“There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance. Pray you, love, remember. And there is pansies, that’s for thoughts. . .”
I would like to dedicate this brief post to the memory of my Aunt.
She left us two weeks ago, after a battle (with cancer) hard fought. I’m still trying to comprehend the loss. I’m in my forties…a time in life when the harshness of human frailty begins to come into focus. it’s the time in our lives when we realize that wolves circle just beyond the comforting fire that our family and friends are seated around. But understanding and reconciliation are two different things. There are so few people in this world whom we share life’s experiences with…and even fewer who love us for who we are.
My Aunt’s home had an open door. And everyone who passed through it was family in her eyes. She loved them all unconditionally. Many of them were friends who passed through my cousins’ lives briefly, but no matter. While they meant something to her children, they were treated as family. She was a presence in my life at every step…every holiday, every birthday, every graduation…as proud of her niece as she was of her own children. And though we saw each other only infrequently as I became an adult, I always knew that she was there, with her door open.
And so this is my little posey of rosemary and pansies…memories and thoughts…I’ll remember her love of gardening and crafts, her eye for repurposing things others considered too worn out to value, her Christmas babka, and the afghan she made that still lies at the foot of our bed, the penchant she seemed to have for dogs almost the same size as she was.
Our families are like candles…they burn forever bright at one end and, with time, grow shorter at the other. But the memory of all those who gave it light will continue to guide…
Hello Friends…finally settling in to put up a few blog posts…I apologize for my lack of updates. I had unrealistic expectations this summer! I had hoped to be posting weekly- keeping up with the changes in the gardens, updating the project reports, and sharing recipes and decorating ideas as we hosted friends and family. This is honestly the first day in a month and a half that we have sat quietly. And that’s only because of a steady rain. We need it though…my husband and I (and even our pup) have been navigating a restless sea this summer. Each little wave crashing over us has been it’s own summer swell.
Some have been lovely…we have been able to open the door of Briar and Bramble to guests finally…and family and friends have filled the house with laughter and love. Some of our visitors came looking for quiet calm and a moment of peace in their hectic lives. Some came looking for adventure along the midcoast. Friendships and familial bonds were reaffirmed, and new friendships forged (Bramley bonded with all his visitors…both two and four legged!).
The gardens, porch, and patio have been constant comforts. They have hosted lobster dinners and cakes by candlelight, lazy breakfasts and board games, and they became the place to watch bumblebees, birds, chipmunks, and meteor showers. The phoebes fledged from their nest in the porch eaves, and for two weeks straight, we listened to the juvenile barred owls screech to each other in the night once we turned off the string lights and doused the lanterns.
I have found joy and solace in my gardens…coaxing then to grow, delighting in each new bloom, obsessively fiddling about in evenings ‘til dark…weeding, watering, deadheading, trimming, harvesting…I find it calms me after constant stressful days at work. My summer routine has been to come home, reflect on the day with my husband, cuddle Bramley, and then throw on my wellies and head out into the garden or the meadow.
Ah…the meadow. Many of you may be familiar with the struggle of the meadow project. It has slowly evolved from a jumble of felled timber, to overgrown brush, to stump field, to parched and barren dirt and weeds…to a wildflower meadow. But…that’s a story for another post.
So there has been much happiness this summer at Briar and Bramble. We are so thankful to have this sanctuary to call home and to share with those we hold dear. But I have a confession to make as well.
I am blessed to be able to live in a beautiful home and to create my version of a life pulled from the pages of a magazine. But I will be honest…it is work. I wanted to give my guests (and myself and my husband) an experience…a perfect, peaceful, old fashioned New England summer vacation. (I sound frightfully like Clark Griswold…just wait til we hit Christmas season!) Hopefully, that’s what they had. But I have been a bit like that proverbial duck who looks placid on the surface while paddling furiously below the water line! I love being the hostess and custodian of our home (with my husband, of course!), but I tend to put a lot of pressure on myself to try to make everything beautiful. And our list of projects only gets longer, despite finishing many of the tasks we had set for ourselves. Add to this the daily stresses of the outside world, work, schedules, and unforeseen events such as a loss in the family, and well…I’m tired. So many of us come into the blogosphere to present a perfect picture. I can tell you that creating that and living it is wonderful and rewarding and one of my most treasured achievements, but it’s work! The rain, then, is a welcome respite and reason to sit and recharge.
And there is no place that I would rather be.
(I’ll follow this by a few additional brief posts showing some of our recent projects, the meadow, and a few final thoughts from recent days. Thanks for stopping by…)
Wishing you all a very happy June! It’s been very busy here…any time at home is spent working on projects or planting. There’s a new landscaped lawn we have been working on and a new potting bench area. My to-do list constantly gets longer rather than shorter, and even the extra hours of sunlight each day are not enough. But, I did want to start a (hopefully) regular posting of what is “Blooming at Briar and Bramble”. I hope that you enjoy the gardens as much as I do!
Wishing you a good Sunday morning here from the porch of Briar and Bramble! There is birdsong in the air (and the distant traffic), the leaves are that almost fluorescent shade of yellow-green, and the clouds are thickening over the Bay and turning a shade of blue that mirrors the surface of the water. I have started my summer tradition of a lazy Sunday breakfast on the porch this morning, and thought it was about time that I give an update.
I’ve had several blog posts started in my mind…I just haven’t had time to actually compose them! Early spring is a busy time here…the weekends are spent working on the big projects that we have envisioned for the house and the property. Although we have several acres, when we first moved here in 2019, the cleared areas consisted of a tiny bit of front lawn, a patch of weeds and stony dirt behind the house, a front “field” of tree stumps, and a vast sea of poison ivy and Virginia Creeper. The house had been recently renovated when we found it, but had not been consistently lived in for years. So nature had taken over again. Or really, poison ivy had claimed it in a hostile land grab….
So, we seem to have started a yearly April and May tradition of pulling up vines and attempting to reclaim land. It’s not fun, but it’s absolutely worth it. (Despite the perpetual itchy rashes…we have tried multiple poison ivy relief products too. I don’t have any advertising deals on the blog site, so I can tell you in an unbiased manner that basically nothing works. My best advice is: try not to scratch. 🤷♀️
Anyway- this year, we had some professional help. We had the stumps removed and buried and the front field cleared. It was a massive relief to get this done. Last summer, we watched the stumps try to regrow, and a tangle of scrub brush seemed to come from thin air. It was disheartening to know that we couldn’t keep up with it ourselves. So….my dreams of a meadow are much closer to reality now….roughly an acre has been cleared, and we spread wildflower seed and Blue Seal Equigraze grass seed. There are patches of green just starting to emerge from the expanse of brown. We desperately need rain though. Our hose and best intentions can’t keep it watered.
A few other projects are also either completed, or are at the “hurry up and grow” phase- the front yard has been extended and planted with grass seed and lupine, a partially shaded culvert in the backyard has been cleaned of underbrush and planed with a partial shade wildflower seed mix, several more lilac bushes have been put in (thanks to a friend who needed to thin hers out), and we now have a wisteria arbor. (We foraged our woodlot for sturdy winter blow downs and built a rustic frame). Finally, the patio that we created last summer got a new burst of color…I repainted the chairs in a cheery sea foam green and our DIY screen door was put up. (The screen door will get its own post at some point. It was a discarded frame that we found along the side of the road. We had a lot of laughs…and a few groans…transforming it into a useable piece!)
This past week, I have spent every free moment visiting my favorite garden centers and planting the gardens. I’ve been impatiently monitoring the weather and the temperatures for weeks now- watching the perennial beds slowly come to life, and coaxing seed trays in the guest bedroom. (That’s another separate post…it will be all about good intentions and glossy internet articles vs what happens in real life…)
Writing this reminds me that I have new yard project to begin, a car to wash, weeds to pull, flowers to water, and a cake that needs decorating…life at Briar and Bramble can be as busy as a bee’s….but we still take Sunday mornings to enjoy it!
(Sorry for the unintended blogging break…thanks for reading…I’ll be posting more often in the summer as garden blooms unfurl, patio and porch lights twinkle in the evenings, and the sailboats dot the bay…🌸)
Winter is a wonderful time for projects. Covid isolation and establishing Briar and Bramble happened to coincide last year, allowing me even more time to be creative and try my hand at new crafts. I have been motivated by finding uses for materials found at home- attempting to be economical and curious…and as a result, I spend a fair amount of time flipping through magazines and Pinterest. The results aren’t always polished, but I’ve been pleased with some of my creations…and I’ve enjoyed myself too (mostly!).
One of my ongoing projects began with my borderline obsession with Christmas decorating. I adore Christmas. Even as a child, I had a deeply rooted interest in history and appreciation for anything appeared “old”. Christmas has always felt like my chance to live in Victorian era Britain for a month! (Note: After spending several weeks in Scotland before the holidays a few years ago, I was very surprised to see that they don’t necessarily decorate in that style, even there!! But that’s another story for another time…) As soon as Thanksgiving is over, I begin to anticipate decorating for Christmas. I love the Williamsburg style…the traditional look, the greenery, the fruits and natural elements, ribbons, candles, and small white lights. Before we bought the house, I would decorate our tiny rental with so much greenery that became almost impossible to touch anything without knocking into a balsam cutting or a winter berry branch! You could imagine how thrilled I have been then, to have Briar and Bramble…the old house, huge porch, and several acres of woodland to forage for decorative elements. My excitement must be how an artist feels with a fresh canvas or a blank page…
Like the child staring at a heaping plate who is told that her eyes are too big for her stomach, I often have a “vision” that is bigger than my budget. So I tend to study the design magazines and websites of historic homes and grand gardens and then ask myself “Can I make something similar?” This past Christmas, I wanted a grapevine sculpture that I could cover in white lights. It just so happens that we have a huge, overgrown, out of control grapevine which has overtaken a large tree at the corner of the house. So…I had an idea. And I had grapevine. Lots of it. Now what?
I decided to start simple. It was the holiday season, so finding a wreath ring was not a problem. I cut several long pieces of vine and began wrapping it around the wire form. I literally just kept weaving it over itself, around and around, until the wreath was the width I wanted. I tucked the end in as tightly as I could, and the wrapped a bit of green gardener’s wire over it. I chose a length of tartan ribbon and sprigs of greenery that I had either bought or collected. As a finishing touch, I gathered some lichen and moss that had fallen out of the large, old spruce in the side yard. Then I could enjoy placing the greenery where I wanted, tack it down with a bit of hot glue if needed, and add a bow. I was pleased with the finished wreath…I even made a few more for friends, or to use in spring. It was good practice, but could I make an actual sculpture?
I was already learning a bit about grapevine as an artistic medium. It’s kinda cranky. Even when soaked, it snaps without warning. Long pieces will whip around and smack you in the face. The thin pieces aren’t as pliable as you’d expect. It’s not nearly as clean looking as willow. Actually, I think I’d much rather try my hand at willow…but I don’t have willow. I have grapevine. Old, neglected, dry grapevine. Dormant, winter grapevine. (I may find that it’s much easier to be friends with grapevine in the spring and summer when it’s growing and green. Unfortunately, I can up with this idea in December!)
In searching through my magazines and Pinterest sites, I came across an article in the UK edition of Country Living about an willow sculptor named Anna Cross. She creates absolutely amazing sculptures of animals and people in her workshop in Yorkshire using various varieties of willow. I was inspired by what she does. I knew I couldn’t do anything even remotely like her, but she inspired me to at least try something with my obstinate grapevine. I’ve since been in contact with her, and although I just wanted to tell her that I admire her work, she was lovely enough to encourage me as well. So if you’d like to see some *real* art, check out http://www.annaandthewillow.co.uk
After my research, I decided that it would be best to try to weave the grapevine around a form. Chicken wire seemed like a good option- it’s malleable and soft, has open spaces to tuck vine ends into, it could withstand the outdoors…and we had some out in the shed. Armed with garden shears, heavy gloves, a roll of wire, and an armful of grapevine, I set to work.
I have a new found affinity for hares. It may be the result of recently reading Watership Down….not really sure. But anyway, I thought a Christmas hare might be simple enough. It was easier than trying to tackle the life sized deer that had been my other thought!
I had a few internet images of hares for reference. Working with animals also helps when trying to recreate realistic anatomy. (That being said, my poor hare has some issues with his hind limbs…I don’t claim to anything other than a pure beginner here!!) Once I was (fairly) happy with the chicken wire form, I began weaving the grapevine into it. I learned quickly. It is easier to weave and not wrap. Short pieces are easier to work with than long lengths. Soaking the vine for a few days helps. Stop when you are happy with the overall effect. It would take a very long time and a lot of vine to completely cover the form. And some of the finer detail of the shape may be lost. Only work on the project as long as it is bringing happiness. Frustration means it’s time to stop for that day. Bring a fresh, new eye to it another time.
Several days later, I stepped back and looked at what I had put together. I was amazed…it actually looked like a hare! Sure, it was clumsy and “primitive”. The shape wasn’t *quite* right. But…I had pulled him out of a thought and a wish, and I had created him from something in my own yard. And that felt good…
I added a bow around his neck, a few sprigs of boxwood, and two strings of “fairy lights”. The Christmas Hare has been on the porch since the holidays. He makes me smile every evening as I open the porch gate after a long day at work.
A couple of weeks ago I began planning for spring. I’ve had several projects in the works since then, including grapevine balls to hang in the trees, and a bird for the garden.
The bird began the same way as the hare- with a chicken wire frame. This time, I soaked the vines longer and wove them wet. I still found the grapevine to be temperamental! Since I hoped the bird would have a more streamlined look, I cut small, straight pieces and tried to treat it like willow. (Or what I imagine willow to be like to work with!).
The bird was a fun, relaxing experience, thanks in part to one of the most engaging gardeners on the planet. While weaving, I listened to a few interviews with Monty Don…who always makes me feel like we are all going to be ok- as long as we garden, care about the natural world, and love dogs. He’s become one of my heroes. Although I know Monty Don will never read my blog, at least the rest of you will know that there is a very amateurish looking, but well loved, grapevine bird dedicated to him perched in a garden in Maine this summer!
It’s interesting how an idea and a desire for a new project can take on a life of its own. The grapevine sculptures allow me to try something new, let me appreciate a resource readily available to me here at Briar and Bramble, help me celebrate the holidays while also alleviating some of the dual covid and winter blues, and even let me feel connected to others over great distances. Not a bad way to spend a few winter weeks up here on our hill…
We have beautiful fresh snow this morning at Briar and Bramble, but duty called and I was off before getting any photos. I was reminded of this day last year however, when the sunlight danced on the ice covered branches and the softest wind blew through the ash and oak, shaking the twig tips so that they crashed together and rang like tiny fairy bells…
I am often struck by how *busy* our wood is. One of the joys of sitting in the middle of a 10 acre plot surrounded by empty lots is that *we* are the visitors to this little ecosystem and not the reverse. We try to live in partnership with our land…we don’t feel that we need to “claim” all of it for our cultivated purposes of gardens, lawns, etc.
Promoting meadow growth and merely maintaining the wooded lot encourages pollinators, birds, bats, owls, and other wildlife that will help our gardens and apple trees flourish. (We hope!) We don’t mind sharing the land with deer, mice, squirrels and chipmunks. Yes, they may raid the garden occasionally, steal the birdseed, and munch on the apple branches. But it’s just about finding a balance that you can live with. For so long, we humans have destroyed the environment in an attempt to manipulate and dominate it in all ways. It’s an age-old battle that we are fortunate to not need to wage here. We have the luxury of gardening and owning land for our own happiness, not for survival or for profit.
Briar and Bramble began life as a farm when it was first settled. Crisscrossing the property are long neglected examples of the quintessential New England stone wall. Maine soil is notoriously rocky and difficult to cultivate. I look at those walls and think of the back-breaking work it must have taken to clear the land and construct them. And how frustrating it must have been. Even building short lengths of garden fencing last summer had my husband and I throwing up our hands in exasperation. It sometimes seemed impossible to find a single place to sink a pole or post deeper than 6 inches! But it makes me appreciate what our predecessors had to do to make a life here.
Yet the walls were only the first step for that first family. Once the rocks were cleared, trees had to be felled, stumps pulled up or burned, soil turned, crops planted, and fields and livestock tended. I can understand why the battle began…if your…everything…depended on growing crops and raising livestock, you would not find deer, coyotes, mice, or even chipmunks very charming.
Man vs nature was a much different match in 1823, however. In 2021, we have luxury of not needing to struggle. And we have the added responsibility of the knowledge of our impact on even 10 acres. So we choose to encourage our wildlife and try to practice responsible conservation where we can. (Ask me if I’m still this enthusiastic when the snow melts and I am anxiously hovering over my young vegetable shoots and tender bulbs!!)
But I digress…
Winter is a wonderful time to reflect on the presence of the environment all around us…how complex, vibrant, and active it is, though often unseen. My husband and I were in our wood this past weekend, moving logs of firewood that he had cut from a nice stout ash that had fallen in a storm last year. As I walked from the house to the wood, I realized we were surrounded by tracks of all kinds…deer, mice, rabbits, squirrels, coyotes, neighboring dogs, birds, etc. Of course, I knew they are all there…we have feeders stocked in several trees for the birds (and red squirrels, grey squirrels, chipmunks…) The deer practically knock on the door. I have found a family of mice growing in one of my flower pots in the shed. And the game camera has provided us with some entertaining sightings as well- a bobcat, a flying squirrel, and the slowest moving porcupine I have ever seen. Still, seeing all the tracks in the snow and the paths they made was a poignant reminder that we are surrounded by activity. We are but one small part of a whole community here…each track is a story of a life being lived, whether great or small. Passing like ghosts through the wood, they leave only these small traces to show that they are there, weaving between the trees and through the crashing, raucous, frenetic lives of the humans around them, if only for a moment.
This year, we added a new ritual and celebration to our holiday season at Briar and Bramble…we wassailed the apple trees.
This wasn’t exactly the Christmas carol interpretation of wassailing…or what people would describe as wassailing. To most (Americans, anyway), that vaguely means drinking a type of spiked punch that eventually loosens the tongue to drunken, off key caroling at holiday parties. Originating from the Anglo Saxon period, the term “wassailing” comes from the toast “Waes Hael”…a wish for good health. It became a common practice to visit neighbors and family, toasting their health and prosperity, in the holiday season. Caroling, gatherings, and celebrations followed with time, and the song “Here We Come, A-Wassailing (Caroling)” entered our holiday lexicon.
Apple (or orchard) wassailing is an ancient custom that was once most prevalent in the southern regions of England, such as Somerset and Devon. As with many old rituals, there is question surrounding its origins, age, interpretation, and even actual date. There appear to be two dates, depending on which tradition and calendar you prefer to favor- Twelfth Night/Day (January 6th), or “Old New Years” (January 17th). On either of those dates, tradition holds that revelers fill their mugs and glasses with apple wassail, grab their lanterns and torches, and proceed to find the oldest tree in the orchard. They offer the Apple Tree Man (the spirit of the orchard) a wassailing song, place a piece of bread soaked in cider at the base of the tree or in the branches, and pour cider onto the roots- ensuring the health of the trees and a good crop of fruit in the coming season.
I was intrigued by this, not only as a history buff and Anglophile, but also because we have taken the very tentative first steps into starting an orchard. I have always loved apple orchards and longed to have one of my own. There is just something about apple trees…their gnarled, wizened shape, the appealing and odd names of the heirloom varieties, the beauty of their flowers, the smell of the windfalls, the continuity of their growth with the history of the land…they have always just seemed magical to me. It may be that they feel like a tangible connection to history. I love the heirloom varieties and the thought that there are some trees (or grafts of trees) on old New England farmsteads whose origins date back as early as the 1700s.
We were thrilled to find a mature wild apple tree growing just outside the back of the house when we moved in. It has produced a fair amount of very small, yet surprisingly tasty fruits. We took a few specimens to the Maine Organic Farmers and Growers Association (MOFGA) Apple Day, hoping to hear that it is a previously unknown example of a rare heirloom variety. We were told that it’s a wild tree, and thus a unique variety of its own. My husband and I think that it’s lovely that Briar and Bramble has its very own unique apple, but we still wanted to have some historical varieties.
So we’ve added four young saplings…the beginnings of our own little orchard. Each tree is a different variety, and most are heirloom- Northern Spy, Black Oxford, Liberty, and Hurlbut. We are learning as we go, with the help of resources such as MOFGA, family wisdom, and books. Judging by the nibbling that has occurred on the branch tips despite netting and caging, I think we probably need to focus more on exorcising the deer rather than appealing to tree spirits. However, since we are committed to a mostly organic and natural garden, and have essentially declared Briar and Bramble to be a wildlife refuge, we are left with the option of pouring cider on the roots of our trees by lantern light on a cold January night!
Although there was a lot to occupy our attention on January 6th, we did manage to take a few minutes to turn to the past and continue the tradition of apple wassailing. We filled a bowl with cider and a slice of bread, topped our mugs with hard cider (a necessity for proper wassailing!), bundled into coats and boots, and tromped through the snow into the backyard to visit our old wild tree. I recited the wassail song and we toasted our trees and one another, wishing and hoping, like so many generations before us, for health, prosperity, and a bountiful crop in the year ahead.
One of many variations of the traditional apple wassailing songs from the 18th and 19th centuries, this particular song is from the Somerset region of England:
Apple tree, apple tree, we all come to wassail thee, Bear this year and next year to bloom and to blow, Hat fulls, cap fulls, three cornered sack fills, Hip, Hip, Hip, hurrah, Holler biys, holler hurrah.
As holiday break draws to a close, we received one last gift…snowfall. A quiet, contemplative snow…the type that makes the likes of Robert Frost pause in the wood to contemplate the passage of time and distance.
It’s the type of snow day unique and rare, especially in our modern times. One that you can pull around your shoulders, a blanket of white, and peek out from under…knowing that the day’s only request is that you look about the landscape it has created with a sense of wonder. There were no plans today…no need to be present in a particular place, but rather a chance to be present in this moment in time. No obligations to fulfill, no need to feel the frustration, disappointment, or fear that typically accompanies a snow day for the modern adult. No frantic thoughts of road conditions, grocery supplies, appointments postponed, or late arrivals. A rare chance to watch how delicately and slowly the flakes fall…capture the brief flashes of sunlight play on the tree branches…curl up next to a fire with a book…enjoy the holiday decorations before they are trundled away into boxes once again.
We decide to spend some time in the Parlor, my husband with a book, and I with a sleeping dog draped over my feet. It’s one of our favorite rooms in the house…it just feels old. We’ve encouraged that by making it our “antique” room, though it should really be called the “tag sale” room if we’re honest. It’s a mish-mash of chairs and trunks from neighboring attics, a collection of well worn and slightly mildewy books on Maine history and horses, a bouquet of dried flowers from our wedding, and prints on all the walls. Some of these are old (the hunt scene and landscape from a shop on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile), some slightly old (the Currier and Ives reprint of a racing yacht and the life sized fox scampering across the far wall), and the not-so-old reproductions of an elegant chap on horseback, and copy of the pre-Civil War map of own town. The room is still dressed for Christmas with greens on the mantle and a tree in the corner. The Parlor is the place that we come to when we want to escape our time.
It seems an especially fitting setting this afternoon as the snow filled day slides into a muffled dusk. It’s not lost on me how fortunate we are to be in Briar and Bramble in 2021 on a Saturday off from work. The inhabitants of 1823 likely also sat in this room on a snowy January afternoon, but without the warmth and comforts we are enjoying. It would have been brutally cold. The fireplace in this room, though beautiful, is also very small. We are not dependent on its heat, as our counterparts would have been. We have learned, however, how much work it is to heat an old home.
I’ve always been frugal on heating, as any of my friends will vocally and vociferously attest to. So is my husband. But even we were unpleasantly surprised last winter when the cold first settled in. That was the weekend we learned how to insulate. We wriggled into the back of one of the closets, through the cubby hole that revealed the attic space in the dormers. There was some insulation, but it was old and ratty. (Likely literally ratty, at some point.) We set to work, laying down what looked like layers of toxic cotton candy. My husband earned his handyman stripes that weekend. It helped, but it was still a long winter of wood stove feeding, blankets, and gallons of tea and coffee. This autumn, we called in the professionals…and I now understand the benefits of blown-in insulation.
I think often of what life was like here in 1823. The woodpile would be higher, the fire burning brighter and longer in the hearth, and woolen blankets thicker. I know that I am blessed to be able to just stop today and contemplate the beauty of the snow, safe in the knowledge that though the storm may continue outside, I will be in warmth and comfort inside. Though they would have had no place to go, our counterparts would have doubtlessly experienced anxiety and fear in the winter months. Many would be the miles (and chores) before they could sleep. Did they stop though, and look out over the frigid bay or at the wooded hill behind them, and feel the wonder of the white landscape? Did they share a sense of the delicate beauty of snow? I like to think so.