Saint Patrick’s Day Baking: Brown Soda Bread with Oats and Molasses

I had my DNA analyzed a year or so ago, and it confirmed what I was already pretty certain of: I am predominately Easter European (My mom’s parents were Ukrainian immigrants), German (PA Dutch through my father) with a smattering of England and Wales, also likely my father’s side.  I’m not the least bit Irish, though the hardships that prompted Irish immigration to the US in the 1800s are strikingly similar to those that propelled my Ukrainian grandparent’s families to flee Galicia in the early 1900s.  While I lack a genetic connection to Ireland my wife and daughter do have Irish heritage.  That means that for Saint Patrick’s Day we did the quintessential Irish-American dinner: Corned beef and cabbage and soda bread.  Corned beef was adopted by Irish immigrants to the US who learned about it from Jewish immigrants with whom they were crowded into urban tenements. It is not or at least was not common in Ireland.  As one food historian pointed out, both beef and salt would have been prohibitively expensive for most Irish in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Furthermore, cattle were used predominately for dairy production or for field work. Soda bread, however, was a staple in Ireland since the introduction of baking soda as a leavening agent in the 1800s.

So, I made our dinner of corned beef and cabbage and soda bread.  The corned beef was fine, the potatoes and cabbage were good, but the standout was the soda bread.  Here is the recipe (adapted from the Complete Irish Pub Cookbook)

Brown Soda Bread with Molasses and Oats

2 Cups all purpose flour

2 Cups whole wheat flour

1/2 Cup rolled oats (plus extra to sprinkle on top)

1 1/2 Teaspoons salt

1 Teaspoon baking soda

1 3/4 Cups buttermilk

2 Tablespoons molasses


  1. Preheat oven to 450° F.  Line a baking sheet or pan with parchment paper.
  2. Combine the dry ingredients in a bowl and mix
  3. In a measuring glass or pitcher stir together the molasses and buttermilk.  Form a well in the middle of the dry ingredients and pour in the buttermilk mixture reserving just a teaspoon.  Using a fork, spatula or your hands (my preference) stir the liquid, gradually pulling in the dry ingredients until well combine.  Dump the dough onto a surface dusted lightly with flour and knead the dough until fully combined and smooth.
  4. Shape the dough into a circle and press flat to a thickness of about 2 inches and place on the parchment lined sheet or pan.  Brush the top with the remaining teaspoon of buttermilk mixture and sprinkle the top with additional oats and lightly press them into the surface (this bit is optional).  Cut a cross into the top of the dough with a sharp knife or lamé.
  5. Bake for 15 minutes at 450°F.  Reduce the oven temp to 400° F and bake for an additional 20 to 25 minutes.  You know it is done when the bread sounds hollow when you tap the bottom.  I suppose if you want to be certain you can also use and instant read thermometer–the internal temp should be about 180° F.


soda bread



Travels in Pennsylvania

I got to spend this past week down in Pennsylvania, my home state.  The beginning of the week was spent in Philadelphia at the University of Pennsylvania working with Phyllis Solomon, my friend, mentor and world renowned scholar.  It was a very productive few days of data analysis and writing; we also managed to submit an abstract for the American Pubic Health Association’s annual meeting.


Given how productive those few days were I felt good in spending a few days out in the country pursuing other interests.  On the long drive from Massachusetts to Pennsylvania I like to listen to audiobooks, and it was serendipitous that I happened to have selected Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport.  The book nicely dovetailed with many of the things I’ve been thinking about lately, not the least of which is the importance of cultivating  high quality analog activities in a digital age that seeks to apprehend more and more of our attention.  Newport shares many of my concerns with what the constant flow of information via social media, cell phones, and email are doing to our ability to think deeply and clearly  or to engage in real human interactions.  I’ve been a fan of Cal Newport’s work for a couple of years now; Digital Minimalism is must read as far as I am concerned. Newport cites the Amish (I would also add the Old Order Mennonites) as an example of people who have a thoughtful relationship with technology.  The serendipitous part of all of this is that while in Pennsylvania my best friend Jay and I took a ride out through Lancaster (aka Amish country) to pick up a few hundred pounds of pig feed.

The Amish have had to contend with being treated as a tourist attraction, and have accommodated this perhaps out of necessity.  Surely some of their “English” neighbors have been happy to exploit the image of the quaint Amish in order to collect a few tourist dollars.  But, those of us who grew up near Amish country or had business dealings with the Amish community know how much the tourism misses the point.  The Amish are not quaint or throw backs or manifestations of a bygone era.  They are simply thoughtful and deliberate about what parts of modern life they want to adopt.  Newport makes a strong case for this in his book.  If a technology serves to make the community or the church (those things are synonymous) stronger, than it is permissible.  If it threatens the bonds of community it is not permissible.  This is what Albert Borgmann and David Strong would call “technology in the service of things.” The Amish and Mennonite are not anti-technology per se, they are just extremely deliberate in how they decide which technologies they will adopt.

I don’t want to fall into the trap of claiming that Amish communities are utopias.  To be sure, they operate by certain values that contradict many of my deeply held beliefs about education and equal rights for women.  Nevertheless, as Newport points out, there is a lesson for us in thinking about technology from the old order perspective. Does the technology reinforce your values and facilitate the activities that give your life its deepest meaning and reinforce your bonds with family and community?  In many cases the answer is probably “no,” but that has hardly impeded the growth in time we spend staring at screens or arguing on the internet.  My god, take a moment to look around the next time you go to a restaurant and count the number of people ignoring the person across from them in favor of the cold glow of a smart phone screen.

I am a man of many enthusiasms.  I love to garden and build furniture and read and write and fix my house and restore antiques and volunteer in my community and spend time with my family and so on and so forth.  I am routinely asked how I find time to do these things.  Or, people will say, “I would love to do this or that but I’m just too busy.”  Too busy doing what?  The average American now spends two hours per day staring at a smart phone screen (usually Facebook or other social media) and 4 hours per day watching television.  Thing about it: what could you do with 6 extra hours per day?  I don’t do Facebook, I watch very little television, my smart phone has been stripped down to only a few essential functions, and I spend no more than 20 minutes on Instagram. My time on Instagram is mostly dedicated to finding inspiration from other gardeners and furniture makers.  Like Newport suggests, and like the Amish and Mennonite, I have consciously chosen to be very deliberate with my use of technologies that encourage passive consumption rather than rich and meaningful engagement.  I hope this doesn’t sound self-righteous.  I have my flaws and weaknesses and tendency for self indulgence like everyone else.  But, I have taken time to think carefully about the distractions I will permit.  I’m not perfect, but I waste a hell of a lot less time now, and my life is far better for the effort.

On the farm

It is a 45 minute drive from west Philadelphia out to Worcester, PA where my best friend Jay and his family live. The farm itself dates back to 1818.  Currently, he is raising pigs, steer and chickens; one of those pigs will be mine after it has grown to butchering weight (hence the trip to Lancaster to buy feed). I’ll also be buying 1/4 of a steer.  I like to buy meat that I know was thoughtfully and humanely raised.

It is a beautiful old Pennsylvania Dutch farm.  While there, I was able to use his forge to make some hitching rings for the dairy barn at Appleton Farms where I volunteer–the dairy herd managers want them so they can tie up a dairy cow if she needs medical care or is ready for insemination.  I forged these to match one that is already in the barn.

Jay is a much better smith than I am so he did a good bit of the work and made sure I didn’t screw up the part that I worked on.

It was a great trip that gave me lots of time to think.  Jay works on the neighboring farm which dates the 18th century and was once used by Washington as a headquarters before the battle of Germantown. It is now a county historical site.  It is hard not to be contemplative when this is your daily view:

As you can see, some snow rolled in on the second day i was there.  After a few days on the farm (and with news of a snow storm barreling toward New England) it was time to head for home. I returned to Marblehead a few days ago to find my family–and plenty of projects–anxiously awaiting me.

Of Cows and Cheese

Given my longstanding love of all things (or at least most things) agricultural I was anxious to find some way to indulge my interest in husbandry and agronomy.  Thankfully, one of my favorite organization–The Trustees of Reservations–posted a volunteer opportunity at Appleton Farms in Ipswich.  I have loved the farm since I relocated here 6 or so years ago, mostly because the rolling pastures remind me of home, or at least what home looked like before developers decided that McMansions were a preferable crop to hay or corn.  I’ve also had a longstanding love of the channel island breeds, and so I could not be happier that Appleton maintains a herd of Jersey cows.

Jersey cows have good dispositions and are inquisitive and at times goofy.

The members of the dairy team are really fantastic and though I came in with a little bit of knowledge there is a lot I don’t know and they have patiently indulged my questions and tolerated my enthusiasm.


The farm maintains a farm store where they sell dairy products produced from the Jersey herd and beef culled from their herd of White Park cattle in addition to products from other producers.  Now having a steady supply of Jersey cow milk (higher in butterfat and protein than that produced by the ubiquitous Holstein) I decided to have a go at making cheese, something I’ve never tried before.  So, cheese made from milk from a humanely managed herd of Jerseys that I get to help feed and care for.  Farm to table indeed.


I knew nothing of cheese making so I went to New England Cheese Making Supply Company and bought one of their beginner kits.  They provide you everything you need to get started including well written instructions.  Elsie and I decide to start by making Mozzarella. These instruction are not mine, but are directly from the recipe pamphlet provide with the cheese making kit.  This recipe requires 1 gallon milk, citric acid, rennet, and salt. In addition to ingredients, you need a 1 gallon stainless steel pot, thermometer, colander, knife, and slotted.spoon

  1. Dissolve 1/4 rennet tablet in 1/4 cup cool, chlorine free water (or use 1/4 teaspoon liquid rennet).
  2. Mix 1 1/2 teaspoons citric acid into 1 cup cool water and pour into your pot.
  3. Pour 1 gallon milk into the pot and stir vigorously.
  4. Continue to stir while heating the milk to 90° F.IMG_1069
  5. Remove pot from heat and stir in the rennet.  Continue to stir for 30 seconds.
  6. Cover the pot and leave undisturbed for 5 minutes.
  7. Check the curd.  If it is too soft or the whey is still milky let it sit a few more minutes.
  8. Cut the curd with a knife in a criss-cross pattern.
  9. Put back on heat and raise temp to 110° F while slowly moving the curds about.
  10. Remove from the burner and stir slowly for 2-5 minutes
  11. Pour off the floating whey.
  12. Heat a pot of water to 185°F.
  13. Ladle the curds into a colander.
  14. Dip the curds into the hot water.  After several dips use a spoon to fold the curds until they become elastic and stretchable.
  15. When it becomes stretchable enough remove the curd from the water and pull like taffy.  Add salt.IMG_1068
  16. Form into a ball and chill in ice water.

So, how did we do?  Not bad for the first time.

The cheese is a little harder/firmer than I intended–next time we will reduce the amount of time we stir it in step 10.  We could also use a bit more salt.  Nevertheless, we are really happy with our first effort.


It made a great chicken Parmesan, which Elsie cooked up using a Raddish Kids recipe.


I cannot recommend the kit from New England Cheese Making highly enough.  The instructions are great for a novice like me.



Sometimes I’m Man-Dumb

Every sitcom and commercial for the past 50 years has used the old trope of the man too stubborn or proud to read instructions or ask for directions, usually resulting in some sort of comic folly. Lets call it “man dumb.” Granted, I hate to trade in sexist tropes, but there really is no other way to put it: sometimes I’m also man dumb.   I don’t always ask for directions or read instructions when I should.  Case in point is my table saw.

A few years ago I got a Grizzly G0771 hybrid table saw. It was a good choice for me as it struck a good balance between the substance of a cabinet saw and the mobility of a contractor saw.  In my small shop, I need to be able to wheel larger tools out of the way.


And while I love to use hand tools, I desperately wanted a table saw and was willing to sacrifice some of the precious real estate in my basement.  I assembled it and have run a lot of wood through it.  It worked okay but not great.  I thought perhaps I had been spoiled by using my father’s heavy duty cabinet saw.  You see, I assembled the saw without ever opening the owner’s manual.  That’s right, man-dumb.

After three years I finally opened the owner’s manual and went page by page measuring, squaring and adjusting (plus had the blade resharpened by Forrest Industrial).  It wasn’t that off just a 1/16th here and 1/32nd there.  My lord what a difference.  It cuts straight, square and smooth. It really is a very good saw; the only “upgrade” I have made was a zero clearance throat plate from Highland Woodworking. Had I read the manual three years ago when I first set it up I could have saved myself so much hassle. So, Grizzly, you have my apologies for the light swearing that went on for the past few years–in reality, the problem was the user, not the manufacturer.

Another Toasting Box

I’ve been busy in the shop this past month building another toasting box for my friend Jay.  The box is built out of solid mahogany; there is not plywood or laminates.  There is a humidor compartment that is lined with Spanish cedar and held closed by maple toggles.

This is the first time I have used mahogany in a project.  It has its challenges: open grain and it splinters and splits easily and it also loves to cup.  It is a softer wood and so easier to work with hand tools–I met little resistance while sawing and chiseling the dovetails.  When you add an oil finish, the results are stunning.


My dovetails are improving


Just waiting on a few final bits of hardware and this one will be all wrapped up.

Craftwork and Making as Antidote

I usually just write about gardening and making.  My fixation on these activities is rooted not just in “having a hobby,” but also as a push back against techno utopianism and consumerism.  I just read this article by L.M. Sacasas and it deftly articulates many of my concerns.  I’m going to take up with this issue at length in a later post, but I believe that craftwork and making are antidotes to the dominant techno-paradigm in which we live.

Learning the Dovetail Part II

You can create perfect dovetail joints time and time again if you don’t mind spending a few dollars on a router and jig.  It is a really tempting proposition, because as I have been discovering, to execute a dovetail well by hand requires a lot of practice.  Saws drift and chisels can get away from us.  Making the dovetail by hand is intriguing though because for all its strength and beauty it can be effectively executed with just a few basic tools.  In other words, if you are willing to practice, and willing to accept something a bit less than perfection, you can build beautiful and strong joints without purchasing a lot of expensive equipment.  The other thing I’ve learned is that the dovetail joint rewards patience and punishes the impatient so if, like me, you need to be reminded on occasion to slow down and act deliberately and patiently then it is worth spending some time learning how to handmade the dovetail joint (and skip the router). Like many woodworkers, I can attribute my learning to Chris Becksvoort whose many articles and videos were my guide.

Tools of the trade

There are a few tools that are critical to a properly executed dovetail, and a few that are nice to have because they make the job a bit easier.  I’ll start with the necessities:

  1. Dovetail saw:  A dovetail saw is simply a back saw with a thin kerf that is designed for rip cuts.  There is a wide range of prices on these from a few dollars used to a few hundred for one from Bad Axe Toolworks.  I purchased mine from Lie-Nielsen tools and can attest to its quality.  Beautifully made and razor sharp this saw effortlessly cuts through hardwoods and leaves a clean, straight cut.
  2. Chisels: A couple of sizes for removing material between the pins and tails. I use Stanley 750 socket chisels.  They do O.K., though an upgrade to Lie-Nielsen chisels may be in my future as the hard maple I favor does a number on the edges.
  3. Marking gauge (or two):  I use the Veritas marking gauge.  It does exactly what it supposed to do and does it well.  I have used, but don’t like, traditional marking gauges that rely on a pin or nail to do the marking.  I have found that they often tear or chatter when marking and are harder to keep on a straight line. The marking wheel on the Veritas cuts nicely and leaves a thin, straight line.
  4. Square: You need to be able to transfer markings and so you need a square.  It is helpful to have a couple sizes
  5. Sliding bevel or dovetail layout tool: This simply helps you lay out tails that have consistent angles.
  6. Marking tools: To layout the tails I use a mechanical pencil with .007 lead. When marking out the pins I like to use a knife.

These are mostly basic tools that any woodworker–even a beginning woodworker–should have laying about.  The only new tools I acquired were the dovetail saw and the Veritas dovetail saddle marker.

Nice to have but not necessary
  1. Veritas dovetail saddle marker:  This thing makes transferring line a breeze
  2. Fret saw or coping saw: Some instructional videos have you use a fret or coping saw to remove the waste between pins and tails.  I tried this approach but was not terribly successful in defining a straight and clean shoulder.  I prefer to use a chisel

Making the dovetail

Before attempting my first dovetail I spent about an hour practicing with my saw.  I laid out several angled pencil lined on the ends of scrap wood and cut over and over until I had a real feel for my saw and could consistently cut a straight line along the pencil marks.

In terms of layout and execution, I will refer you to the sources I used rather than recount the steps here.  Chris Becksvoort‘s articles and videos are really goodBecksvoort instructs one to cut the tails on two boards at a  time. I found that I cannot cut as accurately when I do that so I cut one set of tails at a time.  Other than that, I followed his instructions closely and after cutting away at lots of scrap poplar I was ready to give it a go on some nice hardwood.

My first project was a gift for a good friend of mine who is a fellow Scotch aficionado and camping enthusiast.  I built him a toasting box. Tradition holds that a successful day in the field, on the stream, or a quiet evening gathered around the campfire should be celebrated with a toast among friends.  The toasting box and is designed to safely hold and transport a favorite libation and glasses from home to the field. This one is made of maple and finished with Danish Oil.


The dovetails aren’t perfect, but they are pretty good and overall I’m happy with the outcome, as was my friend for whom I made it.  I am certain my next effort will be a little better as will the dovetails I cut after that and after that and so on and so forth.  Practice and patience.  IMG_0875


A gentle reminder…

…that nobody is perfect.  As I teach myself to hand cut dovetails (with the help of Mr. Becksvoort’s excellent articles on the subject) and prepare to use them in some projects I encounter the same frustrations every woodworker encounters: splits, miscuts, and the sinking feeling that you have ruined a beautiful and not so cheap piece of hardwood (and set back your project timetable).

The feeling of inadequacy in one’s own work is often exacerbated by reading blogs and articles by modern masters or about past masters.  I recently watched a video by Chris Becksvoort on how to hand cut a dovetail.  Pedagogically it was a really good video–I walked away with a lot of tips that made my dovetails better.  However, I also found myself seesawing between saying “hey I can do that” and “man, my dovetails will never look that good.” Seeing the precision produced by woodworking machines and router jigs deepens the sense of a lack of skill for those of use that work mostly with hand tools. Machine cut dovetails are incredibly tight and precise.

I read with delight and some sense of self pardon an article on Eclectic Mechanicals about uncovering mistakes in pieces of Shaker furniture, a style of furniture that has long inspired woodworkers and stood as an apogee of American furniture design and construction.  I, for one, really appreciated the reassurance.  I am working on a gift for a friend’s birthday that involves dovetail joinery.  My dovetails are getting pretty good.  Not perfect, but pretty good.  I am certain my friend will appreciate the gift even with some errors here and there.

Workmanship of Risk

I recently started following the blog over at Lost Art Press. Given my interest in both craftsmanship and the philosophy of technology I was intrigued by two recent posts discussing the work of David Pye, specifically his distinction between the “workmanship of risk” and the “workmanship of certainty.”   Christopher Schwarz over at Lost Art argues that this is a meaningless distinction, and in a later post argues that the language we use in making these distinctions disparages the work of those who employ woodworking machinery.  I disagree that the distinction between workmanship of risk and workmanship of certainly is unimportant: there is a difference and as a philosophical construct it is worth discussing, though I think Pye misses the mark.  As to Mr. Schwarz’s larger argument, he is spot on: the important thing is making, and the distinction that Pye makes cannot and should not prompt us to value some making over other types of making.

Mr. Schwartz author claims that if someone is writing about craftsmanship, you can bet that there is  a copy of Pye’s book is nearby.  Well, I have to admit that for all of my interest in craftsmanship and the role of technology, I have never read Pye. So, I looked for a copy at my university’s library, but they did not have it so I got through interlibrary loan from a local art school. My own thinking about the philosophy of technology and the role of technology in woodworking and my life in general is more informed by Albert Borgmann, David Strong, and Carl Mitcham. So, I got my hands on a copy of The Nature and Art of Workmanship.

Workmanship of Risk vs. Workmanship of Certainty

Pye’s project is to draw a distinction between what he sees as an essential difference between production by the hand of a skilled craftsman vs. those produced by mechanized or automated processes. Pye describes the workmanship of risk as:

“workmanship using any kind of technique or apparatus, in which the quality of the result is not predetermined, but depends on the judgment, dexterity and care which the maker exercises as he works.”

Pye contrasts this with what he terms the workmanship of certainty:

“With the workmanship of risk we may contrast the workmanship of certainty, always to be found in quantity production, and found in its pure state in full automation.  In workmanship of this sort the quality of the result is exactly predetermined before a single saleable thing is made…but all the works of men which have been most admired since the beginning of history have been made by the workmanship of risk.”

Schwarz argues that this is a false distinction:

“I think the amount of risk between things Pye describes as “risk” and those that are “certain” is so small in reality that they are useless distinctions. In general, making things involves risk. We try to control it at the workbench and on the factory floor. But ultimately – and this is important to me – hand processes and machine processes are ruled by the same narrow factors.”

Mr. Schwarz makes that case that all making involves some risk and that certainty is illusory.  His argument is based in his own experience as a woodworker and press operator.  I am with him thus far.  I’ve known and worked with my fair share of machinists and millwrights and have repeatedly marveled at their precision and nuanced understanding (dare I say Zen like?) of the subtle feedback they receive from the machine.  That being said, I’m not convinced that Pye’s essential project–attempting to differentiate between hand work and machine or automated work–isn’t important.  I just think he has philosophically missed the mark in failing to 1. recognize the skill and input that automated processes require, and 2. differentiating between skill types.

I won’t claim to have a position worked out on this issue, but I can speculate what it may look like.  I think there is a difference between interacting with the raw material in shaping the final project and interacting with a machine that interacts with the material. Here I will lean on Mathew Crawford’s take on the stochastic arts which, i think, better captures the skill of the production line operator:

“Because the stochastic arts diagnose and fix things that are variable, complex, and not of our own making, and therefore not fully knowable, they require a certain disposition toward the thing you are trying to fix. This disposition is at once cognitive and moral. Getting it right demands that you be attentive in the way of a conversation rather than assertive in the way of a demonstration. I believe the mechanical arts have a special significance for our time because they cultivate not creativity, but the less glamorous virtue of attentiveness. Things need fixing and tending no less than creating”

More importantly, those who engage in the processes that Pye calls “workmanship of certainty” are no less engaged with means and ends than the craftsman that works with hand tools.  I think of Borgmann’s device paradigm. Though Mr. Schwarz does not make direct reference to Borgmann, he nevertheless demonstrates that the incursion of technology into production processes does not necessary result in the divorce of means and ends that are often the concern of philosophers of technology.

The Work of Workmanship

There is, it seems, an historical inevitability to this conversation.  Most if us who work with our hands are not professional woodworkers or furniture or cabinet makers.  We are hobbyists (or perhaps better put, enthusiasts).  Here is the interesting historical piece: the birth and popularity of the home workshop arose in no small part as a critique of modernity and modern technology.  The popularity of handcraft as an antidote to the dehumanization of scientific management and the cleaving of ends and means that was engendered by the birth of the modern assembly line (this legacy is touched on by Matthew Crawford in his excellent Shop Class as Soulcraft).  Indeed, the growth of home handcraft found its genesis in the antimodernist movements of the late 19th and early 20th century (For a more in depth perspective on this I recommend the compelling No Place of Grace: Antimodernism and the Transformation of American Culture by T.J. Jackson Lears).  So, we should hardly find it surprising then that over a century later we are still debating the moral and philosophical significance of the machine.

Years ago, I was a member of the rec.woodworking newsgroup.  There was the divide between the Normites (name derived from Norm Abram and his machine heavy approach to woodworking) and the Neanderthals (traditional hand tool folks). Most of the ribbing was good natured.  The reality was this: 1. most of us were a mix of both rather than a pure expression of the species, and 2. it would have been arrogant and ultimately futile to make a claim about which of us derived more joy from the work we did in our basements and garage workshops into the late evening hours after our regular daily labors were done.

Mr. Schwarz is right that the language we use in discussing the distinctions between hand tools and machines can be–even if unintentionally so–disparaging to those who find joy and fulfillment in using a piece of machinery.  I have been guilty of this myself, and if I’m honest, I must admit that I find both joy and amazement at the precision and efficiency of a piece of modern equipment.  There is also a deeper issue here, which is that our American culture disparages (both implicitly and explicitly) people that work with their hands, and I for one do not want to contribute to that. I also think about the amount of time my father and I have spent bonding over episodes of the New Yankee Workshop or marveling at some new machine her purchased–that, my friends, is a whole world of making and engagement that I would never want to minimize or marginalize.

I predominately use hand tools because it is what I have room for in my small shop and I enjoy the historical connection.  Consequently, it is also what I write about, and I will continue to explore the differences between making with hand tools and making with machinery.  I really believe there is an important philosophical distinction to be made without privileging one over the other. I will also heed Mr. Schwarz warning and try to be thoughtful about the manner in which I extol the virtues of a hand cut dovetail or my love for my Stanley #8 joiner. The important part is to build.

The Garden in Late Autumn

Late November is always poignant for me.  My birthday falls on the 19th, and my favorite holiday–Thanksgiving–comes just a few days later.  Inevitably this time of year finds me in a particularly contemplative mood. I think about what it means to be another year older and reflect on my own mortality while also taking time to thing abut gratitude and the good fortune I have enjoyed.  A strange mix of melancholy and joy that I struggle to explain.  I remember growing up in farm country in eastern Pennsylvania and having that same feeling as I walked or rode my bike along the corn fields that had been cut down to ragged spikes and were now host to hers of whitetail deer and flocks of crows.  I doubt that I was contemplating mortality all that much at that age, but nevertheless, I can recall that same mix of sadness and delight.

I spent the better part of the past weekend cleaning up leaves and cutting back dead perennials and putting away the garden tools for the winter.  It is late autumn in New England and it has turned cold and we are reminded that winter is close. I’ve had A lot to think about today.  Recently turning 45 has weighed on my mind. We recently celebrated Thanksgiving with friends, and so I also thought about gratitude and good fortune.  Never far from the ecological, my thoughts drifted to things other than my lifelong affinity for merging the mournful with the celebratory. While cleaning up leaves I thought about the absurdity of cleaning up leaves and shipping them away.

As the light began to fade and I finished putting the garden to bed for the season I returned to that old preoccupation that is for me so tied to this time of year: life and death and the passage of time.  Gratitude, fallen leaves, and death. This may all sound a bit disjointed, but completing my work in the garden in late fall somehow tied it all together.


Gratitude can transform common days into thanksgivings, turn routine jobs into joy, and change ordinary opportunities into blessings. –William Arthur Ward


Each seasonal transition signals a set of duties I must fulfill–cleaning gutters, raking leaves, re-caulking windows and on and on and on.  A lot of people will roll their eyes and effect their most sarcastic tone and say “ahhh, the joys of home ownership.” I often say that myself, but without the eye rolls and sarcasm because  these are not chores to me.  They are rituals, and I love rituals.

It may seem absurd at first to think about the yearly chores of home ownership as sacred rather than profane, but I do.  What some would see as nuisance–raking leaves, cleaning gutters, cleaning out window boxes, cutting back perennials, and stowing away the gardening tools for the winter–are something more than what they superficially seem to be.

Rain barrel disconnected and turned on end to prevent ice damage

Far from rote, annual toils, these rituals of late autumn are another reminder of what it means to be thoughtful and to exercise care for the things around me: our home and the environment around it and the critters with whom we share our little corner of Marblehead.  Showing care for the things around me is how I express my gratitude.  So I go about my late Autumn tasks with the devotion of a pilgrim.  Perhaps “he piously kept his gutters clear of leaves” could be my epitaph! After a passerby got over the absurdity of that inscription he or she might consider what it means: that we may express our piety through attention to grand religious rituals, or, as I and many others do, through our attention to and care for common tasks.  I’m not a particularly religious man.  In fact, I lean heavily toward atheism.  However, I have always admired the Shakers for their devotion and craftsmanship.  On a trip to Hancock Shaker Village in western Massachusetts I saw a saying that really resonated with me: “Hands to work, hearts to God.”

In defense of leaves

Nature will bear the closest inspection. She invites us to lay our eye level with her smallest leaf, and take an insect view of its plain. –Henry David Thoreau


Autumn in New England brings many things: changing foliage, apple picking, cooler weather and, of course, a proliferation of Ugg boots.  Autumn also brings the near constant whine of 2 cycle leaf blowers as landscapers descend on our neighborhoods to rid each and every yard of the greatest scourge known to man (I mean besides Ugg boots): fallen leaves.  It is a ridiculous autumnal ritual that even I admit to falling prey to, though I am happily becoming more and more of an apostate.  I still blow the leaves from our small yard and driveway and walkways, but when it comes to the garden and beds, I am an advocate  for leaving the leaves alone (sort of).

  1. If I must pick up leaves, I try to find a way to use them on the property. Leaves that I clean off of the driveway and walkways around the house I put into a wire bin to make leaf mold which I use to mulch around plants.  I also add leaves to the composter to boost the amount of brown material.
  2. When I can, I leave them where they fall.  There are many benefits to doing this.  The leaves protect and insulate plant roots.  Leaves are also a vital habitat for small mammals, toads, turtles, and birds, all of whom need cover and protection during the cold winter months.  In the spring, I either work the leaves into the bed with a cultivator prior to mulching, or if there is too much buildup, I will add them to the composter.
  3. I spread  them in the treeline where, along with brush piles, leaves can return nutrients to the soil while providing vital cover.

It is ridiculous to think about the resources we expend rounding up leaves and hauling them away.  More ridiculous to consider how much of it winds up being landfilled.  For more information on why you should leave your leaves check this out.

The garden on the cusp of winter

“I prefer winter and fall, when you feel the bone structure in the landscape – the loneliness of it – the dead feeling of winter. Something waits beneath it – the whole story doesn’t show.”- Andrew Wyeth

The vegetable garden has been put to rest for the year and I have cut back the perennials that have gone from summer green to a crisp, autumn brown after a late October frost.  When I cut back the desiccated plants I leave behind the seed heads from cone flowers and Black Eyed Susan among the leaf litter so the birds and squirrels may find a bit of forage before the first snow.  The leaves have lost their October hues and  lie scattered across the garden beds.  Brittle and snuff-colored they rustle now at even the slightest wind.  The garden in late autumn is austere, but beautiful still.  Dried stalks of grass remain upright, though they will eventually bend to the first snow fall.  Until then, their dried seed heads are luminous in the late November sun.

Inflorescence of the Miscanthus sinensis


This Pennisetum orientale ‘Karly Rose’ has lost its deeper red hues in favor of pink and brown while its remaining seeds disperse in the autumn wind.
A stand of Panicum virgatum ‘Heavy Metal’ has fade from steel blue to bister, but continues to define our property’s edge.

Besides the evergreens, there is little color left, though the stems of the dogwoods seem to intensify in hue as we reach deeper into fall.

Red and yellow twig dogwoods, Cornus sericea

If the summer garden invites us to explore the proliferation of life, the winter garden–quieter but just as welcoming–invites us to consider the end of things.  Thoreau wrote of the falling Autumn leaves:

“How many flutterings before they rest quietly in their graves! They that soared so loftily, how contentedly they return to dust again, and are laid low, resigned to lie and decay at the foot of the tree, and afford nourishment to new generations of their kind, as well as to flutter on high! They teach us how to die. One wonders if the time will ever come when men, with their boasted faith in immortality, will lie down as gracefully and as ripe,–with such an Indian-summer serenity will shed their bodies, as they do their hair and nails.”–H.D. Thoreau, Autumnal Tints

Colder and more melancholic but just as vital and intriguing, the garden in late Autumn inevitably draws us to a meditation on death and the passage of time.  The year’s work is done, the harvest is in and we may take our rest.