Monthly Archives: September 2011

Yard At Work

Pile of Pallets

Dear Reader:

I don’t know about you, but something about autumn makes me want to work outside. Maybe it is the cooler air. Maybe it is just the instinct to nest. Maybe it is wanting to gather as much sun as possible before the snow flies and the days darken. Whatever the reason, fall finds me perky and industrious out of doors, and this year is no exception.

Settling in here at home in Lake Arrowhead after my summer away, I took a critical look around my front yard. My friend “The Hydraulic Power Junkie” was kind enough to save some wooden pallets for me to construct into additional compost bins, and before jaunting off to the city, I’d thrown them in a a messy pile over by the garden boxes.

My lone bin just isn’t adequate for proper piling and turning, so this past spring I dug into the pile, found all the good decomposed stuff on the bottom, and deposited this “black gold” beside the bin thinking I would dig it into some new beds. Of course, I never got around to it, so the compost just sat there feeding who knows what seeds over the long, hot summer. Sure enough, by September the pile was lush with gigantic weeds and some leggy tomato plants with teeny, immature fruits dangling from slender stems.

What a waste of good compost!

My Pink Hammer

Disgusted with myself for such blatant procrastination, I got to work. With some ingenious use of rocks wedged under corners, bent wire coat hangers, and bungee cords cadged from Hubby’s garage, I soon had a triplex of compost bins lined up in the corner of my lot.

Completed Bins

I had just enough chicken wire (somewhat rusty) to wind around and form a barrier in front. Now all I need is some latticework to fancy the project up a bit.

After all, who wants to look at rotting lettuce and coffee grounds and eggshells and piles of soggy leaves?

The “LAC Chickens” (a.k.a. crows) don’t mind seem to mind the mess. Our first day back from D.C., I went to the market to restock my ‘fridge, and when I came back, seven large, black crows were pecking around on my front lawn looking just like a flock of particularly sleek hens. I think the crows are a good sign–hopefully a sign of beneficial insects and whatnot in my garden area.

By the way, early morning cawing is much more annoying than the gentle clucking of laying hens, despite the prejudiced rules in my homeowners association outlawing “livestock.” However, I’m quite fond of “my” crows, just the same. They are fun to watch and have a wide variety of calls and cries, sometimes even chuckling as if they’ve found something incredibly amusing, probably my attempts to dig out root systems of maple saplings (see below).

Image from

Crows and ravens are intelligent birds. I learned this while reading A YEAR IN THE MAINE WOODS by Bernd Heinrich. This memoir records the author’s year spent in a remote cabin on a mountain up near Mt. Blue State Park. Heinrich brought his pet raven to live with him that winter, and the stories make for some delightful cool-weather armchair traveling.

If you don’t feel the actual need to go and live in an under-insulated cabin in the woods with no running water or electricity but feel it would make for an interesting and enlightening read, pick up a copy at your locally-owned bookstore before the snow flies.

As for me, I still had work to do. I mowed the lawn, weeded out a perennial bed, transplanted some flowers, and chopped down the vegetation that had grown up near the “rock wall” and the somewhat cleared area near the garden boxes.

I then began digging out the root system of a particularly stubborn maple sapling that had been crushed by a fallen pine tree a couple years ago. The double-trunked pine came down in a rain storm while we watched from the safety of our basement. If the wind had been blowing the other way, our house would have been crushed. Instead, a small maple and some oaks took the hit.

All the sapling stumps now inconveniently sprout a new bristle-brush of shoots every time I clip them off, and as I’m trying to create a perennial bed there around the pine stump, these suckers are annoying. I’ve tried to smother them with leaf litter and old carpets to no avail. It’s bad enough I have to camouflage the ugly reminder that we live beneath one-hundred foot, one-hundred year-old pines with shallow root systems inadequate to anchor the top-heavy giants when the earth gets soaked and the wind blows hard, but now I have to dig out entire root systems as well?

I’m complaining, but there are compensations to living with anti-chicken rules and scary and/or irritating trees. The lake is beautiful, and I never thought I would be so lucky to live so close to the water. If I manage to give up my obsession with growing food crops (too shady), I will be able to enjoy growing shade-loving plants and creating native woodland gardens.

Like most things in life, you can choose to focus on the negative or the positive, which reminds me of a saying I used to hear in church: “Two men looked out from behind prison bars; one saw mud and the other saw stars.”

Not that I’m feeling imprisoned here, or anything– wink-wink.

Rewards of Hard Labor

After a day of hard labor, I rewarded myself with a hot cup of coffee sipped from a favorite locally-sourced Barnswallow Pottery mug from Newfield, Maine. I filled the bird-feeder and hung a cake of suet. Maybe the chickadees and goldfinches will come back to keep me and the crows company this winter while the snow flies and I’m curled up with my knitting and enjoying the change of season—and wondering how the compost is doing out there in the bins transforming from garbage to rich soil beneath an insulating layer of snow.

Homeschooling Myself

Windmill at U.S. Botanical Garden

Dear Reader:

September. Back to school. This time of year finds me yearning to learn something, to sharpen some pencils to fine points, to crack open some new notebooks with all those blank pages bursting with possibility. The steam rising from lake in the cool mornings mixed with the scent of steam rising from my coffee cup catapults me into autumn. Once September arrives, the season turns, and I find myself casting about for continuing education.

I compulsively peruse college websites and contemplate returning to school for an advanced degree in . . . something. A MFA in creative writing? A master’s in New England studies? Paralegal courses? Business? Or maybe I should take some adult ed classes. I look and dream and try to project myself into the future, trying to spy out the terrain. Will I actually use the costly investment of time and money to make a decent return on investment? Will jobs even be available in my fields of interest? Do I really want a career, or am I simply wanting to learn something?

Until I figure out what I where and what I want to study, I will try to teach myself. Truth is, we’re all lifelong learners whether we want to be or not. Some of us chose to direct our learning in specific directions, and some of us learn by default when we pick up a magazine or click the television remote. Either way, we learn.

For instance, today I could be learning where the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills get their nails done. Or “What Not to Wear.” Or how to make Martha Stewart’s Halloween punch. Instead, I chose something different. I chose economics.

Economics is one of those subjects I missed along the way to high school diploma and college degree. Like a teenager who feels that if she only had that one magical pair of perfect jeans she’d suddenly become skinny, de-pimpled, and popular, there’s one side of me (call her Side A) that has this sneaky suspicion that if only she understood how the economy works, everything about this world that seems illogical and murky would suddenly be made clear. Of course, the other side of me (Side B) knows that is ridiculous, that there is no magic theory on this earth strong enough to provide a lucid organizing principle for everything.

Side A argues, “Yeah, but would it hurt to try? What else are we gonna do all day?”

Side B shakes her head, disgusted and cynical but eventually agrees, grudgingly, to go along with Side A’s latest folly. “As long as it doesn’t cost us anything but time.”

Side A waves a hand dismissively. “Yeah, yeah, yeah. Go find me a highlighter already. And some skinny jeans.”

Anyway, since I wasn’t going to allow myself to take expensive college courses simply for the fun of it, I needed to find a cheap alternative. Lucky for me, someone dropped off an introductory college textbook at the swap shop at the transfer station, and I snagged it up last spring. The book is called THE ECONOMIC WAY OF THINKING by Paul Heyne. Two chapters in, and I’ve already found at least ten gems. Here are a couple.

From page 4: The theories of economics, with surprisingly few exceptions, are simple extensions of the assumption that individuals take those actions they think will yield them the largest net advantage.

Heynes goes on to explain that “advantage” doesn’t always mean money. There are always other advantages besides greater monetary wealth.

From page 16: (1) Most goods are not free but can be obtained only by sacrificing something else that is also good. (2)There are substitutes for anything. (3) Intelligent choice among substitutes requires a balancing of additional costs against additional benefits.

So (1)Education isn’t free. You have to sacrifice good money and/or time in order to gain education. (2)A substitute for expensive college tuition is homeschooling myself. (3)Balancing additional costs (money) against additional benefits (maybe a paying job, maybe not), means the intelligent choice for me was picking up that used textbook at the dump.

From page 12: The primary goal of this book is to start you thinking the way economists think, in the belief that once you start, you will never stop. Economic thinking is addictive. Once you get inside some principle of economic reasoning and make it your own, opportunities to use it pop up everywhere. You begin to notice that much of what is said or written about economic and social issues is a mixture of sense and nonsense.

Yeah, this is no surprise to me. Once I get into any sort of reasoning, I begin to apply it to everything around me. My hope is that economics will bring into focus the slightly blurred edges of current events, history, politics, and social issues so that I can get a clearer picture of the world around me.

So far so good. I am devoting my early morning coffee/reading time to economics this fall. You, dear reader, will probably have to suffer through commentary about current events both personal and public as seen through the lens of economic theory.

But who knows. It might even be more entertaining than watching reality tv.

Question for you, my dear reader: What sorts of continuing education opportunities have you found since graduating from high school or college? What interests have you pursued? Do you feel you can learn on your own as effectively as you can learn from a teacher or a school? Are there any glaring gaps in your education? Drop me a line and let me know what you think of continuing education . . . Outside the Box.

Day 60 and Beyond: Life After D.C.

or Welcome Home to Maine

From the U.S. Botanical Garden

Dear Reader:

I’m sure you’ve figured out that this isn’t REALLY day sixty. I’m definitely into the “beyond” portion of the title, typing from my own cozy office with a window looking out over the encroaching wild blackberry brambles, the downed pine trees rotting on the forest floor, and the still-green leaves of immature maples and oaks struggling to grow beneath the evergreen giants. No more view of the blue roof of the Nordstrom’s across the street at the Pentagon City Mall or the gothic spires of the National Cathedral poking up from the far-distant D.C. skyline or the planes circling around toward Reagan National one after the other after the other as the day closes and the sky turns first pink and then dark and the lights begin to glow in all the windows of the high-rise jungle around me.

Flower Tower

The Teen and I spent our last day in the city in a whirlwind tour of the United States Botanic Garden, a must-see for any of you who may visit the capital city in the future. The day was hot, but dry and sunny, and the plantings absolutely amazed this neophyte gardener. I loved the outdoor gardens, especially the giant wooden towers planted with different types of heat-loving plants and flowers.


Inside were tropical plants, a children’s garden,endangered plants, and an area dedicated to “useful” plants either for food or medicine. We spent a few hours browsing around in the cool, moist environment before heading over to the Museum of the American Indian to finally catch lunch at the cafe, something I didn’t want to miss on this trip.

Southwest Native Foods

The cafeteria is set up to offer foods from all the different American areas. I was tempted by the northeast section with its roast turkey and cranberry preserves, but I figured there would be time for that around Thanksgiving. Instead I went with southwestern spicy rice, an enchilada of sorts filled with roasted or sauteed squashes and onion topped with a tomato paste and cheese, and the most delicious sauteed red cabbage. I ate the entire plate, and the light vegetarian fare left enough room for a dessert of bread pudding studded with raisins.

The Teen had chicken fingers and fries.

Revived, we hiked up the hill so the Teen could visit the Library of Congress. After oggling the beautiful space for an hour or so, we strolled next door to the Supreme Court where two demonstrators stood mute with duct tape over their mouths. I’m still not sure how they expected to get their message across as they carried no signs, but it was probably something to do with freedom of speech.

(Here’s an idea: if you want to protest something, communicate somehow!)

Tired and hot,(did I mention D.C. afternoons are scorchers?)we sat beneath a shady tree in front of the Capitol Building for a few minutes, listening to a couple of security police chatting with each other, and then we chugged on down to 7th Street for a cup of iced coffee at the corner Starbucks one last time.

Moongate Garden at Sackler Gallery

We fueled up on caffein and sugar–enough mojo for a quick swing through the Castle for souvenir shopping, the Museum of African Art, and finally a super-quick breeze through the Sackler & Freer Gallery of Asian Art.

Sunset at Gravelly Point

Our last evening in D.C. we ate a picnic supper at Gravelly Point while watching the planes take off right over our heads, knowing that in less than 24 hours we’d be on one of those aircraft.

The next day and at the airport waiting for our flight, we felt the building shudder, stop for a minute or two, and then begin to shake and shiver in earnest. The television monitors were already tuned to CNN, and we soon learned about the fairly major earthquake rolling beneath Virginia, D.C., and outward. I said, “I guess D.C. is just so sad to see us leave.”

We were on the plane only an hour behind schedule.

Before sunset, we looked down on the dark green of Maine’s coastline and spotted a large crescent of pale beach and a light-green swath behind it. “I think that’s Old Orchard and Pine Point . . . and the marsh!” I said. Soon we could see Portland, South Portland, and the airstrip–an hour and a half and a world away from metropolitan Washington D.C.

Welcome home to Maine!

Pine Point

The following days found us hanging out at our usual spot on the beach at Pine Point, school shopping, and acclimating ourselves to life in the slow lane again. A day went by with a grand total of TWO cars passing my house. The skies clouded over. My allergies and asthma returned with a vengeance. Hurricane Irene hit on Sunday and knocked out our power for four days.

Welcome home to Maine.

I don’t mean to sound as bitter as a garden cucumber grown over a dry summer. I’m feeling less claustrophobic every day. I have my kitchen back. I’ve been to Marden’s and Goodwill and the Limerick Supermarket and Hannaford’s and the wonderful farm-stand near the Waterboro Public Library. I’ve checked out a couple of books. I’ve been to the yarn shop and the tea house with my friend, Sandra. On another afternoon between appointments in Biddeford, friend Donna served me a wonderful green salad with slices of roast beef and crumbled feta and dressed with olive oil and balsamic viniagrette. Heavenly!

I have bought yarn for a hat and a bag, have lugged home pickling salt and spices to try my hand at pickles with the cukes my parents gave me from their garden (not bitter), and while up visiting parents and collecting my much-missed pooch, Delilah, my dad bought me a lobster roll and my mom baked me a blueberry pie.

Welcome home to Maine. For real.