Sunday, December 30, 2007

Gingerbread Holidays

This is what our kitchen looked like Sunday before Christmas. And pretty much on Monday, too... and not much different on Christmas day. This year, the kids were way into baking, even more than last year, and Jules even made the pizzelles all by herself from start to finish. Em and Sam are working on our baking center—a part of the counter a few inches lower than the rest, making it easy to roll out dough with leverage and having the added advantage of being perfect kid height. Yes, Em decided to get in the baking spirit by dressing in her colonial attire. She does love to be in character.

This year, we added gingerbread houses to our repertoire, something we've been wanting to do for a couple of years, but never quite found the time. Once she heard this, our generous friend Madeline insisted we borrow her stoneware gingerbread mold since they would be away over the holidays. (We've considered holding it hostage to get them to visit in the spring, but that wouldn't be very nice, would it?) It took all day Christmas eve to bake enough pieces for three gingerbread houses. By evening, they were cool enough to begin to assemble.

We cut down some egg cartons to place in the middle of the house, giving us some structure to work against. Before dinner, we made some royal icing and glued the houses together, giving them plenty of time to dry before decorating. By the time we were done eating, everything was set to go. The kids had a blast, and we all decided that this was the perfect way to wile away Christmas eve—it gave us all something to focus on besides just the anticipation of Christmas morning!

Everyone had fun eating and decorating, and by the time we were done, Sam decided we should make a gingerbread house for every holiday occasion, already making plans for his Valentine's house.

Of course, the next day (note the sleep mask from Santa) the girls decided that their houses weren't quite done after all, and they spent another afternoon decorating, this time with colored royal icing for garland and windows.

The finished products from left to right: Julia's house, Em's house, and Sam's house. I'm looking forward to making a Halloween house next year—yet another wonderful idea of Madeline's.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

My friend Madeline

After we left Williamsburg, we headed down south to Georgia where my unschooling friend Madeline lives with her amazing organic-farmer husband, Nicolas, and her two fantastically adorable and impressive sons. We drove 9 hours just to get there, and I woke up at 5:15 am to get us out of the hotel and to her place at a decent hour. And every bit of it was worth the effort!

We had so much fun and felt so welcome in their wonderful home that we really didn't want to leave when the time came to drive up to the Lovejoy's for a house concert with Amy Steinberg. I think that's why we dilly-dallied so long, lingering over these amazingly moist pancakes that Gillen made for everyone. Gillen was an amazing cook, totally comfortable in the kitchen, and he and Julia bonded over chocolate and baking for Madeline's birthday (though I hear he does that with all the girls).

That afternoon we enjoyed a lovely visit to their farm where we took a nice hike out to a beautiful meadow and field of quartz crystals. The kids had a blast playing "predator," a combination of tag and hide-and-seek through the tall grass. We lucked out that there were no hunters on the property that day, considering it's deer season. Along the hike we got to see a beaver dam and the habitat they're creating in the woods. Crystal hunting was such fun, kind of like being on a geology dig, especially after our recent trip to the Smithsonian rocks and gems collection and Luray caverns (more on those trips later). I kept finding these amazingly perfect small crystals that looked bizarrely like teeth from a crystal monster. I kept envisioning this giant mouth full of crystal teeth along the lines of the abominable snow man or something.

We had a perfectly relaxing, beautiful day with everyone, and luckily we were all smart enough to go to sleep far earlier than we had the night before. The worst part about the whole visit was having to bully them into letting me help, though Nicolas was pretty much a push-over in that arena. I would have stayed and helped him at the farm all day if I could have—hopefully without botching the job too badly along the way. Next time maybe I'll have Jim along with me for a trip to my mom's place, and I'll get to do just that. Though if he'd have seen their hunting set up, he would've been itching to be out doing that! (For the record, I do believe Gillen is at present the only hunter in their family—see another great evil way to get Gillen to push for a trip up here in the spring!

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Stepping Back In Time

This past week, the kids and I have been on one of our whirlwind trips, gallivanting across the South. We began at the Great Wolf Lodge in Williamsburg, VA, and had a raucous good time! While there, the kids and I enjoyed a 2-day pass to Colonial Williamsburg where we had loads of fun stepping back in time and imagining ourselves living in 18th Century Virginia. The highlight of the trip for me was exploring the Great Hopes Plantation site, which is growing slowly and beginning to take shape.

They've been building this plantation for the last several years using all period tools and techniques, and it's been amazing to watch the progress. This trip I learned from one of the interpreters that this plantation would have had about 150 acres of tobacco and 50 acres of corn production, relying on only about 7-10 slaves to do that work, a number which I find absolutely dumbfounding when I consider the amount of work these people were required to do, knowing as I do now what it takes to farm just one acre.

Sam's favorite part, not surprisingly, was learning all about the weaponry and what it meant to join the army. We spent quite a bit of time at the magazine listening intently to all the descriptions of the guns, bayonets, militia, and military innovations. While the girls had their own costumes from our last trip about 3 years ago, Sam decided to rent a costume this year, which meant he was given a letter with several different assignments, one of which was learning to drill, which he was able to do both days much to his great pleasure. The girls were thrilled just to dress up and enjoy all the attention it garnered them throughout the streets. Em, particularly, was in her element as she role-played the entire two days we were there.

We spent our third day at the Jamestown Settlement where we spent a cold afternoon learning all about the voyage over to the New World on the Susan Constant, what it might have been like to live in Powhatan village, and the significant differences between life in a native village and a colonial fort. Of course, once again, the highlight of the day was learning all about the weapons and armor and getting to watch them fire a musket. Sam was thrilled to hold the shield for his musketeer, a very important job as the musketeer needed all his hands to load and fire. Although, just as interesting was the time was our time spent talking with a female blacksmith about the trade now and then. She had a wonderful way of talking with us, interacting with the kids on the same intellectual level as an adult, and I kept wanting to ask if she weren't homeschooled but never quite managed to work it into the conversation.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Some recent projects, among many others

Here's one of those boring collected photos posts just to keep up with some of the projects the kiddos are up to these days.

Experiments in ice.

Geomag stegosaurus.

Helium balloon basket experiments.

Tangram tessellation I.

Tangram tessellation II.

Multi-tiered lego birthday cake.

Lego Halloween decorations.


Tuesday, November 13, 2007

It's gonna blow!

The other evening the kids and Jim built a Smithsonian model volcano that we've had sitting around for a little while. They were all very excited about building it and setting it off, painstakingly crafting and molding it and adding the food coloring.

Apparently, it wasn't all it was cracked up to be, however, as you can see by their reactions in the photo to the right. Vesuvius it was not.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Halloween Festivities

The kids had a blast on Halloween, and although they all got store-bought costumes, Sam was the only one to wear his—he was a ninja. The girls decided last minute not to be pirate wenches and went instead as Katara and a Kyoshi warrior from the Avatar series. They pulled to gether these costumes themselves from various articles of clothing and were quite pleased with them despite the lack of glitz, glamor and instant recognizability. I'm often amazed by their utter lack of pretense and their disregard of competitive, expensive appearances. Just one of the many perks of not being socialized in a school yard.

Another perk would be the kindness and consideration I so often see displayed. More than one person giving out candy Halloween night was surprised and pleased by how polite the kids were and pleasantly caught off guard by the well-wishes for a Happy Halloween, reactions evidenced in voices and profuse thanks in return.

The kids are not only kind to others, they're very often kind to each other, missing much of the sibling rivalry that's fueled by grade politics and conventional culture. At one point I overheard Emily telling Julia that she planned to give Jules and Sam all the candy she couldn't have because of her braces. To which Jules responded earnestly, "No Em, I'm going to trade you for all of it because I want you to have just as much candy as we have."

By the end of the evening, they'd traded to their hearts' content, sampled and discarded several treats, and enjoyed their fill of their favorites—all the while loading me up with my own favorites like Almond Joys and Butterfingers. The remainder, which filled a gallon ziploc bag, was bagged up and sent into the office with Jim for others to enjoy. The kids were surprised at how little of the candy they liked this year, and I think they're scheming for a way to have Halloween next year and all their favorite candy, too. I see visions of brief trick-or-treating just for the fun of it and store-bought bags of their favorites at home.

Although the pumpkin muffins I made for our Halloween Harvest party weren't a huge hit with my kiddos, the candy selection that filled our Halloween Hunt bags was. The added benefit of keeping all the extra bags was pretty great, too, not to mention getting to hunt for those extras all over again once the party was over. I'm suspecting that our Halloween party may grow as the actual trick-or-treating wanes. Unschoolers, yannow—we just like things the way we like them.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Playing with Fire

Playing with fire is always a fun time in our home, not just because we're latent pyromaniacs, but because fire is all about experimentation. It's always changing, powerful, interesting. Here we are creating a vacuum with a candle—watch the rising water level as the candle uses all the oxygen in the jar.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Pumpkin Picking

Although we grew our own pumpkins this year, there's still nothing more fun than going to a big pick-your-own pumpkin patch, and Summer's Farm is one of the best. My in-laws were down for a visit this weekend, and pumpkin picking seemed like a great way to spend the afternoon. Thankfully, after four straight days of rain, the weather cooperated, and we had a gorgeous afternoon in the sunshine. We enjoyed the giant corn maze, jumping on the huge air pillow, watching pig races, eating apple cider donuts, doing well-pump duck races, sliding down hay slides, and shooting off the corn cannon—arguably the most fun of all! And of course, we ended the day with a hay ride out to the pumpkin patch to pick our own pumpkins. The kids found some really cool orange ones for carving and some pretty small white ones, and I found some lovely decorative gourds for my Thanksgiving centerpiece, so I was pleased as well. My absolute favorite was a green apple gourd that I'm definitely going to grow here next year. I also got some fun ideas for our Halloween Harvest Farm party next week.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Creamery visit

As part of our commitment to eating local, we've been searching for a new creamery. The one we were using—though mostly we just bought from the grocery store—recently lost its two biggest contracts to Organic Valley, taking its 25 mile radius all the way out to Lancaster. We'd known of a local on-site creamery for a while, but had heard mixed reviews, so we decided to head down and check it out for ourselves.

The kids were immediately enamored with the place, though they were surprised by the machine milking. I guess they'd pictured cows being milked by hand in the same way I'd been milking our goat every morning, and why not? Machine milking isn't exactly intuitive. But then, when one considers how many cows need to be milked twice a day at even a small dairy, machine milking becomes far more obvious a necessity!

We hung out for quite a while so we'd be able to help with the calf milking, which was hugely fun. We played on a giant straw playground they call "Hay Mountain," ate fresh ice cream, and talked briefly with several folks who live and work there. By the end of the day, the kids were begging to let this "please be our creamery!" Talk about buy-in! So, we've found a new creamery that the kids love to visit, making the 50 mile round-trip far more doable, and what's even better is that we can set up delivery for the cold, wet, dark winter and visit only when we want, as I imagine the creamery will lose a bit of its appeal in the coming months. But, then we'll be able to head down again in the spring for calving season, and what fun that will be!

Tuesday, October 23, 2007


Just one of those typical day kind of posts, recapping a bit what life looks like here on the farm. We welcome the kids' help with the farm and CSA as much as they'd like, and now, they earn money by doing so. This has been a weird thing for me to figure out because with the house, we don't have "chores," and the money is simply family money. What ever is left over after having paid the bills gets distributed, and we have slush money that goes toward different necessities each month. With the farm, however, I wanted to do something a bit different because the farm and CSA are our "home business," and I wanted the kids to be able to earn money from it as well, for it to be our contribution to the family finances in an empowering way.

How to do this, however, was the tricky part, especially considering we're not yet making money, and the money that's coming in is still being reinvested in infrastructure. A bit abstract for the kids to grasp, and way too future oriented. So, I decided to just start paying them when ever they felt like working, and this system has worked out pretty well because it gives the kids a chance to earn money on top of their regular budget and save more quickly for things they're wanting to buy. No one needs to work who doesn't want to, and it's been interesting to observe the different motivations and work ethics. Jules often helps and has saved a considerable amount already. Sam and Em are far less inclined to help and often do far less work when they're out helping, so we've kind of developed a pay-by-the-animal system rather than an hourly system. Most of the time, however, Sam's content to play—he's being a Chinese dragon in this photo—and leave the money-making to others, though having fewer dollars on the chalk board is a bitter pill at times.

Most of all the kids' time is spent playing—as it should be—and they play amazingly well together most of the time. They recently made a pair of stilts with their dad and have been spending lots of time trying to master the new skill, working hard together. They've been very into building fairy houses recently, thanks to Devin Martin's introduction to the hobby at the Live and Learn Conference. They recently had more Devin-inspired fairy fun carving some of our home-grown pumpkins to build hanging fairy bowers in the front crab apple tree—our one small climbing tree. The girls have rediscovered embroidery, which seems to be a fall activity, brought on by the shorter days and the nesting instinct they generate in us all. Books on CD are a great way to wile away these hours, and we've recently enjoyed The Swiss Family Robinson and Alice in Wonderland, and Em in particular is begging for more. We're considering joining an online audio book club, a la Netflix but for books, to feed this passion, as our library selection is dismal. But while our bodies and interests are turning towards fall, our weather has been doing anything but, and we've enjoyed balmy dinners by candlelight on the patio filled with love, laughter, and delicious homegrown food. Life is good!

Saturday, October 06, 2007

An Unexpected Gift

While we've hosted several black swallowtail caterpillars, we've never had the honor of hosting a monarch until this September when Em found one on some milkweed in the pasture. (Milkweed is the only host plant for both the butterfly and the larva, so if you want monarchs, be sure to plant some.) Monarch chrysalides are especially beautiful, resembling delicate jewelry with their soft green hue and golden filament. I was so excited to host one in our home, but, of course, we were leaving in just two days for the Live and Learn Conference.

Upon returning, I was so disappointed to learn that the caterpillar had gone missing while we were gone. Figuring it didn't survive for want of food, I resigned myself to waiting for next year for a monarch. Lo and behold, look what arrived unexpectedly one evening! I still have no idea where it made its chrysalis, and we've looked under and in just about every kitchen surface we can think of to no avail. So much for enjoying the beautiful transformation, but the sheer beauty of this unexpected gift was enough for this season. The kids each got a turn holding it before letting it finish drying its wings on our screen door so it could begin its migration.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Washington, D. C.

This Sunday we went into the city to meet my mother-in-law, nephew and sister-in-law, who was in town for a business meeting on Monday. We started at the National Air and Space Museum, which is always fun for the kids. We spent quite a bit of time in the hands-on "How Things Fly" section of the museum before moving onto the National Museum of the American Indian, which is conveniently right next door. We took time out to eat lunch in the Mitsitam Native Foods Cafe, which features different native foods that are representative of different cultures and regions.

After lunch we felt quite refreshed and headed to the top floor of the museum where, unfortunately, the introductory film "Who We Are," was not playing. But we still enjoyed walking around the different galleries and exhibits, listening to stories like the one about Devil's Tower, and visiting the hands-on portion of the museum. Afterwards, we enjoyed the weather and the gorgeous waterfalls that we'd viewed during lunch. (Sam's not angry in that picture—he's just feeling especially earnest about the turtle totem necklace he bought.)

The day was so beautiful and the kids still had quite a bit of energy, so we headed over to the National Archives to see the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights on display in the rotunda. The kids were totally psyched to see the original documents, and the adults thought it was pretty cool, too.
We were all surprised and a bit dismayed by how faded the documents are—John Hancock's signature is barely visible. Still, just seeing the original documents is such a powerful experience. Of course, we watched National Treasure when we got home that night! (Well, except for Jim who watched the Giants v. Eagles game.) Sam asked one of the guards whether there were really temperature sensors in the cases, but the guard said that part was only in the movie.

On our way home, we stopped for some ice cream and wandered through the National Gallery Sculpture Garden, which is always lovely and relaxing. The kids enjoyed some time by the central fountain, cooling tired feet. The day was absolutely glorious! Spring and Fall are beautiful times to visit D.C., and the best part about all these wonderful places is that they are free to visit—free of course because American tax dollars fund them, but hey, it's still pretty great!