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September 2010

Acorns of Every Size and Stripe

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The drought in the Northeast this summer has convinced the trees to start changing color a little earlier than usual.  Pumpkins glow orange and glorious in the fields and the acorns are ripe.  I discovered this with a start on a recent walk.  It was a gray day, the sort that makes me sure if I don't bring a rain coat it will pour, and if I do I'll regret it as I grow hot and sweaty.  That day, after several long stares out the window at the sky, I'd decided to leave my rain coat at home. 

I'd started out the walk a little chilly, an ideal situation to my thinking, since it encourages me to really get moving and not dawdle.  About a mile and a half from home the wind started to pick up.  By then I had found my stride and the wind was welcome.  I was walking through a very wooded section of the local bike path and on the tail end of a wind gust I heard the rain start to slap against the leaves above me.  I hadn't gotten wet yet, but it was only a matter of time before the big drops made it through and soaked me.  With a grumble of annoyance that I had once again misjudged the weather, my mediocre curse, I moved my iPod to my pocket and decided to just keep walking.  Another gust of wind rolled through the tree tops and I was stopped in my tracks.  Instead of raindrops, there were acorns falling on all sides of me.  As they hit the paved path they bounced, many reaching eye level or higher!  It was incredible,  like being in a room full of kids playing with super balls, only much quieter.  The show was repeated with each gust of wind. 

    Fuzzy acorns

Trees are majestic, sheltering, and strong, but I've never heard them described as cute.  That is the very first word that comes to mind when I think of acorns.  Like other nuts they have a utilitarian protective shell, but acorns go beyond mere utility, they are dapper.  They come complete with caps, protecting a baby-like head of downy fuzz.  As a small child I often drew faces on them and played "baby",  making little beds for them from moss.  I liked trying on different caps to see if they would fit, and stacking the caps by color like the peddler in Caps for Sale. I had a babysitter who painstakingly spit a walnut shell in half and glued in some soft fabric to make a cradle for the acorn babies.  I still have it, tucked away for safe keeping.   

We had one oak tree in our yard.  One year my older brother tried to collect as many acorns as possible before the squirrels took their share, in other words, all of them.  My brother had read My Side of the Mountain, the story of Sam, a teen who moves to the Catskills and survives on what he can hunt and forage.  After reading about Sam making acorn flour pancakes, my brother had to try it too.  He pounded the nut meats between two rocks until he had a lumpy sort of yellowish flour.  Then, in true older brother fashion, he told me to taste some.  I must have been excited to be involved, because I took a big pinch and started to chew expecting a flavor like the nuts my grandmother put out for Sunday visits.  A second later I  turned and spat.  Our tree was not the mild white oak, whose nuts can be eaten straight.  These were bitter like medicine.  You'd think I would have stopped being my brother's taste tester after that, but I'll save additional tales of my gullibility for another day.      

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I saw these beauties during a walk this week.  I knew acorns came in a variety of sizes, colors and shapes: long and pointy, stumpy and elliptical, deep walnut brown to sunny apple green, but I'd never seen any with such mottling before.  I only noticed them because the sidewalk was so thick with nuts that they were getting caught in my sandals; a definite "woulda missed" moment.  The first one I saw was the golden tiger striped one on the right.  There were quite a few with this sort of color scheme, a cross between stripes and the flames people paint on cars.  Then I spotted the northern lights type coloring of the one on the left.  In no time I was on my knees posing the nuts for photos.  I didn't give a thought to how odd I must look until I felt a dog's breath on my ear and looked up to see a golden retriever and his smiling owner making their way around me.  Oh well, I got the picture and an itch to find more of these colorful nuts.

I have a feeling this is going to be the autumn of the acorn for me.  I may try capturing the variety of colors and shapes in a painting.  Or there's a acorn bag I've been meaning to make for ages.  And of course if acorns look cute in their caps, wouldn't children look even cuter in a knit version?  Maybe I'll play squirrel and fill my pockets with all the different varieties I see as I walk.  Of course if I do that, there may just be another attempt at cooking with acorns in my future.

I'll let you know how it goes. 


Dreaming in Color

Sometimes when I'm out walking, I create a dream house, or more accurately a list of dream house characteristics, based on the neighborhoods I'm walking through.  In Winchester my dream houses tend to be large and overlooking bodies of water.  They would probably require live-in help to maintain.  In Lincoln, they are surrounded by orchards and rolling green fields dotted with sheep.  In Lexington they're classic colonials, with a sun room overlooking the firefly bedecked garden. 

The sizes and locations change, but these dream houses are always white with red flowers on the porch. There's just something classic, honest and heartwarming about that combination. 

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This color combo can even dress up plain architecture.

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Don't you want to sit on that top step in the evening and watch the world go by?

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These two were taken in June.  The geraniums are now gorgeous bushes spilling out of their pots.

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The only way to make a white house with red flowers on the porch better is to add...

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a couple Adirondack chairs...

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and paint the porch's ceiling blue!

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Maybe in the winter I'll imagine the interior of the house.


Where Robert Frost Wrote

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I once knew an English teacher who would plan whole vacations around visiting the homes of authors.  My first thought when I learned this, was that she must have incredible power over her family to get them to go along with this.  My second thought was, I'm an English teacher; why don't I want to go to authors' homes? 

Over the years I have passed up opportunities to visit the homes of Mark Twain, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Sarah Orne Jewett and John Greenleaf Whittier, that I know of.  I say this not as a point of pride, but to show that ever since visiting Orchard House in the fifth grade as a member of The Little Women club, I've been certain you can learn more about an author on the page, than from a home she hasn't inhabited for 50 years or more.    

I remember being very excited to visit Orchard House in Concord, MA.  I couldn't wait to see the inspiration for the home where Jo, Beth, Meg and Amy played Pilgrim's Progress and got into all sorts of scrapes.  What I remember from the actual visit was a docent who was very concerned that our nerdy handful of  fifth grade girls might sit on a chair or break a knickknack.  The only moment when I felt any connection to the book or its author, was when we were shown a page of text written in Louisa May Alcott's own hand.  It was on a table covered by a rectangular Plexiglas box, which made that sheet of paper, once held by Alcott herself, both tangible and as distant as a photo in a book.  In short, the experience was a bit of a disappointment. 

So I surprised myself, when having some free time in the White Mountains last month, I saw The Frost Place on a tourist map and decided to go.  So much of Robert Frost's poetry is tied to location, I thought even if the house were a disappointment, I could at least see some of the places that inspired him.  Would there be a big stand of birches that his children might have swung from, or a field where the scythe missed a tall tuft of flowers by a brook?  

The farm in Franconia NH, looks like where you'd expect Robert Frost to have lived.  It's a no nonsense New England farmhouse.  White walls, wood floors worn pale from use and low ceilings to make winter a little more bearable.  It has no ornamentation, in its preserved state, except for the incredible views of the surrounding mountains.  Looking through the windows, the verdant summer landscape appears even brighter, in contrast to the austere white walls.

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Variations of the view, shown in the photo above, are visible from the upstairs bedroom (where the photo was taken), the room where Frost wrote, and the long, open porch that hugs the front of the house. 
At night that sky must just be littered with stars.  If I had that as a bedroom, I'd never get any sleep.

Much of the house is not available to the public, because it is reserved for the poet in residence.  What is that person's experience like?  During the day you'd hear people walking in your house, with just a wall to separate you from them. Once the visitors had gone home, would it be inspiring or daunting to be in the same house where some of America's most beloved poems were created?  Does the poet ever sit in Frost's work room?  I know I wouldn't be able to resist. 

The very first room you see as you enter the house, is the room where Frost wrote.  In his day, a giant metal heater took up one corner of the room, reaching from floor to ceiling.  A smaller version that someone donated stands there now.  Two large windows look out over the porch, across the garden to the mountains beyond.  There he sat, in a padded leather chair with a wooden lap desk of his own devising. 

IMG_2400 The desk the house has today is a reproduction based on photos taken of the author at work.   It's wonderfully simple and efficient.  The chair, however is his actual chair.  Look at how the arms are worn from having the desk set down and moved countless times.  I wonder if he had a side table where he could keep his papers and maybe a drink close at hand. 

I am always curious about where authors do their writing.  What do they physically write on/at?  What do they see every day that works its way into their text? The book The Writer's Desk by Jill Krementz and John Updike is perfect if you share this curiosity.  It has photos of modern writers at their desks, with comments from the writers themselves.

The Walk

In addition to the house, The Frost Place has a poetry trail.  It's a half mile loop that brings you into the wooded portion of the property.  Scattered along the trail are wooden plaques with Frost's poems on them.  I wish I had asked the docent how the poems were chosen.  I'd like to think they were all written at this farm.

Some of the poems are well known, like "Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening" and some I'd never read before (sorry about the flash reflection in the photo).  IMG_2394 

Inside the house, I'd read that Frost moved his family to the mountains to escape his hay fever.  That struck me as funny, as I walked through tunnels of Goldenrod, so thick with pollen that the faintest breeze would have given the air a golden haze.  For Frost's sake, I hope the plant life in the region has changed a lot in the last hundred years.  

As I walked the trail, I kept looking for anything that reminded me of images in his poems.  There were numerous rock walls in such disrepair that they barely resembled walls anymore.  Each time I saw one, the line "Something there is that doesn't love a wall" popped into my head.  

I munched on a few raspberries (almost eating a ladybug in the process) and wondered how much of the wooded land I was walking through had once been cleared as farmland.  The trees looked relatively young, which fits what I'd read in a Bill Bryson book that New England was practically clear cut not so long ago.  This farm is full of erratics, giant stones dropped by the glaciers as they receded.  It reminded me of jokes I've heard about New Hampshire growing more rocks than crops.  In addition, the ground is far from flat.  I pitied Frost's son, who by all accounts did most of the actual farming.   

One of the last poem plaques of the loop is a rant against the influx of telephone wires.  It felt a bit out of character, until I looked up and got this view of the property. 

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More than anything else I'd seen, that made Robert Frost come to life for me.  Frost turned the mundane realities of his life into art.   


 


Hazy, Hot and Hungry?

Here in New England, Mother Nature appears to be throwing a real whiz-bang of a send off for summer.  If your idea of ideal summer weather is to "feel a bit like a Thanksgiving turkey when I walk out the door", as I heard one radio host describe it, the last few days have been sublime.  If, like me, you prefer the cooler parts of summer, the parts that are attended by the acrobatic antics of bats and fireflies, the last few days have been a reminder that "the end of summer" sounds much sadder than it really is. 

In honor of the season's symbolic passing (I realize it actually ends in a couple weeks), I've created a personal Best Of list for summer in Lexington.

I grew up in a town so small, that the police station was in the chief's house (his garage to be specific).  The center of town consisted of town hall, a historic church, a graveyard and just down the road a dump. I kid you not.  Our tiny town was smooshed between two much larger towns, the sort of places that had public buses and pools.  We knew entertainment was out there; it was just much farther than we were allowed to ride our bicycles.

So today, each time I announce on my way out the door that I'm going to walk to the yarn store, the library or the farmer's market I get a bit of a thrill.  Not only do I live close enough to town that I can walk there; Lexington actually has places worth walking to.

Summer in Lexington has the best music on earth - outdoor music.  I recently combined two things that are always better outside, music and food, by bringing my dinner to the Tuesday night concerts at the bandstand in Hastings Park.

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It's a beautiful bandstand, with lights in the ceiling and a staircase that folds away and gets locked up when not in use.  I can't blame them for locking it up.  I'm sure if they didn't kids would play on it and picnics would be held there...not that I know anyone who would have considered such a thing. 

My favorite part of the concert (aside from watching the games of catch going on behind the bandstand) was when the audience was invited to join in a march.  From toddling barefoot babes, to gray haired ladies relying on canes, a surprising number of people stood up and marched to a well known John Phillip Souza tune. I think it might be the song Monty Python used at the start of their TV show.   That evening, I watched from my blanket, a container of lasagna on one side and a scarf I was knitting in my hands, and thought about my Grandmother S.  She would have marched if she were there.  In fact, I knew the song from a cassette of Souza marches she had stuffed in my stocking one Christmas.  I never knew quite why she gave it to me, I'd never shown an interest in that kind of music.  As with most of my grandmother's confusing gifts, she seemed to be trying to share something from her childhood.  She was born on the fourth of July and early on thought the festivities were all for her.  I'm sure one of her many older brothers was happy to set her straight on that account.    Even once she knew better she still loved it: the picnics, the fireworks, the parades and the marching bands.

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I officially consider it summer when the Friday night Chamber of Commerce concert series begins. These shows are held in front of the Visitor's Center, just across from the famous Minuteman statue.  Each week it's a different band, but no matter who is playing, watching the young kids (and their parents) shake and shimmy right up front while the older kids run in circles around Buckman's Tavern is always a great show. 

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There are families who arrive with giant picnic baskets and make colorful islands of blankets as they meet up with their friends.  Others divide and conquer.  The mother arrives first with children and family dog in tow.  A little later, the father, often still in business attire, arrives triumphantly carrying a pizza box or two.   I'm always a little curious which of the two pizza places in town does better business on concert nights. 

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As the kids start getting tired from climbing trees and hiding from their parents, Mo's Ice Cream truck sets up shop.  This is the classiest ice cream truck experience you're likely to ever have.  It's always the same driver, who I assume is the Mo from the sign.  He's older, like a youngish grandfather and he never rushes anyone, even the four year olds who change their minds with each new picture they see.  I always get the Chocolate Eclair, and he always smiles, says "That's a classic" and hands me my treat with a paper towel around it.  That paper towel comes in handy if the evening is hot and I try to savor my eclair.  I must not be the only one who thinks highly of Mo, because his truck usually has a line, even though the concert is right across the street from Candy Castle. 

Yes, you read that right.  Lexington's candy store is called Candy Castle.  It has whimsical paintings on the windows of a Hansel and Gretel-esque ice cream castle.

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All summer they've had a sign on the door that makes me very happy.  I love that they even thought to offer it.

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A Charleston Chew is usually pleasant enough, but freeze it and it feels like being seven again.  Each bite breaks it into smooth edged chunks that soften in your mouth.  I don't have a great sense of taste, so texture is really important to me when it comes to food, and these have fun texture.

The first time I encountered frozen candy (aside from my own kitchen), was at an artsy movie theater near Harvard.  When I ordered my Junior Mints the cashier asked,  "Chilled or original?"  

    "What was that?" I really hadn't expected there to be any follow up questions to my order. 

    "Would you like that chilled or at room temperature?"  Faced with such an unexpected choice,what could I say but "chilled"?  

They were fun to eat, but without their characteristic gooey center, they just didn't seem like Junior Mints.  Peppermint Patties on the other hand, which are also chocolate coated, taste even more delicious when frozen. 

I probably should have made this Best of Lexington Summer list a bit earlier, ideally before the music series ended, but isn't that the way with summer?  It feels like it will last forever, and then suddenly it's gone.  That's OK, I'm sure fall will bring new reasons to take a walk into town, and more comfortable weather to do it in.

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Sign in the window of the Sweet Thyme Bakery.