Through Winter Eyes

Look at winter

With winter eyes

As smoke curls from rooftops

To clear cobalt skies.

– Douglas Florian

I wake to the dark of a new day, stirring between warm bed sheets as the baby monitor beside me crackles to life, little snippets of sound from a waking babe. I reluctantly pull off the down comforter, swing my bare feet to the wooden floor and shudder at the cold breeze from the open bedroom window. I creep down dark hallways, push open bedroom doors and greet my morning baby, standing in the crib giggling. Scooping her up she tells me tiny tales of dreams once had, ooohs and ahhhs of excitement to be out of bed and in my arms. We dive into our routine of kisses on cheeks, of changing soiled diapers, of raspberries on tummies, all by the dim nightlight on the change table.

With baby balanced on my hip, we make our way out to the living room, flicking on the overhead light. It casts a soft glow over last nights scattered toys. I set babe gently down on her quilted play mat amongst her blocks and make my way to the woodstove. Crumpled pages of magazines are used to make a bed in the belly of the woodstove. Thin pieces of dry timber stacks are placed on top as kindling and two larger pieces of wood are placed on this. I strike my match, a tiny flame popping to life, and hold the glowing head to the edges of the paper. They take, and flames lick at the wood and glass, filling the room with the faint glow of firelight. On top of the stove the small fan begins to dance to life as the heat wafts up.

We spend the next couple hours of our day with the world outside in darkness, as we play beside a glowing stove. We shape dough rising overnight on the counter for supper’s bread. We complete our mundane tasks, like unloading the dishwasher or folding laundry. We build towers and knock them down in fits of laughter. We stand at the back door barefoot, our toes cold on the tiles, and feed treats to brother Hank, who takes cookies from tiny hands like they were made of glass.

When little yawns form on baby lips, it’s time to slip back to the nursery, lights down low, and rock to the hushed singing of Puff the Magic Dragon. And as little eyes close slowly, slipping back into dreamland naps, the sun is just starting to peek her head above the horizon.

Now, the morning becomes mine.

The boiling kettle whistles from the stovetop, hot water poured over grounds fills the kitchen with wafting aromas of fresh coffee. I pull my favourite mug from its shelf in the cupboard, and fill it to the brim. This morning requires all the caffeine. I seat myself at our little kitchen table, a vintage formica set with matching red vinyl chairs, snuggled into our breakfast nook surrounded by three large windows. This is where I will watch the world come alive with the sunrise.

The sun is slow to creep above the tree line, our yard surrounded by large spruce trees standing guard against the wind and elements. Her golden rays cast beams of light through the tree branches, catching like diamonds on the morning frost. A fresh blanket of snow lay untouched, the world a white contrast to the lightening sky above. Three sleepy dogs take refuge in their doghouse under the Spruce trees, having spent a night of patrol on the farm, the sun rise goes unnoticed behind closed eyelids and soft snores.

Little painted pictures are illuminated on the windows as the sun finally peeks her head above the trees, greeting the morning and little wisps left behind from Jack Frost on the glass. In these moments I am reminded by Mother Nature to slow down, taking in all the beauty that surrounds me through these winter eyes.

Not long after the sun has kissed the world awake, the little suet feeders placed on string hooks outside the windows become a hot spot of activity. Chickadees bob through the air, darting from tree branch to tree branch, landing with little feet on the feeders. Through the glass window I hear them sing a greeting , “Chick – a – dee – dee – dee”. They hop and bounce, flitting from feeder to feeder and taking off into the cover of the trees. In their place, the black and white bellies of little woodpeckers appear, darts of red as they feed clinging to the bottom of the cup shaped suet. Their delicate little toes grasp tightly, anchoring them in place as they feast. From little Downy woodpeckers, to their slightly larger cousins the Hairy woodpeckers, there is constant action at the feeders this morning. The frost and chill in the air brings the birds from hiding, looking for energy to keep warm throughout this Winters day.

I sip on hot coffee, staring and losing myself in the world outside my window. I watch as the sunlight catches on snowdrifts piled high into the branches of the Spruce trees. Whiskey Jacks dive from their branched platforms, darting to the dog bowls left on the deck and cleaning up any food the dogs left behind. It becomes a battle of cries between them and the Blue Jays, perched atop the railing of my clothesline. Tufts of blue feathers, puffed up to look like little balls of fluff trying to keep warm. My camera lens trains in on one, click click, and then it’s gone back into the safety of the trees.

It’s not long before my feathered friends are joined by busy little squirrels. Little red bundles of fur fly from tree top to tree top, running and jumping to the next branch on the next tree. Their rambunctious chatters are enough to draw the dogs from their deep sleep. My three giant protectors park themselves below the branches, waiting for a wrong move. These silly dogs spend hours under the trees, chasing the squirrels. I’m still not sure who enjoys it more, because it has clearly become a game of chase for the squirrels as well. A plume of snow falls from the farthest tree, catching Hank’s attention and sending speeding over to inspect, bouncing up at the lower most branch. A fitful chattering erupts from the squirrel above, pleased at himself no doubt for outsmarting such a big beast.

The beep of the oven timer beside me in the kitchen draws me back inside. I slide quickly from my chair to stop the sound that seems to be echoing off the walls of the quiet kitchen. Donning my oven mitts, I open the oven door to a warm waft of air hitting my face, and immediately the smell of fresh bread is consuming the kitchen. I place the hot loaves of sourdough bread onto the cooling rack sitting on the counter, their brown crusts begin crackling as they cool. They will taste delicious smothered with butter and our own honey, and my mouth waters slightly.

Turning back to the window I hear a faint stirring, the timer of the oven or the smell of the bread has roused the baby. I take one last sip of coffee while it’s still hot, steal one more glance out of the kitchen window at the birds and the beasts outside and turn to make my way down the hallway before she begins to cry. As I pull open her bedroom door and hear those little giggles greeting me, I pause. I am thankful. For these slow mornings I am blessed with, for this house and warmth that comfort me, for the daily bread baked in the oven that will feed my family. I am thankful for the beauty of Mother Nature, her glorious sunrises that greet me and the glimpse of a world all it’s own outside my kitchen window. Oh what these winter eyes do see and this winter heart does feel.

A Love Letter to Autumn

Dearest Autumn,

To write of my love for you would be nearly impossible, for words cannot capture your beauty and very essence. But I shall try to give it my best attempt.

From the moment the sun rises orange among the treetops, you are on my mind. You fill my skies with vivid colours; pinks and purple erupt with red splashes across your vastness, as if the sky itself were on fire. You cast your glow upon everything you touch, lighting up the tiniest leaf clinging to its branch and illuminating a skyline forest of towering trees. Your light and warmth after a night of cold awakens the very soul of Mother Nature, calling good morning to all of her dwellers. Squirrels scurry from their tree top homes, ready for a day of foraging, birds call out in frenzied choruses as they hop from branch to branch.

There is a sparkle to the world as you kiss it good morning. I imagine the way the grass would sound right now, crunching beneath boots, echoing a hundred times through the frosted landscape. You have kissed my gardens to sleep, the last of the yellow sunflowers hang their heads in defeat. I have watched as the leaves on the trees have changed from green to yellow, and now lay carpeted on forest floors. You have changed the world around me into a beautiful masterpiece of art.

As I sit in the darkness of my kitchen, a cup of coffee steaming in my hands, I watch as the world unfurls before your very presence. I see all this from the large window in my kitchen, and then off in the distance my eye catches on something. Gentle beasts in our pasture out back have also risen to greet you this morning. Braying donkeys plod along the fenceline, searching for the perfect blade of grass that perhaps your friend Jack Frost has left behind. I ponder, do the donkeys love you like I do? Or do you steal away from them the warmth and abundance of their summer grazing, of warm nights and sunshine days. If the donkeys do not love you then I will love you tenfold, for what do silly beasts know anyways.

Even as a slight chill climbs my spine, sending little goosebumps scattering my arms, my love for you does not waiver. I rejoice in your cool and calm, for this means the arrival of sweater weather. Who could not sing your praises as they wrap themselves into warm wooly sweaters. I always did like your hugs best.

You have a way of bringing people together. Your changing of seasons is a time for families; to give thanks, to explore and to try something new. We went looking for you in the woods the other day, stumbling upon a little woodland pixie hidden in the foliage. Resting on a mossy bed, dressed in falls orange cloak. We gathered the leaves that you dropped from the trees, giving them one last hoorah before winters clutches turned them to compost. We piled them high and jumped with joy in their crinkling mess. I found you among the rows of apple trees, branches hanging with ripe fruit for picking. In the laughter of my child as she chewed on her first apple, seated bundled in her little red wagon. You called to me between the vining pumpkins, whispering between the orange globes at my feet. I saw your joy dancing in the eyes of my little girl, touching and feeling the coolness of a pumpkins skin for the first time. She will grow to love you as much as I do, this much I know to be true.

And my darling, outside with Mother Nature is not the only place I feel you these days. Within the walls of this farmhouse you have also left your mark. I glance at the shelves in the pantry, brimming with jars full of summer memories. Canning and preserves let us hold onto garden goodness in the depths of Winter, but they don’t fill the shelves until you have arrived. You fill the home with the delicious smell of fresh baked bread, your arrival marks the return of sourdough starters on the counter and baking always coming warm from the oven.

The woodstove crackles to life when you blanket us with the first dusting of snow. Firewood, cut by our own hands, stacked neatly on either side, and in long rows outside waiting to be needed. The aroma of warmth and comfort, the soft smoke rolling from the chimney. You are worth the work, gifting us with fallen trees for splitting and giving us this to the bone warmth only a woodfire could.

My dear friend, my love for you is unwavering, and while maybe only short lived in season, your presence has once again ignited my soul. You have lit a fire deep within that was only flickering, gasping for that sweet, cool air only you provide. I watch as the last signs of your beauty flicker before me, the last falling leaf, the last spot of grass browning in the lawn, or perhaps the way your daylight slowly retreats, getting further and further away. I hold onto these fleeting moments, knowing we will meet again one day. Once the storms of Winter have passed, once the buds of Spring have long since blossomed, and once the hot days of Summer have exhausted their stay, you will come again.

Until then, I wait.

Signed yours ever sincerely,

A little wild farmer.

A Humble Harvest

As I walk past the bee hives that sit beside the garden, sun warmed from a September morning, the sweet smell of honey and beeswax fills my nostrils. The smell wafts along on the warm Autumn breeze, tingling my senses and capturing my full attention. Busy bees dart to and from the hive entrances, dancing between taking off in flight and landing again. They are hard at work capturing the last of the pollen and nectar. A ring of sunflowers stands tall around the hives, thistles in the pasture bloom bright purple and the golden yellow of ragweed spots the ditches and banks. The bees know that seasons are changing.

The end of the Summer is a busy time in our little apiary yard here on the farm. Over the season we increased from three to five hives, one from a split and one a swarm that we caught in the garden. From these five hives, three were established enough to add on honey supers for the warmer months to collect honey. The honey super boxes sit atop the two brood boxes which make up our hives. In between the top brood box and the super we place a piece called a queen excluder, a screen like panel that allows worker bees access back and forth but is small enough to not allow the queen into the supers. We do not want the queen up top in the super laying eggs as it is strictly for honey production. When the days start to become a little shorter and the weather is about to change, it’s time to remove the supers from the hives and process them for our honey harvest!

Mid morning is the best time to deal with the bees. This is when most of the worker bees are foraging and therefore there are a lot less bees in the hive to have to deal with. One hive at a time, the honey super box is removed and placed a few feet away on the ground. We allow them to sit here for a little while in hope that any bees will return to the hive and exit the box. After about an hour, Dan fires up our little leaf blower and uses this to blow any remaining bees out of the boxes. The boxes are then quickly loaded into our trusted wagon and hauled across the yard to our processing station (which also happens to be Dan’s “Man Room” off the garage).

We have two different types of hive setups and therefor two different way of processing our honey. The first hive is a Flow Hive, and at a turn of the tap, the honey flows from the comb out a little tap at the bottom of the frame. The frames in the Flow Hive are made to already have the “honeycomb” structure built inside of each frame. They are designed to be able to shift at the turn of a handle, which in turn breaks the shape of the honeycomb allowing the honey to flow out. While it definitely makes for a much easier honey harvest this way, the bees do not seem to overly love these set ups and we have actually gone from two down to one hive.

The next two hives are conventional setups, with ten frames in each box. The frames we use do come with a premade backing so that the bees have something to start building their own comb on. The frames are removed from the boxes one at a time, one side of the frame is scraped with a special tool to remove the protective capping the bees place over each cell of honey. Once we have two frames of about the same weight with one side cleaned, they are placed into a spinner. The spinner works like a centrifuge, spinning the frames inside and pushing the honey out with the force of the motion. The honey gathers inside of the spinner and a drain at the bottom is opened to filter out the drawn gooey goodness. This method is messy to say the least. I don’t think there was one thing that was saved from sticky honey between the garage and the house.

In total this year between the three hives we harvested approximately 65 lbs of honey. Being only our second year of harvesting honey, we were quite pleased! From the garage, the honey was taken inside the house to be jarred, because making one place sticky wasn’t enough. In the house, the honey sat in our warm room (the boiler room which heats our house) for a half hour or so to increase viscosity for filtering. From the large pots we had collected it in the man room, we poured it through a filter ( a mesh pan which fit perfectly over a 5 gallon bucket) into bowls in the house. From the bowls, it was straight into the honey jars! We had fun labelling and creating cute little packages for our friends and family.

This was the first year we had enough wax cappings from processing to be able to save our own bees wax! The cappings were tied into a cheesecloth bag and set into a pot of water. The water was brought up in temperature, making sure to not let it come to a complete boil. As the temperature increased, the wax within the cheesecloth melted and released, keeping any bits and pieces of debris inside the cloth. The bag was removed and the pot taken off the heat. As the water and wax mixture cools, the wax begins to solidify and floats on top of the water. We were left with a large disk of wax at the end. This disk was then melted down over a double boiler and poured into a container to take on the shape of a brick. I am so excited to see in coming years what we will get for wax and all the creations we will come up with. For this year, I was able to make two cute little beeswax candles for us to enjoy!

After finishing up with our harvest, and deep cleaning EVERYTHING to get rid of the stick, we preformed hives check on everyone to make sure we were still looking good as we headed into the changing seasons. At this time of year we start to see less brood within the hives as the bees prepare for overwintering smaller populations. We begin to see lots of dead drone bees piling up around the outside of the hives as well. The male drone bees serve one purpose only, to mate with the queen. When the colder weather comes the worker bees will kill off these drones as they are not needed anymore for the Winter months and would only take away from food supplies for the other bees in the hive. We see more frames being filled with honey and pollen as the bees use up the last of their forages to stock up for Winter feeding.

When the last of the food supplies start to dwindle around the farm we begin to feed the bees to give them a boost for the long months that lay ahead. A mixture of sugar water is fed to the bees in buckets on top of each of the hives. This year we also tried something a little different, offering melons to the bees in the apiary yard. They seemed to quite like the melons, cleaning them up in a couple of days. We like the idea of giving the bees a more natural sugar for food sources, but aren’t willing to risk our colonies and still bucket fed the sugar water this season. It will be something we do some more research into for sure!

Throughout the Fall we continue to feed the bees until the temperatures drop enough that the buckets would freeze. At this point they are removed and the hives wrapped with their cozies in anticipation of whatever precipitation is on its way. Before this, we also have to finish up our Fall treatments. After our harvests, we treat each hive with a vaporized form of Oxalic acid. The oxalic acid is derived from rhubarb leaves and is used as a treatment and preventative for Varroa mites in the colonies. Varroa mites can kill whole colonies, especially over the Winter months, if not controlled. The mites feed off of the bees, burrowing into their fat layers on their body and eventually killing the bee host. We don’t need anything extra to fight against with our cold and snowy Winters here in Alberta, so treating for Fall mites is a must for us.

It really was another amazing Summer with the bees, as we continue to learn and grow in our beekeeping journey. It has definitely become one of our favourite hobbies here on the farm. Whether we are sitting out on the deck sharing lemonades rimmed with sugar with them, weeding the garden with them buzzing overhead, or just taking a walk past the hives, the air is always filled with little busy bees and the scent of honey. I wouldn’t have it any other way!

The Odd Uneven Time

“August rain: the best of the summer gone, and the new fall not yet born. The odd uneven time.”

―Sylvia Plath, The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath

I think Sylvia Plath said it best, referring to August as the odd uneven time, when the days of Summer begin to dwindle, the air changes, but we haven’t quite been graced by the presence of Fall. How even more true this rings with the days of pandemic surrounding us still, with the words and actions of change being spoken around the world. We are living in a new time.

I think this really hit me hard just this past week, as I spoke with my Mom on the phone (which I do almost every day). We broke into tears over a conversation we were having about Wallace. I was so fortunate to have my Mom and Dad here by my side after Wallace was born. But when they left in March I had no idea that would be the last time I got to see any of my family as the world went into lock down. It has been five months since my parents last saw their new (and first) grandbaby. My heart absolutely aches when I think about the time we are missing with them, the moments and milestones they see only through snapshots and videos. Thank goodness for technology I suppose.

And the worst part, there is no clear end in sight.

What if a year or two passes before the world is back to “normal”, before flights are safe again, before borders open. What if my parents miss out on the whole first year (heaven forbid two) of my daughters life. The thought makes me choke up typing and I hold back tears. It’s a thought I do not want to give life to.

As if being a new Mom wasn’t hard enough, being a new mom during a pandemic has brought a whole new ball game of struggles and emotions with it. The biggest one being the loneliness I feel being so far away from my family and loved ones but also the everyday loneliness of isolation. When I had imagined the first year of motherhood, I had imagined coffee dates and new friendships with new mothers just like me. I had envisioned play dates with friends and fun little day trips with my baby in tow. What I hadn’t anticipated was being stuck in my home (OK so I am a homebody for the most part but I still used to have the option of leaving), without even being able to make a trip to the grocery store or post office. I hadn’t thought that my brother would have to cancel his trip out at Easter, still not having met his niece, or that my parents wouldn’t be back to visit in the Summer.

If there is a silver lining to any of it, it is that my husband was also able to be home with me. That for the past six months we have been able to be a family and enjoy the first few months of our daughters life without the hustle and bustle and overwhelming need to make visits and play host to visitors. It’s been just us, the Burches, navigating the newborn stages, figuring out this parenting thing and watching our baby girl begin to take in the world around her. For this I will be forever grateful. Most Summers here on the farm we are hard at work and busy with chores, projects, tending to animals, visiting and day jobs. This year, we got to throw all that to the wind and just enjoy the TIME we had together.

That’s not to say we haven’t kept ourselves busy this season though.

That must be the thing about farm life, that even when we decided to not raise pigs and chickens for butcher this year to save ourselves some time and energy, we still manage to find other ways to use it up. Like building greenhouses, expanding chicken runs, planting new beds in the berry patch and installing solar panels. On top of the everyday tasks of tending to the animals, caring for what’s left of the garden and daily house chores. Perhaps we’ve needed to stay busy this Summer to keep our minds at ease about the world around us.

The greenhouse has been completed for the Summer. The addition of a brick herringbone floor made from repurposed brick from Old Strathcona district in Edmonton was the last of the big projects. It was the perfect finishing touch. Four black barrels line the back wall of the greenhouse, acting as solar batteries. They trap the heat from the day and release it back into the greenhouse during the cooler nights. Automatic vent louvers were installed as well, operating off of wax inside of the louver; when they heat up they expand and open the vents and when it cools down they retract, closing the vents. Dan also rigged me up a watering system, with eaves trough for catching and directing rainwater into a tote, and a watering hose that runs off of gravity flow. We must be doing something right, because inside the greenhouse the tomatoes we salvaged and planted are thriving and producing lots of fruit, just starting to ripen.

We’re heading into this Fall with five hives of honeybees, three of which have honey supers we will remove later this month for harvest. Each hive is looking really good as we head into the next season here on the farm. Honey will be harvested in late August, giving the hives ample time to build up storages and supplies for the Winter months ahead. We look forward to seeing how each hive has produced this season and seeing where we can make improvements for next year.

The chickens have had a great Summer as they free range in safety here in their newly expanded run. With lots of grasses, seeds and insects to forage on, they’ve been busy exploring and using their new space. Their happiness shines through in egg production as we continue to get almost a dozen eggs a day. With limited visits to town, we went looking for a way to use up our surplus eggs taking up space on the counter. Pickled eggs it was! You can find the recipe I use a few posts back.

The donkeys and alpacas have been passing away the Summer days out on pasture. The alpacas look a little less funny each day that passes as their hair slowly begins to fill back out and the donkeys are looking sleek all shed out for the season. The goats have also been enjoying their shady forest home, exploring out back and eating all the little poplar they can find. Some of the grass is almost taller than Mama Sue, letting her hide away from it all. Lastly, the three little pigs have wallowed away the days in their pen too. From little mud bogs, to forest shade and grassy sunshine lounging, they have a little bit of everything available to them.

The vegetable garden has been a labour of love this year, fighting off Mother Nature and keeping our fingers crossed for growth (other than the weeds taking over that is). We are finally seeing little backyard harvests after a week or so of heat and sunshine finding us. One little lone survivor pea plant has given us a handful of pods, the beans are just now flowering and should be making their appearance in the next couple of weeks, the potatoes have started to look a little lack luster and therefor need to be dug up, and we had the smallest bit of lettuce growing in rows. We had ourselves our first little garden salad last night for supper along with fresh garden potatoes on the BBQ. It’s the little things that count this year. I was able to get on my garden lady’s list for cucumbers this year and we pickled jars of sweet dill, dill and bread and butter pickles. Next year, cucumbers will be added to the list of things we grow in the greenhouse. It may not be our best garden year, but what we are really going to remember this year is our first Summer with our daughter, not the vegetable garden!