To observe, enjoy and create in everyday life

A Week of Creating

A spider and its web seemed quite fitting for Halloween week! As a Master Gardener, I get to serve my community in a variety of ways. I work in our Answer Clinic on a regular basis answering the public's questions about their plants, plant problems/identification, insects and a whole variety of other questions. I also get to lead workshops and trainings, and I have helped with some of our school gardens. Every once in a while, I get a creative project handed down to me for use in the program. Recently I was asked to create a hands-on activity revolving around spiders for a group of Master Gardeners to use at a local kids event. I like these types of projects because they stretch me creatively. 
After a couple weeks of thinking this through....what appeals to a variety of ages, what kind of activity can be done in less than a minute, what do kids really want to know about spiders....I came up with the games "Feed Me Lunch (please)" and "Build a Spider". Yours truly constructed the spider seen above as well as a framed web. The web above on my kitchen entry was my practice for the game. 
For the "Feed Me Lunch" game, kids threw cotton ball 'insects' at a framed web I built out of string and double sided tape. For such a simple game, the kids were able to learn a ton about how a spider builds its web out of different types of silk and how it senses its prey. The "Build a Spider" game was a simple game of rolling a dice to earn felt pieces of a spider's body parts. The kids would put the pieces together to create a spider and learn about all of the different body parts in the process. The event went over really well, and I am told that the volunteers and kids in attendance had a lot of fun with the spider activities.
While I was working on this project, I learned so much about spiders. They are fascinating creatures! So fascinating that I thought you might like to learn a little about them as well...
  • There are over 40,000 species of spiders in the world, but only 30 are poisonous to humans.
  • Of these 40,000 species of spiders, only one species is vegetarian (and it is found in Central America)
  • Even though most spiders have eight eyes, web weaving spiders in particular have pretty poor eyesight. Instead of relying on their eyesight, they use the hairs on their legs to sense movement on their webs. 
  • A web weaver needs to rebuild or repair its web at the end of each day.
  • Spiders can smell and taste using their legs.
  • Spiders use fluid pressure to extend their legs and muscles to flex their legs.
  • Baby spiders (spiderlings) have the ability to produce silk and know how to spin a web from the time they hatch.
  • Spider silk is stronger than steel, tougher than Kevlar and almost as stretchy as rubber.
Maybe I am boring you with spider talk? Sometimes I can geek out about this stuff. If you want to read more about web weaving spiders (not all spiders weave webs), I found this great article: The Wonders of Webs. And another fantastic read was about spider myths found here.

Making a spider and its web is not all I was at work at this week. I also pulled out a quilt project I had begun a few years ago and got to work on it again. I am not really sure why I set it aside in the first place. All of the pieces are cut and ready to be sewn up into blocks, so it is not a very difficult project. I think because it does not have a set deadline, I am slow in finishing it. I have let other projects step in front of this one because they needed to be completed by a certain time or for a particular person/reason. I am hoping to keep picking away at this and finish it up this year. I love the blues and whites...reminds me of winter. I think a cozy blue flannel would be the perfect backing fabric for this quilt. 

How about you? Have you had any fun projects that you have worked on this week? Maybe something that stretched you creatively? 

Building New Friendships

At the beginning of this year, I joined a gym near our home. I started a membership there for all of the usual reasons...I wanted to lose weight, be more fit and gain overall strength. And all of that has happened, but I have gained friendships as well. But not with the 'typical' people I would have guessed when the year started out. It's possible that the average age of members at my gym is older than me or that the time of day I go in to workout is not when women my age typically work out, but whatever the reason, I found myself working out each day with women who are quite a bit older than myself. They would often joke that I could be one of their kids, or grand kids even. They would encourage me by saying that they wished they had taken the time when they were younger to get in shape instead of waiting until they were retired. They would joke that having a younger person to workout with inspired them to keep going. I, in turn, told them that they were each an inspiration to me to continue to exercise for as long as I am able.

One of the women I workout with regularly just celebrated her 85th birthday. We have become very good friends over the last year. We found ourselves swapping recipes or sharing about current quilting projects while working out. We discovered that we both had a shared love of gardening and reading as well. These common interests led to us getting together over the summer for coffee, scones, book swaps and garden tours. She is a little more than twice my age, and I joke with her that I want to be her when I grow up. The other ladies at the gym say that she and I are like twins, or that I am a younger version of her. I consider that one of the best compliments.

A few times now some of us have gathered together at a local coffee shop or around a kitchen table to celebrate someone's birthday or recovery from recent surgery. It is at these gatherings that I get to hear their stories. Tales of growing up on farms or in cities, the adventures they have had parenting, and stories of marriages that have been amazing or rocky. Sometimes the stories at the surface seem so foreign to me like being taken to the bus stop in a covered wagon because a family was too poor to own a car. Or the woman growing up in Minnesota whose mother made her wear wool pants under her dresses in the winter (which were promptly removed when she arrived at school for fear of being considered unfashionable...don't tell her mom!). Or parenting a rebellious teen who decided to leave home and hitchhike across the country.
I haven't experienced any of these things. And, yet I have. Most of us have in some way or another, haven't we? I quite literally may have only seen a covered wagon in a museum, but I know what it's like to not have money. Most of us have had seasons in life when money is stretched so thin we can't afford what we might consider a basic necessity. I didn't have to wear awkward winter layers under a required-to-wear-dress, but I know what it's like to want to fit in socially and attempt to be fashionable. Being in the thick of the teen years, I know what it's like to worry that your kids might rebel and throw off all that you have hoped for them. When it comes down to it, the difference in generations between myself and these women don't really matter. We still share many of the same experiences throughout our lives.

So a year that began with a goal to gain more physical health has also resulted in gaining new friendships. And not in friendships I would have pegged at the beginning. To be honest with you, I can't say that I would have sought out relationships with women who are twenty, thirty or forty years older than me. I would have thought that we didn't have much in common. But the truth is that I was wrong, and I am glad to be wrong. These friendships have shown me that all women, regardless of age, have much in common. Women of all ages can come together to share, mentor and encourage one another. I have also learned that it is worthwhile to others to share your stories. Whether those stories are needed to make someone laugh, to provide advice, or to help someone see that they are not alone...your stories need to be and should be shared.
I encourage you to strike up a conversation with someone new. Particularly someone who you think you might not have much in common with. You might surprise each other and find the beginnings of a new friendship. And share your stories with others. Do not think that they don't want to hear about the time you and your brother got in trouble for giving the chickens a bath in the cow trough, or the first time you fumbled trying to flirt with a boy and ended up utterly embarrassed. Others truly do want to share in those stories with you.
Have a wonderful week!

Make Your Own Vanilla Extract

Over the years, I have begun to make or bake many of my own things for our family. I bake our bread for sandwiches, make yogurt, soap, jams, pickles, household cleaners etc. Some of these I make because it's less expensive than buying it from the store, or because it tastes/works better, or just because I enjoy the process. Making my own vanilla extract fits just about all of these categories. 

For the last few years, I have made a big batch of vanilla extract at the end of each summer so that it will be ready in time for the Christmas baking season. One year, I made a doubly big batch so that we would have some to give as gifts at Christmas. Giving someone homemade vanilla along with your favorite recipe to use the vanilla is a perfect gift. And, it's so easy to make!

You can purchase vanilla beans from many online retailers, and that is how I recommend you find your vanilla beans. Many grocery stores sell them, but they are quite expensive if you go this route. I bought a package of ten, grade B Madagascar vanilla beans from Amazon for about $23. This is enough to make 16 ounces of vanilla extract. The price of vanilla beans fluctuates, but most run about this price.
You will also need some vodka for the extract. I don't spend a lot of money on this purchase. If you plan on drinking the leftover vodka after you pour what you need for your vanilla, you may want to splurge for a nicer brand. The cost for 16 ounces of the vodka I purchased was $6.50. It may seem that these two ingredients make this project quite expensive, but the reality is you are saving money. For this batch of vanilla extract (16 ounces total), I spent $29.50. A 4 ounce jar of pure vanilla extract at my local grocery store is $16.89. Can you see the difference? If I had bought the equivalent 16 ounces from the grocery store, I would have spent $67.56! 

So how do you make this lovely concoction for your own use or for gifts? It's simple. Cut your vanilla beans into one inch pieces. You will use five vanilla beans for every 8 ounces of vodka. I split my ten vanilla beans between two 8 ounce jars. Place the beans in the bottom of the jar, pour in 8 ounces of vodka, and put a lid on it. You're done with the hands on part. Now just shake the jar every couple of days (or, if you're like me, whenever you remember to do it) and wait 8 weeks. Once the beans have soaked in the vodka for at least 8 weeks, it is finished. Various websites say you can use a little less or a little more vanilla beans with the 8 ounces of vodka, and I have found that 5 is just right. Fewer than that and the vanilla extract is too week, more than that and the cost per ounce goes up.

If you plan on  making this as a gift, you may want to pour your finished vanilla into smaller jars. You have about ten weeks until Christmas, so just enough time to order some vanilla beans and make this simple gift! And if you need a recipe to use some of the vanilla you make, I suggest my Chocolate Chip Cookie Recipe!

Happy Baking!

Purge Saturday

For years whenever my husband would come home from helping some friends move, he would scramble around our house working to get rid of stuff. After having spent a morning of moving boxes marked 'miscellaneous', he would want to make sure our home would only be filled with items of function or meaning. In his ideal world, we would live in a hotel room. He loves the clutter free, calm environment of a hotel. While I am not signing up to live in a hotel room, I do prefer a clutter free house myself. Yet another reason he and I work so well together :)

Just the act of everyday living seems to create clutter though. Add kids or pets to the mix, and you get more clutter. Our family of four (plus pets) does not live in a large home. We live in an average 3 bedroom, 2 bath, single story home. As I am sure is typical for most homes, ours can sometimes be a magnet for excess or unused items.
A few years ago, in an attempt to gain control of the excess that kept accumulating in our home, we came up with Purge Saturday. Purge Saturday happens on the first Saturday of each month in our home. Ten Saturdays out of twelve, it takes all of 20 minutes with the four of us pitching in. Most of our Purge Saturdays consist of us identifying one area for each of us to cull. It might be that one of our boys goes through the game closet while the other looks through their bookshelves. Or maybe they each go through their clothes. Each of the boys is asked to look through the items and determine if they are still being used and enjoyed or if they are no longer interested in a particular game/book/craft/toy/clothing item/etc. While they are doing that, my husband and I will be tackling another area. It might be our own closets, kitchen cabinets, or a shelf in the garage. The point is that it does not take all day. Some months we remove many items from our home and others it may just be a handful of items. Everything that is pulled from the house is placed in a tote in the garage. And then every couple of months, I load up the items and donate them to a local thrift shop. 

A couple of times a year, we pick a larger project for Purge Saturday. This often requires setting aside a few hours to accomplish. In the summer, we will pull everything out of the garden shed and go through it all, throwing out what is no longer needed, donating others and then reorganizing what is left. We will do this type of purging for the garage or the attic at other times of the year. 
Keeping up the consistency of a monthly Purge Saturday has helped our family keep the clutter at bay in our home. It's been a good practice to walk through our home and regularly ask ourselves if something is still useful or appreciated. Yes, sometimes our teens roll their eyes when we tell them it's "Purge Saturday!" over a stack of pancakes at breakfast, but they are good sports about it and have begun to pick up the habit on their own. I have found our younger son going through his clothes on a regular basis now working to remove items he no longer likes to wear or that have become too small. This small practice, over time, has helped us all to keep our home filled with things that we know we are using, are in good working order, and that we enjoy having in our home. An added bonus is that it takes us less time to take care of our home because there is less stuff in it to take care of!
I encourage you to give Purge Saturday a try! Decluttering an entire home can be an overwhelming task. But planning a day on the calendar, setting a timer for a short period, and getting everyone involved makes a huge difference. After a few months, when you have worked through many of the rooms or closets of your home, going back through them will be even easier.

Sloooow Knitting and Reading

I hit a lull in the last two months where it was taking me forever to read any books or to make any progress on this sweater. The books I read in the months of August and September were quite good...they just took me awhile to work through them. It is strange how some seasons I can zip through a book and others I cannot. 
One of the books I read, Firefly Lane, got to a point in the story that I knew was going to be horribly sad so I set the book down for at least three weeks before picking it back up again. I only had 30 pages left, but I could not bring myself to finish it. I finally grabbed a box of kleenex and finished the book. It was a good story, but I typically do not like books that end sadly. There's enough sadness in real life, that it is hard for me to read fiction that is sad as well. Does that make sense? 
Another great but slow for me read was the first book in The Crusades Trilogy by Jan Guillou. This was a fantastic book, and I plan on reading the other two in the trilogy. It takes place in Sweden in the 1150s...not a time period I would choose to live in! This first book follows a very young boy from his family home, to his education in a monastery back to his family home as a young adult. Why he lands at the monastery and the type of training he receives (from scholarly training to sword and archery skills) is not very typical, which causes complications when he comes back home. I am interested in seeing what the next book holds for this character.
Currently I am reading Jane Kirkpatrick's latest book, One More River to Cross. I am only a third of the way through the book, but I can tell you already that I will love it. I can say this, because I have yet to read a book of Kirkpatrick's that I didn't love. This particular novel follows a real world story of a wagon train that crosses through the Sierra-Nevada mountains in 1844, two years before the Donner Party's crossing. As is usual for me and her books, I am already sucked into the characters! 

We traveled quite a bit through the month of August, so I didn't knit as much as I would have liked. I didn't want to bring my sweater project camping, so I worked on smaller projects like some new crocheted dishcloths. I did pick the project back up in September and added more rows. I am finally finished (as of last night!) with the body of the sweater and am ready to split the front from the back to begin the sleeves. It's exciting to see the project grow little by little.
I was slowed down this month by a kitten who decided to chew my yarn in half and a pup who always wanted to sit on my lap whenever I sat down though! We had my sister's dog Auggie (isn't he a cutie?!) staying with us for a couple weeks in September while she and her new husband honeymooned in France. Auggie is a frequent visitor in our home, and we always love having him here. He just went back home this week, so I am back to knitting with a free lap.

One last project I have worked on this month is a little baby quilt for some friends who just adopted a newborn baby boy. I pulled a stack of blues and greens from my stash and settled on a scrappy patchwork quilt. I decided to add in the melon orange fabrics for a pop of color, and I am really happy with how the quilt top tuned out! I love scrappy quilts. It's fun to pull the squares as I build the rows and remember the different quilts that I have also used those fabrics in. Some of these fabrics were leftovers from my nephew's quilts, my boys' quilts and other baby quilts. Sewing together a quilt for a little one is a great experience. It's a good time to think about the parents and the adventure they are beginning on and to pray for the new baby who will be wrapped up in all of these patchwork squares.
I had thought I would have had time to quilt it last weekend, but that was not the case..maybe this weekend? Either way. It will be finished soon!

Linking up with Ginny's monthly Yarn Along.

Fall Hike

I think September might be my favorite time to go hiking. It's typically not too hot, there is often a mist in the air, the trails are not as crowded, and you get a beautiful color combination of green mosses and ferns with the orangey-yellow leaves on the ground. 
This last week my friend Sadie and I met up for a fall hike. We piled a few of our pups in the car and explored two areas not far from our homes. Our first stop was at Lucia Falls. This is really a short loop, but there are fantastic views of the falls. We also, thanks to the dogs, stumbled upon the beautiful hillside covered in ferns. What a gorgeous spot to discover! There are many, many oak trees along this section of the river, and on our way back to the cars, we found some oak galls (some people call them oak apples) on the ground. Oak galls are a funny, and often large, growth on the twigs of the oak tree caused by the California Gallfly. The gall was home to cynipid wasp larvae earlier in the season. But as you can see, they have left their home already. This particular type of gall does not cause any significant damage to the tree.
Sadie and I decided that since the rain was pretty much holding off, we wanted to walk on further. So, we drove a few miles further up river to Moulton Falls. Here there are many more trails to walk as well as offshoots to other trails. In the summer, this is a popular swimming spot. I was surprised at how many other hikers we saw in the middle of the week...on a soggy day. We had a wonderful time walking the trails, smelling the wood smoke in the air from a nearby home, and just soaking up some of the beautiful fall day. I was so thankful for the time to get out in the woods with a friend. It's always the best of both worlds...exercise outside and good conversation!
I hope you get a chance to explore some of the areas near you this fall!