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December 2010

In the Bleak Midwinter

These days the sun makes it just over the treeline and then sighs in exhaustion and starts to set.  The short hours of daylight make me eager to follow the sun's lead and head for bed early...say 5 o'clock.  But in the weeks leading up to the winter solstice,  it was the seemingly endless, impenetrable darkness that made the Christmas lights' glow all the brighter. 

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I love the traditional New England, understated candle in each window look, but I couldn't capture one with my camera.  So here are a few houses that are classic, in a slightly more lavish way.

This house is in Winchester.  I assume the garland of fruit above the door must be fake, but from the sidewalk it looked quite real.   It made me think of the historic homes of Portsmouth NH, where citrus was used as a sign of wealth and hospitality, especially in the cold of winter. 

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This house made me want to just stand and stare.  And I did, until I started to worry that someone would notice.    I love the child-sized toy soldiers guarding the entrance and the Christmas tree filling those floor to ceiling windows.  I wonder what it's like to be on the inside of a house with that sort of window.  Do you feel like you're in a fishbowl or do you become oblivious to it?  They're absolutely lovely from the outside.  

I've only seen such windows on historical homes, which makes me wonder how the original inhabitants ever stayed warm through a Massachusetts winter.  The only thing I can imagine is that it was a symbol of wealth, the sort of thing that says "I'm so rich I can afford to be wasteful", just like owning a Hummer today. 

Lex center

I get nostalgic at the site of the big, orb-like Christmas lights (like the ones in the first picture in this post), but I'm happy to say that a couple years  ago our town took up a donation to change all the town holiday lighting to more efficient LED bulbs. 

IMG_3988 The trees on Mass Ave appear draped in fairly lights.  I was walking under them last week during a snow shower and it was like walking through a snow globe.

Mass Ave
Just take a look at the beautiful holiday display the newest addition to downtown created.  Don't you just want to spend a wintry afternoon in there surrounded by books?  At the time they hadn't even opened yet, but thanks to this display (and my love of children's books) I can't wait to make The Elephant's Trunk a walk destination.  I've found having an enticing destination can be the difference between putting on enough gear to face the cold for a walk, and staying inside quilting with a mug of hot cocoa. 

Elephants Trunk
Early each December Lexington has a shopper's night where the stores stay open past dinner (the usual closing time for all but the restaurants and the movie theater), Santa arrives via a firetruck, the symphony does a great holiday concert and carolers stroll the streets and shops.  Here's a quick video of one performing group.  I couldn't quite decide if it was rude or not to tape them, so I tried not to make it too obvious.


Lexington symphony 120310 Santa at the Lexington Symphony

One of my favorite walks I took this holiday season was through a residential area while listening to A Christmas Carol.  I've seen quite a few plays and movie adaptations of the story, but the original text has such wonderful description it's almost a new story.  Take for example this line from a description of the Christmas party Scrooge's first employer gave. "In came a fiddler with a music-book and went up to the lofty desk, and made such an orchestra of it, and tuned like fifty stomach-aches".  Who would think to compare a sound to a stomach ache?  Yet it works, I heard it and I knew just what a racket was being made.  If you'd like to hear the story (and get some great insight into why it's called a carol and other things you may never have considered before), check out Craftlit.

I think I've mentioned before that I often associate a certain place with what I was listening to when I walked there.  A Christmas Carol, and specifically Marley's chains will come to mind each time I walk past this grandstand.  You might recognize it from my post about summer music.


And this lovely home is now connected in my mind to the party the Ghost of Christmas Past has Scrooge revisit.

Now Christmas is past, and once the new year begins the lights will slowly disappear from people's homes.  Officially the days are getting longer once again, so I suppose we don't need those lights quite so much to brighten our days and nights.  But it was truly a feast for the eyes while it lasted.  I'm looking forward to next year's.

  Creche 120810



Walking Companions

I may forget to bring water or ID when I go for a walk, but I never forget my iPod.  Occasionally I'll listen to music as I walk, but most days I use the combination of walking and listening to podcasts to still my mind.  While my body finds its rhythm, my mind is brought back under my control through new scientific discoveries, craft ideas or audio books.  I've included a list in the sidebar of my favorites.  Some are designed to be podcasts (audio shows sent over the internet) and others are podcast versions of radio shows I love.  I can't tell you how many of the stories I tell start with the words "I heard on a podcast that..." 

Apparently I'm not alone.  Molly Wizenberg of the Orangette blog recently wrote a post about Radiolab, one of my favorite radio shows/podcasts.  This is a show I always have a hard time describing the appeal of, but she does it wonderfully.  She writes,

"I started listening to Radiolab as a way to pass the time while I walk the dog, because he needs a lot of walking, and now I listen because I’m crazy for it. It’s part science, part philosophy, and part sound editing wizardry, but mostly, it’s good storytelling. Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich, its hosts, spin the kind of stories that lure you away to somewhere else, and when you drop back into yourself, you realize that you’ve been staring into space, grinning like a dope, through the entire show."

I know that dopey grinned look well, and it's only partly due to the joy of walking.  I've laughed out loud while listening to Molly's podcast Spilled Milk (a cooking show that's worth listening to for the banter, even if you rarely enter your kitchen).  I've stopped and stared into the middle distance while listening to a particularly complex explanation in This American Life

Just as the guitar solo in INXS's Never Tear Us Apart evaporates time, and I'm suddenly 16, sitting on the shag carpet in our den, giant donut headphones slipping off my ears, eyes closed tight to ignore my family around me; the podcasts I listen to become linked to the place where I first heard them.  I can't walk down this stretch of road without hearing Heather Ordover from Craftlit talking about Jerry from A Tale of Two Cities and the rust on his boots. 

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There's a section of the bike trail that I always associate with Brenda Dayne from  Cast-On.   She did a show where she took us along for a walk through the winter woods in Wales.  I listened to it on a wintry day in Massachusetts and now when I walk that same path again, I see in my mind the image I've created of the Millennium Woods as Brenda described it.  The list of associations goes on and on.  There's a house on my road that always makes me think of an interview I heard with Maya Lin, the creator of the Vietnam War Memorial (On Point podcast) and a certain field that makes me wonder what it's like to see the world without language ("Words" episode of Radiolab). 

When I listen to a podcast while walking,  I can go farther before feeling tired.  The science behind that was discussed, actually,  in the "Limits" episode of Radiolab.  And sometimes when I have no desire to walk, but am dragging myself out anyway, hearing the opening music from Craftlit is all it takes to make me eager to be on my way.  Craftlit is "a podcast for crafters who love books".  It begins with talk about crafting, but then the majority of each show is the reading of a chapter or two from a book, with commentary and background information to make even the densest texts clear.  When I'm listening to a particularly good part of a book,  I'll take multiple walks in the same day just to find out what happens next.  It's a bit like a friend of mine who listened to all the Harry Potter books on tape.  Whenever a new book came out he'd be at the gym every day, working out and eager to hear the next installment.  Then, when he finished the book, the gym was all but forgotten.  Now that the series has ended and he's relistened to each book multiple times, he's on the lookout for similar listening material.  Any suggestions? 

Someday I'd like to be able to still my mind, release it from its useless whirling through walking alone.  Not that I'd stop taking along my walking companions.  Walking "solo" would just be a good skill to have, like accurately reading a map.  But that's a story for another day.

Harvest Time at Drumlin Farm

As Thanksgiving approached this year, I thought for the millionth time just how out of place a celebration of bounty feels in late November.  The leaves are bare.  Whatever crops remain on the vine are rotten and bloated.  Yards have been winterized.  There are brightly colored poles to guide plowmen down driveways and the fragile plants have been  swaddled in burlap.

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Apparently I'm not alone in thinking this way.  I heard a librarian comment on how much better it would be to celebrate Thanksgiving in October, like the Canadians do.  The patron she was talking to pointed out that Canada's October is probably much like our November.  After a pause he added that in an agrarian society there would be no time for celebration until the harvest was in and the work was done.  Isn't it frustrating when logic trumps sentiment?

Since  it doesn't look like Thanksgiving will be moved to a more bountiful time of year any time soon, let's go back and remind ourselves how golden and verdant the landscape was just a couple months ago.

Pansy pumpkin 111510
For years a friend told me that I should visit Drumlin Farm in Lincoln MA.  She brought her son there all the time and she'd tell me things like "it's a great place for a picnic", or "they have animals you can pet" and "it's so much fun".   When she mentioned animals and petting in the same breath, all I could imagine was a terrifying experience I had as a 5 year old at York's Wild Kingdom.  Tiny child + carton of animal kibble + excited goats = crying child being pulled out from under goat mosh pit by mother.  Even as an adult, I wasn't eager to go near a petting zoo again. 

Fortunately, another friend invited me for a walk one day without telling me where we were headed.  I'm sure you can guess where we went.  It wasn't at all what I had imagined.  First, it's a real farm.  You can pet the animals if you want to, but there are signs strictly prohibiting their feeding.  The farm is run by Mass Audubon, so the focus is on preservation through education.  There are of course the traditional farm animals: chickens, cows, sheep, goats and pigs.

If you visit and spot a sheep with a blue back side, it's not the work of rural graffiti artists, just a sign that the ewe has been mated.

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I'm always surprised at just how much character the pigs have.  I remember one litter which definitely had a bully.  He truly knew how to push his weight around to get what he wanted.  He gave his siblings no rest until they gave up their ball or the prime scratching spot (the doorway to the yard).  The pig shed is also fun to visit because of the pig scale. Along with the traditional numbers, the scale is split into the life stages of pigs.  It's fun to watch a group of kids clamber on in an effort weigh more than "piglet". 

Drumlin pig 073010
 In addition to the typical barnyard creatures,  there is an assortment of rescues, animals that have been injured and would no longer survive in the wild.  Within a square mile (or less) you can see a turkey vulture, several kinds of owls, a kestrel, a partridge (beware, during mating season he/she has a startlingly loud call), red tailed hawks, several deer, an opossum, a skunk (minus scent gland) and two foxes (whose urine smells like diluted skunk musk, so don't be alarmed).  One of the foxes has extra pigment so it actually appears to be black with touches of silver. And though he isn't as rare as many of the animals, a visit wouldn't be the same without the gregarious crow on Bird Hill, who can often be seen conversing with his cronies in nearby trees. 

I've now been to the farm in every season, and I'd be hard pressed to choose a favorite.  In the winter there are few visitors and the snugness of the barns and greenhouse come as a nice surprise after the cold of the wind.  Of course the spring means babies - piglets, chirping chicks and adorable bounding lambs.

The summer is great for visiting the actual farm and seeing just what all those veggies we're used to buying wrapped in plastic actually look like when they're growing.  It was a volunteer docent at Drumlin who first told me that broccoli is actually a flower and that carrots are related to the flower Queen Anne's Lace. 

And then there's the fall.  If I were pushed to choose a favorite time to visit Drumlin, that would probably be it.  The place is bedecked in hilarious scarecrows.  There are scare-couples with arms interlocked and others wearing lays and outrageous hats.  There are hayrides and carved pumpkins (see my earlier post The Frost is on the Pumpkin). 

The fall is certainly my favorite time for investigating the non-animal portions of Drumlin.  There's a surprising variety of trails, each with its own character and terrain.  Whether it's geographically true or not, I tend to think of Boyce Field as the hub of the trail system (see above link for a map).  Boyce is ideal for a late afternoon stroll.  The "golden hour" light that artists talk about adds magic to the simple scene of produce rising from the earth.  

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     Chard stems 100310 Suddenly you're not just looking at food, you're looking at art.  The swiss chard rows resemble intricate stained glass.  Even the most humble vegetables gain new stature when seen as examples of chiaroscuro, the interplay of sun and shadow. 

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My favorite example of this transformation is the rutabaga plant.  The very word makes my spine tighten; it all goes back to the pasty, a handheld meatpie that originated in Cornwall.  Immigrants introduced it to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, where it now has almost a cult following. My grandmother used to tell us about how she and her mother made pasties from whatever bits of meat and veg they had on hand, so her brothers could bring them (wrapped in newspaper) into the mines for lunch.  The exact recipe would vary, but the hearty rutabaga was a staple. 

As a child, I hated rutabagas.  I say "as a child" but in truth I haven't tried one since I was old enough to have a say in what I eat.  My mother and grandmother tried convincing me rutabaga had no taste, and if it had a taste it was the same as potato.  I figured years of drinking black coffee had destroyed their taste buds.  In the end my mother resigned herself to making a special pasty for me with just meat, potatoes and carrots.  She made the vent holes on top in the shape of a T so I'd know which one was mine; and I loved every delicious bite.

So I had to smile when walking in Boyce Field I saw a root vegetable the size of a football with a beautiful tangle of stalks rising up from it, and realized it was a rutabaga.  

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That's what I love about walking.  Even if you've been to a place a hundred times, walking can always present you with a new perspective.  As for rutabaga, I'll keep to my original plan of abstinence... to ensure there's enough for the rest of you to enjoy, of course.


  • I will be revisiting Drumlin's trail system in future posts.  There's still a lot to share.
  • You can find a recipe for pasties through Real Simple magazine.   
  • If you're in the area and would like to visit Drumlin Farm, be aware it's closed most Mondays and that there is an entrance fee.  Many local libraries have reduced price tickets available for patrons, so it's worth doing a little footwork first.