January 19, 2020

The chill is back but the fire is warm

The weather forecast for yesterday started out with a predicted one to three inches of snow followed by a wintry mix. What we got was about, maybe, an inch of sleet. Snow or sleet, the end result was the same. Nothing much was accomplished here on the hillside unless you consider drinking coffee a viable use of time. 

This morning brings the promise of a bit of sunshine. I was awake early, reading a piece of fluff on the Kindle. Sitting quietly beside the window with a cup of coffee and a book is my favorite way to be one with the coming day. It gets me started by instilling calmness. 

I've been waiting for a day like today for several weeks. Having a wooded lot, there is always a brush pile that needs to be burned. Burning requires careful consideration. Weather and available time need to coincide. I need to 1) be home for the day, 2) the brush pile to be of sufficient size to burn quickly and hot, 3) it must be raining or the ground must be covered by snow or sleet, and 4) there must be minimal wind. 

Burning is never a chore. There's something primitive and pleasing to sit near a hot fire when the air and ground are cold. A dancing wood fire is fascinating to watch. We get a lot of enjoyment sitting by the woodstove, too, as ours has a glass panel. It's a simple pleasure. 

* * *

Rural living is often governed by the weather. Burning the brush pile didn't happen today. Once I went outside, I determined there was just too strong a wind blowing. For the sake of safety, and not burning down my house, I decided to put it off until another day. And that day will come soon enough. 

The Lady of the Manor

January 15, 2020

Fire starter

My grandfather was born in 1910. He lived through the Great Depression and hard times. While he never pontificated the "waste not, want not" principle, he taught it by example. 

Never purchase anything you can make yourself.
Never pay someone else to do what you can do yourself. 
Never throw away good lumber, even if used. 
Never buy a new car if the old one can be repaired.
The land will provide if you work it right. 

Pop practiced re-purposing before it became fashionable. He constantly came home from his day job with items his co-workers thought were useless. Old tires protected young trees or served as planters for flowers my grandmother called invasive, like catnip. Old window frames became cold frames for early planting. Sawdust mixed with old oil worked like a charm for starting a fire. 

Times have changed. Using old oil and sawdust to start a fire in my woodstove - um, just say no. Melting down old, used candles and mixing with sawdust or wood chips to start a fire in the woodstove? Heck, yeah. That works. 

It's simple. Have your friends and family save old candles for you. Color and scent don't matter. Once you have a bag of them, go to the pet section at the department store of your choice and get a bag of cedar shavings (bedding for hamsters and such). 

You'll need a sturdy frame/box. Mine is approximately 12x24 inches with a removal middle insert. Line the sections with heavy-duty aluminum foil. Fill the sections with the cedar shavings. 

Toss a few of the old, used candles in a pitcher (or pan) and heat until melted. Once melted, carefully pour the HOT WAX very sparingly over the cedar shavings. Using an old wooden spoon you'll never cook with again, stir the shavings until coated with wax. Add more HOT WAX if necessary and then use the spoon to pat down firmly. You want to compress the shaving in the wax. 

Allow to set up until completely cool on the bottom. Lift the sections from the tray and store in a dry location. 

The starter block should have a layer of paraffin on the bottom which holds it together and a looser layer of cedar shavings on top. If you can't easily break off a section with just your hands, use less wax next time. You want to hold the shavings together and yet leave them loose enough to catch fire quickly. 

To use the starter, break off a SMALL section, place on a dry log in the woodstove, and light. Do not put the starter down on bare metal. The starter will burn cleanly. Think about it. When you burn a candle, what happens to the paraffin? It burns cleanly. The starter should peel right off the foil, leaving the foil for re-use or recycling. 

If you've ever struggled to get the fire in your woodstove or outdoor fireplace burning, the homemade starter might be the answer. And you'll use up all those old candles. Bag up a few pieces of starter and give back to your friends with fireplaces. Tell them they can have their candles back. Sort of.

The Lady of Holly Tree Manor

January 12, 2020

January thaw

My grandfather looked forward to the "January thaw." Where we live, it typically happens mid-month, and this year it arrived right on time. It lasts four to five days and is followed by our coldest days of the year. 

The January thaw gave Pop a few days to walk his property lines and attend to anything that needed to be done. He could read the weather signs, and he told me a few secrets about doing that. As soon as the thaw was over, Pop began studying the seed catalogs. It was time to plan the veggie garden. Indeed, my own thoughts turn to ways to successfully grow a tomato plant. 

Being Sunday, I made the most of the warm day. I opened the windows in my sunroom office and let the fresh air blow through. Some time was spent on the porch, admiring the clear blue sky. I was struck by the patterns and contrasts I could see from my quiet perch. 

In winter, the trees have a silent magnificence, their strength and structure on display. We enjoy their shade in summer but never see beyond the leaves. Stripped for a winter's sleep, they cast long, straight shadows across the ground. 

Winter is a time of discovery. The world laid bare is the world on display. I don't have time to despair the cold air and the threats of snow. 

It's easier to breathe. The air is heady when not laden with moisture. Being outside without sweating is invigorating.

I'll never be a "snowbird" and head for warmer climates when winter comes. I'm made of sterner stuff, like my grandfather. I see the world not as sterile and cold, but ready to renew and I wouldn't miss it for love nor money. 

The Lady of Holly Tree Manor  

Deuce enjoys the snow

I've had many dogs in my life and it seems the one with me at any given moment was the most special. I loved them all. At this point in time, Greenbrier Smokey Deuce shares my life. Deuce is the first, and will be the only, dog I ever intentionally go to a breeder to purchase. I wanted to have another Lab and this seemed to be the only way to get one. I lucked into the first one at the local SPCA when they had to rescue a litter. Jett was a great dog. Between Jett and Deuce, I've seen two sides to the Labrador nature. 

It snowed this past Tuesday and as soon as I arrived home from work, we went out. Deuce has a great nose. Everything is of interest to him. I've taken a lot of pictures and videos of him because I don't want to ever forget him. He will probably be the last dog I have. 

It's a little sad to think of the Manor without a dog, though. If I ever do get another, it will be after I extract a few promises from the cousins to care for them if I would happen to pass from this life before the dog does. 

It's Sunday now, and the snow has melted. We're in the middle of what the old-timers called the January Thaw. What comes next is real winter weather. Until then, I have a sweet stroll with my buddy Deuce to remind me simple pleasures are the most lasting. 

January 7, 2020

January snow

two holly trees in snow

It snowed today. Not a lot, and it certainly didn't impact the roads or my schedule. It was one of those soft, wet, clingy snows that turned the mountain white. 

I just took Deuce outside for his last trip of the day, and I was struck by the silence. The sky had cleared and Orion was rising. There was no wind and no noise. There was peace. 

This is where I'm supposed to be. I watched the snow fall today via security monitors at the day job. It wasn't until I got home that I could truly experience the wonder of the snow coming down, smell the newly cleaned air, and listen to the quiet. All the technology in the world can't replicate how it feels to be outside when it's snowing. 

It's not quite cold enough for this snow to last long. By the weekend, it will be gone and we'll be preparing for the next one, which likely won't be so gentle with us. Mother Nature does give us clues if you know what to look for. 

The Lady of Holly Tree Manor

January 2, 2020

Cranberry White Chocolate Chip Oatmeal Cookies

Some time ago, the spousal unit and I agreed we needed to change some of our eating habits. I can't recall exactly what it was we learned about food additives and preservatives that brought about the discussion although it was likely on one of those exposé newscasts.  Our decision has led to a lot of experimentation in cooking and baking. 

We're not total fanatics about cutting additives out of our food. It doesn't take a degree in rocket science to know that in our situation it's unlikely to happen. We're not raising our own chickens (yet), raising a beef cow (yet), or growing all our own veggies (yet). Chickens bring in the foxes, three wooded acres isn't right for a steer, and there's too much shade for a big garden. That's just the way it is. I am not selling the manor, either. We bow to practicalities. 

Starting small and working forward, we agreed to forego any and all store-bought cookies. We love, love, love cookies and so this means I'm going to be baking a lot of cookies. 

I bake a batch, divide them into dozens, and freeze them. Storing them in the freezer in the basement helps slow our consumption, too. 

On a recent Saturday night, he wanted cookies and we were all out. I checked the pantry and determined the only cookie I had ingredients for were oatmeal cookies. My check also revealed half a bag of white chocolate chips and a partial bag of Craisins. So I tossed them into what was the standard oatmeal cookie dough and discovered one of our new favorite cookies. Serendipity at work.

The Lady of Holly Tree Manor

December 30, 2019

An uninvited guest

When I was a girl, great numbers of Eastern Bluebirds lived here during the summer. My grandfather must have had a good twenty birdhouses just for them. He always painted the birdhouses blue so he could keep a tally on nesting pairs. Houses for the little wrens were brown, and houses for all comers were white. It's just the way he did things. 

Until about two summers ago, seeing a bluebird had gotten to be a rare and exciting thing. This year was a real treat. They were everywhere. Not even Loki's presence dissuaded them to nest in our woods.

Yesterday, a very rainy day indeed, I glanced out the north windows of my sunroom office and found the ground literally moving. A huge flock of bluebirds had landed on their way south. I reached for the binoculars and of course, they took to wing. All but one poor unfortunate, that is. It wasn't my movement that startled them away - it was Loki. Quick as lightning, he snatched the straggler.

Fear not - the story ends well. 

Loki carried his catch to the patio, where the bird got loose and flew skyward only to meet the patio roof. He then hopped from screen panel to screen panel. I had visions of little talons ripping my expensive screens but I don't think Mr. Bluebird caused any damage. I grabbed Loki and tossed him (yes, tossed) inside the house. Then I needed a broom to encourage Mr. B to fly out the opening to join his flock. It took a few swipes but he finally got the idea and slipped through the opening to freedom.   

I was relieved the bird was uninjured. We've left about half an acre in the southwest corner of our property as wilderness for the birds, squirrels, rabbits, and whatever other small animals may need shelter. Even snakes because we know they're around, too. 

Maybe I should ask the man of the manor to build a few bluebird boxes and paint them blue. It would please my grandfather's spirit. 

The Lady of Holly Tree Manor

December 26, 2019

The leaning tree

There's a long list of hurricanes that have impacted the Mid-Atlantic region, but the one I remember most clearly is Isabel in September of 2003. Isabel reached us, powering over two mountains to make life memorable for a few days. 

We knew she was coming - how could we not? It was all over television channels when she reached a Category 4. By the time she got to us, here in western Maryland, they called her a tropical storm. We were concerned, but not overly so. We'd live through a lot of storms. We could do one more. 

Isabel hit. The governor of Maryland declared a state of emergency and we started to watch the weather broadcasts a bit closer. The rain came and the wind blew. Sometime around midnight on September 18, a Thursday I think, we caught a micro blast and an eighty-foot oak tree fell a mere ten yards from the house. It brought me out of a sound sleep, let me tell ya. A few smaller trees came down, a few across the driveway which necessitated cutting our way out with a chainsaw. One of the big maples to the west started to go but got hung up in the trees surrounding it. It's been leaning ever since. 

We joke about how much firewood is in that maple. Suffice it to say it's a lot. Taking it down will be tricky, which is why it's still standing, but it's got to come down soon. I'd rather it comes down in the manner we choose and not in the middle of some dark and stormy night. They make a lot of noise when they come down on their own, and I need my sleep.

The Lady of Holly Tree Manor

December 23, 2019

Frosty patterns

Winter is not anathema to me. I've no desire to flee the season and head south. I'll grant you that living in the Mid-Atlantic region of the United States our winters are not as severe as more northern climes, but these are the only winters I've ever known. Or care to know. 

Maybe being in tune with the land makes the difference. When I go outside, my shoes do not walk on concrete and asphalt. Instead, my steps are made on the earth itself. I see the dull grass and bare trees and know they are merely sleeping, resting in preparation for the magic to happen come spring. 

Winter is full of patterns if you know where to look. Yesterday morning, the front porch was covered in a thin layer of frost. It lay in a sparkling design only ice and sun could create. 

I stood at the door, coffee cup in hand, and watched as the warming day erased the handiwork of night. Then it occurred to me to take a picture. I'm sorry I couldn't capture the sparkle, though. A few moments later, little cat paws marred the pattern as Loki decided ten minutes was enough time in the great outdoors. 

Such a beautiful thing to see, frost sparkling on the porch. 

The Lady of Holly Tree Manor

December 22, 2019

Holly Tree Manor

For as long as I can remember, the one thing I wanted above all else was to be the lady of the manor. I have three of the most beautiful acres on the earth, and I want to give it the care and tending it deserves.

That goal is closer than ever. I've dropped back to a four-day workweek and so have more time to enjoy my "manor." This blog will, hopefully, chronicle my journey forward. 

I am many things in this life: wife, wage earner, caregiver, author, administrative assistant, aspiring chef, and an accomplished organizer. Up until now, a lot of my personal life has seeped into my author's blog, Between the Keys. I'm sure that will continue from time-to-time. 

But not every book reader cares to share my reflections on living in the country, or where I've been and what I'm doing. Conversely, if you landed here but would rather learn about my books, click over to Between the Keys. 

I was born about five-hundred yards from where I live. My grandparents gifted me with three acres and here I've been since 1981. My roots go deep. There are thirteen holly trees on my property and I didn't plant any of them. They grew from seeds birds carried in, most likely from the holly trees my grandfather had at the old homeplace. Of my parents and grandparents, it was Pop who had the biggest influence on my life. I choose the name Holly Tree Manor to honor him.

And so begins the chronicle of my life as I ease into "retirement" and begin to embrace my fondest wish - to become the Lady of Holly Tree Manor. 

The Lady of Holly Tree Manor