Sippican Cottage

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Yah Cayent Geht Thayah Fhum Hayyah

Everyone seemed to like my garden yesterday, so you get more pitchas; and I get to knock off early today, and accomplish a fatherly and achieve a paternalistic and break the daddified tape and so forth without much additional effort. The search for lack of additional effort required is a mark of the breed.

  So reader and writer and all-around swell guy westsoundmodern commented yesterday:

Sheesh! From the way you’ve described the place in the winter, I had in my minds eye a vision of standing at the north pole and turning a 360.

Okey dokey, Butch. Let’s say you’ve got vision, and the rest of the world wears bifocals. You go see an abandoned house in Uppastump, Maine, Decemberish, and you look out the back window and see this:

I triple-dog-dare you to do the mental arithmetic that produces this, a year later, in your mind’s eye:

Well, you know me; I deserve a Fields Medal for mental arithmetic, but that’s way, way past my best shot. You need the Rainman love-child of Salvador Dali and Martha Stewart doing your mental arithmetic to get from there to here.

I hope all you dads get sommodiss in your garden today:

Pony up, mom.

Non-Scientific Survey- The Most Often Visited Post I’ve Ever Written

  • Fie On Thee, Horseflies, gets a handful of visitors every day. I’ve had more people read single essays I’ve written, of course, but this one is my intellectual leaky faucet. Sorry the item is written so poorly, people; as the old man said, if I’d have known I was gonna live this long, I would have taken better care of myself.

If you’re new around here, I live in a swamp. I know I’m supposed to call it a “pristine wetland,” but if you don’t mind, I’ll call it the bog-to-hell-and-gone instead. Everything comes out of that swamp all the time, sometimes to delight us, sometimes to bite me and give me a fever of 105. The swamp will kill you if you let it. It would pull my house apart in a decade if I ever stopped mowing the lawn.

The worst thing the swamp produces is the horsefly. It’s not actually only one kind of a beast; there’s a handful of types. They appear after the midges and mosquitoes, but before the poison ivy, generally. They’re the most vicious thing I can imagine. They attack like kamikazes, and get a blood meal from you with scissor mandibles. They make the end of my yard miserable for five weeks or so in the summer. Let’s kill them.

Go down the basement and bring your heir and your spare.

You need a plan. It should contain all the information you need to build the thing, plus a list of all the items you need to purchase to make it. It should be a loopy looking long-haired- equation looking thing like that.

1/2″ plumbing pipe, a clear plastic one-gallon jug with a screw lid, a funnel, a roll of 4 mil plastic, some punky wood strapping I dumped behind the shed 5 years ago.

The kids like the tinkertoy vibe of the plumbing pipe. I like the kids.


An 8″ square of MDO left over from windowboxes.

If you can’t use things for what they’re not intended for, you have no business on the Internet.


You buy a 20″ beachball at Wal-Mart, put a blessed halo around it with duct tape, leave a tab flap to pierce and hang the ball in the center with kite string. Spray paint the thing black while it’s hanging.

Horseflies are dumb. They see the ball swaying in the breeze and think it’s a spherical cow or something. When disabused of this notion, they always fly straight up. They eventually make their way through the funnel and die in the heat of the clear jug. No bait or poison is necessary. The trap is a little more than a week old and the jug has thousands of the nasty bugs in there. For Amityville spectacle, some of the beasts lay their eggs in the corpses of their brethren before perishing, and the little sluglike larvae hatch and crawl around in there too. For a while. Hence the breeding cycle is interrupted, and next summer is made better now.

What do you know. It works. The kids can play in the yard again. If I’d have known it would work, I would have made a better looking one.

“If I’d have known it would work, I would have made a better looking one” would make an excellent epitaph for my grave, now that I think about it.

(I Had) Cabin Fever (In 2007)

We got a little summer cabin fever this last weekend. I was plain weary, and my wife was weary of all of us men in our little home, and we had to go somewhere else. Anywhere.

We often find ourselves going to places most people would call “anywhere.” Our friends describe vacations and sporting events and concerts and so forth that sound like everyone’s idea of fun. Sometimes I find myself describing our activities to our acquaintances and family and I see an expression come over their faces that I’ve seen on people that are hearing about eating broccoli when they’d rather be given directions to a steakhouse. I’m sorry, we can’t help ourselves.

We went to the Heritage Museum and Gardens in Sandwich, Massachusetts. The four year old will go anywhere and look at anything, so he’s not a problem. But a twelve year old? He can be bored, and boring.

He invited one of his schoolmates to come. That made it better. They were a pack of wolves all by themselves, and the world was their flock of sheep. We gave them a cellphone and let the line out a little on the invisible string we keep on our children. We were essentially alone in this place anyway.

The place is a big landscaping show, but late summer has few things to recommend it flower-wise. My wife and I were grateful to see a patch of grass that didn’t need mowing and wasn’t crabgrass, so we didn’t care. We went inside that windmill, and heard the docent, perhaps only slightly older than the revolutionary war vintage structure itself, lecture the few of us on the who what when where and why of it. My four year old smiled at him and the docent turned the thing on for him. The rest of us would have got bupkis. My four year old could get a dog off a meat truck. We watched the canvas sheets pass by the dutch door for a good, long, time.

The place is pleasant, and everybody that works there was more than pleasant, but it’s got no real rhyme or reason to it. And it gets a little less coherent as time passes. There’s a reproduction of a huge round shaker barn, and it’s filled with antique cars. I enjoy both things and find them interesting, but there’s a kind of incongruity to such juxtapositions that I can’t shake.

The older boys were jazzed to go because there is a an enormous reproduction sort -of-Fort Ticonderoga loghouse there, and it was filled with an interesting and compelling collection of guns and weapons and Indian artifacts and lead toy soldiers. I say “was filled,” not “is filled,” because we went in and it was mostly gone, and replaced by a rather tepid display of memorabilia from the Cape Cod Baseball League. There are only so many pictures of future big leaguers looking gaunt because they haven’t figured out where to buy human growth hormone yet that you can stand to look at. And what’s it doing in a fort? Bring back the guns, will you? We saw a few shunted off into little niches here and there. The baseball museum could have fit in a phone booth.

But the big boys were not deterred. Boys are never deterred. They walked back out into the blazing sunshine and the breeze from the nearby lake, saw me and my lovely wife sitting in the shade of an enormous oak, sized up the beauty and utility of intervening grass, and knew what it all was for.

To be.

Quiet Contemplation (From 2007)

Is there a spot in your world suitable for quiet contemplation?

I find it’s become a rare thing. You don’t have to be away from the whole world to achieve it. Just the opposite. Being all alone out in the wilderness is not restful. Even a tiny urban dooryard used to have the potential to serve the purpose I’m referring to, or the small parks that would dot the urban landscape. But exterior spaces are mostly too busy or barren, and so suburb or city or exurb, they don’t serve the purpose anymore.

There are fads. Decks, hot tubs, elaborate grilling devices, pools, tennis courts, swingsets, treeforts, bocce, horseshoes… I could keep going, but you get the picture. There’s a great deal of hardscaping in the exterior world these days. I am mostly ambivalent about most of those things. They are either useful or not according to taste. But they are not what I am talking about.

I’m talking about a place that is designed to place a person at ease outdoors, sheltered enough from hubbub to stop for a moment and contemplate the outdoors and your place in it.

I am not often on the lookout for things to do. I have too many things to do. I am looking for a place to do not much of anything for a pleasant moment.

Put a garden in your yard. Put a seat in your garden. Enclose it enough to be private. Give it a view through to something else that is pleasant to look at from a distance. Open it to the sky but dapple the sunlight. Get out of the wind, invite a breeze. Stay on the ground if you can, but get out of the dirt.

Keep the fun out of there. It’s too much like work.

Snow In The Early Morning (In 2006)

[Editor’s Note: Rerun. The guy’s busy making things besides text. Besides, you all have “Internet Alzheimers” and can’t remember what you read last week, so what’s the diff?]

{Author’s Note: Notable in my mind because it’s the first time my Intertunnel friend Pastor Jeff read my blog and marked the occasion with a comment. A decent sort of fellow, that Jeff. P.S.: I think we just coined the term Internet Alzheimers. And there is no editor.}

We had snow yesterday at daybreak. The light was so faint, and tinged with blue, that the whole scene outside the door seems under water. I took a picture to try to catch the light:


Pine, Oak, Maple, Holly, and a few others mixed in. There are geese and ducks in the water just past the first row of trees. This is the kind of snow we get here in the southcoast; not enough to plow, generally, but enough to soften the barren look of winter a bit.

It’s funny to consider that, according to statistics, what you’re looking at is farmland “lost” to development. This was all a pasture meadow, for ruminant animals 75 years ago, when sturdier folks still tried to cadge a living farming in New England. The old surveying documents use what few trees were here previously as markers, and they were chosen because they were conspicuous for their lonesomeness. The soil is acid and there isn’t much topsoil over the sandy subsoil. You could mow it flat and plant cranberries, but there’s such a glut of cranberries that the government pays farmers not to grow them now, after attracting them to the industry by guaranteeing their prices previously.

My deed actually still allows me to drive my livestock across the road onto my neighbor’s property to water my herds if I need to; but the cats just drink out of the little dishes under the potted plants, so there is no need to take them up on it.

The land we own covers five acres. About three quarters of one acre is lawn, house, driveway, and plantings. The rest is wild, and will remain so. It’s surrounded by thousands of acres of river, fen, swamp, bog, forest, more swamp, brambles, poison ivy, nettles, ticks, and mosquitoes big enough to make you put lead diving shoes on your toddlers outside, lest they be carried off.

Farmland “lost” to development; I think not. Looks like “reforestation” to me. And last time I checked at the supermarket also built on “farmland lost to development,” the shelves are filled with the flesh of the creatures that formerly grazed in what rapidly turned into our little pine jungle. They must have found some of that lost land somewhere else, I expect. Or used less land to generate more food is more likely.

Are the cows any sadder, unable to drink my swampwater? I don’t know. But the ospreys like it here now. So do we.

More Real Than Real

I make cottage furniture.

Except, technically I don’t. If you want to get precise about it, cottage furniture is… well, my fingers hurt from making cottage furniture that isn’t really, so I’ll stop typing and paste a picture and save us all some grief:

Cottage Furniture refers to inexpensive suites of furniture from the nineteenth century, almost always made of the plainest wood and painted, with decorations painted on them. If there was woodgrain showing, 99% of the time it was “grain-painted” in a spartan, primitive style.

I go to antique stores pretty regularly. Real cottage furniture is about the rarest style I see in there. It was mass-produced for the better part of the 19th century, but it’s all gone now. Everyone wanted it and then no one wanted it. A great deal of the “shabby chic” movement involved painting cottage furniture white and sticking it in your second house, so it’s still around here and there under a badly applied coat of house paint. The back leg is kinda hinky, the drawers are stuck from the humidity, your weird uncle had a leaky bottle of Hai Karate aftershave that gives the dresser a funny smell, but it’s there next to your buttsprung mattress on the rusty exposed spring foundation.

The king of Cottage Furniture was Andrew Jackson Downing. He didn’t make any, as far as I know; he was really a gardener at heart (Central Park in New York was his idea) He popularized the ideas behind it and basically defined what a “cottage” was in America with books like The Architecture of Country Houses.

It’s a text-heavy book by modern tastes, but it’s got some illustrations of furniture Downing offered as examples of appropriate to the country house. You don’t want any. They look too rococo to the modern eye. Various publishers have made a living repackaging the illustrations of gingerbread millwork and furniture Downing supplied with his various tomes. He championed a Gothic Revival style for country houses in order to make houses look picturesque out in the landscape. The style can easily be stripped down to simple shapes and forms that are not fussy or expensive, but have a bit of whimsy associated with them: Carpenter Gothic.

The Gothic style got associated in popular culture with the era just before the Depression, and so it gets unfairly maligned constantly as the place in the movies where Anthony Perkins keeps his mom past her fresh sale date, where Jimmy Stewart’s newel post knob comes off in his hand over and over, and where Boo Radley would live. If Orson Welles wanted to do scary, he’d put Agnes Moorehead in a black satin frock, put the camera down low in a gothic room, and show the musty side of things.

So I don’t make cottage furniture if you look at his pictures, but I do if you read what Downing was driving at:

…the highest principle in designing or building a cottage, that it should be truthful, that is, should clearly express the modesty and simplicity of cottage life. Hence, not only should the cottage aim to look like a cottage, but it should avoid all pretension to what it cannot honestly and faithfully be. And as its object is first utility, and then beauty, the useful should never be sacrificed to the ornamental, but the latter should more obviously be connected with, and grow out of the former, in a cottage than in a more elaborate dwelling.

Almost everyone’s house is a cottage nowadays. A cottage is just an informal house. Very few people live in formal houses of any kind. There’s often a kind of fight going on between reality and their idea of what they’re supposed to be doing, however. Many people have very fussy and severe looking furnishings and finishes in their informal houses. The juxtaposition of these contrary impulses makes people crazy and Home Depot rich.

I’m being interviewed by the newspaper this week, and a television station next week. They’re going to ask me, I know it in my bones–

Are you:

  • Norm?
  • Bob Vila?
  • Wallace Nutting without the chromographs?
  • Martha Stewart, only less tough?
  • Pottery Barn’s idiot brother?

I’m not any of those things. I’m this generation’s Andrew Jackson Downing, saving the American House one end table at a time.

…if it so happens that one is forced to inhabit a house meagre and poor in its interior, its baldness and poverty may be, in a great degree, concealed or overcome, by furnishing the rooms in a tasteful and becoming manner…

…And here we may be allowed to prose a little, at the outset, by an allusion to the blunders committed by many persons in furnishing a house. We mean the blunder of confounding fashion with taste, of supposing that whatever the cabinetmakers and upholsterers turn out as the latest fashion must necessarily be the only things worth having; and of a total ignorance of the fact, that the most fashionable furniture may be in the worst taste, while furniture in the most correct taste is not always such as is easily obtained in the cabinet warehouses.

Tasteful furniture is, simply, furniture remarkable for agreeable and harmonious lines and forms, well adapted to the purpose in view.

Preach it, brother.

Kids These Days

Multi-tasking. People talk about it, but they don’ t really know what they are talking about. It’s not their fault; there’s no such thing.

If you’re a little bright, and bright enough to know better than to be an intellectual, you can be serially interested in a lot of things without much of a pause in between. You’re fooling yourself if you think you’re doing two things at once. I’ve seen you drive and talk on the phone.

I have to “multi-task” all the time. It wears you out and invigorates you. Was it Churchill that said vacation was: “Doing something else”? I dunno, I’m too busy doing the same thing to look it up. At any rate, something else always needs doing, so it’s easy to do something else.


But there is no leisure. Literally, now: none. And I use the word literally literally, not like people that use the term multi-task when referring to talking on the phone while driving with two tires over the yellow line. I don’t remember the last time I was doing nothing.


Two or three things had to happen on Sunday, and I had to toss a fifth on the heap by taking pictures of the fourth thing, which was watching the little fellow pick apples at Tougas’ Farm in Northborough, Mass.

I’m not a good photographer but he’s blurry for a reason. He arrived home on the kindergarten bus the other day and he and all his brethren were wearing cooking pot hats made from construction paper, all still resolutely being worn all the way home. Johnny Appleseed, dad.

And so we were calling on a family member who was ill, and it was right down the street, and Johnny Appleseed, dad.

The orchard was mindnumbingly huge. You needed directions to find certain kinds of apples. Whole neighborhoods of varieties stretching off into the distance. It looks more like a vineyard than an orchard, with the trees cut way back to force the limbs and fruit to sprout. Copsing, I think you call it. Many trees used to be farmed and forced, and not just for their fruits. A “stool” is a tree stump that sprouts many limbs after cutting. They used to harvest them and weave wattles to keep the pigs in, or hold your plaster up. They’d cut trunks above eye level and climb up and harvest the stickers from time to time while allowing ruminant animals to pasture below. The animals would eat the stickers if it was a stool on the ground. Above eye level they call it a “pollard.”

Well, I inhabit the ether above the average person’s eye level, so me and the five-year-old got all the apples that weren’t at waist level, one way or the other.

They’ve got animals in pens. You pat yourself down like you’re arresting yourself, looking for a quarter to buy a handful of food pellets from a vending machine to feed to the goats and such. I realized how remote that we’ve become from anything animal. We need to have regular barnyard animals displayed in a Potemkin farm because everyone joins the Sierra Club but have never been outdoors.

I’m just like the orchard, and that little kid, when I stopped and thought about it. People pay me to make things for them. But there’s an element of the theater to it, too. People want to rub shoulders with something real, made from nature and touched by humans. I’m grateful to all the people who frisk themselves for a few quarters, and feed me through the Internet fence.

I’ll give you a bite of my apple; I hear tell there’s wisdom, and a little sin in it, too.

Obsessed About The Sandwich Situation

Oh, hai.

Who wants more pictures of the Sandwich Heritage Museum? I don’t care, I have them and I’m going to post them anyway.

The place has lots of interest in what they term “Colonial Gardening.” That’s a sketchy term, sort of like a “Colonial Bathroom” motif. Real colonists grew stuff and ate it for the most part. It was the Victorians that went crazy for cultivars to gape at. There are no parterres at SHM, and nothing is grown to eat, but the plantings are in keeping with the structures for most part. The gatehouse/gift shop has what used to be a ubiquitous New England house: weathered shingles, bow roof, heavy frames at openings, divided windows with real muntins and panes of glass, vertical board sheathed addition, garden bench, attic room hot as hell.

The best part of good landscaping is moving in and out of shadow and light, and looking from one into another. Dappled sunlight is good for the soul.

That’s a windmill that was dragged from way out on Cape Cod to be displayed here. It was padlocked, but we’ve been inside before. It’s amazing how little of anything inside is made from any sort of metal. All the gears and wheels are made from white oak. Hard as Calculus, but more useful over time.

Here’s the front. I painted the sky that color to make it more interesting for you, the viewer. Of course the sky is never that beautiful in actual nature.


A carousel is an entirely underrated piece of amusement. Even the old folks can sit on the benches in the chariots and go round and round if they’re too big for the horses.


I know the lion roaring is supposed to come first. Sorry. There’s a collection of venerable animals from carousels on display. They’re much more whimsical and interesting than the horse we’re all used to. There was the rabbit at the top of the page, this lion, a frog, a zebra, an ostrich, a pig, a stag, and a few others. Of course, I inspected their glass eyes most carefully to see if they were up to my old, exacting glass eye standards.

Let’s Have Some More Sandwich


Sandwich, Massachusetts, of course. Founded in 1639. When I was a lad, much was made of the Bicentennial of the Founding of our Great Country. Jimmy Carter was President, as I recall, and was busy telling us to put on a sweater and drive real slow, so I remember it as the sort of interlude you have when a cranky, loony, old aunt comes to visit. It’s interesting to consider that Sandwich was hanging around Cape Cod for 137 years before those 200 years rolled by, which is 32 years ago on top of that. Sandwich is old.

The Sandwich Heritage Museum is like a loopy rich person’s stamp collection writ large. A series of loopy rich people, actually, as one lieutenant of industry bought another sargeant of industry’s weirdo assortments of whatever caught their eye, and put labels under it. I actually liked the disordered theme of the place, made very orderly; it’s the essence of collecting things.

The original loon was a blanket manufacturer who commuted to New Bedford and grew exotic rhododendrons. When you stand in the Orange Place and see row after row of fist-sized rhodies and azaleas for $5.99 each, it’s easy to forget that they were exotic and asian in the not too distant past.


At any rate, that guy died, and another crank that collected old guns and weird cars and assorted other curiosities bought it. Carpetbagger from Indiana.

That reminds me of a story. People from Cape Cod, and especially the two big islands offshore, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, used to be very insular. There were very few names — a dead giveaway. Snow. Crowell. Starbuck. Dexter. Higgins. Anyway, it got to be a running joke about how long you had to live amongst the locals before they would accept you:

A woman was born on a ship moored in the harbor in Nantucket. It was a beastly crossing from Old Blighty, and the doctor didn’t want to risk the poor mother delivering in the little launch with the oarsmen watching.

The baby — a winsome girl– was brought ashore upon her birth,and until the day she died, she never once set foot on a patch of dirt that wasn’t Nantucket. She became a kind of fixture around the island, raising a big family, starting charities for the less fortunate — in short she exhibited every manner of civic virtue you could name. She was prominent; so prominent that the whole town turned out for her funeral when she died, rich in years and accomplishments.

The old vicar mounted the pulpit. He paused for a long moment, removed his pince-nez, and polished them a little with his handkerchief. It was a method he used to gain absolute silence before he spoke. The crowd, already quiet, assumed a stony silence. Every eye was riveted on the preacher. He began:

“She wasn’t from around here…

Tag: gardening

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