Word Challenge


For Christmas a couple of years ago I got a set of Scrabble tiles with magnets on the back (thanks Bro!). At the time we did not have a refrigerator with a magnetic face. Ours was the one that came with our house when we bought it–it had wood face to match the cabinets. When we had to replace the refrigerator we had magnet capability. So up went the letters.

We keep shifting them around, spelling new words, or sometimes arranging them in ways that make “words” if you know what I mean (Thwand?). Lately I have been trying my hand at my own challenge.

First, know that there is only one tile for each letter–26 tiles for 26 letters. The challenge is to use all the letters in words with none left over. It can be any number of words and the words have to be common usage words. It is not a difficult challenge to understand, mind you, but accomplishing it has proved a struggle.

The photo above is a pretty good attempt; only two letters are left over. That Q, with its typical U pairing, isn’t making it easy. I was pretty proud of Blintz as it uses three consonants in a row. That is a win.

If you can do this better, let me know. I want to know if it is possible. And if so, what words. I’ll keep trying, of course. Those letters aren’t going anywhere for a while.

Classic November


I walked outside after a day meeting with students and felt the rain on my face. It wasn’t a hard rain, or a cold rain. It was not a driving rain, or the rain that comes from tall summer thunderheads. It was a gentle, sporadic rain. It was an unpredictable rain. Walking to the car and then driving and then walking again, the rain came down in bursts. Sometimes it fell with gusto, other times like a whisper.

Gray clouds filled the sky. Then, suddenly, they fell away and the sun seemed too bright. I squinted. Then smiled. It was a typical November day. I started the day with a coat and shed it later in the day once I started moving around. The clouds swirled around and came back. Then it rained again.

The day was warm. Our thermometer at home has been stuck at 21. Odd. The temperature was in the 50’s, even long after dark. My son and I bounced around on the trampoline in the mostly-dark, under clouds, until rain fell once more. It tickled us then started to tap us, then got downright pokey. So we left it outside.

Now, children in bed, the hour late, the rain falls heavily. It drums against the roof. I sleep best, perhaps, when it rains, when I am warm and dry while the world gets soaked. One June night I slept in a tent, alone in the Vermont mountains, on one of the darkest nights I have experienced, while the rain scattered across the nylon roof. I slept well that night. I expect that this November night, my window just over the porch roof where the rain sounds loudest, blankets pulled snugly around me, I will sleep well again.

Dark Early


Mid-November it gets dark early. I drove home tonight in the near-dark while the sun set in its rose-colored glory. The crescent moon hung lonely in the sky. Silhouettes of trees, bare branches reaching for the cobalt sky, lined up on the horizon.

Years ago I worked as an outdoor educator. We did group programming into November. On those late fall days we would be putting away equipment in the shed, sometimes struggling to see. The shed had no power but it did have a kerosene lantern that helped, if we cared to use it. We hung ropes and stored belay devices in the shadows, walking out into the twilight after a day outside, feeling the damp and the dark.

These days I spend much less time outside. That is too bad. I appreciated the world more then. I felt I was in the world more. Now I spend more time in windowless spaces and in cars than outside. The world ticks past without me in it. I step outside after a day with too much time at a desk or at a computer screen. I do not notice the leaves falling quietly onto hemlock needles as much as I did.

But I do see the world. I notice what I can. The sky was so beautiful this afternoon I had to stop my car, get out and look up at the moon. I wanted to see it without the window as filter. I wanted, if just for a moment, to be in the world. So I parked on the side of the road, near the top of a hill, and I looked west, the light fading, the darkness pulling the stars from their berths, and I simply stood there.

Afternoon, Stick Season


The river runs not high but not low. A sand bank toward the far side pushes the water away, causing the current to run faster. Across the river the banks drop steeply. In spring, Bank Swallows nest here, burrowing into the sand, flying low over the water to catch flies. Today it is not spring. Fall’s glory has passed. The brilliance of turning leaves is over. Those leaves lie in wilted piles among the bare shrubs.

But it is not yet winter. The current flows smoothly over rocks and sand and mud. A few moths still flit among the maples. There is no ice under which the water must crawl, no ice to scrape at the log lodged in the river’s bend. Snow does not yet fall. Today there are no clouds and the air is warm enough for scattered green leaves in the under-story to spread to catch the sun. But the sun is low, and will not last much longer today.

Upstream, at the mouth of the stream that melts into the river, a beaver just stirs in its lodge. It has been waiting for the light to dim, for shadows to grow long. It dips into the water, swims, waits again. Soon it will climb the bank to work at the silver maple it plans to fell. Already it has cleared smaller trees. It will chew away the bark, working steadily, wary of predators. Perhaps this tree will fall before winter sets in. Perhaps spring winds will send it tumbling. Perhaps it may prove more stubborn, standing for years before its top branches dip into the water. The beaver, however, does not concern itself with such possibilities. It simply works.

Two Blue Jays call across the bare trunks. A woodpecker knocks. A second calls to it and sends the first flapping away. A small breeze taps branches together, but mostly it is quiet. Crickets, cicadas, birds do not sing. Squirrels stay still. The woods here rest, exposed, not waiting exactly, not sure or unsure, just knitting the past into the present so the future can be only an imagined thing that does not matter to this day.

Soon the sun will drop below the hills. The day’s heat will drift off, like milkweed seeds across a field. In the dark, the river will seem louder. No bats will dot the skies but owls will call. Already owls are planning for spring, finding mates, starting nests. They plan for the future, like the beaver, doing today what must be done for tomorrow. Mice will crawl under dry leaves, finding seeds that won’t become flowers, feeding the owls, thinking only of right now, this November day next to the river that will not stop flowing, even when the ice comes.

Brew Day

IMG_3146I was thinking maybe I would brew yesterday, but that just didn’t work out. Too many things to do. Today, the rest of the family took a trip to the climbing gym, which would not have been unfun, for sure, but I stayed home to brew. I had the ingredients. I had the equipment. It was a nice day. It seemed the right time.

I have been brewing beer since 1992. A friend and I had discovered that there were a few better beers out there, but not all that many. The craft beer revolution had just begun. He was pretty gung ho about brewing our own beer, and I was game, so off we went to the (now long gone) brew supply store in Orford, New Hampshire. This was just a guy selling stuff out of his garage but we got everything we needed. We were working at an outdoor education center at the time so we used the commercial pots and the huge gas range and had our mess cleaned up before the school kids came around for breakfast. That batch was pretty good. I made a few batches with that friend and with others before taking a hiatus from brewing for a while.

I pulled out my supplies several years ago to find that they were less than optimal after lack of use and several moves. As a Christmas gift, my parents got me a starter kit. I have added a few things over the years and have a fairly smooth system now. The process is pretty simple as I did it today: steep some grains in water, add malt extract and hops, boil it for an hour, cool, add yeast and let it sit for a while. Bottling is a later step that happens after fermentation is complete.

The set-up on the porch

The set-up on the porch. Note the yeast warming in the sun as it gets started.

Today’s batch was a brown ale. I have been craving something a little heartier than my last beer–an India pale ale. Plus, it is fall, so something darker fits the season. I added some maple syrup to the pot as well. One of my enhancements to my starter kit is a burner I can use on the porch. No one else in the house appreciates the sweet aroma of steaming malted barley and hops, so this allows me to keep that aroma mostly outside. I need to use the sink a bunch so I am back and forth, but today was a sunny day in the 50’s so it was not at all what you might call a misfortune to be out on the porch so much.


Wort bubbling away with hops in a bag to make clean-up easy.

Once it (the wort, that is, rhymes with skirt, which is just the beer as it is cooking) was all boiled up I sat the pot in ice water until it cooled off enough to add the yeast. Then I transferred it to the carboy to sit for a couple of weeks. By tomorrow morning it should be bubbling, the yeast snacking away at all the sugars. With some beers I add another step in the middle, transferring the brew to a second carboy to ferment longer to add other ingredients, like more hops; I am hoping this one will be straight to the bottles, however. I want it to be as simple as possible, at least for this go-round.

I don’t brew as often as I like. I take the shortcut way by using malt extract, basically letting someone else do a bunch of the hard work. Still, it takes three hours at least to get it into the carboy and to clean up, often longer. Bottling will take another couple of hours. All in all that isn’t bad for a couple cases of really good beer. The ingredient cost is about $5.00 per six-pack.


Brew waiting for the yeast to do its duty

This batch might be ready for Thanksgiving. The timing is not always up to me. The yeast will decide how quickly to work. I can only give them a good environment in which to perform. Once bottled it will need to sit for another two weeks to naturally carbonate. Because of the process of brewing I am repeatedly amazed at how we depend on these microorganisms to do their thing. No yeast means no beer, and no bread, and no donuts for Pete’s sake. A world without those things? Well, that is just too terrible to imagine.

Morning Bagels

When I mentioned to my wife late in the day yesterday that I was thinking about making bagels for the morning, but that we were out of bread flour, she volunteered to go out right that minute to get said flour. Once that happened I couldn’t very well not make bagels. So I made some bagels.

As I have said before here, making bagels is a piece of cake. OK I didn’t say it was a piece of cake but I did say it was easy. It is actually easier than making cake. Last night I churned up some yeasted dough in the mixer, cut it into pieces, and made some rings out of it to rise overnight.

Here is what it looked like pulled from the fridge in the morning:

IMG_3138After it warmed up a bit, and a big pot of water came to a boil, I dropped them into the bath for half a minute or so. Then I let them dry a bit on a rack:

IMG_3139I lined a baking pan with parchment paper and laid them out:

IMG_3140About 15 minutes of baking later, BAM! Bagels ready to eat.

IMG_3141A little cream cheese or, as my wife likes them, hot and naked, and breakfast is on. So easy. A piece of cake you might say. Total time, including clean up: hour and a half. Get someone else to clean up and it is a lot faster. I am thinking we need to make this a regular thing this winter. Fresh bagels when the snow howls? That’s what I’m talking about.

Another Go at Birding in the Northeast Kingdom


The trail to Moose Bog at Wenlock Wildlife Management Area

My work took me yesterday to Lyndon State College, in northeastern Vermont. Since I live on the western side of the state, it took me a couple of hours to get there. After an early start and a morning spent learning about the school, I was free to go. Since I was so close, relatively, to a birding spot I had hit last year, I thought I might give it another try.

I did not have a lot of time and this detour added about an hour to my drive home, but I was so close I couldn’t help myself. I drove north, through Island Pond, and snaked around to Wenlock Wildlife Management Area. I parked in a little dirt lot off the narrow dirt road, avoiding the logging trucks heading in empty and heading out full of logs. I pulled on trail shoes and a looser shirt (a dress shirt and shoes are not my standard birding attire) and headed into the woods.

There were four target birds on my list: Boreal Chickadee, Gray Jay, Spruce Grouse and Black-Backed Woodpecker. All of them live in the boreal forest and this is a good place, apparently, to see them. I did not have a lot of time–two hours max–and I was hoping to see at least one of them. I walked on the trail through mossy, dense forest, looking and listening carefully. Spruce Grouse, which I have never seen, are not easily spooked; I have heard one can walk right past them. Maybe I did. I certainly did not encounter much.

I found a few Red-Breasted Nuthatches and lots of Blue Jays, but none of the avian quatrain I was seeking. The woods were still and mostly quiet. I hiked downhill and squished my way down to the bog, water sneaking over the tops of my shoes. I stood near the water for a while, hoping for something. No luck. Not even a dabbling duck. So I got back to the car, while feeling great to be out on a fairly warm November day in a beautiful place, a little disappointed.

Moose Bog on a Gray Day with no Gray Jays

Moose Bog on a Gray Day with no Gray Jays

As I changed my shoes back to my dry ones for the drive home, however, a Gray Jay popped out of the woods and landed a few feet away. It hopped around on the ground, back up to the edge of the trees and then lit on a branch right next to me. “Well,” I said to it. “You are just who I have been looking for.” Then out came another one. I watched them for a bit and then figured it was time to go.

I turned back to the car but then heard a peeping in the brush across the road. It was the soft whistle of a chickadee, the sound I hear most often in winter made by Black-Capped Chickadees. Could I be, I wondered, a Boreal Chickadee? And then I heard it call its chick-a-dee call. Bam! Boreal Chickadee confirmed. I found it in the dense trees and then really did have to hit the road.

So in the end I found two out of the four species I was seeking. When I have more time I will go back to find the other two. I did think that it would be quite a place to visit in the spring, when bird activity is at its peak. The Silvio O.Conte National Wildlife Refuge has a branch just up the road and there are trails to explore there as well. The black flies might be out, but I imagine the birds might be as well.

Gray Jays

Gray Jays

Emptying the Nesting Boxes

imageIt is November, which means time to tidy up outdoors before the snow falls. This weekend I put away the hoses, stashed the kayak in the basement, put up bird feeders, started moving the compost from one bin to another, and several other winterizing tasks. I also emptied the birdhouses.

This summer we were lucky to have three bird species nesting at the same time, using all four of our bird houses. Eastern Bluebirds occupied two of the boxes, Tree Swallows shacked up in a third, and House Wrens built a nest in the fourth. Things were active. I cleaned the boxes out in hopes that they would again be attractive spaces for nesting when the birds return next spring.

The bluebirds liked the two boxes that are closest to a big maple tree. They like to hop up into the tree and to perch on top of the boxes, back and forth. The swallows prefer the one that is most open, accessible to the open field for their insect foraging. The wrens like to be close to cover, so the nesting box next to the Norway Spruce was just right for them.


Bluebird nest in nesting box number four

The boxes are built with hinged front panels, so they are easy to open. When the panel is closed they are open only at the round entrance hole, the bird doorway if you will. With the panel swung open, however, it is easy to pull those nests out and do some general cleaning up.

I started with the wren nest, which was made of twigs with a softer inner layer of grass and feathers. The swallow nest was compact, made mostly of grass, and covered in bird droppings, which seemed unusual. The bluebird nests were made almost exclusively of pine needles. The odd thing about the bluebird nests was that they each had eggs in them–two in one nest and four in the other. They were clearly abandoned. My guess is that the bluebirds had one successful clutch, then laid another set of eggs too late.

The eggs were pretty cool to see. It is a little sad, to anthropomorphize a little here, to see all that potential life never to be realized sitting in snug little packages. Those little blue orbs could have been bluebirds that flew to Florida or Mexico and then returned to build their own nests. Only humans really care about such things though. The bluebirds do what they can. If the eggs don’t hatch, they simply try again next year. I guess flying up to 2,000 miles twice each year is enough to worry about.

I didn’t scrub the boxes out with soap, as some people do, but I hope our birdhouses are clean enough to be welcoming to next year’s birds. This was the first year that House Wrens nested in one of our boxes, so that was a treat. I hope they decide to stay with us again. Of course, the same goes for the bluebirds and swallows. We may need to open up another box or two, expand the whole operation. We certainly have plenty of room, and waking to the crazy burbling and whistling and chirping of spring birds is well worth a half hour of November housekeeping.

Wren nest on the left, bluebird nest on the right

Wren nest on the left, bluebird nest on the right