January 1st HEMLOCK
The new year started out blustery with gusty winds downing branches large and small, right and left, including the brittle, frozen tips of the hemlock branches. These tips of hemlock branches (Tsuga canadensis) bearing their miniature cones were scattered everywhere. Usually, because the cones are borne on the uppermost branches of these very tall trees, I don't get a good look at them until the mature ones fall or get tossed down by the squirrels. I gathered up a handful of these petite boughs and brought them inside to draw as well as to brew a pot of hemlock tea. This is done easily enough by steeping the bright green needles (young fresh ones are best) or cut up twigs in a pot of boiling water as you would any tea. In addition to tasting good, it is rich in vitamins. Apparently chopped up white pine needles or arbor vitae will work as well.

This is not, by the way, the same hemlock as the infamous poison hemlock of Socrates' day. That is an entirely different plant; an herb of the parsley family more easily mistaken for Queen Anne's Lace than the tall forest conifer described here.

Although attractive and evergreen, hemlock boughs are rarely used for garlands or wreaths because the needles fall off in a very short time. This I found out by experience several years back after carefully constructing a twenty four foot garland to hang the length of our house inside above the windows. Within a week or two the needles were scattered all over the place. It was a good thing we had salvaged the old Electrolux that my grandmother was tossing out.

A guest once mentioned that he thought it rather incongruous that we should have a vacuum cleaner here in the woods, but we use it often. It is impossible not to track in all sorts of forest debris, especially in mud season. And of course with the woodstove there is always a mess of wood splinters and bark. Cleaning it up is considerably easier than trying to keep it out in the first place.

January 2nd TOAST
Last night (the first night of the new year) the mercury dipped to 20 degrees below zero again. Even though we now have a brand new car battery, or perhaps because we do, we took precautions to ensure that it does not freeze again. We ran an outdoor extension cord with a light bulb attached in one of those cage-like fixtures that mechanics use, and placed it under the hood of the car right up next to the battery. This is an old trick I learned as a teenager on overnight ski trips to Vermont with my family. It works.

We have to protect the house and ourselves as well, so on cold nights like this we generally find a good book and try to stay up as late as possible. The reasoning behind this is that once we go to sleep there's nobody there to keep feeding the fire. We decided in addition to a good book, a bottle of our homemade dandelion wine, “Sunshine in a Bottle,” was in order. We toasted Baron William Thomson Kelvin and Gabriel Daniel Fahrenheit. We would have toasted Mr. Celsius too, but apparently there isn't one. The 1943 edition of the Funk & Wagnalls that we use defines celsius as “the centigrade thermometer or scale; common but erroneous use.” The 1997 World Almanac begs to differ. They state on page 605 that “Although the term centigrade is still frequently used, the International Committee on Weights and Measures and the National Institute of Standards and Technology have recommended since 1948 that this scale be called Celsius.” In either case, no mention of a Mr. Celsius was made.

January 3rd STRANGE SNOW
Being wintertime, naturally the snow keeps falling down and piling up, but what fell out of the sky today was particularly strange. I'm familiar with snow (all kinds; wet, dry, light, heavy, slow or fast), sleet, and freezing rain, but this was none of the above. “Ice pellets” is what we finally called it. It accumulated to the depth of about two or three inches with the weight and texture of lose sand or sugar. Early in the morning we could brush or kick it around as you would sand on the beach, perhaps a little lighter, more like plastic bits of industrial waste. “I knew they would figure out a way to get rid of it someday,” was Pete's rather stoic comment. By one o'clock it had melded into one solid mass. It was still well below freezing, so it didn't melt, but rather fused somehow, like plastic. Sealed over with freezing rain later in the day, it remains.

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