First Snow!

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We had our first snow last night. It was a dusting, but enough to get us all in the mood for winter. The new chickens were freaked out by the snow this morning – it was their first time seeing it and they were afraid to leave the safety of the coop. It was funny to see, but probably not too funny for them.

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Buttoning up the beehive for winter

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Last winter was cold and this winter is supposed to be similar. I’ve lost beehives in the last few winters – once because they starved to death and the other time because they froze to death. There aren’t many things as sobering as cleaning out a hive full of dead bees in the spring. It is downright depressing, and replacing the bees takes money and effort. A year ago at this time I had only one hive, and by the time spring arrived, I was left with none. As my hive sat empty after the mass die off, and before my order of a new package of bees arrived from Georgia, our apple trees bloomed. The blossoms were plentiful and fragrant, and I was reminded of the days in the previous year when the honeybees covered the apple trees, collecting nectar and pollen, fertilizing the blossoms. We had so many apples in our harvest that year – so many that I could barely keep up with the applesauce production. We felt blessed.

This year there were no bees to cover the apple trees. No bees to collect nectar and pollen, or to fertilize the blossoms. By the time summer arrived I could see that there were no apples on the trees, and we had no apple harvest this year. When I realized how important my bees were for the apple harvest, I quickly saw that a die-off in winter was more than an inconvenience – it was a serious problem. This winter I am determined to keep the bees alive, and I’m starting by addressing the two issues that plagued my hives in the past: food and warmth.

Cold Weather Food

After I harvested honey earlier in the fall I started feeding the bees a sugar syrup to help them increase their honey stores for the winter. As the weather cooled I stopped the feedings because liquid sugar is of little use to bees when it gets cold. In order to convert the syrup into honey, they need to fan it with their wings to evaporate the water. When it’s cold, the bees cluster and conserve their energy, so fanning syrup isn’t an activity they undertake. When it gets cold outside and the inside of the hive stays warm near the cluster, the water left in the syrup turns into condensation and clings to the top of the hive. When the water droplets get heavy enough, they fall down onto the bees, and the cold drops kill the bees below. Sounds awful, doesn’t it? Cold weather feeding means providing low-moisture sugar stores. More on this in a moment.

Keeping the Hive Warm

The hive is kept warm in a few different ways. The first rule is to provide a wind break so that the cold winter wind doesn’t whip straight into the hive. If you don’t have a natural wind break such as shrubs or trees in front of the hive, you can erect a wall of hay bales a few feet from the hive, making sure you place them in the direction of the wind. Here at the Village Homestead there is a good wind break provided by trees and shrubs.

The second way to keep a hive warm is to keep the profile low. Hot air rises, so the closer the cluster of bees is to both the top and bottom of the hive, the better. You know how cathedral ceilings in a home look nice, but they aren’t great for keeping the room warm in the winter because the hot air rises to the ceiling? The same principle is in effect in the hive. If too many boxes are on the hive going into winter, the warm air will rise, leaving the cluster of bees below exposed to the cold.

I am convinced that one of my hives died from cold exposure because I put a box of honey frames on the hive at the end of the winter, and the warm air rose to the top. The bees had food stores, thanks to those honey frames I had stored in my freezer all winter, but they didn’t live because they couldn’t stay warm in their cluster. This year I want to minimize the cathedral ceiling phenomenon in the hive.

A third way to keep the hive warm is to keep out excess moisture. I said earlier that moisture in the hive will collect on the top of the hive and rain down as cold water droplets that kill the bees. Moisture is always in the hive because the bees are living organisms and in the course of breathing, eating and moving around, they create condensation. It is important to have a way to remove the water that collects.

Candy Boards

This year my solution to both of these issues – feeding the bees and keeping them warm – is to create a candy board for the hive. It’s a very squat box that goes on top of the brood chambers (and directly under the inner cover). The box is lined with hardware cloth and newsprint, and filled with a sugar-water mixture that is mostly sugar. This set-up directly addresses all of my issues: the bees have food to last them through the winter; there isn’t a lot of extra space at the top of the hive for warm air to collect; and condensation is absorbed by both the newsprint and the sugar mixture. Extra condensation escapes through a hole drilled into the side of the box. I think it’s a brilliant idea. No, I didn’t make it up myself – a lot of other beekeepers are making candy boards for their hives. I took my recipe from the blog Tilly’s Nest – her instructions are pretty good, and if you would like to make one too, head over to her site and follow what she did. 

A few notes on making the candy board: the sugar solution will be very dry while you are mixing it, like damp beach sand – not wet enough to build a sand castle, but not dry enough to flow through your fingers. Mix it with your hands. When you are ready to put it in the candy board frame, pat it in really well. Push down on the sugar mixture and pat, pat, pat until it is a solid mass. Let it sit overnight to harden. Before placing it on the hive, cut away any extra newsprint. If newsprint peeks out from the hive, it will wick moisture into the hive – exactly the opposite of what you want!

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Entrance Reducer and Mouse Guards

Two more things to think about when closing up the hive for the winter: entrance reducers and mouse guards. An entrance reducer simply reduces the size of the entryway at the base of the hive. It keeps the cold air out and allows the guard bees to catch a break instead of expending all their energy on guarding a big entrance during the winter. I actually leave my entrance reducer on year-round for young hives.

Mouse guards are a must if you live in a cold area. Mice seek out warm, protected spaces and can crawl through small holes. A beehive is an ideal winter home for mice. It’s warm and protected, and usually close to a field. Once inside a hive, mice can eat the honey and soil the brood chamber with their droppings. Here in upstate New York we worry about exposure to hantavirus as well. My mouse guards were fashioned by Jeff and I love how easy they are to use. He made a five-sided cube of hardware cloth, the width of the hive entrance, and attached two pieces of wood inside the cube. The pieces of wood are no taller than the entrance so that they can slip in easily. When it’s time to add the mouse guard, I simply slip the wood pieces into the hive entrance until the open side of the cube meets up with the hive body. You can see it in action here:

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Checklist for Buttoning Up the Hive

  • Reduce the number of boxes to the lowest number the bees need for the winter. I use the 10-frame size, and leave two brood chambers for the winter cluster
  • Add an entrance reducer and a mouse guard to the entrance
  • Create a wind break using hay bales if you don’t have one already
  • Put a candy board on top of the brood chambers, and put the inner cover and outer covers on top of the candy board
  • Place bricks or a heavy stone on top of the outer cover to keep the cover on tight; or use bungee cords to secure the cover to the hive

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Project Feederwatch has begun!

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The girls and I participate in Project Feederwatch every year, and it just started up for the season. It’s a citizen science project set up to collect backyard bird counts between November and April, and is organized by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. We select two consecutive days each week and record the highest number of each species that visit the feeder at the same time. It doesn’t sound very exciting does it – I mean, who cares that 7 House Finches came to our feeder today? The researchers at Cornell do. They use our data to record trends and draw conclusions. Earlier this year they determined that climate change is altering the habitats of birds. The data we submit gives scientists a good overall view of bird activity in the US and Canada.

We watch the birds and record data partly because it’s a good idea to be a citizen scientist, but really, we do it because we love to watch the birds. ‘A’ and I could sit all day at the window and welcome all of our feathered friends that come to the feeders. Our Project Feederwatch work provides a good excuse for us to indulge in a favorite activity. It makes me feel less lazy. We have to watch the birds, it’s our job. Researchers are counting on us, we tell ourselves.

In my feeders this year I have black oil sunflower; nyger; safflower seed; and suet cakes. I put the feeders up last week and it took a few days for the birds to start coming. The chickens love to eat any seed that falls to the ground, and when I let them out of their run in the morning, they head straight over to the feeders for a snack. Setting up the feeders this fall was a piece of cake because I was smart enough to thoroughly dismantle and clean all the feeders last spring {finally!}. There was nothing sketchy or questionable about the condition of the feeders when I took them out of storage last week. I love it when I plan ahead and things go smoothly… if I can just remember to do that kind of thing more often!

If you are interested in participating in the project, it is not too late to sign up. I think it’s a good experience for children. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has science lessons available for homeschoolers, and there are so many opportunities for science experiments of your own. We have always been happy with our experience. Happy Birding!

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Around the Homestead

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Another fantastic fall weekend in upstate New York. My dad and stepmother came for a visit; my sister had a baby (we haven’t met him yet – she lives in Connecticut); my girls are happy and healthy; the chickens and bees are doing great. What else could I wish for?

Here are some shots from around the homestead today.

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A Research Project and the IIM Process

4-IIMThe girls and I are doing a group read of The Breadwinner by Deborah Ellis, a story about a girl growing up in Afghanistan. The main character has a very different life than ‘A’ and ‘H’ – her home, her freedoms, her opportunities for education, are all foreign to my girls. They want to know more, so we are undertaking a group research project about girls in Afghanistan. We are following the IIM method for this project (we say “double eye m”), which is short for Independent Investigation Method. The IIM program encourages students to put together a systematic plan for conducting research before they even start. That sounds like no big deal, but it really is! If only I had been introduced to this method when I was in school… life would have been so much easier! Research projects can seem as though they are enormous and impossible to undertake, and the IIM process breaks it all down into small, manageable steps. Things like selecting a topic, choosing research tools, and writing out notes are all broken down into small steps with deadlines. Steps with deadlines are the key to completing a research project!

The part I like the best is the system for taking notes. You take simple notes (called notefacts) that sum up an idea, and mark each notefact with a number that corresponds to a source (a book, video, article, etc.). You write the whole bibliography for each source before even writing out the first notefact. That right there is brilliant. How many times was I up late writing out my bibliography? Too many to count. After all the notefacts are written out, you cut them up and organize them. This is the elementary-level system. I don’t know how it works for higher level research yet.

I know, it doesn’t sound like a revolutionary system, but it is when you compare it to how I was taught to do research projects (or should I say, how I was NOT taught to do them). This is coming from someone who has written a lot of research papers. My degree is in history – for a while, my entire life was about reading and writing. I think the IIM process is a great way to approach research projects.

Here is a video that shows you more about IIM: http://vimeo.com/jonmossedtech/tuss-iim. Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of good IIM resources online. The website about IIM has links to books for sale, and there are some reproducible pages on another site I found. If you are teaching the method, I highly recommend getting a book with the reproducible pages. Making research as easy as possible is the key to success!

If you have any research project tips to share I would love to hear them!

 

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Little Changes…

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Goodbye October, Hello November… November, you are my least favorite month of the year, because you drag me, kicking and screaming, into the winter season. By the time this month is over, all the leaves will be off the trees, we’ll have seen our first snowfall, and it will be cold enough to warrant a coat and hat each time we leave the house. But here you are, November, so let’s get used to each other. Happy thoughts, right?

Our family life has been very full. Homeschooling is in full swing with lessons and assignments every day, punctuated by many field trips. I am having a lot of fun with the girls this year, and I think they are enjoying it too. Now that they’re in the 2nd and 4th grades, the type of work they can undertake has changed and increased. I expect a lot more from both of them and they don’t disappoint me. Here’s a flavor of the work they are involved in:

They begin every day by watching the NBC newscast from the night before – it gives them a glimpse of the major headlines and helps them to be well-informed students;

We are all reading The Breadwinner by Deborah Ellis and will have a series of discussions when we finish the book;

The girls love history and geography, so we are cruising through the geography of the United States, complete with mapping projects, and they are learning about the history of New York State;

Next week we start our Project Feederwatch citizen science project, where we will spend 2 days each week observing and counting the birds at our feeders until next spring.

These are just some of the exciting things that are happening at our homeschool this fall.

While school life rolls along at a good clip, I am finding my inner personal life to be in a state of transition. I stopped working at the farmers market for the time being, and I am still adjusting to losing that part of my identity. In the past, when I left a job, I usually had a plan for what lay ahead. This time I’m not moving toward anything in particular. What I have gained by not working, though, is priceless and much needed: down time with my family. We are so busy during the week – all of us – and weekends have become a time for us to be together and relax in each other’s company. I’m welcoming some additional little changes in my life this fall: I’m picking up my first pair of BIFOCALS {gasp!} next week; I’ve stopped drinking wine {completely – another gasp!}; and I’ve been busy selling honey and herbal tinctures from my garden. I’m taking a class on herbal medicine through the Herbal Academy of New England and I have learned so much about how herbs work in the body. I am lucky to have a garden full of medicinal herbs, and I’ve spent the summer and fall harvesting, then tincturing or drying them. I can’t wait to experiment with even more mixtures this winter.

One of my favorite garden herbs is catnip. Yes, the same catnip that makes cats go crazy! I grow a few plants in the garden and it is wonderful in a hot tea blend when you want to relax and sleep well. It’s the best herb I’ve ever used for soothing upset stomachs and minimizing gas pain. It works beautifully for both children and adults… we drink a lot of catnip tea at our house! Grace enjoys catnip too, of course.

Speaking of Grace, she turned 15 a few weeks ago and she’s definitely showing her age. Here she is relaxing on ‘H’s drawings…

Hello November!

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Preparing honey for sale (I’m excited!)

25-honey-labelsI’m excited! My honey is officially for sale. I’m labeling it today and am now taking orders for local sales. The honey is packaged in 1 lb. jars and is available for $6/jar. If you’re in the Galway/Saratoga area, click here to send me an email and we can discuss delivery arrangements.

I have plastic bottles available for shipping and will price out shipping options for all of you who live a bit further away.

I’m looking forward to preparing all the wonderful fall foods we love that are sweetened with honey… roasted vegetables, braised carrots, wheat breads and more.

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Honey!

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The bees filled in empty space in the honey super with their own comb.

We harvested honey last week. I am amazed at how much we got – just about 100 lbs. The goldenrod season was really good this year, and half of the honey was produced in the two weeks before we extracted it. HALF. Those bees are very busy!

Getting the honey supers off the hive on extraction day was not as easy as I had hoped it would be. Jeff and I had put a triangle escape board under four full supers and I had planned to give the bees two days to evacuate. My beekeeper friend Erika was going to come over and help me lift the supers off the hive the day of the planned extraction. The supers were heavy this year because I used 9 frames in each box instead of 10, so the bees drew deeper comb and packed more honey into each cell. I needed help lifting the supers that were up higher than my shoulders.

A little while before Erika was scheduled to arrive, I was outside and glanced over at the hive. I expected to see bees flying in and out of the front entrance and not much else. What I saw instead horrified me – hundreds of bees going in and out of the top cover. Without ever witnessing it before, I knew right away that these bees were robbers, coming from another hive to steal this honey. They had easy access because my bees had vacated the upper supers and weren’t there to defend their honey supply. The robbers were getting in because I had used an inner cover that came with the beekeeping equipment I was given years ago, but had never put to use. It didn’t fit right, apparently, and left a few cracks where robber bees could slide in.

I didn’t have time to wait for Erika. Robbers can devastate a hive very quickly. I suited up, lit the smoker, and started taking the heavy supers off the top. I was worried and really mad, and my adrenaline gave me the strength to lift the boxes with no problem. Robber bees were coming from all over by now and a few thousand swarmed around me, trying to get to the honey. They were eating so fast, and it was disappearing as I watched.

At that point, I had an open hive and all these robbers around. Working quickly, I put an outer cover on the ground, upside down, and an empty super on it. A triangle escape board went on top of that, upside down so that any bees in the empty super could go out but couldn’t get in. I put a full super box on the ground next to the empty box and frame by frame, cleared the robber bees off and put each frame in the empty box. I kept going with more boxes stacked under the triangle board.

I cleared the robber bees off each frame by smoking them heavily. I used only pine shavings in the smoker, so they burned fast but produced heavy, thick warm smoke. The bees hated the smoke. I had to work fast because they were determined to get as much honey as they could and they did their best to fly into the empty super each time I slid back the triangle board and added a new frame.

Erika arrived, and we continued the work of smoking the bees off each frame and adding the frame to the super under the triangle board. When they were all done, we realized there was no way we could bring the honey supers into the house for extraction as long as the robber bees were still flying all around us. I would have to let the supers sit out, protected by the triangle board, until dark when the bees stopped flying.

I did get the supers in that night and started extracting honey the next day. The robber bees came back the next day, and stayed for the week until they all died. They took up residence in our garage, where they flew around and sometimes clustered on the windows. I felt badly about the mass die-off but there wasn’t anything I could do about it. They came from another hive, had no queen with them, and they didn’t go back home on their own. I couldn’t save them.

I took no photos of the robbing situation because I was working too fast to stop and document it. It was certainly one of the more memorable beekeeping experiences I have had and I learned a lot in the process. One thing I wondered about was the effect of all the heavy smoke on the honey harvest. Would my honey taste smoky? All of it that I bottled tastes like sweet honey, and the small amount that sat in the wax cappings overnight after I extracted did take on a flavor that I am assuming is from the smoke on the cappings. That honey has a delicious earthy, savory taste and I can’t wait to use it. I’m not selling or sharing that small batch of honey – it’s too good to let go!

I’ll be selling the honey this fall, so look for a link on this blog soon.

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Jeff smokes the bees before lifting the honey super off the hive.

 

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Climate March 2014

Our family went to New York yesterday to join 400,000 other activists at the People’s Climate March. We wanted to show our children what it was like to take part in a substantial social action movement. At home we learn about social change and we sign petitions; we show up at small demonstrations and talk about ways of making a difference. This march in New York was bigger than anything we had ever witnessed as a family.

With this significant social action experience under their belts, ‘A’ and ‘H’ are now learning about the UN Climate Summit that takes place on Tuesday 9/23; the importance of the big players who attended the march (UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Al Gore and Bill McKibben); and the different ways people are making change, as well as how our family can play a role in climate justice solutions.

My girls are 7 and 9 years old. I have always wrestled with how much to tell them about climate change and how to say it. Years ago when they were very young, I read that it’s important to foster a love for nature before introducing too much information about how we are hurting it. That made sense. I have made space in our family life for ‘A’ and ‘H’ to develop an appreciation for our earth. Over the past year I have told them quite a bit about the human impact on the environment in a factual and simple way. Now I am at the point where I’m opening up the discussion and sharing real-time information that helps to move the discussion along. We need real answers about what we can do to make a difference, and stories about other people who are doing the same.

When I talk about making a difference, I don’t mean that I want to know more about things my family can do at home. We know about that stuff. Turn off lights, switch lightbulbs to LED bulbs, stop driving so much, turn the heat down. Got it. I will even add my own points to the list: stop eating factory farmed meat, GMOs and food grown using chemical pesticides and fertilizers. It bothers me when I see so many educator resources that focus on the few things kids can actually do at home. They usually have a PDF coloring sheet of a honeybee or an activity such as planting a seed to go along with the lesson. Those kinds of lessons don’t help. Children know that their small effort to turn off the lights when they leave the room isn’t making a dent in the issue of global climate change because if it was, wouldn’t the problem be solved by now? Residential energy waste and emissions accounts for a small part of the climate change problem. Real change will happen when our government enacts laws that will change the way energy is produced, and when we reduce the amount of waste and garbage we create. I’m not talking about families turning the thermostat down a degree, bringing canvas shopping bags to the store, or recycling plastic toys. That’s good practice, but we need corporations to get on board and dramatically change the way business is done.

Here are a few good places to start:

our family at the climate march

 

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Waking up, coming back

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It really stunk when Coco died two months ago. It was all YUCK, every way I looked at it. She was only a year old and was turning out to be a really great cat. Before her injury, I said to Jeff, “She’s becoming the perfect cat – I’ve never had a cat like her. She is so affectionate, she comes in at night or when she’s called, and she’s learning how to be gentle to the house when she’s inside.” I felt horrible saying that aloud, because I didn’t want to offend Grace, who is also an awesome cat. But Coco was different. She was a great cat.

It hurt to lose her. And the way she went – was she hit by a car? All signs point to yes, but we’ll never know for sure. Here’s something freaky to think about – a week after she died (at the end she died of heart failure, if you want to get clinical about it), her litter mate, who has been living at a different place died of heart failure. He was totally healthy until the day he got sick and died. Crazy, right? That just adds to the yuckiness. Back to the car theory: we live on a busy road. Our home is in a small village and the speed limit is 35 mph, but still, it’s a busy road. When we moved here the neighbors said they don’t let their cats out anymore because too many have been hit on the road. I knew it was a possibility, but I’m such a purist when it comes to my animals that I took the chance. I talked about it with the girls – Coco is going out, I would say. She might get hit and killed on the road. We need to understand the risks.

And so she did, and she is gone. And it was all YUCK for a while as I picked up the pieces. I am still sad when I think about it.

I didn’t appreciate dealing with the unpleasant unexpectedness of her death, so I spent the summer trying to gain some control over my life. I like things to be planned out and certain, so after she died I focused on the things I could be sure of. Closets have been cleaned. School curriculum has been selected and mapped out for the year. Halloween costumes were ordered and now hang in the closet. The boiler was cleaned. It sounds crazy, but those tasks kept me on track. On the periphery I dealt with the things that are uncertain and in constant flux – the garden, the chickens, the bees. I usually embrace them but this summer I couldn’t because I needed to find my footing first.

The garden was planted but not tended as well as it should have been. So many tomato volunteers came up this year where last summer’s ripe tomatoes, full of seeds, fell. They took over the lettuce and swiss chard beds. They grew up on the pathways. I didn’t have the heart to pull them – I had experienced too much loss already. Those tomatoes looked like they needed a chance. So now my garden is full of tomato plants that seem to grow wherever they choose.

The chickens have been tended but not fawned over, not by me anyway. ‘A’ always takes her time to be with them. We started the summer with 9 hens and a number of pullets and roosters. Most of the roosters, along with Peg, our injured chick, and Carrie, our mean hen, went to a better life. Carrie is living on a farm with other hens, and the roosters and Peg were processed for dinner. We now have 8 hens, 10 pullets and 2 little bantam roosters. The chicks all have names now, except for the two that are headed off to live with a friend once they start laying eggs. There are 10 that we’ll keep, and their names are: Fred and George (our silkie roosters who look exactly alike, and have white feathers), Hedwig, Narcissa, Sunshine, Mrs. Crouch, Eliza Jane, Alice, Aunt Docia, and the last has four names, one of which will eventually stick – Buffy, Mocha, Annie, and Ellie.

I make it sound so depressing here. It’s really not like that. These are just my feelings, and for the most part they stay where they belong (until I’m talking to Jeff about them as he drifts off to sleep…). This summer has been filled with activity for our family. The girls went to stay with my mother in July (on the Cape), and they enjoyed attending theater camp there. They also loved swimming every day and liked eating dessert every night after dinner (thanks Mom). It was so nice for me to have a week on my own while they were away. The girls were safe and were having fun; Jeff was at work. I had a chance to live life on my own terms. To linger. To breathe. To be me again. I brought them there and Jeff and I picked them up at the end of the visit. We went kayaking as a family, and did some light hiking too.

We went to visit my dad in Maine and the girls experienced the Atlantic surf as never before. The tide goes way, way out each day and when it does, the small waves roll in. It was perfect for children. No undertow, no steep drop-off. Just wave after wave of fun.

This is the year of babies in our family – we have a new niece and soon we’ll have a new nephew. Babies are sure a ton of work (and a ton of adjustment) but they bring such goodness to the world, and it’s worth every moment of effort.

The land around us continues to produce an amazing bounty. I harvested and braided garlic from our garden, picked blueberries from the farm down the street, and I cook up sweet corn, green beans, tomatoes and cucumbers on an almost daily basis. Herbs are all in now. I haven’t even mentioned my herbal medicine class. That will wait for another day.

It is time now for me to get back in the saddle. When Coco died, the rug was ripped out from under me, and I’ve spent a number of weeks getting my bearings. I’m okay. I’ve been reading and knitting. I’ve been parenting with a gentle heart. I’ve been crafting and homesteading. I’ve been healing in the way I know how to heal when I feel vulnerable – by reining it all in as tightly as I can. I feel better now. It’s time for me to live life in the way I know how – by writing and documenting my time, by observing my children at work and play, by creating something new every day, by laughing with friends, and by showing love to my family.

It’s the ups and downs that make life what it is… but those ups and downs are tough to get through. I’m looking ahead.

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