


FREE eBook Days! The Tidewater Possession

createcoverEnjoy my first book free for three days on Amazon Kindle!  The Tidewater Possession, a paranormal tale of demonic possession set in 1795 Virginia. From great evil can come good.  Download this for free November 18-20 on Amazon!


a1Scherenschnitte, German for scissor cuts or shears snips, is the art of cutting paper into beautiful scenes and designs.  I have a vase, pictured above, and three framed pictures done in this decorative style.  The black paper silhouettes on white backing of the trio with wine, and girls by the bridge, framed 8″x10″ pictures, were brought back from Germany in the 1950s.  The smaller 6″x8″ black paper silhouette cut of the dogs and squirrel also came from Germany in the 1950s. These were given to me by my mother-in-law who spent several years in Germany with her Army husband and their children. The detail is lovely in these scenes. The backings on these mountings are showing their age and I probably should get them reframed.
a6The vase is a very unusual piece I found several years ago. The black pattern is on frosted glass. The vase stands 7 3/8″ tall. The piece is one of a limited number commissioned by the Swiss artist, Walter Von Gunten in Oshkosh, WI in 1972. The cylindrical vase features a design Mr. Von Gunten first produced using paper. A popular well-known scherenschnitte artist of the ’60s and ’70s, Mr. Von Gunten was recognized as one of the best in his field. He even appeared on the TV program “I’ve Got A Secret” in 1965.**UPDATE:  a reader tells me this vase was designed as a candle holder, and would certainly be lovely as one.

Paper cutting was first developed in China about 2000 years ago.  The art form traveled along trade routes to the Middle East, Europe and finally to the New World with European immigrants, particularly Germans, Swiss and Poles.

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Woolly Alder Aphid

On warm, sunny days in November snow is unexpected, yet, often a flurry of white specks swirls in the gentle breeze. Closer inspection reveals the specks are not water crystals, but tiny flying insects with fluffy white abdomens. The flies congregate in airborne masses, slowly circling one another. The show is not for us, it is a sexual display designed to entice fellow aphids. The fuzzy fliers are woolly alder aphids, Paraprociphilus tessellates, and if you’re not careful to keep your mouth shut when walking outside, you may swallow a few. They swarm in huge numbers, doing their mating dances.

These aphids can also be seen in white masses of fluff on the trunks and branches of alder trees. The aphids live in large communities and excrete a waxy white substance that protects them from predators. I suspect it also helps waterproof and insulate them. During the time the immature aphids are feeding on tree sap, they move little and the wax from their bodies joins together to form a dense protective coating.

The woolly alder aphid reproduces asexually during the warm months. Only wingless females are hatched, clones of their mothers. As cool weather approaches, a generation of winged, sexed aphids, alates, occurs. The males and females drift in the air, finding a mate. They move to silver maple trees where the female deposits one egg on the underside of a leaf.  The egg will hatch and the nymph will feed on the maple leaf until it can move to an alder tree and join with a community of aphids.  By reproducing sexually, the aphid species is able to mutate DNA to adapt to changes in environment that clones would not survive. For such tiny specks of white fluff, these insects lead very complicated lives. Their dependence on two tree varieties makes them susceptible to habitat loss from disease or human tree clearing activity. Luckily, the alder is a persistent, hardy, and fast growing species of wetland shrub and the silver maple is beloved by humans for it’s decorative appeal. So, the little woolly alder aphid should have no worries.

Yes, life is a bowl of tree sap for the aphids. They drink the sap and produce a sweet, moist, waste secretion called honeydew.  Protective ants milk the aphids for their honeydew and defend their food supply, keeping predators away. Since the aphids do little discernible harm to either tree species they parasitize, they are not eradicated by humans.  These lucky little balls of fuzz have got it made and we are destined to enjoy many more autumnal faux snow flurries from them.