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Oct 21 / Jamie

A Community Quilt

It is hard to know where to start when words have failed. For me, the choice will always be to turn to cloth and stitching. A little over a month ago I got an email from a very very close friend. Friend isn’t even the right word, as this lovely young woman has really become a part of our family the past four years. To make a long story short, it turned out that she had grown a large tumor on her left kidney that was causing some major problems in her body. She and I had had dinner a few days before I got the email and I had noted she was tired, but chalked it up to the life of a harried graduate student.

I accompanied her to the doctor’s appointment where we learned about the tumor. She had gone to the ER over the weekend with pain and other symptoms and they had run a CT scan and found it. I can’t even begin to describe what it was like to sit in that room and hear those words. What makes it even more intense was the knowledge that my dear friend had lost her mother to lung cancer when she was an adolescent. Like my friend, her mother had been exceptionally healthy and fit and had no risk factors. She and I had spent many conversations discussing life and this was one of her biggest fears realized.

The next few hours were spent in a flurry of phone calls and emails. All of my friend’s family is in the DC/VA area and it was clear that this tumor needed to come out ASAP and would be major surgery requiring a major recovery period. Within 24 hours of learning this news, her sister flew up, her best friend made a million calls to set up appointments and care down south, tons of friends came to wish her well, and she was on a plane. Watching her drive off was one of the hardest things I have had to do. I knew she was going to be well taken care of, but it is hard to let go.

One of the things she and I spent a lot of time doing together was sewing. We both share a deep love of home and hearth and cooking and hosting and sharing hand made things. After she got safely to her family there was little for me to do here but wait. Her surgery was scheduled for ten days after her arrival as her surgeon wanted to run numerous tests first. I don’t do well with waiting. I needed a project. And so, with some coordination from some amazing faculty and staff in our department, I was able to pull together a community quilt project for her.
I grabbed a ton of fabric from my stash, a few machines, and tons of supplies and set up shop in an empty office in our building. My goal was to get 25 squares made. The first day started out a bit slow, but by the time lunch came around, things started hopping. People came in wanting to sew a square who had never sewn before. At one time we had three machines going. One of the things that is important to know about my friend is that she coordinated one of the major TA courses and so interacted with a huge number of graduate students and faculty members. Everyone wanted to come in and do something. Sometimes, when a beautiful, healthy, kind, intelligent 29-year old woman grows a giant tumor on her kidney, just signing your name to a card isn’t quite enough. It is pretty extraordinary to see people that you know and have interacted with for many years (I have been a part of this department since 2001) try something new and step out of their comfort zone to make something for another person.

By the end of the first evening we had over 30 squares done. I had brought three with me to start (made by us). It was incredible. I had made a little “inspiration board” with a poster and pictures of things she likes. As people finished their squares, I started hanging them on the walls. I loved seeing the way the room was transformed. Ironically, that space had been one of my offices for a semester a few years ago. People made squares that matched their clothes. People made squares that matched their interests. People made squares and more squares and more squares. They inspired and supported each other in the very definition of collegiality.


All-in-all, I was on campus for one full day and two-half days. At the end we had 60 squares, enough to make a reversible quilt. The original plan had been for me to put it all together and FedEx it to her before her surgery, but her best friend had a better idea. She was traveling down two days after the surgery and wanted to bring it with her and give it to her in person. Of course. It was perfect.

The way the quilt came together was magical. I had sorted the squares to make sure that the front and back were balanced. I had been having people use a 12.5″ square template so I only had to do a tiny bit of trimming. First I stitched the columns and then the rows and I marveled at how lovely it all was. It exceeded every expectation. From the time I started laying out the squares, to having it finished was only a day (with soccer in the middle). To quilt it, I just put each “top” on a sheet of batting and stitched along the seams in both directions. I then added a 3″ strip of binding to both sides and then stitched those two sides together in the same way you would make a pillow case. When it was done, I turned and top-stitched around the edge. After it was washed a dried, Miss C and I hand-tied the center of each square. It will keep it together better and also makes it that much more lovely and homey.  Doing this kept me busy and occupied in the midst of so much waiting and uncertainty.  It was the perfect project in many ways.

While in the midst of the quilt-project we got great news that all of her tests revealed that there was no evidence of cancer anywhere else in her body. Her surgery went very smoothly and they removed the tumor, which was in fact cancerous. I just got back from visiting her this past week and got to go to the follow-up appointment with her surgeon. This time, it was all good news! The cancer is gone (clean margins!!), she is healing well, and will be monitored with MRIs and bone scans regularly for the next few years. She can go on to do all of the things young people hope and dream of doing like finishing graduate school, getting married, and maybe even starting a family!!
The quilt was indeed hand-delivered to her in the hospital a few days after surgery. The words I got were “speechless,” “overwhelmed,” and “amazed”. Due to the beauty of technology like snapchat, video texts, and Skype, I got to witness the moment of unveiling and then talk with her about each and every square. During my visit we got to repeat this process in person. We talked about each square and who made it (I had taken pictures of each person with their square) and how impressed we were by everyone and laughed and cried and laughed some more. Because it has two layers of batting it is exceptionally warm. Because it was made with so much love and care, it is something I know she will treasure forever. To be able to facilitate this for her, and for all of the people who didn’t think they could make a square was a very meaningful experience for me. Her best friend, another graduate student, and I became close through this experience. She said to me, “I am the brains, she is the heart, and you are the hands.” Truer words have never been spoken. Everyone should be so lucky to have such a collaborative friendship.

Each square has a story and I wish I could share each and every one here. They all have meaning and symbolism. I cannot begin to thank each and every person who did this for her enough. There really aren’t words to describe this feeling.  It is an experience I will treasure for my entire life. So often we here about the bad things people do, but in truth, people come together every day to engage in acts of kindness big and small.

Amanda, we love you so much.  You are the most incredible person.  Kind, intelligent, compassionate.  You bring people together in the best possible way.  I am so glad to end this chapter of our story.  Here’s to a new narrative.    xoxoxo


Oct 6 / Michael

Pigs to the Butcher

The last time we had pigs was in 2012.  We never got around to getting pigs for last year and we were really missing our pork and especially the ham and bacon.  We started two pigs in the spring, a Landrake-Yorkshire cross (our pink pig, we called him “cookie”) and a Duroc-Hampshire cross (our belted pig, we called him “oreo”).


Piglets adjusting to their new home.


We took the advice of our breeder and were using an 18% protein feed from the local feed store.  We also were very sure to give the pigs a happy space to wallow, space for a dust bath and plenty of room to root around.  These were definitely happy pigs.

Pigs and Elsa

Elsa was very curious about the new additions.


The pigs were growing well. By keeping the pigs happy and well fed and watered, we make sure there were no breakouts, like there were in the past.




When it comes to moving pigs to the butcher, preparation is a must.  Last year we weren’t on top of things and it took quite a long time to load the pigs the morning we took them in.  This year, we parked the trailer in their area for the week leading up to the date and fed them on the trailer so they’d get completely used to it.

Loading pigs

Loading pigs

The morning of transport, we used a little bit of leftover cornbread to lure them onto the trailer with no trouble at all.

Loading pigs

Loading pigs

Loading pigs

All loaded up and ready to go.

We were at the butcher in about 15 minutes, probably a new record for us. These two pigs also grew pretty well, we’re definitely looking forward to seeing how much they weight out at.

Waiting at butcher with pigs

Waiting our turn to unload.

Here are some pig movies, enjoy!

Sep 28 / Jamie


It is that time of year again.  All of the hard work that was put it in early in the growing season really paid off.  We have produced and abundance of food this year.  Probably 300lbs of tomatoes and 200lbs of squash.  We grew some pumpkins and decorative squash.  This weekend we all went into the garden to harvest.  We are also focused on giving any and all extras to the pigs, turkeys, and rabbits who will be butchered very soon.






The pigs go to the butcher next weekend, so we placed the trailer into their pen and will be feeding them in there all week.  Hopefully, this will mean that when it is time to load them on Sunday it will only take us a minute.



We hope you are enjoying the early fall activities.

Aug 29 / Jamie

Something Old, Something New


Earlier this month I was able to do some sewing.  I completed two projects that have both been on my mind for the better part of the past year.  The first was a quilt for my mom.  It was originally supposed to be a birthday present for her last year. This past year has been so intense that it just kept getting pushed back.  In some ways, this was for the best.  Even though we had picked out the pattern and fabric last summer, my mom kept picking up other pieces of fabric she liked over the year.  One week before I cut everything out she picked out two of the fabrics that I think were just perfect.  The pattern was really simple and it all came together nicely.

Quilt for Mimi

Quilt for Mimi

The second project was for my supervisor from the past two years.  She was also one of my advisors from graduate school.  She recently moved into a new office this year and I wanted to make something for her.  I had made the “Girl on a Swing” by Aneela Hooey a few years back for Charlotte, and wanted to play with that same style.  In our work, we often ask children to do a set of drawings called, “House, Tree, Person”.  So this was my take on that.  Charlotte helped me design it and pick out fabrics.  It was so nice to make this piece and my supervisor really liked it.

House Tree Person Quilt

The something old is actually a quilt my grandmother and her sister made.  This was probably done in the late 1970s as she died in 1980.  It was done completely by hand.  It is exquisite.  I can’t even imagine how much time it took them to complete it.  It is so perfectly my color and style.  My mom has it right now.  It had been with my aunt, but she sent it to my mom to have.

Quilt made by my grandmother

Quilt made by my grandmother

Aug 20 / Jamie

Forbidden Fruit


We have two enormous elderberry bushes in front of our house.  Last year we got a small harvest and made elderberry jam.  This year the plants produced a prolific harvest and this weekend were ready to be picked.  Our plan is to make elderberry syrup using this recipe and can it for use over the winter.  We have about two gallons worth of berries so we expect to also be able to make some jelly and maybe even some sambuco.

In the front we always have a few garter snakes hanging out.  I was very aware of this as I was cutting the stems to harvest the berries and watching where I stepped.  Imagine my surprise as I looked up and saw a garter snake just over my head in a cluster of berries.  Mike got the camera and took a ton of spectacular pictures that you can see below.  There are still some berries left on the plant and I might have enough to do another small harvest this weekend.


Aug 4 / Jamie

Heifer baby

New Calf
This morning we let Elsa out around 5;30am as is our normal routine.  She likes to do her perimeter check of the farm and chase away any and all foxes.  She typically barks some, but not a ton.  Mike had gotten up early as he had to work away from home today.  He shook me awake to say that he thought the other calf had been born.  He could hear Elsa barking relentlessly and saw her out behind the barn.  I went from fully asleep to fully dressed and running out the door in under two minutes.

This was Buttermilk’s first calf.  She is Sweet Momma’s daughter and was born here three years ago.  I knew she was a few weeks behind her mother but as of tomorrow, Spot is three weeks old.  I had been paying close attention to her as this was her first pregnancy and even though there was no reason to suspect anything bad would happen, you still want to be careful.  I ran to the paddock and could see her beautiful black calf nursing next to her.

New Calf

New Calf

New Calf
She must have been born last night as she was all clean and totally on her feet and had a huge poop while we were there.  I was *really* hoping the calf would look like a panda (white face, white stripe) but I guess the genetics meant that an all black grandmother and an all black grandfather yields an all black baby.  She is lovely and healthy and so we are happy.

This was quite an adventure, from getting the bull to getting these babies on the ground.  I am very happy to be on the other side of it all. Spot will have so much fun playing with his sister/niece.


Jul 27 / Jamie

Baby Bull


If you remember back to the fall, we brought in an angus-hereford cross bull to breed our cows.  Last Tuesday our first calf was born!  A little bull calf born to our Dexter Sweet Momma.  I have been watching and waiting for weeks for this arrival.  She was HUGE and I am amazed that her calf came so late.  Her daughter, Buttermilk, a Dexter-Belted Galloway cross is still pregnant and I think she will likely calve in the next week.  This will be her first calf, so I am extra attentive to the process.


As it happened, this calf, currently being called Spot, was born on our oldest child’s birthday.  I have been checking on the cows multiple times a day and finally, I found the cow in labor.  It is funny, because for weeks I have been thinking “is she/isn’t she?” but when she was actually in labor, there was no question.  She made a very low mooing sound, somewhat like a moo/growl/sigh.  She was way back in the woods by the back pond.  I hung out with her for a while, taking pictures, but also had to help manage things in the house as we were having a sleepover for the birthday boy.


He was up on his feet within an hour and the kids all got to see him nurse before heading in for movies and popcorn.  It was an amazing birthday.  We also had chicks hatch that day.


The calf is doing great.  He is very friendly and curious.  We are going to try to halter train him and plan to keep him for at least 2-3 years and allow him to breed back to his mother and half-sister for more meat cows.  It seems like an odd thing to do, but this is much easier than bringing in a bull every two years.


Jun 16 / Jamie

Painted Gourds


This past summer we had a bumper crop of birdhouse gourds.  For whatever reason, they seem to grow really well in our garden.

Birdhouse gourds


We waited until just before the first frost and then picked them.  In all, we had over 60 gourds.  We tied a string to the neck of each gourd and hung them in the garage all fall and winter.  They dried out completely and were ready for crafting.  The kids joined a local 4-H group this spring and we decided to donate them to the group to be made into birdhouses to raise money for a lego robotics project the kids are doing this fall.


We sanded each of the gourds to make them smooth.  Steel wool seemed to work the best.


Then Mike drilled a 2-inch opening in each one.  Jackson and I are prepping them: untying them and sorting them by size.  Some were too small, and some had lovely rattling seeds and we made those into shakers.


We invited other 4-H members over after the gourds had been drilled and cleaned.  The kids had a blast painting them.


We found places for them all to dry.


I loved the way they looked on the rocks in the sun.



After they dried, we drill a 1/4-inch set of holes in the top for a string to hang them up and in the bottom for drainage.  We touched up any paint that got chipped, sprayed them with a coat of clear acrylic to make them water-proof and hung them to dry.  I have to admit, I really didn’t want to take them down.  I would love for my porch to look like this all the time.




We brought them to our tent a a town tag-sale.  They sold well.  Jackson was an especially persuasive salesman.  We still have a bunch more and I think I might have the kids paint up a set just for us to hang.  I have more plants growing in the garden as well, so there will be more to do next year.


May 22 / Michael

New Ducks

Last year we lost our ducks and geese to predators and a harsh winter.  We decided we needed to replace them this year (sans the geese, which our older son has never really cared for — maybe we’ll get geese again some day).  For now, it’s just ducks.

We got our baby ducks at Tractor Supply Company in late April.  We were there to get feed with the kids and they talked us into getting them.  The truth is that we did want to replace the ducks, so it was easy to win us over.  We ended up getting 6 pekin, 4 rouen and 2 blue Swedish.

After bringing them home and having them in a fairly tiny indoor enclosure for a few days (ducks stink when confined), we moved them to an outside run.

Ducks and new duck house

We’d still bring them into the garage at night since it was still a bit chilly at night.

At the same time I started building the new duck house.  It was a simple 2 x 4 building with an interesting choice for roofing.  We had an old door we’d removed from our previous house when we’d moved.  It had a dog door cut in it and our realtor had said it would be better to have a new door.  So this old door has been sitting in our garage for almost 6 years, but we’re finally putting it to good use — a hinged roof for our duck house (all the easier for cleaning).  The dog door opening would serve as a smaller door for feeding the ducks.

Ducks and new duck house

We put siding on and painted it to match our chicken coop.

Ducks and new duck house

The temporary run was a duck resort for a couple weeks.

Ducks and new duck house

The duck house itself was to sit out over the water on a new dock, which we built out of pressure treated lumber.  It required getting wet.

Ducks and new duck house

The kids seemed to find it a good opportunity to get soaked.

Ducks and new duck house

Ducks and new duck house

Soon the dock was ready for the duck house.

Ducks and new duck house

We moved the duck house over to the pond on our trailer, slid it onto the dock and secured it.

Ducks and new duck house

We moved the ducks into their new home.

Ducks and new duck house

Ducks and new duck house

We’ll keep them in their run for a while longer until they learn how to get in and out of their new home.  Ultimately, I’ll also put a ramp on the water side, so the ducks and come and go via without ever coming onto land.  That should make things a bit harder for our predators to get these guys.

Ducks and new duck house

Ducks and new duck house

Ducks and new duck house

Ducks and new duck house

Ducks and new duck house

Apr 27 / Michael

Aldo Leopold Bench

I came across this super simple rustic bench design from a magazine that my wife’s parents gave me.  It’s called an “Aldo Leopold Bench”.  Named after Aldo Leopold, a famous environmentalist.

Measuring my cuts

From his Wikipedia article:

Leopold was influential in the development of modern environmental ethics and in the movement for wilderness conservation. His ethics of nature and wildlife preservation had a profound impact on the environmental movement, with his ecocentric or holistic ethics regarding land. He emphasized biodiversity and ecology and was a founder of the science of wildlife management.

It looked like something I wanted to build and quite simple, too.

There are various designs for the bench.  Mine used 2×8 lumber and called for two boards per bench: one 8-foot board and one 10-foot board.

My helper

The seat and back were made from the 8-foot board. I cut that board into a 49½-inch piece and a 46½-inch piece. That’s a single cut and maximizes the usable wood. The seat is 3 inches shorter than the back because it sits inside the legs (each 1½ thick).

Cut sides and legs

The legs consist of two identical longer leg sections (which also form the sides of the bench) and two identical shorter leg sections. In my bench, the longer legs were 36 inches long and the shorter legs were 17¼ inches long. With my speed square I marked out 22½-degree cuts on each end.  It was a cinch.

Laid out for assembly

Everything is then laid out and screwed together. Once the cuts are made, it’s almost impossible to put it together wrong. Just make sure the legs mirror each other.

Completed bench

Love the way it looks.

Completed bench

Ended up making two of them. These are destined to live at the pond near where I’m going to put a new duck house I’m building (more on that later!). We liked them so much, I think I’ll make another one for the garden and a couple for the fire pit area as soon as I get a chance.

Completed benches

Shopping List

  • One 2×8×8 cedar, redwood or treated lumber (seat and backrest)
  • One 2×8×10 cedar, redwood or treated lumber (front and rear legs)
  • 2½-inch galvanized deck screws


  1. Mark one end of the 2×8×10 at a 22½-degree angle with a speed square.  Then cut with a circular saw.  Make a mark 36 inches away and repeat the cut at the same angle.  Cut the remaining front leg and two back legs from the same piece (two 36-inch pieces and two 17¼-inch pieces).  Cut the seat and backrest from the 2×8×8 (one 49½-inch piece and one 46½-inch piece).
  2. Fasten the legs together.  Stack the seat and backrest as guides and then align the legs against them.  Fasten legs together with three 2½-inch screws.
  3. Attach the seat and backrest.  Stand the two ends up and screw the seat in place.  Lay the bench down and attach the backrest with screws.