It’s Here

It cannot be denied. The calendar and the farm are in accord here: it is spring.

The really cheap narcissus bulbs I bought last November, late in the season when everything is marked down and the 75-bulbs-in-a-bag mix is available for $10 in the left-over bin, those bulbs have burst out in the most heroic display of aroma and nodding heads.

As I have been restricted to The Construction Garden the last two years,

A Construction Garden in Bloom

most all of those bulbs are in pots. But they seem happy enough there, and it’s nice to be able to move the garden bloom around at will. Still nicer, however, will be the day I can have my real garden back. As spring is formally advancing now, I worry we’ll be into full summer before I can contemplate the landscape, and that will be the worst time to be setting plants out.

In the meanwhile, there is the vegetable patch to be attended. Here am I, Farmer Me, on my way to do battle with the winter’s growth of weeds and

the spring flush of new young slugs.


It was cold that morning as I ventured out. Sun was shining, but the air was chill, as you may tell by my odd combination of layers and sun hat. I dress as the need advises. Note the final comment below.

Starting last spring, and continuing in this one, I am converting our old tilled vegetable ground into raised beds. There is real labor in this, more than seems required when I look down upon a completed day’s work. But the payback is substantial. I believe the yield in the raised beds is easily twice that in the native soil. Once they’re constructed, the beds are easy to turn and to manure. And heaven knows, we have plenty of nicely composted manure here. The raised soil dries out much earlier in the spring and allows me to plant long before I could even till in previous years. But there is this matter of getting the work done.

We tried the method of humping earth into long ridges as raised beds. The soil had a tendency to escape from its intended location, and irrigation water ran down the edges. Not all crops are suited to growing in excavated bowls in the earth, and, after all, what is the point of raising the bed only to then dig down into it to hold water in place? In past gardens, I have used wooden frames to contain the piled-up soil. They worked well, but wood in contact with earth lasts only a few years, and I shudder at the thought of using treated lumber in my vegetable garden. This time I am bringing in 6″ by 8″ by 16″ inch cinder blocks.

It turns out they have unexpected advantages. They are ample to stand on, and they can be anchored into the earth with rebar stakes.

So I labored myself into a near collapse on Saturday, chopping out weeds and digging down to set the blocks in something like a level arrangement (be kind: I am a gardener, not a mason). Already my peas are up, lettuce is up, and radishes are up. Parsnips and broad beans are sown.

Not much can beat a day that ends with this:

or, apparently, this:

Yellowcat at work

Other signs of spring on the place:

Chicks have arrived. These are day-old Rhode Island Reds. They’ll join the working girls in the hen yard when they grow up a little.

The rabbits are bred:

This is a Champagne d’Argent doe. These large, silvery rabbits are a quite old breed, raised for meat in France as long ago as… long ago. I am told the breed was known in the 17th Century, but I haven’t been able to find references that do not quote one another. Still, it’s a breed with a long history, a breed known to give large offspring that mature well and swiftly, with good-sized loins and pleasing flavor.  Growing rabbits is a return for us, to a practice from the olden days when we lived in the city.

It’s an odd thing, the rarity of rabbit in the meat markets. Rabbit meat is low in cholesterol, high in protein, and economical to produce. This is a kind of French cuisine everyone should be able to afford. And yet, if you ask your market butcher for rabbit, he will shake his head and tell you he can’t bring it in because no one will buy it. He will tell you it costs too much.

How can this be? Beef costs too much! Rabbits on the same alfalfa and the same weight of water, will out-produce a cow 6-to-1. Consider the 2 acres it takes to raise about 1400 pounds of beef to the square yard that can house a breeding doe rabbit. In a commercial setting (not ours, where we are less intense about breeding schedules), a doe can kindle 8 litters per year of, on average, 8 kits per litter. Allowing for some losses, suppose you get 6 marketable fryers from each litter. That’s 48 more or less 5-pound fryers a year from each doe (a doe rabbit and a buck might cost about $15 apiece), on a square yard of housing; the breeding stock will eat about 5.5 ounces of feed each, per day. I am at a loss to understand why we, as a nation, do not embrace this wholesome, economical food source.

Ah, but, in any case, birds are tweeting, the orchard is blooming, lambs are growing in their mothers’ tummies, and spring is in the air.

And it snowed last night. It snowed lightly, but nevertheless, it is a principle of the seasons that it should not snow when the peas are up in the garden. That’s my opinion.

Published in: on March 31, 2010 at 1:21 pm  Comments (6)  

Mid-Winter Observances

Here we are, more or less  half-way through to spring, waiting to see whether a rodent peeks out and perceives its shadow, and pretending to believe in the rodent’s effect on the length of winter. As February swings into view, we find ourselves a little desperate for clues to life outside the drabs of winter.

I see a few signs of wakening in the world. Here is the youngest of leaves, not yet unfurled, the very first sign of life in the

gooseberry cuttings made in early winter.

And these are narcissus bulbs pushing bravely into the chill.

Yellowcat finds the odd moment in the sun, though the sun is fugitive and unreliable:

It has always seemed illogical to me that the groundhog curses us with a long cold season if the weather on February 2 is fair, and conversely, if the day were foul, we might rejoice in the assurance that mild days will follow. Recently, however, I read an account of Imbolc, the ancient Celtic festivity that takes place (how coincidentally) at the same time as our silly Groundhog Day. Scratch a most minor holiday and you will often find a seasonal ritual behind it.

February: the gloomiest of months, it seems. Not yet spring, yet not quite winter still, it is gray, damp, and hopeless. It is the least favored of the months. Note that the beginning of February falls at the midpoint between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox. Such a position in the calendar must be observed in some way. Give us a cause for frivolling! Let’s light some candles! Let’s see what the weather has in mind.

Imbolc is a festival of northern hemisphere agrarian people. No matter what the weather on the day of Imbolc, the fact is, the sun has done its sitting still for winter and is edging toward spring. In the hope of a fruitful season coming on, folks look for indications of the farm year to come. At home by the hearth, if indications are right, bright fires are indulged, and lights in the home. Traditionally, snakes come from their  holes on this day, and badgers from their burrows. And, just so, they may tell us what to expect in the next weeks.

As with our bastard version, Groundhog Day, the rule is, should the badger see his shadow (as to the snakes, I cannot say; are they tall enough to have a shadow on a day in February?), the oracle says winter will be another six weeks longer.

Is there sense in this? Only if you also know that on this day the Hag Cailleach comes out from her hut and has a look around. She intends to gather her firewood for the rest of the winter. I suppose it depends on her mood whether she decides on a long miserable season or a brief, hopeful one. If she favors extended misery, she’ll arrange a good day for wood gathering: a sunny imbolc day gives her plenty of time to bring in her stores before sunset. On the other hand, if she looks favorably on farmers and spring days, she won’t need so much wood to get her through, and the day might as well be gloomy and chill.

There you have it, my children. The truth of prediction based on groundhogs.

May your Groundhog Day be clouded and drear.

Published in: on January 31, 2010 at 9:54 pm  Comments (4)  

Clip, Snip, Shiver

As I head out to the woods to cut greens, I am thinking about the annual round again.

It comes to me frequently now that we live on a farm with woods. Since we came here — and I am a little surprised to note it has been better than 10 years now — I’ve come to see how city life shelters a person from the progress of the seasons.  It’s not just that we sweat more in summer and shiver more in winter (and we do!), but that I notice more of what’s going on close at hand.

In art, one thinks of Nature on the grand scale. In the woods and farm, I find I have time to pause and see the tiny packages that make up the big one.

So, as I was clipping greens for seasonal wreaths, and taking care to choose the unblemished leaves from the thickets, I could not help but admire the damaged ones:

How could a perfect leaf be more beautiful than this one in its dying moment?

For that matter, though we think of the white berries of Symphoricarpos as its main attraction when we see it in a garden or along a roadway (those would be the cultivated forms of Snowberry; in the wild the branches are spindly, the leaves are tiny and without distinction, and even the berries are sparsely held). But look at this one, this beautiful rot on last summer’s stem.

Or this perishing haw clinging to a thorn’s winter branch.

I am not trying to be contrary here. These are wonderful colors and shapes, tiny details we catch only now, as winter heaves around the calendar toward us.

In the forest floor, fungi of the most amazing colors

and shapes

erupt from among the needles. I have no idea what they are, only that they are strange and mysterious to my eye, and easy to miss in the hurry-hurry of weekday city obligations. They seem so fragile,  and there they are, all on their own in the big woods, blasting color into the winter.

I found this while I was out cutting greens, too:

This is a coyote track on the path down to the woods from our stock pens. Or, perhaps, it is the path to the stock pens. And freshly set in the mud, too.

After cutting my buckets of greens, there was still a good part of a glorious blue-sky early winter day left. Even in December, the garden beckons. I took cuttings from the gooseberry bush in the vegetable yard, in the hope that by next spring I will be building the garden around  the house construction site, and I’m thinking a path down the back would be a good place for a casual hedge of gooseberries. They don’t look like much, little sticks.

But each has its growth nodes ready to put out next spring’s branches and leaves.

They are set into soil now, where they can sleepily make roots over the winter. I will report on them when buds break, months from now.

And then, back down to the vegetable patch. The last item of harvest for this year is the shelling beans. These were Scarlet Runners. By this time, the pods look pretty well lost. But you know by now I am taken with the beauty of spent remnants of plants. Look at the beautiful colors remaining in the pods!

I wish I could share also the snap and crackle of the papery shells as they break open. And look here inside! Whole, huge beans, beans big enough to grow a stalk to the sky, beans great enough to take in that trespasser Jack.

With a ham hock and some good roots (parsnip, turnip, carrot…), these make a fine, farty soup for a winter day!

But, alas. The season of the garden truly is at an end. The signs are there at morning feeding. Frost on the blackberries signals a long plunge into the dark season here.

There are just so many tiny things to see! Slow me down, big world, and let me look around!

Published in: on December 6, 2009 at 7:23 pm  Comments (7)  

Rites of Autumn

Aside from the retrieval of flannel sheets from the storage chest, we are seeing clear signs of the change of seasons. Some things that come along every year are pleasing just because they are such certain indications.

We separate the young ewes from their elders in preparation for breeding. Here is Ava on her way to her winter digs. She’ll join some half-sisters there.

Ava on her way to new digs

Some shepherds breed ewes their first year. We think of them as youngsters at that age, and still call them lambs. Just because a teenager can breed, it doesn’t mean she might not be better off growing up.

The pace of knitting for winter picks up in autumn.

A little winter cap

This little cap went home with one of the solar contractors working on the house.

The woods and fields are full of fungi. Among the pleasures of fall are these, Coprinus comatus, the Shaggy Mane mushroom. There are a scant 3, more or less, wild mushrooms I am comfortable to pick and eat. The Shaggy Mane is one of them.

Coprinus comatus

It will never be a commercial commodity; it famously turns to black ink within hours of emerging.

This is a clever mechanism for dispersal of the spores. As it “rots” its way to old age, the edges of the egg-shaped young mushroom flare out, leaving the spores exposed to the elements. Shaggy Manes are a mess at this stage. The black liquid gives this type of mushroom another common name, Inky Cap, and the ink migrates everywhere once you touch it. But the liquid must be an effective means of carrying spore, because Coprinus can dot entire fields with its ghost-white caps. This year we’ve been lucky and have found them young and firm.  When you are lucky, they make a fine seasonal treat sauteed and served on toast.

We were thinking about the possibility of propagating Coprinus in our own pastures. They like disturbed ground, grassy areas under tree litter, and manure-y areas. We have some of that. So this year we sacrificed a mushroom to an experiment. We let it age to a fine state of liquefaction, tossed in some stem cuttings that seemed likely to have mycelia attached, mushed it all together in the food processor, and poured it into a jar with water to fill.

Nice, isn’t it? The farmhouse laboratory at work.

Ink of Coprinus

I took it down to the orchard and sprinkled the black liquor along the fence line. We’ll see.

Meanwhile, most of the mushrooms and other fungi in the woods are strangers to me. Right now they are erupting in the hundreds, and some of them are beautiful beyond any expectation.

A woodland fungus...

The last of the apples wait to be collected.

The Liberty Apple

These are Liberty, which is a fine disease-resistant fall apple, good eaten fresh when it’s young, good cooked when it’s mature.

Another ritual of the season is the planting of shrubs, trees and bulbs in the garden. Our garden is still the workplace of too many heavy-footed men to permit much gardening. The plants chosen to fill the beds around the new house will be far too valuable and vulnerable to risk next to the continued battering of cast-offs and short-cuts. But one place seems completed enough to permit a hopeful gesture. I really could not stand it one more minute, and I drove off to town one raining Saturday and bought a load of red-leaved shrubs for the northwest corner of the house.

Truck of shrubberies

It was a dim, grim day, with rain in sheets blowing across the roads. The cab of the pickup was a steam-bath inside; its old heater groaning against the window fog was barely up to the job. But I was glad of heart as I drove home with an assortment of blueberries, a maple tree, and 4 Euonymous in brilliant red. I would plant something.

By coincidence, my order of heritage garden bulbs arrived the same week, and I was forced to buy some stoneware pots to house them.

Pots o' bulbs

These bulbs came from Old House Gardens where they sell bulbs collected from generations of gardens, tenderly cultured and closely held by gardeners who value the lineages old varieties. These are the bulbs of our grandmothers, and older still. Go there to meet the blue Hyacinth orientalis, the Roman hyacinth known in gardens since 1562, or the English bluebell Hyacinthoides non-scripta, whose honey-scented blooms were known to Shakespeare, but were ancient in gardens even then. Who can set such a bulb in the earth without knowing some sense of the long time from then to now?

I chose pots I thought would keep them well,  these old bulbs grown new.

Meanwhile, back to the season coming on… We had our first frost this morning.

First frosting

It makes me think again of those flannel sheets and of the down-filled comforter. It’s a fine season, this one, given to color and scent and temperature.

I like fall best.

Published in: on November 14, 2009 at 9:30 pm  Comments (1)  

Autumn Greeting

It’s the time of year a person cannot go outside without encountering a spider web. Webs across the coat sleeve. Webs across the face. Eeeack. That feeling of knowing a spider is somewhere down your collar or in your hair.

Lovely lady in waiting

This one is beautiful. She is called Argiope aurantia, or the Black and Yellow Garden Spider.

Look at the imprint of the alien lady with the bouffant hair, in black on yellow. What could possibly speak more clearly of October than this gorgeous spider hanging in her house?

R. asked me the other day, “Except for pigs, what do you think spiders think about all day?”

My opinion?


Lady at luncheon

For all we know, that could be her succulent husband in the package.

October greetings to you.

Published in: on October 19, 2009 at 8:38 am  Comments (2)  

Construction Update: Color and Light

Since last I wrote, the house has matured a little. I had reported on the installation of the solar panels. We’ve had them running through a billing cycle now.

Solar panels -- the early days

In good, sunny September, we generated about 1,000 kW of electricity. With the brand-new reversing meter installed by Portland General Electric, any wattage over our own use is credited back to our account at, we are surprised to learn, a handsome retail rate, including transmission and distribution charges. We had earlier been given to expect a credit at wholesale prices. That was a nice surprise. In the last late summer blast of high temperatures, we found the inside to be comfortably resting at about 75F, even with its plastic windows and doors still substituting for real ones. The cold weather hasn’t come our way yet, so the performance of the house in the chill remains to be tested.

The next big, visible change was the application of the “render” coat, over the “parge” coat, over the construction blocks. See the post Construction Update: Captive Electrons about the earlier layer of waterproofing. The coat they call “render” is the final layer under color.

East wall with Render coat applied

It’s too bad, in a way, to have to cover this up. It made me think we had a house on a far-away Greek island. Ricardo, one of the construction crew, whose arm must be tired of applying this stuff to the walls, liked it white, too. “It looks good,” he said. “Leave it.” Of course, in this land of red soil, it would be white for about a month. The first splatter of mud would transform it into… a muddy house.


West wall with color

We thought something like the color of the native soil would be appropriate.

The choosing of colors is not a simple thing. Just when you think you’ve dealt with it, someone reminds you there are window frames and door frames and fascia boards to think of. And then you go back to the color chips, wondering how you’ll come up with something that will go with the rest of it, which you chose 6 months ago and which might not, or might, be a bit of a surprise when you actually see it on the wall. We don’t want it to look tentative… We don’t want it to look ordinary… We want it to be a statement, both to the site and to the sun, which are, together, the whole point of the design. But, you know, a house could come out looking like a cartoon, too.


Back to the color chips. It is astonishing how much difference there is in a color depending, on whether you see it in the light of the ceiling lamp or the light of the sun. Between rainstorms this weekend we’ve been running outside with pieces of colored and numbered paper, holding them to the walls, shaking our heads, negotiating, making lists of numbers, and then going about it all again. Of course, paint can be changed if you make a terrible mistake, but it’s expensive, and some of it is hard to reach. Better to get it right the first time. Results will be reported.

Meanwhile, inside, things that will never be seen again are winding through the walls

Pipes and wires

and overhead

Pipes and pipes

in mysterious ways,

More pipes and pipes

leading to very technical ends.

And more pipes

Enough of that.

Meanwhile, as they say, back on the farm, the hardy cyclamen are in bloom.

Cyclamen hederifolia

It pleases me to see them. They are about the last remnant of  garden that has survived construction of the house. These are from seed I started over 20 years ago, when I lived in Portland. They propagate themselves happily once they’re established, and before we left town I dug a good bucketful from their place under the maple tree. They settled in quite well in their new location beneath the Linden tree here. They are sturdy little things, liking the dry ground where tree roots suck the moisture from the soil. Though I dug some up again before construction started, and set them into pots, the building process has been much longer than we anticipated, and it’s been asking a lot to expect them to make it in holding pots. I wasn’t sure they would survive the passage of construction crews over their native site. So, I smiled the day I saw them show up this fall.

The grapes were coming along nicely

Wine grapes turning color

until, as so often seems to happen, the wild birds paused in their southward passage, took a look, and stopped for luncheon. We did get a few for a glass of juice. Once the house is finished, it’s on my list to provide some protection for the grapes. I recall visiting a vineyard a number of years ago and taking note of the intermittent blast of air cannons. Those explosions were intended to keep birds off the harvest. I don’t think we’re going to install cannons, but a bit of bird netting might be to the point.

The blackberries remaining on the vine are hard and sour. Although they look like they might, they will never ripen. Wasps will have them, or deer, but not we.

Last of the blackberries

And fairies have been dancing in the woods again. It’s a sure sign of autumn:

Fairy ring

Time is passing.

Here’s hoping we’ll be living in that house soon.

Published in: on October 17, 2009 at 6:57 pm  Comments (1)  

Weather Change

I told you in the last post to pay attention to summer while it was still with us.

Now click on the arrow in the orange circle to hear a report of the moment.

No complaints. We can use it. The woods have been tinder-dry. Or, at most, one small complaint. We’ve exchanged long-lingering dust for sudden mud. Of the two… ah, well, it’s hard to choose, isn’t it?

Timing could have been better (this is not a complaint, just an observation), as we are in the middle of excavation for drains.

Rain drains

These are long drains, extending from the floor of the greenhouse, the lowest level of the house, downhill to the edge of the wood. They’re so long because, though the land slopes down from the house, the greenhouse floor is below grade. The drain field has to “catch up” by running a long way to maintain a downward course. With the heavy rains of yesterday and today, and some more expected tomorrow, the excavators will have a thick time of it when they come back next week.

My friend Barbara and I found a remedy for cloudy skies yesterday. We drove off down the valley, as we do from time to time. This day we made for the small town of Canby and the annual Dahlia Festival at Swan Island Dahlias.

Fields of bloom

Oh. My. Even amid showers, this is an intoxicating experience. Acres of dahlias in bloom stand up to assault the eye. Row upon row upon row of colors, some subtle,

Unnamed yet, from the trial gardens

some bold


washed across the cone receptors of my eager eyes. Golly, my optic nerves jumped into action, and sent the spasm to my optic chiasm, where the nerves met and information crossed over from one side of my brain to the other. In a trice, it went on through the optic tracts, entered the thalamus, and synapsed at the lateral geniculate nucleus! Shazam! My visual cortex, back in the occipital lobe, was ready to receive this blast and got to work making it into vision. The human eye can distinguish about 10 million different colors. I think most of them were present in those fields, and all of them attempting to seduce the unwary gardener into rash, unplanned purchases.

The weather probably thinned the crowd, but those who came were the stalwarts who either don’t care much about the rain or came prepared to make their way through muddy fields. They wore a design sampler of weather wear:

Floral boots Dotty boots

Plaid boots


Though I took mine along, it’s a good thing I didn’t choose to slip into my boots.  I could never have competed with the stylists in the gardens.

Just boots

Homely though they are, these boots have their place. These boots are made for ditch-hoppin’. These are chicken yard boots. Sheep yard boots. Mud and hay boots. These are definitely not struttin’ boots. Not even, let’s admit it, not even faintly cute boots. They are, in the defining words of Merriam-Webster, homely: 3 a : unaffectedly natural.

I can’t seem to pull this week’s post together in any organized way. It’s raining. It’s muddy. The dahlias are bright anyway, and they put me in mind to have my garden in some kind of shape. That is, they put me in mind to wish I had any garden at all here, where we have construction dirt in ditches and heaps. I’m resisting the urge to fill out an order form, to fill the yet undefined beds with bulbs to be delivered next spring. I’ve learned in this year not to anticipate a finish date, not to believe in the possibility that items purchased now will find use or destination before they perish. I’ll stick with my mud boots for now.

One more song; click the arrow:

Published in: on September 6, 2009 at 6:29 pm  Comments (3)  

Summer Moving on…

Gone to seed

We see clear signs the summer is coming ’round to an end. Weather is still warm and bright, but suddenly it is no longer light when the alarm goes off in the morning.

I found this in our woods. It’s a fragment of what had been a fairly large paper wasp nest.

Wasp paper fragment

Here’s a view of the interior, the living quarters.

Inside the nest

Someone was bold enough to knock it from its location in the treetops, probably to harvest the larvae in the nest. You can be sure it was not me! I happily engage honeybees. Vespids are another story.

These were probably Bald-faced hornets:

Dolichovespula maculata

This is not my magnificent photo. It comes from the Wikimedia Commons, courtesy of  PiccoloNamek. The Bald-faced hornet is not as fierce as she looks — I’ve encountered them many times with no sense of aggression from them. That doesn’t mean you want to walk up and mess with their nest in late summer! They will protect their home with every intention to drive you away.

The Yellow-jackets, on the other hand, have been fierce these late summer days. The other morning one of the men on the construction crew came hurtling up the slope, swatting and cursing. He’d found a nest under a pile of pipe and neither he nor the Yellow-jackets were one bit happy about it. He called them ‘bees,’ and I was stern in my insistence that those were not bees; they were wasps. He didn’t seem to appreciate the distinction. Bees take the rap for Yellow-jackets all the time.

Meanwhile, the gone-wild crab apples are hanging thick on their branches in waste areas.

Wild crabs in season

Turkey Vultures (Cathartes aura) are molting their flight feathers, one by one. It must affect the rise and soar of the birds, but they stay up there anyway. I’ve seen several of them recently with serious gaps in their wings and tails, and a generous shedding of feathers onto the ground. These are big feathers — a foot or more in length.

A cast feather

Empty husks are appearing in the woods, a sign someone has been squirreling away nuts.

Hazelnut husk

Crickets have begun to sing.

And the woods overall have a scent of rich balsam. The orchard has begun to exhale that perfume of slightly fermented, nearly rotting windfall fruit in the grass.

Everything is sighing at the end of the season, casting its seed, gathering itself for winter.

Here’s something new from WordPress: audio files embedded in the post. Click the Go arrow, and listen to Summertime while there is still summer in the season.

Published in: on September 4, 2009 at 3:54 pm  Comments (2)  

Construction Update: Captive Electrons

PV ready to goFor some time progress on the house has been… invisible. Some things have been going on, but they’ve been difficult to present or to think of as progress.

There was a mishap in regard to the floor color that set things back for weeks while the concrete magician worked out an elixir that would fix it. This was nearly a tragedy. An assistant on the job passed the wrong stain color to the applicator, who conscientiously sprayed it on half the downstairs floor. It takes several minutes for the color to emerge in the applied acid etch stain. I can only imagine B.’s horror as he watched the colors change before his wondering eyes. In the end, after many  hours of “lab time” and  many samples and tests on floor spaces that will be concealed in the final house (under cabinets, in closets…), he came up with a treatment that has given us a lovely floor. It’s not exactly what we had in mind for the ground floor — we had wanted to reproduce something like the natural hues revealed in the soils in the excavation for the house: reddish clays, ochre layers, faint green smears… but it is a really beautiful floor. It looks like old leather. If you did not know where to look, you wouldn’t see the place where the disaster took place.

So, weeks later, the floors are finished and safely covered over so carpenters can come in and start on walls and windows.

We brought our color samples into the kitchen — It’s been a long time since we first made the selections for materials and colors, and, frankly, I had to be reminded. Oh, is that what the cabinets are to be? Good thing we still liked it! I wonder how often people change their  minds drastically after the months pass between choosing and finally seeing? Here is the color pallet, as much as you can tell from monitor pictures:

Stained concrete, cork on the kitchen floor, 'Ceaser Stone' counters in sage and slate green, coffee-colored powder-coat stair railing, stained 'Liptis' cabinet wood.

Stained concrete area floor, cork on the kitchen floor, 'Ceaser Stone' counters in sage and slate green, coffee-colored powder-coat stair railing, and stained 'Liptis' cabinet wood.

The guys took the black plastic off the window holes and replaced it with translucent plastic, and we are pleased to find that light pours into the rooms, and the colors are earth-like and good.

Two bold men spent a month applying what is called a parge coat to the exterior of the house.

Scaffold work

Ricardo on the scaffold, applying the parge coat.

Parge, or parget, is a coat of waterproofing, traditionally plaster but in this case a material more like mortar. It is the undercoat of the exterior treatment.

Some plumbing has wormed its way out of the building:


This looks to me like some kind of Borg bio-mech entity escaping from the foundation.

Meanwhile, electricity has happened. Here, the electricians are installing panels onto the racks on the roof. Note the careful use of safety lines. It’s a long way down.

Electricians on the edge

The ‘Phase One’ array of photo-voltaic panels is installed,  a little over 6 kW, and the attendant inverter is in the attic:

The inverter read-out

In the first test, on a cloudy day, the panels immediately began harvesting hurried electrons and providing them a way through the lines to the meter. The only problem with this was the meter. We still have the original meter in place, and it is not so smart as it thinks it is. All it knows is that electricity is flowing, not where it originated. Until PGE can replace it with a new, reversing, meter we won’t be running the PV system — no point paying the  utility company for electricity we generate. The change-out should happen next week.

On the passive side, we have a different kind of array on the north roof. These are solar tubes, small skylights with reflective tubes running from the underside of the lens into the attic. At its terminus, a tube is fitted with a Fresnel-type lens that distributes the light.

Solar tubes

Solar tubes gather light through a skylight lens and carry it through reflective tubes into dark areas of the interior.

The Fresnel lens, first developed in the 19th Century by Augustin-Jean Fresnel , was the lens that made lighthouse lights visible over distances of 20 miles. These days they are made affordably of plastic and used to magnify images in overhead projectors, and small CRT screens; they are the lenses of traffic lights, theater light instruments, and auto headlamps; they correct vision disorders; aircraft carriers use Fresnel lenses in their optical landing systems; and they concentrate sunlight into solar cookers and forges. Solar tubes with plastic Fresnel lenses are available at common home-improvement stores.

There are five solar tubes on the roof. Three will light the attic. Two will penetrate the ceiling of the main living floor and light the dining area and one bathroom.

Here’s the view up a tube:

Looking up the tube

and here’s the light underneath:

Lighted attic

In daytime, you don’t need electric lights in the attic! These are completely passive, clean, and… well, they are just so neat.

All the time excavation was going on for the house, we were laughing up our sleeves because just down the road from us the neighbors had had to blast boulders out of their backyard in order to install a septic system. Our hole had no rocks bigger than a melon, and not many of those. It hardly seemed fair, and the neighbors were unamused at our good fortune. But last week we found the boulder field. Just south of the house, where a drainage line is headed into the pasture, the excavator started pulling stones from the earth. In an entire day’s work he made about 20 feet of progress on a 2-foot wide ditch, and accumulated a nice pile of volcanic stones.


We’re hoping the field is short, because that drain line has a ways to go. It’s our punishment for glee.

On the other hand, those are fine landscape stones, and we’ll find a use for them.

Published in: on August 29, 2009 at 1:51 pm  Comments (1)  

Workshop Weekend

We are having sizzling temperatures here. Tuesday’s and Wednesday’s 106°F was a record-buster, and today promises to beat that. Ugh.


I made a weekend escape to cooler climes over the weekend, heading away to join friends at a 2-day ‘color in wool’ workshop.We drove downriver along the Columbia, and turned north at Westport, Oregon, to take a small ferry across to Puget Island. It was a glorious sunny afternoon by the time we lined up at the ferry landing. For $3 we made the short crossing along with a half dozen other cars. We ate cherries from a roadside stand while we waited at the landing.

The ferry landing

Here’s the friendly ferryman who probably poses regularly for tourist photos:

The cap'n of the ferry

And here is me, catching a knitting break during the transit:

Me, knitting

The crossing is about 15 minutes. I barely had time to find my bag and get out my needles.

Puget Island is a small community in the Columbia River. As you approach, it has that unmistakable scent and feel of a waterine settlement. Often the Columbia is raucous in its windy progress toward the ocean. On this day, with a pleasant breeze, the river lapped gently at the beach.


Approach to Puget Island

You drive briefly over the island, cross to the town of Cathlamet by bridge, and turn onto the highway headed downriver, to Skamokawa. (I had to put these in here: Cath-LAM-et, and (try it your own way first, then say…) Ska-MOK-a-way.)

We arrived enthusiastic, ate and slept well, and were ready to throw ourselves into class the next morning.  I was about to make yarns I would never have undertaken on my own, using the drum carder to blend colors into wool batts that were later drawn out into gaily colored rovings and spun into final yarns.

For readers who have no idea what I’m talking about, here is a quick course in the preparation of wool into yarn.

As it comes from the sheep, a fleece is messy, dirty, and clumpy. To be spun into yarn it must first be sorted and then cleaned (I mean washed, washed in hot water, with detergent), and then made into a fluffy form that can be attenuated into strands. Skipping over  the first business of sorting and washing (called scouring among the conoscenti), let’s move on, to the handling of the cleaned wool.

In this case, we were using small portions of wool already dyed into colors our instructor intended us to begin with.

Raw materials

We had a bag of brightly colored wool, a bag of medium-dark wool, a bag of darker dark wool, and a sack of natural whites, grays, and blacks. In addition, we were each given a paper bag of ‘goodies.’ The goodies were bits of flashy fiber, silk, mohair, wool, and, I must say it though it’s hard for me, holographic plastic.

Bits of color

All these bits and pieces are in a sort of rough jumble. To make them orderly, we first run the plain (dyed) wool though a carding machine like this one:

A drum carder

Below is a close-up view of the drums. The wires sticking from the cloth grab the wool as it passes between the two drums and pulls it open. Here you can see some bits of colored silk added to the wool batt.

Flecks and bits added to the carder

The drum carder is a larger, faster version of the hand carders our grandmothers used to prepare wool for spinning.

'La Cardeuse,' Jean-François Millet

You can imagine this woman never thought of getting together to card wool for fun.

The process separates the strands of wool, fluffs them up, gives them order and body. Actually, it may give them chaos, but it’s open and uniform chaos. The wool as it comes out of the carder is called a batt, and the texture of the batt is lofty. Here are four of them, well-carded:

Carded batts arranged in layers

You can see little pieces of colored material scattered through the batts. This is the goody stuff, which has been carded into the original wool.

Now, these delightful batts were about to be sundered.

We rolled them up like fat jelly rolls. Then, putting our arms and shoulders into it, we began pulling from the middles of the rolls, outward to the ends. This is our instructor, Janis Thompson, demonstrating how to pull the batts into a roving.

Pulling out a roving

A roving, which looks here like a giant woolly worm, is an attenuated rope of carded wool, ready for spinning into yarn. Here’s one of mine, wound up after being pulled thin.

A roving, wound up

The next day we all assembled again to finish up our yarns. We spun the pretty rovings into strands that were gaily textured, thin in some places, thick in others, happily colored and unpredictable. We had, as we’d been instructed, flexed our ‘color muscles.’  We’d come up with some irreproducible results.


Two days of intensive, hands-on education can be a zonking experience. On Saturday morning we were fairly skipping into class. By Sunday afternoon, we were weary from learning. Dazzled by our results, but worn right out.

Class wasn’t all that captured our attention. That inner bell that heralds a nearby yarn store had been clanging in my breast. All day on Saturday, I knew something must be done about it. But there we were, tied to our carding machines, class running until 5 pm. I could hear the door of that yarn shop closing at 5, even at a yet unmeasured distance. What to do?

Over dinner that evening we discussed the problem. Oh, said our friend Rose, that’s no problem. They open at 7:30 because of the cafe serving breakfast.


The yarn shop, you see, shares space with a cafe and the proprietors, being no fools, open the store about when morning coffee is served.

So we leapt from our own breakfast table on Sunday morning, and made a hasty sortie into the fragrant realms of the local yarn store.


It gave us a boost for the second day’s work over the carders.

All in all, it was a delightful weekend in which we enjoyed cooler temperatures, ate good food, found good company, and made yarn. A womanly pursuit all around, from which we came home again in good condition. I recommend such an outing every now and then.

Published in: on July 30, 2009 at 4:16 pm  Comments (2)