Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Gingerbread Baby

AFTER reading The Gingerbread Baby, of course we had to make some gingerbread! Just as we were thinking about this, a package arrived from our German grandparents with a gingerbread house to make and decorate! This kept Emma and Grandma busy for quite some time.

A little bit of food chemistry/domestic know-how: gingerbread goes hard very quickly when left out uncovered; however it can be softened by putting it inside a tin with a moist cake such as Christmas cake!

Monday, December 28, 2009

Christmas and Winter Books

WE'VE found some lovely Christmas and Winter-themed books at the library. Here are some of our favourites:

Christmas Mouseling
by Dori Chaconas, illustrated by Susan Kathleen Hartung
A mother mouse fears for her freezing newborn mouseling as her nest is blown away. Other animals offer her the use of their homes as they are going to see a King. As one after the other these beds too are blown away by the blustery north wind, the mother mouse runs desperately to a wooden shack, where she is surprised to find all the other animals. Also there are a man, a woman and a baby lying in a manger. The mother mouse snuggles her mouseling under the baby's covers and knows that they are safe.

The Mitten
by Jan Brett
Well known in the US but not so well in the UK, Jan Brett is an award-winning author/illustrator famous for her illustrated borders that give clues to what will happen next. The Mitten is her retelling of an old Ukrainian folktale in which a boy loses a mitten in the snow. It is discovered by more and more woodland creatures who take shelter inside it. The mitten is stuffed to bursting point when the bear sneezes and all the animals fly out. Unaware of all this activity, the boy catches the mitten in the air and runs home, where his grandmother wonders how one mitten got so big.

The Gingerbread Baby
by Jan Brett
As with The Mitten, this book is full of the most incredibly intricate illustrations, but beautiful and not overwhelming. The story is a twist on the Gingerbread Man, in which a little boy opens the oven too soon and instead of a Gingerbread Man, out pops a Gingerbread Baby. He runs away and everyone chases him. But the boy Matty goes back into his kitchen and begins to bake again. The whole procession of people chasing the Gingerbread Baby arrives in the woods to find a pile of crumbs and assumes he has finally met his match. But in fact, the Gingerbread Baby is happily dancing around inside the gingerbread house that Matty baked for him.

A Reindeer Christmas
by Mark Kimball Moulton, illustrated by Karen Hillard Good
While out in the woods to feed the animals in Winter, a family comes across an exhausted and starving deer. They bring him home, feed him and keep him warm by the fire. In the morning he is gone. Under the Christmas tree, an extra present awaits with a note from Father Christmas himself. The deer the children had found was his lead reindeer, and by caring for him, the children had saved Father Christmas' present delivery. A sweet story with wonderful pictures in warm glowing colours.
Happy reading!

Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Fifth Candle

WE were patiently waiting. Lighting only one, then two, then three, then finally all four of the small candles in our Advent wreath. Every Sunday in Advent a new candle was lit, and we added a verse to the poem dedicated to the four kingdoms.
On these Sundays too we added items to our nature table. First just shells and stone; then green plants and berries. On the third Sunday we added a stable and animals then in the last week, Mary and Joseph appeared before the stable accompanied by their donkey.
Then, on Christmas Day, the children found baby Jesus lying in a manger in the stable, surrounded by his parents, the animals and some shepherds. And at the table, we lit the centre candle. Happy Birthday!

The first light of Advent is the light of stones,
The light that lives in crystals, seashells and bones.
The second light of Advent is the light of plants.
Roots, stem, leaf, flower and fruit by whom we live and grow.

The third light of Advent is the light of beasts.
Animals of farm, field, forest, air and seas.
All await the birth in greatest and in least.

The fourth light of Advent is the light of humankind.
The light of love, the light of thought, to give and to understand.
- Rudolf Steiner

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Christmas Baking

MMH the smell of baking in the house! Officially, Tuesday is baking day in our house, but we've had a lot of Tuesdays recently to get everything made. We've also had fun mixing traditions. No self-respecting English household would celebrate Christmas without mince pies. Using a muffin pan, these turned out a little deep. Then there was the Christmas cake. That was a first for us. Again, we didn't have the right sized pan, so that turned out a little flat. Moving on to America we baked dozens and dozens of snickerdoodles for gifts. They were placed a little too close to one another on the tray so turned out a little too - erm - joined together. By the time we got to Germany it was two days before Christmas so we gave up and bought Lebkuchen at the shops. They were yummy, but they didn't make the house smell delicious.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

A Legacy

IT'S so easy to get caught up in all the holiday hype. Even when you try to keep commercialism at bay, gifts, food and house preparation and trying to make everything just perfect can become stressful. This weekend I was moved to tears in two very different ways. Two things that made these little 'stresses' seem so trivial.

The first was attending the memorial service for a friend's two year old daughter. In a very short time, this little girl changed many people's lives.

The second was coming together with a hall full of strangers to sing Handel's Messiah. This work is so full of passion it makes your hair stand on end.

After I'm gone, I don't expect millions of people to celebrate my birth every year. I don't expect people to be inspired by the story of my life, or any of my work to be great enough that it is performed over and over for centuries to come. But I do hope my children remember me as the mama who always had a cuddle, a song, a story or an adventure up my sleeve. That's really more important than one more batch of mince pies and homemade Christmas crackers.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Christmas Music

MUSIC is such an intrinsic part of the Christmas experience to me. Whether a beautiful and reverent Nine Lessons and Carols service at church, or the short list of 'holiday songs' that repeat ad nauseum in every public space starting in November, there's no doubt that they play an important role.

As Christmas preparations progress, we have gradually been incorporating more carols into our day at circle time, bedtime, in the car and whenever else the mood strikes. School programs, carol concerts, and even carol singing around a friend's neighborhood were all wonderful ways to celebrate the season through song. Best of all might be the CD I play when alone in the car, when I can belt out all the descants. But that's our little secret.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Presents for the Birds

AS we are busy preparing Christmas gifts for friends and family, we took a moment to prepare something special for the birds in the garden too. A pinecone bird feeder is a great project for even quite young children. First we had to collect some pinecones that were not too prickly, then carefully poke peanut butter with a butter knife into all the holes. "One for the pinecone, one for me..." The sticky blob was then rolled in a plate of bird seed, then finally a ribbon selected and tied to the top.

We have quite a few of these tasty ornaments around the garden and have learned from experience the optimum hanging place. Too low and the dog eats them. Too close to a sturdy branch or tree trunk and the squirrels have a feast. On the end of a rather spindly twig seems to work best to reserve this treat for the little birds.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Scented Tradition

THOUGH originally used year-round, over the centuries pomanders have become associated with Christmas. They are natural air fresheners usually made from oranges, lemons or apples studded with cloves. Pomanders may be hung as an aromatic decoration, grouped in a large bowl as a beautiful display or placed in laundry cupboards or drawers to scent your clothes.

We took a delicious fresh orange and placed masking tape where we would later put a ribbon. Then using a needle, we poked holes in the non-masked sections of orange and inserted whole cloves into the holes. As usual, I started out with an adult viewpoint of beauty and neatness but quickly relaxed to enjoy the activity and appreciate a different kind of beauty in the fascination, creativity and delight of my young children. Emma insisted we were making a hedgehog, which of course had to have a face! The pomander was finished by replacing tape with red ribbon. It has a wonderful spicy-citrusy fragrance!

Over several weeks, the pomander will cure dry and shrink to about half its size. You can also coat the completed pomander in a mixture of orris root and spices, which helps the drying and preservation process. Done correctly, it will last many years. The name comes from the French 'pomme d'amber' (amber apple). In the middle ages, pomanders containing many different scents, such as ambergris or musk, were worn on a chain around the neck or belt and carried as protection against infection and bad smells. Hopefully that won't be necessary in our home this Christmas!

Monday, November 30, 2009

Feeding the Hungry

THE weather's getting colder. In our driveway, we had hundreds of acorns fallen, but now we only have the caps. Same with dogwood berries. They're all gone. And when we went out for a walk, we tried to find some really big acorns for crafts, but also only found the caps. Well of course - they have all been snapped up by hard working little animals building up their winter stores. This might seem obvious, but I have never noticed them disappearing before.

While it's not quite a snow-covered wasteland (food wise), it must be getting harder for all the animals to find food. We hung up bird seed and filled our coconut shell feeder with fruit peels. I found some old popcorn that never got popped. I wonder if the birds and squirrels will like that?

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Squirrel's Thanksgiving

THANKS to a little friend called Carmen, I learned something new the other day. We got fresh pecan nuts from our farmer's market and wanted to take them along as a snack to the park. But I didn't have a nutcracker. On the way to the park we scoured three shops looking for a cheap nutcracker but didn't find one. Recounting this to our friends, they just laughed and Carmen demonstrated how to crack them. Oh. In my defense they were not the store-bought kind that you can crack with your hands. They did need to be crushed with a stone. But still - no nutcracker was required.

So when making pecan pie for Thanksgiving Dinner, we decided to have a little squirrel celebration. Emma and I spread out a large sheet and covered it in all our nuts. Then we made tails and pretended to be squirrels. We had a fine time singing autumn songs and telling squirrel stories. And all the nuts got cracked with no nutcracker!

Monday, November 16, 2009

St. Martin, St. Martin

MARTINMAS commemorates the life of St. Martin, a knight who is best remembered for sharing his warm cloak with a beggar on a cold night. It is also the first of many festivals of light celebrated at this time of year. With our Waldorf group, we remembered St. Martin's deeds through song and theatre then shared light through the neighbourhood on a lantern walk. In the cold, dark evening, there was something magical about the sound of children singing and a penny whistle, and a parade of little lights walking through the streets.
Photo: Jodie Mesler

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Home for a Gnome

THIS Autumn's nature table has - as always - been a work in progress. We like for our table to be a living part of our family life rather than something to be looked at only, and it is played with every day. But as the 'treasures' threatened to turn our living room into a wild, unbridled forest, the nature table gnomes visited more and more frequently at night for a little clean up.

Then, one of them decided to stay. He is a little fellow with a felted head, chubby acorn body and a golden cloak. He lives in a house of bark, next to the squirrel's giant leaf, the rabbit's burrow and the lizard's log pile. Each of them has their own store of food for the winter and they have a different adventure each day.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

What Did You Learn Today?

OUR morning didn't pan out quite how I planned it today. While searching for a snack, Emma declared with zeal (and hopefully a little exaggeration): "We need to clean the fridge, Mama. It's filthy!" She proceeded to empty all the jars and bottles from the door sections and her toddler brother made a beeline for the chocolate syrup. Trying to look beyond impending mayhem, I played along.

Forty five minutes later Emma was still engaged with the fridge (the door was closed in between). The door shelves had been scrubbed and polished, and the contents had been sorted and labelled in every which way. In lines on the floor according to size and family position (Papa bottle, Mama, cousin, Auntie and everyone down to the dog). Grouped on the square floor tiles by colour. By container - jars, glass bottles, plastic bottles. They were rolled on the floor and Emma noticed that some things roll straight (round jars), some roll in circles (bottles with a neck) and some don't roll at all (square or other shapes). She had asked me what certain things are called in German. And finally, everything was put back in the fridge grouped by flavour and her perception of the things different family members like to eat - the jams, maple syrup and lemon juice went on "Emma's shelf"; various oils and nut butters on "Mama's shelf" and most of the things that didn't look so good to her ended up on Papa's shelf. (Ha!)

Once again I was in awe at the power of small children to learn from e v e r y t h i n g.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

A Different Perspective

EVERYONE'S heard of watching the clouds, lying on the ground on your back. But it's really amazing what other things you can observe from this prone position. We, who are so used to rushing around on our feet can learn so much from stopping to view life from a different perspective. Emma and I watched leaves float down and the little 'helicopter' seeds whirl right on top of us. Bird silhouettes, when viewed against a bright sky; or underside colours when the lighting allowed. Insects; an enormous butterfly, its wings outspread. And not just things to see. The fresh, earthy smell of grass and faint distinctive scent from mown wild onions. Bird calls, insect chirps and rustling leaves. Pine needles tickling your neck. Astute observations: "That's funny! The wind is blowing my face and the trees but not blowing the clouds."

Then, just when it's getting a little too ethereal, you're reeled back to earth by a grinning toddler dropping his dead weight on your unsuspecting midsection and a slobbery dog trying to give you the kiss of life. All in an afternoon's play.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Nature's Playground

After The Rain

Commitment Phobic Weather

THERE'S no greater justification for dressing in layers than weather that just cannot make up its mind! By mid October it was getting consistently chilly enough to switch out summer for winter wardrobes, especially when we had our first night frosts. Definitely coats, hats and gloves in the morning, but now it's warming up to summer temperatures by the afternoon.

It's been so wet and warm, the bale of straw Emma uses to swing from is sprouting! On this particular afternoon, it got super hot and after some heavy gardening and a game of chase, there was nothing for it but to strip off. Weather forecasts call for a cold and wet winter, so we're making the most of this sun!

Roots, Fruits & Leaves

WE'RE deep into an Autumn bounty that spans the gamut from fruits to seeds to leaves to roots, including some late summer crops. In recent weeks we've brought home from the farmers' market: sweet potatoes, apples, turnips, all manner of greens and herbs, beans, field peas, pecans, aubergine, peppers, muscadines, squashes, kohl rabi, pumpkins and more.

Butternut squash soup, wild rice pilaf, Asian garlic greens, sweet potato-lentil casserole, kale and sausage stew, kasha-aubergine patties... aah delicious. We have a new family favourite: roasted apples and sweet potatoes with maple glaze, served with a salad of fresh greens, dried cranberries, chili-toasted pecans and goat cheese with a lime-yoghurt dressing. YUM!

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Lost in the Flood

NOW that the summer heat is gone, it was time to go back to "our swamp" and see what it looked like. (The humidity and many many spider webs make this an unappealing walk with two little children in the summer.)

We were not prepared for the changes that had taken place since we were last there in May or so. The recent flooding had completely washed out the overgrown path, bathed whole areas in sand and cast branches and other debris into giant beaver dams in random places. We first talked about coming back at the weekend with Papa and some tools to try to restore the path, but then I realised this might be too grand a project for one little family. In the time we were there, we were on a vague path perhaps ten percent of the time. The rest of the time we were hacking through undergrowth, wishing for a machete and hoping we were going in the right general direction. It is a quite surreal feeling to be somewhere you know really well but not recognise anything, not to mention the feeling of awe at the power of water.

There was a silver lining in the cloud of foliage: in an area usually undisturbed by humans, a box turtle sat beneath a tree. Box turtles are the original omnivore: they eat almost any insect, virtually any fruit or berry, mushrooms, a variety of vegetable matter, and even carrion. They must be doing something right, as this diet keeps them alive and kicking on average 25-30 years.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Simpler Times: Making Butter

WE haven't had raw milk for a while, so when we got some this week it seemed to be a good opportunity to make butter. First we had to pour the milk into a wide-mouthed container and let the cream settle. Then we skimmed off the cream and put it in a jar with a lid. Next came the fun part: shake, shake, shake then shake some more. Gradually the butter began to form as a yellow chunk, the buttermilk separating out. After rinsing the butter in cold water, it was ready to be eaten. Hmm, needed a little salt for my taste, but otherwise quite delicious, especially with homemade apple butter.

Next time I'll figure out something inventive to do with the buttermilk, and I've heard that a marble in the jar makes the churning go faster.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Splatter Painting Leaves

AFTER looking for leaves shaped liked stars and hands in nature class last week, we continued our study of leaf shapes in our own back garden. Autumn is so often about the colour of leaves, but having them all around on the ground is such a great opportunity to look at their other attributes! We found leaves with fingers, with noses, with teeth, with holes. Even to me it was quite a revelation to ignore the colours and look at other things. Of course, most leaves were from trees in our own garden, but we found a stray tulip tree leaf and couldn't even identify the source in neighbouring properties. I said it must have floated a long way on a breeze, and Emma contemplated: "Perhaps it heard we were having a Michaelmas Celebration and wanted to come to the party." Perhaps indeed.

With our leaf collection we preserved the shapes by splatter painting all around the edges with old toothbrushes. It took a few tries to get the paint consistency right, but they turned out quite pretty. We'll do some more for our nature table, I think.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Michaelmas Celebration

THE feast of St. Michael celebrates the bravery of the Archangel Michael, who cast out the dragon and delivered the people from darkness. Falling on September 29 near the equinox, the festival is also associated with the beginning of Autumn.

We were honored to host our Waldorf group for this celebration - and what an enjoyable occasion it was! After a circle of seasonal songs and verses, the dragon was released and chased all the children. One by one each child received a golden cape of courage - a silk that the children themselves dyed with turmeric and carrot tops at our last play group. How lovely to see them all running around, climbing trees and swinging, their golden capes flowing in the wind.

Then the children took part in a nature treasure hunt, using images on the Knight's Shield as clues. Their treasures all found, they could then seek green glass dragon tears, hidden throughout the garden.

Finally we gathered for a feast including warming soup, pumpkin bread and cupcakes, toffee apples and two magnificent dragon breads. It was indeed a celebration worthy of a great knight. Thank you to all the families who contributed!

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Wood Shop

WHAT better way to spend a rainy Saturday than exploring a real working wood shop? Along with two friends, Emma and Alexander looked at the different types of wood, played with scraps and dug around in huge mounds of sawdust. The adults got lessons in machine sawing and sanding. I made three trees to go with our stable/farm setup and Thomas made a rocket. We've had fun finishing off the sanding by hand, and will oil our creations next.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Monday, September 21, 2009

Toadstool Heaven

IT was hard to believe that Georgia has been in an official drought for much of the last ten years, given the monumental flooding that occured here last week. Though many farms in the state have suffered catastrophic damage, there is one crop that has flourished in the wet ground. 'Shrooms!

Hearing about a particularly fungus-filled area, we went to check it out. And really - wow! There were red ones, yellow ones, brown ones and white, smooth and speckled, 'mushroom'-shaped and the flat kind growing out of trees, tiny little bobbles and huge great fungi. I had warned Emma that I wanted to photograph fungi, but they didn't hold her interest quite as long as mine, and she soon sighed: "Mama, you don't have to take a picture of every one."

So what exactly is a toadstool and what is a mushroom? Both terms have been used for centuries and never clearly defined. Now, 'toadstool' usually refers to an inedible or poisonous cap-and-gill-shaped fungus, and mushroom an edible one - though this is by no means official. The word 'toadstool' may be connected to some kinds of poisonous toad, (one school holds that toads made mushrooms poisonous by sitting on them. Now that's something you don't see very often.) It has also been suggested that the word derives phonetically from the German word 'Todesstuhl' (literally 'death chair'). Either way, we were just there to look at them - we weren't planning on testing any poison theories.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Apple Pickin'

NOTHING tastes as good as a fruit you've just picked off the tree. Our first visit to an apple orchard was an exciting discovery of all kinds of apple varieties you can't find at the supermarket. We picked Arkansaw Black, Golden, Cameo, Rome Beauty, Honey Crisp and Mutsu. The children were delighted to have so many apples within reach - Emma was able to pick many at her own height (they were dwarf trees), and Alexander just had a field day with windfalls.

We came home with a 1/2 bushel of crunchy goodness. Luckily I found this site with all kinds of apple recipes.

(sung to tune of "Frere Jacques")

Picking apples, picking apples
One by one, one by one
Put them in a basket, put them in a basket
Oh what fun! Oh what fun!

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Magic Forest

OVER the summer, we've spent many a lazy afternoon working and playing in what's become known as "The Magic Forest". This is a small wooded area at the back of our back garden which has been adopted by children and gnomes.

Like other forests, it is constantly evolving. The toddler-sized obstacle course was long ago moved around to challenge longer legs and greater balance. When we discovered a stash of tree trunks across town, we made a few trips and now have a table and chairs as well as various stepping stones, benches, a hammering table and whatever else the game requires on any given day. One afternoon was spent moving a little house into position, and 'landscaping' around it. Another making a simple rope swing.

Emma likes to play homeowner and designates me as the gardener. She finds this a good arrangement, as she is then at liberty to drink tea and mustard soup (her recipe, usually made from sand) while I carry out whatever maintenance is required. Now and again she gives me advice, or even deigns to help on occasion. This week I was needed to fix some holes in the roof of her fort, which was a good use for pruned branches. Wisteria vines are especially great for fort building, as they are like rope! Alexander takes on various roles in the game, usually involving sticks in his hand, dirt all over and some object in his mouth.

Just in case the gnomes get lost, we thought perhaps the Magic Forest should have a sign, which kept us occupied another afternoon. (Actually two - one to paint the sign, the next to scrub paint from the patio.) I wonder what the forest will look like next year?

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Remember September

AS summer gives way to early autumn, we set about updating our nature table with an apple theme. The tree was a collection of twigs that we decorated with felt leaves. The apples we made by wet-felting small balls of green and red wool. (Alexander found a new method for this - apparently saliva works as well as soap to aid the felting process.)

A painting of an apple orchard and needle-felted rabbit finished the scene, which I'm sure will be added to with various treasures found on walks throughout the month.

We found some great apple books at the library, including The Apple Pie That Papa Baked by Lauren Thompson, and The Apple King by Francesca Bosca, which I will bring to Emma's pre-school as a puppet story.

Finally, we learnt a new song for the month:

Remember September
by Marlys Swinger
(in Sing Through The Seasons)

Remember September; Before she said goodbye
She told the youngest robins the way they ought to fly.
Around the mountain's shoulder she spread a gypsy shawl,
And sent a breeze among the trees to sing about the fall.

Remember September; Before she went away
She taught the cricket fiddlers the proper tunes to play,
She gave a modest maple a dress of red and gold
And showed a mouse a little house to keep him from the cold.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

New Garden

TIME to say adieu to our first successful little garden plot. The tomato and squash plants returned to the earth by way of the compost heap, which, we were delighted to discover, had actually yielded some useable compost! This we used to prepare the bed for autumn plantings, and Emma and I had lots of fun choosing seedlings and seeds at our favourite gardening shop. We planted dandelion, green and red kale, rainbow chard, broccoli, cauliflower and brussels sprouts transplants; then turnip, golden and red beets, rapini and spinach from seed. It has been fun to watch the seeds sprout and produce tiny leaflets just four days after planting (pictured are turnip seedlings); however, something has been gnawing mercilessly with equal speed on the larger plants' leaves. Not sure what kind of animal is responsible, but I dare say a little fence wouldn't go amiss.