Saturday, January 30, 2010

Dye Batch 4

Ligustrum in motion

1 lb. privet fruit (Ligustrum obtusifolium) simmered in 4 cups water and 2 tsp. salt. Unmordanted skeins simmered 1 hour without plant material, then added fruit back into dye bath. Let cool overnight: clear silvery grey with green tint.

Ligustrum fruits

The dye readily washed out after 1 hour of simmering, so I added salt. When dye spilled on the pot's exterior copper bottom, it became a beautiful turquoise, so I also tossed 4 pennies into the bath.

Wool dyed with Ligustrum, Curly dock in a iron pot, Japanese barberry, black bean cooking water

This experimentation simply means that I'll have a hard time reproducing this color. I would like to find a book about natural dyeing that explains chemical reactions and offers recipes for less toxic mordants.

I am considering raising alumroot (Heuchera americana), a native wildflower. We found some growing among weeds where forest meets lawn at home. We have protected the plants with fence. Deer eat the flowers, so only the alumroot deep in a snarl of multiflora rose, honeysuckle, periwinkle, and greenbriar could survive.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Dye Batches Two and Three

Other dye recipes without mordant:

Did I jinx this color by thinking, "Bright purple? Not sure I like this color."

2 cups red cabbage (Brassica oleracea - along with kale, collards, cauliflower, broccoli...) simmered in 4 cups water and 3 T vinegar. Did not work.

Of the slimy, mucilaginous curly dock, a herbalist acquaintance has said, "You can always tell an herbalist when they say, 'Don't touch my dock.'"

3 ounces curly dock (Rumex crispus) boiled in 6 cups water in cast iron kettle. Skeins simmered 1 hour with plant material. Let cool overnight: medium grey with green tint.

The recipe from Dyes from Plants (c. 1973 by Seonaid Robertson: "I have taught dyeing in more countries than anyone. I think, and therefore, speak with experience of the different plants," she writes of herself) recommended the inner bark of a newly fallen tree in spring. It also noted that Quercus tinctoria was the only oak that was successful for the author. Quercus tinctoria, mean oak used for dyeing, is now known as Quercus velutina, meaning oak with a velvety coating (leaf undersides). This oak can also be called black oak.

2 cups white oak inner bark (Quercus alba) simmered 1 hour. Sieve. Skeins simmered 1 hour. Did not work. Though the dye bath was a rich auburn tone, I believe the tree had been fallen too long and the tannins leached.

Bird Song Since the Solstice

A simple clean house is one that is rebuilt each year. In times past, Polish peasants annually whitewashed their walls and pasted up elaborate paper cutouts of flowers, leaves, animals and people.

I read that the first day of spring for the birds is the winter solstice (Birdsong by the Seasons: A Year of Listening to Birds by Donald Kroodsma). I, like the author, decided to determine if this is true. This winter's solstice occurred on Monday, December 21. My inquiry was cut short on two ends: my inability to rise in winter before daybreak and the need to get in the car and drive to work.

As a walked to the birdfeeder and filled it, I heard several notable songs:
A tufted timouse sang, Peter, peter, peter. Peter, peter, peter. A chickadee, Hey, sweetie. A white-breasted nuthatch sang, too, though not much of a song, it was other than the it's bleeting trumpet! A woodpecker drummed. I heard all this in just a few minutes, after not hearing any territorial bird song (except pieces of white-throated sparrow song - Oh sweeeet Cahhhnuu.) since the phoebe left.

Since then, I have observed several territorial displays. Perhaps the most interesting, was a nuthatch at the feeder. In typical nuthatch style, he hung upside down and flared his wings repeatedly at a titmouse. He appeared like a bat imitating a sunning turkey vulture. This week, a nuthatch seesawed at the opening on the great crested flycatcher nest box. Perhaps noted how much nesting material would be need to fill the box.

Today, the bluebird family inspected its previous nest box, as well as the kestrel box (from which a male bluebird ousted a curious starling just a week ago. Unfortunately, it also chased the great crested last summer.). Two male bluebirds sat in the kestrel box opening, peering in. They burst out as another bluebird exited the box.

On Thursday, I heard to titmice calling Peter, peter at Washington Crossing State Park. One called from near a building, the other from the picnic area. They timed their songs so that each Peter, peter occurred between the other bird's Peter, peter. Why waste time singing if your lady can't hear you?

So, the songs have continued since the solstice with increased territorial displays. I'm looking forward to the spring, but we still have 100 pounds of birdseed and much preparatory work to do in the garden.

The hedgerow below the garden before (above) and after (below). A former haven for my gardening companion, the song sparrow, and my garden's companion, the groundhog. I'd like to promise the wintering sparrows and the returning common yellow throats that their home will be rebuilt with far more delightful plants like persimmon and chinquapin. For now, goodbye multiflora rose, Oriental bittersweet and Japanese honeysuckle.

Saturday, January 9, 2010


Milk with wineberry syrup.

My father beams as I point across the table at my parents. "I blame them for teaching me to be thrifty." I glance up at waitress, not attempting eye contact. I shovel the uneaten portion of a Raritan Burger Deluxe into a leftovers container brought from my kitchen.

"Oh, ok, do you need containers then?" the waitress quickly asks my parents. "No, I've got them covered, too." I dig around in my bag, dusting off tiny bits of wood chips from the container before passing it across the table. Bits of plant material inhabit every pocket, bag and quiet corner of my home.

In case I haven't mentioned it before - I began taking leftovers containers to restaurants about one or two years ago. Restaurant staff often find it perplexing and odd, and I often make jokes about myself or say stupid things like, "I'd need to repack the food for work, anyway. I'd throw the styrofoam away." or "Save a tree!' or "Who needs more plastic bags?"

I bring containers to the pizzeria, the diner, the Mexican restaurant, and the pricey place with the local, free range beef. The only eatery that consistently finds it exciting is Tiger Noodles in Princeton. I thank them for their humor and enthusiasm - it makes the end of my meal much more relaxed. It also relieves everyone's urge to stick a wad of unsolicited PETA and WWF mail in my mouth when I start explaining about dead turtles with plastic in their digestive tract and islands of plastic in the ocean.

So what is a more creative application of this hereditary thriftiness?

Natural dyeing.

Black beans, Japanese barberry, black walnut husks. Undyed sample in the background.

Here are my discoveries so far. First, crocheting with hand dyed wool is going much faster than with fisherman's white wool. Second, I have used no mordants or other chemical fixatives, except salt, and I am excited by the results. Third, controlling the heat from the woodstove is difficult - the skeins can be simmering, boiling, or sitting in hot water. Fourth, I just began this process, so I few goals but color.

Salted water from one cup black beans (food waste, otherwise to be composted, or consumed at the risk of digestive gas!) simmered for 2 hours, let cool in dye bath overnight: tan with a lavender cast.

One pound Japanese barberry (invasive plant of the forest) lower stems and roots, simmered and boiled for some time overnight (we woke up to the woodstove roaring with white oak heat and the dye bath in a rolling boil - not recommended for dyeing), let cool in dye bath: pea green.

About 2 pounds decaying black walnut husks, simmered, husks soaked several days longer. Wool kept in warm bath overnight: medium golden brown.

How to make Japanese barberry military fatigues green:
1.) Decide now is the time to yank Japanese barberry from frozen ground. Feel left side deltoid become re-aggravated. Put small tear in new gloves. Request spouse to assist. Get splinters.

2.) Put barberry in bucket under rain gutter to rinse soil.

3.) Select and trim lower stems and roots for the most berberine and dye potential. Scrub roots.

Roots (right) have a stronger yellow color than upper stems (left).

4.) Invite Medusa over to assist. Weigh plant material for records.

5.) Cook plant material. Answer spouse's inquiry open entering home, "What is that smell?"

6.) Strain. Add skein to dye bath. Simmer as you please.

7.)Let cool in dye bath.

8.)Hang to dry.

Black walnut dyed wool and little bits of wood.


Three dusky deer walking south to north at nightfall. Intuitively I had pulled my knit cap away from my ears and heard them and then perceived them, walking in a rough line about thirty yards from where I sat.

Hunting as the sun sets: time undulates, now intense, every second weighty with details, then becomes smooth and featureless, a boring unmarked expanse of cold toes and the heaviness of the bow resting on my knees.

If you saw my current hunting outfit, you might laugh. As the three dusky deer passed me, just out of range, I stood up from the $10 black plastic folding stool we bought from a pharmacy in Michigan when we lived there for six months and had neither furniture nor money to purchase it. On my head is a blue, lilac, purple and grey cap knit "handmade for you by Ron Bloom". I'm fairly sure this gentle step-great-uncle of mine didn't have bowhunting in mind as he drew together the multihued yarns.

Clashing handily with the above and below clothing articles is an olive-green 1940s army scarf (gift from my father-in-law), sporty green and grey thermal jacket, hand-me-down osh-kosh bluejean overalls, winter boots three sizes too large...

My artfully camouflaged compound bow (the fall foliage stays on it even when it comes off the trees) and I are modestly concealed by a few piles of large sticks and a practically see-through "high-tech" camo fabric which I bought because the store was out of camo burlap but I now realize is less concealing than a lacy negligee taut over smooth skin.

As the dusky shapes glide by, I stand up from my plastic folding stool, but never draw, because the deer are out of range. I imagine that it would be an easy enough shot with a shotgun.

Twice now I've gotten this close to shooting a deer. The first time, I was briefly shaking with anticipation, it was like being deeply frightened, heart pumping, except I was the predator not the prey. I took a few deep breaths and calmed my muscles but then the deer which were headed right towards me veered just out of range.

This time, I remember being calmer, but to no avail. The dusky deer eventually vanished out of range behind the meager cover of overbrowsed spicebush and invading multiflora rose.

When I first began hunting, in October, I wondered whether I'd actually shoot if a deer came into range. Or perhaps not whether, but what split-second decisions I'd make when poised to kill. Now that I've been out a dozen times or so, I think the time invested has begun numbing the moral-type questions. And the gentle anonymity of those dusky grey shapes made it seem easier... to just relax one bent finger and kill, in a way that was both disconcerting but also comforting, as if the long cold wait and the near absence of daylight delivered me to a different place. As if I had entered into an anonymous drama which has played out for thousands of years between humans and animals, not in any great portentous way, but rather like slipping into a routine familiar but slightly estranged from my warm daylight reality.

This was a few nights back. Yesterday, I went out to hunt and (foolishly) didn't bring the $10 plastic stool. Instead, I stood within my emperors-new-clothes hunting blind and slowly rotated, watching the cardinals and then white-throated sparrows foraging to one side, the still winter forest on the other.

Even as I crouched down, regretting leaving the stool at home, I saw a deer head in the distance, more symbol than reality, a particular arrangement of white and grey which seemed too deer-like to be a snow-tuft on a rock. For a while we stared at each other, both straining to interpret at great distance the sudden appearance of hunter, and hunted. But the deer must have seen me crouch, for suddenly the whole foraging group of six or seven bounded back over the ridge.

I am learning mostly by making mistakes, my style evolving as much from limitations of knowledge, gear or imagination as from what I've gleaned to be "the right way to do things".

I don't bait and I don't hunt from a stand (though I briefly tried that earlier this season). I don't have camouflage clothing or scent-blocking under-armour. If a magnificent buck passes me within range as I hunt, I will likely let it move along. I'm hunting to restore balance to the forest I love, and reducing the population means harvesting does. I'm also hunting because deer meat is free-range, organic, locally-produced and all of that, but doesn't cost $10 a pound or demand the conversion of natural land into degraded pasture.

After spooking the deer yesterday, I got up in frustration and walked back home. Over a day later, I still have the nagging energy of a task left incomplete. I keep trying to source my restlessness: do I have a big homework assignment left undone? (A fear over a decade outdated, but never to be shaken, it seems). Maybe I'm depressed? Worried? No... the hunt is not over, and I haven't brought home any meat.