Sunday, December 23, 2012

Grief, Despair, and Bells of Hope: Reflections at Christmas 2012

I haven't been able to get the folks in Newtown, Connecticut off my mind during this holiday season, especially during these last few days before Christmas. As I relish the joys of celebrating with my 6-year-old and 8-year-old daughters, I find myself wondering how on earth the parents of those slaughtered little ones--or the families of the many others killed in mass shootings in our country this year--are going to make it through these days. And over and over again in my head, I keep hearing the first verses of the old Christmas Carol that my father taught me to love when I was just 6 or 8 myself:

I heard the bells on Christmas Day

Their old, familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet the words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,

The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along the unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till ringing, singing on its way,

The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime, a chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black, accursed mouth

The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound the carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent

The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn the households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;

"There is no peace on earth," I said;
"For hate is strong, and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!"

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote those words as a poem on Christmas Day, 1864, while the Civil War was still raging. He wrote them in the midst not only of the widespread pain and loss of war, but in the aftermath of several personal tragedies. Just three years and a few months earlier, Longfellow's wife had died an excruciating death after several drops of hot wax had spattered her dress and caught it on fire while she was curling her daughter's hair. In his effort to extinguish the flames by throwing his own body upon hers, Longfellow suffered severe burns to his face, arms and hands.
As is documented here, the following Christmases were deeply sad ones for Longfellow:
In his journal that first Christmas after his wife’s death Longfellow wrote: "How inexpressibly sad are all holidays" . . .  For Christmas, 1862, Longfellow writes: "'A merry Christmas' say the children, but that is no more for me."
In 1863, Longfellow made no journal entry. Just a few weeks earlier, he had gotten word that his oldest son, Lieutenant Charles Longfellow, had been severely wounded in battle and left crippled.

But something happened between Christmas of 1863 and Christmas of 1864, for the final verse of his poem reads
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
"God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail, the Right prevail
With peace on earth, good-will to men."

What was it that happened? What changed in his heart? In his mind? Perhaps if I knew, I could convince my own heart and mind to recite this final verse again this Christmas.

I wonder how many others in our society today are finding that final verse a challenge.

Significantly, it was not that verse that bothered John Baptiste Calkin when he set about the task of putting Longfellow's poem to music in 1872, but rather the fourth and the fifth verses--the ones that turn us face-to-face with the grim realities of our society, that decry the ugliness of the violence we do to one another and its far-reaching impacts. I hope that this year, our society will not do as Calkin did, and choose to ignore those verses, politely dropping them from the hymn. For we need to sing them, too; we need to admit to ourselves their relevance today.

But I hope we will not succumb to bowing our heads in despair, either. Let us instead allow Longfellow's poem to inspire us to finally say "Enough!" "No more thundering cannons!" "No more hearth-rending earthquakes!" Let us this Christmas decide to do the hard work it will take to make our society one in which our children--no matter their color, class, ethnicity, gender, religion, or zip code--have no reason to fear going to school, and where those who suffer mental and emotional illnesses find effective and affordable help instead of scorn and neglect. Maybe it is only through that sort of work that we can ultimately ensure that "the Wrong will fall, the Right prevail," and that the God of Peace and Goodwill will not perish in our midst.

If you would like to provide support to the families of the victims of the Newtown Shooting, you may send a check to:
Sandy Hook School Support Fund
c/o Newtown Savings Bank
39 Main Street
Newtown, CT 06470. 
To help those who are working to decrease gun violence in our society, consider supporting one of the following organization:
  • The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence (
  • The Violence Policy Center (
  • Join Together (
  • One of the many local groups spread throughout the country--possibly in your own backyard.
To help those who are working to meet the needs of those suffering from mental and emotional problems, consider supporting:
  • National Alliance on Mental Illness (
  • Mental Health America (

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Real-Life (and -Death) Learning

Warning: The images and text in this blog might be disturbing to some readers, particularly children. Please read with caution!

"I never let schooling interfere with my education." 
--Mark Twain 

The girls and I had an even less-conventional-than-usual week of school last week. Our schedule specified that our science lessons would focus on animal identification and classification. Instead, we ended up studying the innards and orneriness of roosters.

What happened was this: Over the previous couple of weeks, one of our Delaware roosters, Obadiah Slope, had been getting more and more aggressive, both with the hens and with Segi and Simi.  He hadn't attacked anyone yet, but we were concerned enough to start keeping a close eye on him. Then Monday morning as the girls and I were wrapping up our chores, he cornered Simi, circling her and chasing her into the barn. (Luckily she made it inside before he flew at her.) I knew then that this guy was going into the roasting pan--and soon. That night, I told G-P that the girls and I would set aside our school schedule the next day so we could butcher our erstwhile friend. G-P graciously volunteered to go into work late so that he could catch and dispatch of Obadiah himself. (I have to admit that although I'd talked real big about taking care of everything on my own,  I was immensely relieved not to have to actually wield the machete blow.) To my surprise, the girls walked with their dad through the whole process and never turned their heads. Looks like they really are turning into farm girls!
Bringing in the Carcass 

By 7:30 a.m., our carcass was ready to go. We spent the morning, scalding, plucking, gutting, and chopping. And learning! I invited the girls to participate much more actively in the butchering process this time. And because we had set aside all our plans for the day, we had plenty time to inspect how the feathers attached to the skin; to study what joints look like and how they work; to identify most of the internal organs and discuss their functions; and even to conduct some research into why roosters "turn mean." (We learned, of course, that what humans interpret as roosters turning mean is often a rooster simply being especially devoted to doing his most important jobs: protecting and defending his flock.)

Examining the Internal Organs
Examining the Joints
A Major Perk of Our Rooster Practicum: Dinner!

The crisis we faced at the beginning of last week highlighted the fact that if there is one thing homesteading homeschoolers can count on, it is that circumstances will sometimes get in the way of even the best-laid lesson plans.  Luckily, one of the perks of homeschooling is that a derailed schedule can be a just as much an opportunity as it is challenge! That was certainly the case for us in this instance. Indeed, I think I can safely say that the girls and I both learned more from our hands-on exploration of the ill-fated Obadiah than we could have gotten from several textbook chapters on chicken anatomy and behavior.

A key to getting a good education, it seems to me, is being open to "learning where we're planted"-- taking advantage of the learning opportunities that come up in everyday life, even (or perhaps especially) when they interfere with our formal education.

Thank you, Obadiah, for our tutorial. And for dinner!

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Happy Thanksgiving!

Today as I've chopped greens; smashed sweet potatoes; kneaded bread dough; and stirred sugar and spices into pumpkin puree, my mind has been meandering through some of the many things I am thankful for. Some of those are big, obvious things (like family, a warm home, our farm) but many are small, simple, inconspicuous gifts (like the color of the sky on a crisp fall day, the smell of a freshly made bed, the crunch of a carrot pulled straight from the ground, the laughter of children playing).

Since I'm up to my ears in flour and vegetables (and up to my wrist in turkey!), I won't try to craft a coherent discussion on my own feelings of gratitude. Instead, I thought I would share with you a poem that reflects some of those feelings. It is a poem that my girls memorized this fall as part of their school work, and it has become of our favorites. It reminds us to give thanks for the little things as well as for the big ones, for the modest marvels as well as the grand miracles.

--by Ivy O. Eastwick

Thank You 
for all my hands can hold--
apples red, 
and melons gold,
yellow corn, both ripe and sweet,
peas and beans 
so good to eat!

Thank You 
for all my eyes can see--
lovely sunlight,
field and tree,
white cloud-boats
in sea-deep sky,
soaring bird 
and butterfly.

Thank You
for all my ears can hear--
birds' song echoing 
far and near,
songs of little 
stream, big sea,
cricket, bullfrog, 
duck and bee.

May you have a Thanksgiving rich in blessings 
both great and small.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Coming of Age in the Coop

Those of you who have been reading this blog for a while might remember that last May, a couple of shoe-size boxes filled with tiny chirping balls of fluff arrived at Little Bent Creek Farm. While some of those chicks have gone to other farms and a few have flown on to that Great Chicken Coop in the Sky, most of them are still with us. But they are no longer our "little ones." Just in the past couple of weeks, each of the three roosters (one Ameraucana and two Delawares) have started to crow. And as if to give their suitors a good reason to sing, the hens are finally laying!

It feels like it's been a long time in coming. It was 24 weeks ago that we started feeding, watering, and cleaning up after these birds. And--ask my girls if you don't believe me--they demand A LOT of all three! But to see Peppercorn (one of the Barred Rocks) climb up into that nesting box and labor to produce her first perfect little egg, makes it all worth it. We are especially appreciative of our young ones coming of age at this time since our older hens (the Rhode Island Reds) have slowed down their egg production radically during recent weeks due to the changes in sunlight hours that accompany the changing of the seasons. (You can read more about the laying cycles of hens in this University of Kentucky publication.)

The cockerels-turned-roosters are marvelous: dignified, beautiful, and valuable guardians of the flock. But, as on most small farms, the "mama hens" are the most treasured fowl around here--providing us with nutritious eggs; spunky but gentle friends; and perhaps next spring, more tiny balls of fluff.

The Hen
by Oliver Herford

Alas! my Child, where is the Pen 

That can do Justice to the Hen? 

Like Royalty, She goes her way, 

Laying foundations every day, 

Though not for Public Buildings, yet 

For Custard, Cake and Omelette. 

Or if too Old for such a use 

They have their Fling at some Abuse, 

As when to Censure Plays Unfit 

Upon the Stage they make a Hit, 

Or at elections Seal the Fate 

Of an Obnoxious Candidate. 

No wonder, Child, we prize the Hen, 

Whose Egg is mightier than the Pen.

Friday, October 26, 2012

The Tree That Let Go

If you're a kid, one of the best things about living on a farm, even one as modest as our own, is having a pasture to frolic in, barn stalls to hide in, animals to play with, a garden to taste, a creek to splash in, woods to explore, and plenty of trees to climb. It seems a rare thing these days for kids to have so many outdoor spaces to enjoy, so we do our best to make sure that our girls have opportunities every day to spend a generous amount of time outside the house. Of course, their adventures often bring with them a certain amount of risk, and they have had more than a few scrapes and bumps since we moved here. But they seem to consider these minor injuries a small price to pay for the joys of their outdoor escapades.

In the past few years of homeschooling the girls, I have discovered that outdoor time not only provides endless opportunities for exercise and adventure; it can also do wonders to facilitate indoor learning. (Of course, many other parents, teachers, and scholars have discovered this as well. You can read much more about this issue in the well-cited article "Children's Contact with the Outdoors and Nature: A Focus on Educators and Educational Settings," published by the Children and Nature Network.) Because of that, I often break up our "school hours" with several mini-recesses in which the girls can traipse through the woods, play in the Enchanted Garden, visit with the animals in the barnyard, or simply jump rope in the driveway. It truly is amazing what 10 minutes of fresh air can do for student morale! But again, this carries with it some risk. They occasionally get involved in something that seems much more pressing than the awaiting math problems, making coming back indoors wrenchingly difficult. Or a chicken poops on one of them and we have to interrupt everything for a sponge bath and a change of clothes. Or something more serious. Like last Thursday when one of the trees in the barnyard let go of Segi.

The girls and I had been studying pumpkins that morning. We had read a couple of books about the life cycle of pumpkins and then had planted a few pumpkin seeds to grow in the Discovery Room along with the hodgepodge of other "teaching plants" we have there. Our next activity was to be a visit the local Pumpkin Patch to pick up a few pumpkins for carving and baking, but I needed a few minutes to record some of our work, so I told the girls, "Just run out to the barnyard for a quick recess. I'll call you to come to the car in a few minutes." Before those few minutes were up, Simi (the younger of my two daughters) burst through the door, crying that Segi had fallen out of Grandma Tree and that she was "really hurt!" I grabbed my boots and dashed out the door and straight to the barnyard. By the time I got to the gate, Segi had gotten herself up and was walking toward me. At first, I thought, "Oh, thank goodness. It's nothing serious." Then I saw her lower left arm. It looked like one of those sidewalks they're laying in Davidson now that go along straight for a bit and then abruptly jut out to avoid the tree standing in the path. The gnarled bend was right at her wrist. I knew right then we were on our way to the hospital.
First, though, our pediatrician's office sent us to an Emergency Center, where Segi got a few X-rays and a swallow of pain medicine, and I got several hints that this might be more serious than a simple broken bone. We were next sent (after a few hours of waiting, of course) to an orthopedic surgeon's office, who informed us that in addition to the other breaks, the growth plate in her wrist was badly displaced and, indeed, would nee to be surgically corrected--immediately. So off we trudged to the hospital, Segi now beside herself with pain and getting delirious from hunger. Simi and I spent the next few hours trying to comfort her and make her as comfortable as possible.  Finally, around 5:30 that evening, they wheeled Segi into the operating room. Everything went fine, and though we had a few rough days, she seems to have adapted quickly to her cast and the lifestyle changes it has necessitated.

The whole time we were sitting in the hospital fretting and waiting . . . and fretting and waiting some more, I kept thinking of how, just the night before, my husband had come inside and told me, "Those girls shouldn't be climbing so much in that tree. One of them is going to fall and break an arm." Seriously, just the night before. "Oh, honey," I'd responded nonchalantly, "What's the point of being a kid if you can't climb a tree?" My siblings and I had been raised in a rural town in Tennessee and had spent a good deal of our childhood out in the woods swinging on vines, traversing creeks, wading on half-frozen ponds, and of course, climbing lots and lots of trees. We loved it, and so do my girls. And though I sometimes do worry a bit, I generally agree with E.B. White when, in his passage on the Zuckermans' barn swing, he says that "Children almost always hang onto thing tighter than their parents think they will." So my own kids don't often get much discouragement from climbing high and swinging wide. In fact, the girls had recently taken to climbing Grandma tree with books in hand and perching aloft to read. Okay, maybe that's not such a great idea when you're 15 feet in the air. Maybe mamas don't always know best.

For my older daughter, Segi, always wants to climb just a little higher than reasonable. She's the kid at the park who ignores the civilized little steps leading up to the tunnel she's meant to crawl through and instead climbs up the wall and onto the top of the tunnel. She was the four-year-old that terrified all the other guests at the gymnastics birthday party by zipping up to the top of the climbing ropes and hanging over to wave at everyone. I should have remembered this about her. I should have given her and her sister some thoughtful guidance and some serious warnings. But I hadn't, and this time, she'd not only gone very high but had selected a branch that was too small--and probably too rotted--to hold her. And much to her surprise, it couldn't. With a loud cracked, it led her right to the leafy ground beneath--luckily on her wrist and not her head.

A kid sharing one of the several waiting areas we sat in on the day of her accident asked us upon hearing Segi's story, "Are you going to cut the tree down?" "Of course not!" all three of us said together. It would never have occurred to Segi to be angry at the tree that she and her sister had recently dubbed "Grandma Tree." One of the older Sweetgums in the barnyard, it is probably the best climbing tree on our property. But it is also a great tree to read under, and to hug, and to chat with during a rough day. As much as Segi regrets no longer being able to climb Grandma Tree, she still loves her just as much, and now has the opportunity to know and enjoy her in a myriad of new ways.

Harry Behn writes that "Trees are the kindest things I know, they do no harm, they simply grow." It is hard to disagree with that. And yet even the kindest trees--like even the kindest people--also have their weak spots, and if we assume they are stronger than they are, then they can indeed leave us hurting. The tree let go of Segi because it was not as strong at that particular place as Segi assumed it would be. There is a lesson we can all take away from this. It's not, I believe, that we should stop climbing high or running fast or jumping long. It is, rather, that we should acknowledge that even the strongest amongst us are somehow, somewhere weak, and that if we can accept and respect those weaknesses, we will all be much better off. 

--Harry Behn

Trees are the kindest things I know,
They do no harm, they simply grow

And spread a shade for sleepy cows,
And gather birds among their boughs.

They give us fruit in leaves above,
And wood to make our houses of,

And leaves to burn on Halloween
And in the Spring new buds of green.

They are first when day's begun
To touch the beams of morning sun,

They are the last to hold the light
When evening changes into night.

And when a moon floats on the sky
They hum a drowsy lullaby

Of sleepy children long ago...
Trees are the kindest things I know.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

The Fleeting Joys of Apple Season

That sweet, aromatic, not-too-hot-and-not-too-cool time that is Apple Season has come and gone here in the Carolina Piedmont, and I miss it already. The days of picking, crunching and baking our hearts out always seem to go by much too quickly. But perhaps that makes them all the sweeter while they last. Often just as sweet as the apples themselves is the experience of trekking through a local orchard with my husband and daughters to find the crispiest, juiciest ones.

Papa adorns his apple sprites
with Morning Glory blossoms.
This year we visited Carrigan Farms in Mooresville, NC to do our picking. It was a perfect day for it--bright, crisp and dry. We picked so many we had a hard time carrying them back to the car! There are many other great places to pick apples in North Carolina, especially in the western mountains. In fact, apples are grown in all 50 U.S. states, and grown commercially in 36 states. If you'd like to learn where you can find locally grown apples in or near your own community, visit (This website lists pick-your-own farms for apples and many other kinds of produce throughout U.S. and in a number of other countries as well.)

Not only are apples a delicious, inexpensive, and convenient food, they are also packed with healthy nutrients. While many of us grew up hearing that "an apple a day keeps the doctor away," Kerri-Ann Jennings points out in this Huffington Post article that these days,
apples are so commonplace that they're almost overlooked and pushed aside by flashier superfruits, such as pomegranates and goji berries.
But apples truly are a superfood themselves. Among the many benefits they offer are:
  • Bone protection
  • Asthma relief
  • Weight control
  • Immunity enhancement
  • Cholesterol control
  • Alzheimer's protection
  • Parkinson's protection
  • Cancer protection (lung, breast, colon and liver)
  • Diabetes management
  • Dental health
  • Gallstone prevention
  • Digestive health
  • Hemorrhoid prevention
  • Liver detoxification
It makes sense, then, that humans have enjoyed and celebrated apples for many generations. Cultivated for over 4,000 years, apples have often played a prominent role in festive occasions as well as in everyday life. The ancient Greeks used apples both ceremoniously (e.g., in weddings) and medicinally. Hippocrates, known as "the father of medicine," reportedly said, “Let your food be your medicine and let your medicine be your food.” As Anna Lovett-Brown points out in her essay on the history of apples, "his most favored prescriptions for his patients included apples, dates and barley mush." The Romans also celebrated this nutritious and tasty fruit. Through cross-breeding and grafting, they developed its sweetness and increased its size, and spread it throughout Europe. They considered the apple a symbol of love and fertility, and fêted Pomona, the goddess of the orchards, during this season of the year (on November 1). Apples also featured prominently in Samhain, the Celt's autumnal harvest celebration.

Apples are not native to North America (with the exception of the sour crabapple), but were brought here by the earliest European settlers and soon embraced by Native Americans, who cultivated many new varieties. By the mid-seventeenth century, apple orchards were spreading rapidly. Today, the U.S. is the second leading producer of apples in the world.

In continuing our own family's tradition of picking apples together each fall, then, we are following a long, culturally diverse line of predecessors. So what have we done with all those apples we picked? After my comedy-of-errors attempt to make a year's supply of applesauce a couple of apple-picking seasons ago, I foreswore ever trying that again. Instead, we've made sauteed apples with biscuits, apple turnovers, apple pancakes, and an "Apple Crisp Pie" I'd never tried before (pictured below). If you'd like to try it, you can find the recipe here. We also hope to make apple muffins and, of course, Aunt Tootie's Apple Cake (see my post from Friday, November 18, 2011). Mmmm mmmm.

I hope you get to enjoy some local apples and other autumn harvests this fall. There really is so very much to savor and be thankful for this time of year. All hail Pomona! 

After Apple-Picking

by Robert Frost
My long two-pointed ladder's sticking through a tree
Toward heaven still,
And there's a barrel that I didn't fill
Beside it, and there may be two or three
Apples I didn't pick upon some bough.
But I am done with apple-picking now.
Essence of winter sleep is on the night,
The scent of apples: I am drowsing off.
I cannot rub the strangeness from my sight
I got from looking through a pane of glass
I skimmed this morning from the drinking trough
And held against the world of hoary grass.
It melted, and I let it fall and break.
But I was well
Upon my way to sleep before it fell,
And I could tell
What form my dreaming was about to take.
Magnified apples appear and disappear,
Stem end and blossom end,
And every fleck of russet showing clear.
My instep arch not only keeps the ache,
It keeps the pressure of a ladder-round.
I feel the ladder sway as the boughs bend.
And I keep hearing from the cellar bin
The rumbling sound
Of load on load of apples coming in.
For I have had too much
Of apple-picking: I am overtired
Of the great harvest I myself desired.
There were ten thousand thousand fruit to touch,
Cherish in hand, lift down, and not let fall.
For all
That struck the earth,
No matter if not bruised or spiked with stubble,
Went surely to the cider-apple heap
As of no worth.
One can see what will trouble
This sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is.
Were he not gone,
The woodchuck could say whether it's like his
Long sleep, as I describe its coming on,
Or just some human sleep.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Living Imaginatively: Lessons from Little Ones

To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee,
One clover, and a bee,
And revery.
The revery alone will do,
If bees are few.
--Emily Dickinson, Poems

"If a child is to keep his inborn sense of wonder, he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement and mystery of the world we live in."--Rachel Carson, in The Sense of Wonder.

"Oh, Mama, doesn't that last line just give you a thrill?!" my 7-year-old exclaimed. "Uh . . . oh, yes,  sweetie." Waking from my ruminations, I realized I hadn't heard a word of it. "Now what was that line again?" I asked lamely. As is often the case on our daily after-school walk to the mailbox, my two girls had spent nearly the whole 10-minute trek talking incessantly while I somehow managed to "Mmm hmm," "Wow," and "Really?" in fairly appropriate places without paying any real attention.

Segi's enthusiastic question suddenly made me realize that, though the three of us were walking side-by-side down the same lane, and occasionally even interacting, we were having radically different experiences. There I was, making mental checklists of to-dos, fretting about not-dones, and otherwise obsessing over the trivial details of our everyday lives, while they were formulating and enacting heroic adventures: testing strategies; negotiating complicated relationships; traveling through time and across continents; and waging battles of good vs. evil.

Is it possible that this stark phenomenological contrast could hold a lesson for us chronically ruminating (and these days, texting and web-surfing) parents? Perhaps we should be asking ourselves how often it is that we are together with our children without really being present with them. We might find that it is more often than is good for them--or for us.

Logic will get you from A to Z; 
imagination will get you everywhere.
--Albert Einstein

How would the quality of my own life be affected if I added even a fraction of the imagination and creativity my daughters employ to the ways I think and act? It would certainly be more exciting--and perhaps a little less stressful. After all, I suspect it is hard to get terribly out of sorts about forgetting to pick up bananas at the store if you're busy working out how LaDansa will save the child locked in the burning apartment building.

. . . Who, you may ask, is LaDansa? She is just one of the many characters Segi and Simi have created in their daily "playings" (their own term for the dramas they script and act out). Perhaps meeting her and a few of the other prominent characters will help me clarify what I'm trying to get at here. So here goes:  . . .
  • Gilbert: A bumbling fire chief who blusters about, issuing unreasonable orders and meting out ridiculous penalties to those who don't meet his expectations. Unfortunately, he is also completely inept and--to top it all off-- has a habit of singing off-key every time he takes a shower. (Many of the stories are set at the fire station, and many of the characters are part-time firefighters.) 
  • Chrysanthemum: Gilbert's co-chief and sister, she is everything he is not: competent, fair, and effective. She scolds him on occasion and runs to hide under her desk whenever he starts to sing. 
  • LaDansa: One of the firefighters, LaDansa was born in a barrio in Mexico to her loving but impoverished parents, Wheat and Martha. She is the "Super Woman" of the drama, often performing über-human feats while generally maintaining heroic integrity. Her one major weakness is that she despises Elizabeth, who is from Spain, because Spain colonized Mexico.
  • Buttercup: She is LaDansa's little sister and--strangely enough--is from rural East Tennessee. (The family's move from Mexico is a long and complicated story; I'll spare you the details.) She loves to lie down in fields of buttercups and read library books.
  • Cherry: Perhaps the most sinister of all the characters, she thinks she is better than all the other firefighters because she is (she claims) from Scotland. In her affected British accent, she constantly denigrates her colleagues, and sometimes does others outright harm. The only person who escapes her wrath is Charles, on whom she has an incurable crush.
  • Charles:  Born a prince of the esteemed royal family of Peaceland, Tennessee, he enjoyed a privileged childhood. But some years ago, Charles' parents were murdered by an unknown assailant. After the attack, Charles ran off into the woods and took up residence in a hollow log. He prefers communing with animals over socializing with other humans. He does not have a crush on Cherry. Instead, he is in love with her daughter, Aniponi, who is much closer to his own age. In fact, they recently married. His most famous faux pas resulted in the prominent scar he bears on his chest. At first it appeared to everyone to be evidence of his heroic escape from his parents' murderers, but it turns out that he incurred it while in dance class. He had been laughing at Buttercup for slipping and falling, and was bragging, "Of course, I never fall!" At that very moment, he fell right out the window and crashed onto the rocks below--just like, Buttercup noted, "a flat balloon."
  • Aniponi: Cherry's daughter. She's 20 years old, pretty, smart, and very nice. Needless to say, her mother does not approve of her relationship with Charles and, in fact, did not show up for their wedding.
  • Elizabeth: Born Spanish through no fault of her own, is a detective. She is a good detective but recently had a setback when she got attacked and bitten by Chocolate, the firehouse beagle. She is good friends with Caddie.
  • Caddie: One of the newest characters, Caddie is very bright and good-hearted. She is a tomboy from Iceland. She thinks that being a tomboy means being a cross between a boy and a girl, but this doesn't bother her: she embraces her mixed identity.
  • Francia: Not surprisingly, she is from France. She is the chief detective. She likes whiskey a bit too much, but despite her indulgences, is good at her job. She is LaDansa's best friend.
  • Copy and Copy: Two of the youngest firefighters, they are twins, and copy everything each other (and often everyone else) does.
Some of these characters have been around for more than two years now, and other ones have emerged only recently (characters are constantly being created, refined, and on occasion, chucked). The girls also have three different make-believe lands they've conjured up: Sunshine Land (populated by itsy-bitsy people who live much our ancestors did in the 19th century), Flower Land and Peace Land (where Flower Language and Peace Language are spoken, respectively). Then there is Ragamuffin, the sock fairy who lives on Segi's left shoulder and sneaks family members' socks while we sleep. (She only borrows them, Segi insists; she never steals.) And the fairies and unicorns we sometimes glimpse during our hikes through the woods. And, of course, The Jolly Roger Pirates Gang. Composed of characters based largely on livestock we've had here at the farm but have had to get rid of for one reason or another (the 3 Nigerian Dwarf goats, the rooster Captain Haddock, and Ellie Mae, the wayward donkey), this group travels the world carrying out all kinds of naughty tricks on unsuspecting farmers.

Fairy Tales are more than true;
not because they tell us that dragons exist, 
but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.
--G.K. Chesterton

When my girls and other young children immerse themselves in make-believe worlds and act out imaginary dramas, they are not just goofing off. They are also mastering importance social and intellectual skills. In the abstract to her article, "The Role of Pretend Play in Children's Cognitive Development," Doris Bergen of Miami University writes,
there is a growing body of evidence to suggest that high-quality pretend play is an important facilitator of perspective taking and later abstract thought, that it may facilitate higher-level cognition, and that there are clear links between pretend play and social and linguistic competence.
Unfortunately, kids these days are engaging less and less in such pursuits. Lengthening school days, then homework afterwards; a wide array of extracurricular activities; and endless opportunities to "plug in" to computers, televisions, cell phones, and other hand-held devices--all this leaves very little time for wandering around dreaming up fanciful adventures.

Our family has come to think that one of the best things about homeschooling is the unstructured time it gives us: time for thinking, time for dreaming, time for working, time for playing, and time for just being together doing nothing much at all. It's in some of those times (like on our walks to the mailbox) when the very best moments of our days often happen. That is, when I'm not too busy "doing" inside my head to actually notice.

Here, then, is yet another opportunity to learn a significant lesson from my children--and, it turns out, from Dr. Seuss, Gloria Steinem, Carl Sagan, and Albert Einstein.

Think left and think right and think low and think high.  
Oh, the thinks you can think up if only you try!
--Dr. Seuss, Oh, the Thinks You Can Think!

“Without leaps of imagination or dreaming, we lose the excitement of possibilities. 
Dreaming, after all is a form of planning.”
--Gloria Steinem

“Imagination will often carry us to worlds that never were, 
but without it we go nowhere."
--Carl Sagan

“I am enough of an artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.”
--Albert Einstein