Saturday, December 4, 2010

The People's House

The People’s House

You know how political parties like to raise money by sending emails offering you a chance to meet, say, Nancy Pelosi (if you’re a Democrat)? You merely have to donate $5, be entered in a raffle (along with 79,000,000 other people) to win one of two places at a reception for 500. I thought it was one of those emails and ignored it
Three days later, I got an engraved invitation in the mail, stating that the First Lady requested the pleasure of my company at a Holiday Open House at the White House.
This, the first holiday party of the season, was for volunteers. As a volunteer for Organizing for America, the issue-driven arm of the Obama campaign, mine was one of the names submitted by Vermont’s OFA coordinator. Two names from VT OFA were chosen, mine and that of another woman from Warren, VT.

When the engraved invitation came, I told my husband I could never go, being so busy and frugal. What business did I have in DC?

He wondered just how many times I thought I would be invited again TO THE WHITE HOUSE?

I smartened up, made reservations and jumped onto Amtrak. As luck would have it, the innkeeper where I was staying was also attending the party. She works in the Correspondence Office, sorting, answering and cataloguing mail. There are over a hundred volunteers handling the bags of letters that arrive daily.

It is a heart stopping moment to walk into the beautifully decorated foyer and have an officer in impeccable dress uniform say, ”Welcome to the White House”. I had to fight back tears.

There are places on earth where you can feel the presence of generations of devotion. Often they are places of worship: I’ve experienced it in churches and kivas, but this was different. This was dedication to an ideal of equality, and democracy. It was palpable walking in the door, as we checked our coats, signed holiday cards for soldiers stationed overseas, and were ushered into the party.

It is the Obamas’ mission to make this the most accessible White House in history, truly the People’s House.

There were about 500 people there-- of all races, creeds and persuasions, from every state, all having a wonderful time, taking each other’s photos, chatting up the elegant service men and women, listening to great music, eating amazing food.There were the first timers, Obama fans like me, and there were volunteers who’d seen Presidents come and go for decades.

I learned that people take vacation time to come decorate the White House for the holidays; some from across the country. One man I talked to had been coming to decorate for 30 years. He was quick to point out that he wasn’t an artist; he just climbed the ladder and positioned ornaments as directed.

The volunteers in the Correspondence Office answer the incoming mail. The favorites are from children. One little boy wrote an illustrated letter explaining how to contain the Gulf oil spill. Just pour 5 tons of superglue into the well, that would seal it. He drew a dead fish at the bottom of the page.
I met and compared notes with OFA volunteers from all over the country. I traded stories with a Texas volunteer about snowstorms and sandstorms. I now think the latter are far worse.
We got to enter rooms normally roped off during White House tours. The Blue Room, the Vermeil Room, the Red Room were all gorgeously decorated.

I found the portraits of the First Ladies more revealing than many of the Presidents’. Pat Nixon’s was wistful, quite sad. Jackie Kennedy seemed very elegant and isolated. Mamie Eisenhower was girlish, charming. Hillary Clinton was energetic and apple cheeked in a pants suit. Eleanor Roosevelt’s was the only one with multiple studies, which depicted her as the tireless worker for human dignity that she was.

The traditional gingerbread house this year was a replica of the White House frosted with white chocolate. There was even an outsize statue of Bo, the dog, and a model of the White House vegetable garden, including the bee hive.

In the crush to see and photograph Mrs. Obama, I took numerous pictures of the backs of people's heads before I finally could get a good photo of her. I did get to shake her hand and tell her that we love her in Vermont. She replied that she had to get there (well yes, she does: VT is the first state that went for Obama in 2008).

As Congress reconvenes, I wish our leaders the commitment to service, the impeccability and cooperation so evident at the White House. And I wish every American the good fortune to visit the People’s House.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Canning with my mother's ghost

Canning with my Mother’s Ghost by Stephanie Greene

The garden has been producing at such a pace that I have been canning and drying food for weeks. I figure that if Mother Nature can serve up all this bounty, the least I can do is use it.

I’ve put up jams, chutneys, relishes, diced tomatoes, and enchilada sauces. I’ve dried shallots, peaches, apples and tomatoes.

It all makes me think of my mother, Janet Greene, who wrote Putting Food By with Ruth Hertzberg and Beatrice Vaughan). She often had me chopping rhubarb for rhubarb ginger jam or stirring a vat of boiling peaches on some sweltering day when I’d have much preferred bobbing in the West River with my friends.

My mother loved murder mysteries and she loved to cook, so food preservation, with its botulistic edge of danger, united these two enthusiasms rather elegantly. She would often expound on the crafty Botulinum bacterium which lives in soil. Its spores are extremely hard to kill--merely boiling water won’t do it. Plus, they thrive in an absence of air, and in moist environments.

This was an enemy worthy of respect.

When she was working on the book, which went into four editions, we would race down to the PO and pick up her copy of the MMWR, The Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, published by the Centers for Disease Control out of Emory University. Once home, it was read out loud. All too often there would be an account of some housewife who’d reused old mayonnaise jars (or worse, their grungy lids) to preserve tomatoes and had killed off her entire family.

This would get her going on the litany of bad practices it was her duty to scold people out of. Tepid boiling water baths, haphazard time keeping, slapdash sterilization could all send you to an early grave.

It was when I embarked on canning diced tomatoes that I really began rereading my mother’s book in earnest. I recalled her lectures about the dangers of low acid tomatoes, since acid and salt can kill bacteria unfazed by heat alone. For once, I followed her directions carefully. I even got up one morning and redid some roasted green tomato jam with more vinegar, more salt, more heat.

Nobody else could get such a bang out of a pickle, or make canning so exciting. After all, unlike reading Elmore Leonard, the next corpse could be yours.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Campaign 2010

Primary season here is slowly heating up. We have five good candidates for the Democratic gubernatorial ticket.The primary vote has been shifted two weeks earlier to August 24, to make it easier to get all the absentee ballots returned and counted in time for the ballots to be printed for the general election November 2.

It’s an awkward transition between utilizing the traditional and the new communication technologies. Candidates for Governor all have web sites, and all tout the importance of getting high speed internet into the state. But there the similarities end.

I ran a voter registration and info table last night at Gallery Walk in Brattleboro. It’s a monthly downtown party, basically, in which a couple thousand people stroll the streets, look in on exhibitions set up in stores, which stay late. There are lots of vendors around. It’s fun; people seem to have a good time. A week before, I contacted all the candidates for Governor, and for the contested state senate seats in Windham County. The difference in the way candidates responded was very telling.

Doug Racine sent out material right away-- an appropriate amount of small pamphlets and bumper stickers to share space on a double card table. Peter Shumlin called me back, and arranged for me to get in touch with his daughter, who would get me the materials. I never heard from either Deb Markowitz or Susan Bartlett. Dunne had three email addresses on his contact page, each one promising a faster response. I wrote to all three, but got no material.

The day of the event, I was on a conference call and thought I’d regale my listeners with the results of my requests. I must have laid it on a little thick about Mr. Cyber Space, because about 20 minutes after hanging up, I got an email from Dunne’s campaign, saying they were sorry to have missed my email[s]. One of the conference callers happened to volunteer for Dunne, and she’d emailed him right away. I was a little chagrined, and called the cell phone listed in the Dunne campaign manager’s email. I told him where my table would be.

Later, when I was hurriedly getting dressed, the guy called again for the name of the store. I told him, and explained where it was.

When I arrived in town, I delivered a chocolate zucchini cake to the new Democratic Headquarters for their opening, met someone for tea, and set up the table at about five. Another volunteer showed up, and we shamelessly pressed mini chocolate cupcakes on passers-by, whom we then chatted up, registered voters, and had a good time.

No Matt Dunne campaign lit showed up. Finally a volunteer went over to the Dem HQ and picked up a handful of leaflets. I did spot some young guy strolling down the street with a Dunne pin on, talking on a cell phone. Whether he was actually part of the org, I have no idea.

I collared someone passing out Deb Markowitz stickers and asked him if he had any leaflets for our table. All he had was stickers. He made it sound like they had decided not to print them! Voters would get the info they need from the Internet....

This seems to me very optimistic. Very. Perhaps Internet info will be the norm in 2012, but right now, I don’t see people taking it on themselves to research candidates. We’re all used to candidates coming to the voters, even those of us who consider ourselves well informed.

It’s also hard to compare candidates, unless you go to debates--or forums, which candidates seem to prefer, big surprise. What happened to the League of Women Voters? Their website,, provides the dates of VT’s primary (AUGUST 24, people!) there’s no comparison of the candidates, what they stand for or have accomplished. VPR did interview the candidates individually and has those interviews cached @

My conclusion is that technology hasn’t necessarily made research easier. There’s loads of info out there, much of it bogus, or useless (like Matt Dunne’s three unanswered email addresses on his website. You still have to plug away, think critically, bird dog people to get at reality. Technology does not make people more communicative, although it may “connect” us.

As far as politics goes, face-to-face rules. You pick up signals of sincerity or dissembling, entitlement or humility. Going door to door is hard work, it’s humbling. So is just showing up. Voters get that. If someone is willing to do that, he or she may actually serve constituents.

To finish off the Matt Dunne story, I sent a searing email to the latest address I had, and then got an abject apology via phone from one of his campaign people. Good luck to them all. We’re all trying to figure this out.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010



End of July in the garden-- every day brings new evidence of the earth’s generosity. I am so touched that plants and soil respond to what I do there-- the mulch, the half-baked weeding. Snow peas are yielding enough every day for delicious cocktail hour crudites. French radishes are coming in, and the purple beans will join them soon. Even the cantaloups, which huddled in their layer of leaf mold for weeks, looking stunned to find themselves in a New England mountain garden, have taken off. The tomatoes are growing (though not yet red), the cucumbers are responding to my efforts to train them up trellises, and the fennel is feathering out, gorgeously. Red currants are ready to pick.

What could be better than to go out into the garden barefoot and come back with most of dinner in your arms? I am awed every time it happens. It seems to be a collaboration after all between nature and bumbling Yours Truly.

But it’s the zucchini which push everything over the top.

I used to be unable to grow it, which puts me in a smallish club, I guess. Our last house was built on clay, in the shade. The zucchini would have just enough nutrients to leaf out, but it was our secret that I still had to slip over to farmers’ markets for the vegetables themselves.

Zucchini are heavy feeders; here they are flourishing, way too many plants of them, in my failed asparagus bed, triple dug with layers of manure, compost, and everything yummy for plants. Why should I be surprised, let alone resentful?

I have gone from queen of the garden to its slave. No evening meal passes without zucchini in some form: parmesan-crusted oven “fries”, zucchini pickle, the celestial tasting but strange looking slow cooked zucchini, and then zucchini-chocolate cake. To make matters worse, no one is happy to receive zucchini at this time of year. One’s generosity is received with a sigh, as the desperate hand-off it really is.

How quickly the scale tips from joy at all the bounty to feeling overwhelmed at having too much. I have to force myself to welcome the cooking chores my garden demands in return for its bounty. The necessity for canning and drying sessions is much more satisfying than say, meeting tax deadlines, because it is real. Things will rot if you don’t pick them, or spoil on your counter if you don’t do something clever with them.

It is paradise to pick your dinner minutes before cooking it. It feels like hell itself to be in a hot kitchen on a summer day, putting up 30 pints of anything. And yet, that is the small price the garden requires-- respect for your food, ingenuity and skill to transform or preserve it, gratitude.

In closing, a favorite quote from Irma S. Rombauer:

“It is a thrill to possess shelves well stocked with home-canned food. In fact you will find their inspection-- often surreptitious-- and the pleasure of serving the fruits of your labor comparable only to a clear conscience or a very becoming hat.”

----The Joy of Cooking, 1931

PS: If anyone wants a zucchini recipe, I’ll be testing them. Meanwhile, pick them while they’re still small.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

One Greenhouse Problem Solved

One Greenhouse Problem Solved

I know it’s obnoxious to whine about the brevity of our growing season, especially as the earth heats up. But it’s a fact of life up here that May can freeze new leaves on maples so they resemble wilted seaweed and September can bring frost just as you are picking your first marble sized tomatillo. So we are talking three months of more or less crop friendly weather. It’s perfectly true that if I stuck to the plants God meant me to grow, rhubarb and lichen, there would be no problem. However, I’m afraid gardening is about hope and promise, not about sticking to the rules. Even wise gardeners try to grow scrumptious plants from warmer zones in the mad hope that they harbor some wedge of tropical microclimate on their north-faced land.

There is also the issue of seed starting. Some people are consistently solicitous of their seedlings’s needs. They remember to water, they don’t leave the flat outside in the snowplow’s path. Alas, I am not one of those people. I’m very glad there is no DSS patrolling for plant neglect.

Obviously, what we need is a greenhouse. Actually, what we need more is heat in our own east wing, forget the plants. Any loose money will be going toward insulation.

I can’t recall where I read about the solution to these dilemmas, but it’s wonderful: mini greenhouses made from gallon plastic milk jugs.

Use the more translucent, rather than the opaque jug. Cut the jug midway up, around three sides, leaving one side as hinge. Poke some holes in the bottom for drainage. Add potting soil, seeds and water. Re-close the jug, taping the open sides closed with duct tape. This does not have to be a tight seal. Two pieces of tape will suffice. You just want to prevent the seeds from drying out. Leave the plastic lid off the top of the jug. Be sure to label your greenhouse with its contents. Water when you think of it.

Your greenhouse will retain moisture, endure temperature variations with grace, and produce seedlings reliably. When it’s time to harden the seedlings off, pull off the tape and leave the “roof” open, remembering to water more regularly. Transplant into your garden when ready. Gloat quietly. Pictures below.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Love Potion

Love Potion

I have two new hives of bees, one Italian, one Russian. Teachers often recommend having two, so you can compare them, learn more over one season by so doing, and if one hive’s in trouble, use frames from the stronger hive to bail out the weaker.

I’m examining the hives more or less every week as they get established, and I couldn’t help noticing that the Russians are building up really fast. They’ve almost filled one hive body and happily moved into the new one I added last week, and started laying in honey.

In contrast, the Italians didn’t have any capped brood. I couldn’t even see newly laid eggs, evidence that the queen is doing her job. There was uncured honey--cells of uncapped honey that had yet to be evaporated to the correct density to cap and store. There were also lots of bees, but that was sort of it.

Luckily we have a local bee expert, Denny, who agreed to come by with an extra queen and see what was happening in my hive. There is nothing, in my opinion, as useful as looking at your own frames with someone who can tell you what you’re seeing: the queen, excellent; laying workers, terrible.

It was the latter we saw today, in the Italian hive, with no evidence of the former. When I first emailed Denny with my suspicions, he told me to take a frame of open brood from the Russian hive, brush off the bees, and put the naked frame into the Italian hive. The brood would give off a pheromone that would retard the development of laying workers.

Laying workers are, Denny announced, the worst thing that can happen to a hive. Besides, maybe, bears and RAID. When the queen isn’t laying, or has died, workers begin laying unfertilized eggs. Those eggs hatch into drones, boy bees whose only enthusiasms in life are eating and mating with the virgin queen. Since virgin queens are in relatively short supply, that means eating, not putting up honey, or producing more girl bees who do all the work--and that spells death for the hive.

People have been extrapolating from their knowledge of bees for centuries, anthropomorphizing like crazy, using the hive as a metaphor to kiss up to whatever monarchs or political systems happen to be in power. So I will resist belaboring the obvious feminist parallels that may suggest themselves, and leave those to my gentle readers.

Anyway, you do not want laying workers. And once they start, you can’t just introduce some fragrant uncapped brood in the hopes that the workers will desist. Nor can you introduce a new queen, because these laying workers are not going to revert. They’ll kill her, no matter how good she smells.

Denny, bless him, had an idea. It seems that laying workers do not fly very well. We could take the Italian hive off into a field, shake off the bees. The laying workers would not be able to fly back to the hive’s original location (where we’ve helpfully left some empty frames); the regular field bees will beat us back there.

We tried it. I, of course, was suited up. Denny wore a short sleeved shirt, no gloves or veil. He took out a frame, gave its edge a smart smack on the ground, and a thousand shocked and possibly quite angry bees fell onto the grass. I couldn’t help recalling the repeated advice I’d heard just last week at a Bee-a-thon at UMass, about moving slowly and gently, lest you rile the bees and turn your hive into a permanently aggressive sting-fest. I asked him if these bees would ever be calm again. He assured me that wouldn’t be a problem, so I started whacking frames, and brushing off the stragglers with the bee brush. We carried the frames back to the hive and reinserted them, along with a frame of open brood (carefully crushed off) from the Russian hive.

He worried about introducing his queen into this roaring hive. A queenless hive really does roar. He thought he’d bring her back home, do some research, then be back in touch with the next steps. But when he went to his truck, he discovered the queen’s attendants had escaped. He picked them off the side of his truck one by one, (again, fearlessly) put them back in the box holding the queen cage. Then he had another idea.

He took the queen cage in its little box, with its few recaptured attendants, over to the bee dumps, where plenty of bees were flying around. They flew to her like she was a new soft serve stand. When Denny ran his finger over the cage, the bees didn’t cling aggressively to the cage, but climbed up over his finger and down to see her again. This was a very good sign-- they seemed curious, even fascinated. possibly (we hope) falling in love, rather than plotting her demise.

So we introduced the queen cage into the Italian hive, suspending it next to the frame of open brood, the cork stopper still firmly guarding the candy plug the bees will eventually eat through to free the queen.

I go back on July 4th to pry out the cork and allow her by then besotted subjects to get to her. Keep your fingers crossed.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Coming Back to Dodge

When I was growing up in Brattleboro, in early ‘60s, it was very much like other rust belt mill towns-- staid, careful, a little suspicious of anything new. It was made up mostly of people of northern European extraction. There were four churches downtown: Catholic, Methodist, Baptist and Congregational. A few blocks north were the Unitarians and the Episcopalians. Bratt was pretty white, and very buttoned down. If you didn’t get your spaghetti from a can, you were just odd.

Somehow, a few brave newcomers fell in love with the countryside, moved in, and managed to take their neighbors’ world views with an amused grain of salt. The Laines, gifted French chefs, started a lovely little French restaurant out on Putney Road call “Le Chanticlair”. I was about eight, and was once brought out to dinner there by my parents, who enjoyed a long and delicious meal. I tried to stay busy, but finally went outside and wept in frustration and boredom, quite sure that we’d never leave, ever.

The restaurant lasted maybe five years. It was too far ahead of local New England Boiled Dinner taste. Finally the Laines returned to Paris. But maybe their spirit lived on somehow, when the next ambitious restaurant came in, it didn’t meet so much resistance.

Some credit for crowbarring open local minds is due to The Experiment in International Living, founded in 1932 up on Black Mountain Road. It started out as an exchange program, in which students travel to foreign countries and stay with families for three weeks. The cultural and linguistic immersion is invaluable to broadening horizons, and in return the area welcomed more than a few visitors in homestays as well. There was also the influx of cultured tourists coming up for Marlboro Music, the chamber music festival started in 1951 at Marlboro College, bringing artists like Rudolf Serkin and Pablo Casals.

By the mid 1960’s things had begun to change. My junior high art class was taught by one of the best teachers I’ve had in my life, Hugh Corbin, an African American who not only listened to FM radio, scandalous enough to us teeny boppers, but unimaginably, ate raw eggs. His art history classes got me through high school and college courses that were considerably less inspiring. He taught sculpture, allowed a toothy employee from my father’s bookstore to stage a “happening”, (which, honestly, I don’t remember at all, beyond some vague discomfort and resistance on the part of the squirming student body). But Mr. Corbin’s example stayed with me, backward though I probably was: if he could do what he did here, I could attempt a few things wherever I was.

Then I went away to high school and college. When I came back, it was only to pass through. It wasn’t until the end of college and into my adult life (and the temptation to put adult in quotes is almost overwhelming) that I noticed my hometown had become much cooler than I was. I couldn’t come home and regard my roots with the sort of condescending pity one finds in coming of age memoirs--the desks in one’s old school are so tiny, the once immense distances but a block, etc.

Brattleboro was now home to the Free Raoul Wallenberg Committee, well regarded writing groups, scads of massage therapists, even an Indian restaurant!

It continues: we have at least five yoga studios, three books stores, two record stores...well, I’m bragging. At a recent Gallery walk, on a beautiful evening in May, Main street was closed off to traffic. There were singers, belly dancers, circus performers, and from Circus Arts, based in Brattleboro. We had dinner at an authentic Mayan restaurant, Three Stones. It was scrumptious.

Yes, there is crime, and there are drugs. But they are everywhere. At least Bratt has drugs and bookstores; most small towns are not so lucky.

Someday I’ll understand how the diverse population of Brattleboro can work together so well. I don’t dare announce everyone works toward a shared vision. It may be something as basic as working toward visions that are more or less complementary.

I’m just trying to become as cool as my once very un-hip home town.

Monday, May 31, 2010

A Coward's Guide to Beekeeping

A Coward’s Guide to Beekeeping

Some people jump out of planes for excitement, some climb Annapurna. My foray into nerves, high blood pressure and profuse sweating is the gentle art of beekeeping. Usually I dislike the things I fear, but I adore my bees. Nevertheless, it took an enormous surge of willpower to get suited up to visit the bees and make sure last week’s hiving went well.

The idea, as you may recall, is to get the bees out of their package and into the hive, where they fly around getting used to the queen, who dangles in her own cage, nibbling at the candy plug, as the bees outside eat their way in. Presumably, all this eating and smelling her pheromone make for love, and when the plug is consumed, she is welcomed into the hive to lay eggs and found a dynasty.

Things can go wrong, however. If you come back a minute before a week has passed, the hive is likely to blame the disturbance not on you, the nosy giant, but on the new queen, and when she peeks out of her cage, kill her.

Yesterday would have been the day to visit, but I “forgot”, being so taken up with gardening. Today was just as sunny, with less wind, an ideal day to open the hive and see what’s been going on.

With some reluctance, I suited up. Some beekeepers saunter into their bee yards wearing shorts and t shirts. I didn’t have a suit for the first year, and that made me nervous and neglectful. I’d lift the top of the hive, see a writhing mass of bees, say a quick hello, close ‘em up again and sprint home. Needless to say, I didn’t have the faintest idea of what was actually happening in the hive-- was the queen laying properly? Were there queen cells (a sign of an impending swarm)? Were the bees drawing out comb, storing pollen and curing honey? These are all questions a beekeeper should ask and be able to answer.

So I got a suit, and still managed to get stung, through the mesh of the headgear, no less, about 20 times, by bees I had managed to enrage to the point of suicidal vengefulness. When bees sting, their stingers and venom sacs are torn from their bodies. The sacs continue to pump venom into their victim, which is why one should try to pluck them out, if at all possible. That time, I didn’t succeed because my neck and ears were underneath the “protective’ head gear. If I opened it, I would allow the other 200 apoplectic bees access. Puffing smoke around my head to disguise the alarm pheromone emitted by the stinging bees (which signals a Situation to her warlike sisters), would have been a great idea, had my smoker not gone out.

The smoker resembles a coffeepot with a bellows attached, and I have never gotten mine to work reliably. You build the fire in the belly of the pot, the smoke comes out the spout and you aim it at bees you want to calm, or sting sites you want to camouflage. If there is some clever designer out there with a better idea, please don’t hesitate to contact me.

To cut to the chase, the queens are out. I didn’t find them. That’s the next task, a kind of moving Where’s Waldo?, only the queens are inconsiderately not wearing red and white striped t shirts.

What I did find was a lot of burr comb. This is the free-form comb that bees build in the wild (see photo). I had neglected to put back enough frames in the hive to prevent the bees from getting creative. Normally there are ten frames in the hive, leaving just enough bee space for the bees to move between frames but not so much that they can design porches, bridges and other inconvenient architecture.

Last year, I did not immediately clean out the burr comb, out of a combination of ignorance, cowardice and laziness. I thought it was pretty and interesting. Last year’s bees built more of it, hid the queen in it, and I discovered too late she hadn’t been laying eggs at all, she had been so busy decorating. She had to be replaced.

Having learned my lesson, today I cut out the burr comb, replaced all ten of the frames, added a pollen patty (a delicious patty of pollen and honey that stimulates brood production), changed the water in the feeder (bees need fresh water, and had consumed almost a quart over the week), closed up the hive and with a huge sigh of relief, left. A week’s bee effort had been wasted on comb I had to take out. I left it by the hive so they could clean it out. Next week, I’ll bring the cleaned comb home for making lip balm.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The New Bees

The New Bees

Sunday I picked up two packages of bees from Warm Colors Apiary in South Deerfield, Mass. Each “package” consists of a few thousand bees in a wire cage, with the queen in her own special cage, suspended within it, and a can of sugar syrup, at which they’ve sipped for the past few days on their journey from Georgia to Massachusetts.

Although a few bees clung to the outside of the packages as I put them in the back of the car, they didn’t bother the five human passengers, they were so intent on the bees within the cage, or perhaps the queen.

I had the choice of Italian bees, which I’ve always had, and Russian. I chose one package of each.

This will be interesting. Russians are reputed to swarm more easily, but they survive cold weather better. They even need fewer bees to cluster up and keep the queen warm. They may not be as gentle natured as Italians, either. But after the Amazons, my semi-wild hive, they seem pretty tame.

We drove home, and my son’s girlfriend, the good sport, read me the directions as I quickly hived the bees from their cages.

Lacking a mister to spray them down with pacifying sugar water, I poured sugar water on them through the mesh. Then I pried off the lid, and gently pulled out the queen cage. There she was, pacing within it, attended by her Workers In Waiting. Her cage was covered in bees already getting whiffs of her pheromones. I carefully prized out the cork that covered the wad of candy in her doorway, and lowered the queen cage into the hive, hanging it between two frames. Over the next few days, she will be eating the candy from her side, and her soon-to-be-devoted hive mates will eat the candy from the other side. If everything works out, and the workers accept her as their own, she will eventually be freed to roam around the hive laying eggs. The next step required a deep breath-- I just shook the soccer ball sized mass of bees onto the frames after her. They were so intent on getting near the queen and setting up house, they didn’t even mind, let alone try to sting me.

That will undoubtedly change, when they get to know their territory. Not everyone left the wire box, so I just laid in on the ground next to the hive, put on the inner cover, positioned the sugar water feeder over the hole in its top and went on to the other hive.

I’m supposed to leave the hives alone for a few days so the bees will bond with their respective queens, free them and begin the business of the season: laying eggs, rearing young, gathering nectar to cure into honey, thereby pollinating my garden.

Although this spring I’ve noticed a marked uptick in non-honeybee pollinators--there are, for instance, loads of bumblebees around-- I’ve still missed my girls. The farm seemed sort of empty without them. On Monday morning, when I went out to the back porch to water some hanging plants, I saw a honeybee cruising around looking for nectar sources. I was overjoyed.

Images: The bee package (3 times, I don't know why), the hive with the bees happily scampering about, and an empty queen cage, which is what I hope to see when I next look!

Monday, May 10, 2010

The Marshmallow Gene

My mother loved marshmallows. Whether they were Sta-Puffed or those nearly florescent little chickens you find at Easter, she adored them all. She also considered herself a private person, but she loved kid parties. I don’t know why; it was not a trait you’d expect in an exacting editor who relished crosswords and murder mysteries.

But I think her enthusiasm was real. She often encouraged me to have friends over to make things. Out would come cigar boxes, macaroni, flour paste and gold spray paint. Two messy, busy hours later, my friends and I had produced hideously garish jewelry boxes to present to our mothers. Or it would be earrings, dollhouses, or Barbie ensembles.

This was more than just child energy containment policy. The projects often invited chaos. Group baking from Betty Crocker’s Cookbook for Boys and Girls was in itself a recipe for a mess, even if it resulted in jelly rolls, cookies, half sunken cakes, and more to the point, batter. She was un-phased by any of it, despite the fact she worked at home.

Moreover, I was allowed to have sleepovers with friends quite regularly, and at least twice in junior high, for my birthday, a crowd of girls slept over with me in our barn. At that point in the year, it was usually about half full of baled and loose hay. These sleepovers included an astounding amount of food, 3 AM volleyball games, jumping in hay and hardly any sleep. My parents made it through the night by each taking a sleeping pill. They slept soundly as we laughed, ate, played and of course, screamed. My parents’ sainthood didn’t really shine until the next morning when they drove a carload of overtired, queasy girls full of clam dip, potato chips and donuts down winding country roads to their homes.

On one later occasion, when I was out of high school and was having some friends over, Mother escaped whatever editing work she had to do and enthusiastically went tearing out for supplies. She came back, glowing, having purchased the makings for s’mores: two large bags of marshmallows, chocolate bars and graham crackers that could accommodate 30 half-starved people. I had invited five.

This was her recipe for welcome: you buy the most wonderful food you can think of, and lots of it. Kids were easy. If only adults could be entertained with volleyball, kittens and oreos.

The high school prom was this weekend. It entailed my usual parental nagging duties: Did you remember to get tickets? A corsage? Rent shoes with the tux (sequined covered Converse sneakers are cool, but the regular ones don’t make it with black tie)? Make dinner reservations? Include a photo opp for the parents?

Then the request was slid in there: could he have a few friends over afterwards?

“How many?” I asked, eyes narrowed.

“Oh, maybe seven.”

“Sure,” I said, preferring to have kids under my benevolent but watchful thumb. I knew it would be something of a hard sell for my husband, though. He’s a quiet guy, and predictably, groaned when I ran it by him. When he was in high school, he wasn’t attending proms, he was reading Schopenhauer. Why would anyone want to go to a prom?

These are not questions I can answer. What I can and did do was make a grocery list. I considered and ruled out s’mores, because we now have a wood stove, not an open fireplace. While its front opens, it is messy and dangerous. I pictured sleeping bags glued together with liquid marshmallow and ashes, or worse, igniting. I did buy soda, though without caffeine, tortilla chips and cheddar for nachos, I made molasses coconut cookies from Old Sturbridge Village (all right, because I wanted them), put out pretzels, and got two dozen eggs for breakfast the next morning. My son got some air in the car’s front tire and bought potato chips. I vacuumed and put stuff away.

While I did not put out bowls of candy or s’more makings, I also did not put out carrot and celery sticks. This gathering was supposed to be fun, after all.

His date arrived, looking stunning. Her mother and I took pictures. Two more people called and asked if they could come over after. I said sure. They left. We had a quiet dinner and went upstairs.

I didn’t hear the kids come in, but went downstairs later and found all of them scrunched up on our couch watching My Cousin Vinny, armed with my son’s special Mexican-inspired hot chocolate.

I don’t know how I measure up to my mother’s surprising sense of fun. But in double checking the tricky spelling of s’mores, on the internet, I did come across a recipe for S’more Brownies.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Mexico photos!

I don't know how to add photos to an existing post, so I thought I'd just post them here.
Beginning from the lower left, the first is that spectacular Olmec head from the Anthropology Museum. Then, also at the Anthropology Museum is the burial finery of Pakal The Great, Maya King buried at Palenque. Next is my favorite structure at Palenque, the Temple of the Foliated Cross. The altar is in a home in Zinacanton, a modern indigenous village outside San Cristobal, where the main industry is raising flowers. Finally, one of the courtyards of the Na Balom guest house in San Cristobal, founded by anthropologist Frans Blom and his photographer wife, Trudy.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Geothermal Heating

Over the weekend I went to a workshop on geothermal heating. Walking in, I was probably the most ignorant of the attendees, and so provided the leaders with a service of what it’s like to deal with absolute zero. But an enthusiastic AZ. IN Vermont, the biggest contributors to CO2 are driving cars and home heating with fossil fuel.

There were about 70 people in attendance, from all over southern Vermont; a third were contractors. The rest of us were home owners looking to get educated.

First, there is a distinction to be made from geothermal energy, which taps geothermal reservoirs, harvesting the steam generated therein for heat and electricity. Think of those lucky Icelanders swimming in outdoor thermal pools in mid-February. These reservoirs are generally near tectonic plates. There are some in the west, lots offshore along the east coasts of the Americas and west coasts of Europe and Africa. It’s expensive to tap.

Geothermal heat can be had from the relatively cool (but not frozen) ground as well. Even in New England, the technology has advanced enough to extract heat from either ground water at 50 degrees or from air at 0 degrees F, or with the newest variable speed pumps, even less.

Basically, (and I mean, really basic, here) in water-to-air transfers, you are sucking the heat out of water that is fifty degrees, by running it through a compressor like the one in your fridge (only in reverse, right?). This removes 10 degrees of heat per pound from the water. That heat is then pumped into your house, now toasty. My brain had to stretch around the idea of extracting heat from something that is, frankly, cool. But it can be done.

This on ground source heat pumps from good old Wikipedia:

Like a refrigerator or air conditioner, these systems use a heat pump to force the transfer of heat. Heat pumps can transfer heat from a cool space to a warm space, against the natural direction of flow, or they can enhance the natural flow of heat from a warm area to a cool one. The core of the heat pump is a loop of refrigerant pumped through a vapor-compression refrigeration cycle that moves heat. Heat pumps are always more efficient at heating than pure electric heaters, even when extracting heat from cold winter air. But unlike an air-source heat pump, which transfers heat to or from the outside air, a ground source heat pump exchanges heat with the ground. This is much more energy-efficient because underground temperatures are more stable than air temperatures through the year. Seasonal variations drop off with depth and disappear below seven meters due to thermal inertia.[2] Like a cave, the shallow ground temperature is warmer than the air above during the winter and cooler than the air in the summer. A ground source heat pump extracts ground heat in the winter (for heating) and transfers heat back into the ground in the summer (for cooling). Some systems are designed to operate in one mode only, heating or cooling, depending on climate.

The most important thing, Harold Rist, the presenter on water-to-air transfers, said, was to get a system designed for the north. Too many people don’t go deep enough and then resort to using hyper-poisonous dry gas to thaw out the slush running through their systems. That or they have to use bigger compressors that are more expensive to run.

Then there is air-to air transfer, which is particularly well suited to heating a few rooms. You basically have the air source heat pump, working much like that refrigerator, only backwards, to extract heat from cold air and pump it into your house. The unit is the size of a suitcase, can be set up right outside the rooms in question, as long as it’s a bit protected from ice-build-up so the fan can work properly. You have a fan unit on the inside that looks like a two foot baseboard heater, mounted on the wall.

Both of these technologies are highly environmentally friendly. They currently enjoy federal tax rebates, so you can install a system for (in the one instance we were given) around $7000.

The downside, in my view, is the reliance on electricity to run your pumps, an iffy proposition in my neighborhood. The power doesn’t tend to go out when it’s sunny and warm. So maybe a hybrid system, with a wood stove backup, is the answer.

The first thing I have to do is getting something blown into our walls, whose insulation has settled about six inches off the ground. No point in heating the great outdoors.

Now that you have eaten your spinach and you understand geothermal heating (sort of) I’ll try to upload the Frida and Na Balom pictures.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Getting Away

Getting Away

Travel is an exercise in controlled change. You research, plan and spring for tickets, get your shots, bleed your bank account and go. You choose, to the best of your ability, the settings, food, experiences, then rush off and enjoy them. Fiestas and new friends are welcome additions to the mix; mudslides and kidnappings are not. Travelers, of course, vary in their ability to tolerate novel experience. Some throw a fit if their soap isn’t wrapped; some don’t think they have really traveled unless they have lived with the natives. I fall somewhere between these poles.

I just had nine glorious days Mexico with my younger son. We spent most of our time in the state of Chiapas, visiting Maya ruins, many of them deserted 600 years ago; then we ended up in Mexico City, one of the largest (and reputedly among the the most polluted) cities in the world.

I worried about everything before we left. Would we get kidnapped in a taxi? Would we contract malaria, miss our connections, get lost? Would I lose our passports, tickets, and generally prove myself to be an incompetent duffer? How about all of the above?

Everywhere the people were gracious, courteous, relaxed, and amazingly patient with my Spanish. You catch someone’s eye on the street and he says buenos tardes, good afternoon, even in the city!

Here is what the Mexicans are great at:

  1. Manners, see above.
  2. Appreciating, guarding and showing off their amazing indigenous cultures. The National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City is beautifully done, with the ancient cultures each having a room on the ground floor and their descendants on the floor directly above.

2a. Palenque, too, was astonishing. Coming upon it, in the middle of the 90 degree jungle, is like stumbling upon the Acropolis. I was not prepared for its beauty. Yaxchilan and Bonampak were both lovely as well, outstanding for their stellae and brilliant murals, respectively.

  1. The plants! Coming from the land of maples, rhubarb and lichen, it was amazing to arrive in mango season (also banana, guava, orange, lemon and lime trees were loaded down with fruit. Sitting under a huge tree in Yaxchilan, I looked up and saw bromeliads, giant philodendrons, and orchids hanging off its branches. In fact ,you could have filled a florist shop with all the stuff growing on that one tree.
  2. The colors. Many of the houses we saw in Chiapas were simple cinderblock affairs, but they were painted wonderful, exuberant colors. Looking down the street in San Cristobal was a delight for the eye.
  3. The food, of course was wonderful. Great breads, great moles, ultra fresh fruit and vegetables were all a treat. What Mexicans can do with caramel alone (cajeta!) is mind-bending.
  4. Las Artesanias--I loved the native crafts, the embroidery everyone seemed to be doing, the crockery, the tinwork, leatherwork, weaving, and wooden masks were all terrific.
  5. Bus travel-- Mexican bus stations are fun, colorful, clean and busy. This is he way Mexicans seem to travel. We took a six hour trip from Tuxtla Gutierrez to Palenque. The first class buses are very comfortable, have movies and people coming on board to sell drinks and snacks at many of the stops. The only downside on our trip was a terrible movie (in Spanish only-- maybe I missed some of the subtlety) called Hellboy featuring a lot of really ugly droids and a blonde nogoodnik brother and sister who were chasing after magical doodads. Endlessly.

I was really glad not to be driving those perilous switchbacks. Maybe that’s why they have movies, so you won’t be tempted to look down.

We had a blast. We came home to cool temps, buds barely inching along, and two members of the extended family having been in the hospital. None of these changes could I control.

Photos coming!

Monday, April 12, 2010

Bee Post-mortem

It starts with February Fretting. This is when I start worrying in earnest about the winter survival of my bees. I scan the weather predictions obsessively, check the thermometer for the magic number, 55 degrees, at which you can safely open the hive and not chill the bees. They need their pollen patties, which provide the hive with much needed protein to jumpstart the queen's laying.

On a balmy day in early March, I was looking around for the cordless drill. I planned to take off the screwed in lath that held the insulation on our beehives. Once that came off, I could take off the top hive body, which only held the syrup jars, and give the girls the pollen patties right on top of their frames.

I made my way gingerly through the pass we cut in the snow to the shop. I looked over at the garage that held the wood splitter and heard-- I was quite sure of this--a bee buzzing.

My heart leapt. It could be one of the hive bees. After almost five feet of snow in late February, they could be, against all odds, alive.

I found the drill, rushed out the the chain-link enclosure, dug open the door, tromped in and beheld two hive almost buried in snow. That's a bad sign, because usually, even if I haven’t shoveled around the hives, they are warm enough to have melted off some of the snow around them. Also, there were no bees in evidence crawling around the entrance. I knocked on each hive. Usually a few guard bees will come out in all but the worst weather to check out the visitor. Nothing.

Even when I went out yesterday to perform the bee post-mortem, I still harbored a tiny bit of hope that I’d been wrong, and would find a few bees doing their merry circle dance in front of their respective entrances. But the only living inhabitants were two portly mice, who waddled away when I opened up the Amazons’ hive.

What went wrong? I was afraid it was mites that had weakened and killed off the hive. There was a strange pollen like residue on some of the bees’ bodies. There also didn’t seem to be many bees.

There was a lot of honey left, which sadly, does not preclude the bees starving. It’s all a matter of how far they can move out of their cluster to feed.They have to maintain the queen at 90 degrees, so form a basketball sized cluster, which they keep warm by flexing their wings in a kind of shiver. Bees are constantly rotating from the warm inside of the cluster to the more frigid outside, and back again. Sometimes, though, with honey just inches beyond the bees’ reach, they die.

There were several small clusters of bees, heads thrust in cells, and a few bees on those bees’ backs-- for warmth? This is the saddest sight, that these charming, assiduous creatures starve/freeze so near to their stores.

A lot of people lost hives this year, many of them better, more experienced beekeepers than I. The only thing I can do is to keep trying, avail myself of the collective wisdom of bee associations, suit up and go stick my nose in bee business more often so that I can trouble shoot a little better. I’m going to a Q&A session Wednesday to see if I can find out what went wrong.

And back in December, I ordered two packages of bees, with queens, just in case.

Images: the top image with the red is where mice have eaten the wax and honey, and added little bits of leaves for a nest.

The one in the middle is a top-down view of a frames, onto which I had poured some sugar as a desperate hold-over for the bees. Then the one on right-- bees head-down in the cells, with mold, since they've been dead awhile. I've have prettier images next time!