Through the Grapevine…

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…

Until next time…

Winter’s Seeds Sown

Though the gardens and land surrounding Briar and Bramble are caught in midwinter’s frosted, wind torn grip, we…

HOPE

For the Regrowth of green tendrils unfurling from the frozen ground

For Renewal of light rising from a once distant horizon

For the Rekindling of a warm embrace

For the Rewilding of wood, garden, and shore

For the Remembrance of laughter and song

For the Resilience of bonds formed across vast oceans and snug kitchen tables

For the Rejoicing in the arrival of a new season

In winter, we sow the seeds of hope…

A Wonder of White

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.