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Read ’em and Work

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When my work apron goes on and the audio book goes in the cd player, the dog knows it’s a good time to settle into her bed for a nap. I don’t think she’s being lulled by the voice coming through the speakers. I think she’s simply read all the signs. She won’t be putting on her walking shoes for a while. She won’t be answering the door (no exciting visitors to sniff). In short, she’s not going anywhere and apparently, I’m not either.

I’ve listened to a lot of books while working. My regular trips to the public library usually result in schlepping four or five audio books home at a time. Most of them I actually listen to. Many prove to be entertaining, engaging, even enlightening. Once in a while, I find a book that just begs to be read in print. I make a note, add it to my “to read” list, and send the audio back to the library. Now and then, a reader just hits my ear the wrong way, regardless of the merit of the writer. The dog lifts her head as I exclaim “Ugh!  I can’t listen to that!”. She’s talking to herself again. 

Since it’s the time of year when everyone is making their Best of Whatever lists, I thought I’d try to call up some recent favorites. For me, the only disadvantage to enjoying a book in audio is that without actually having something to repeatedly pick up and gaze at, I have a hard time remembering titles and authors. I’m forever wishing I’d written these things down. Hmm …I sense a New Year’s resolution in the air! Ho hum…that’s what she said.

Here are ten of the many books that I enjoyed listening to this year, in no particular order. They are simply random picks off my public library’s audio shelves. Most are fiction and all seem to be contemporary. I decided not to consider mysteries (partly because I can never remember which is which and who is whom), and the classics may deserve a future list of their own. I might add that at least a few of these recordings (in particular I’m thinking of A Mercy , Parrot and Olivier in America, and Night Circus) are additionally memorable due to the extraordinary performances of the readers. She forgot about The Art of Racing in the Rain, and that other dog one.

  • Divisadero by Michael Ondaatje, read by Hope Davis
  • A Mercy by Toni Morrison, read by the author
  • Black Swan Green by David Mitchell read by Kirby Heyborne
  • Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey, read by Humphrey Bower
  • Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, read by Jim Dale
  • Fall of Giants by Ken Follett, read by John Lee
  • The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver, read by the author
  • Brunelleschi’s Dome by Ross King, read by Richard Matthews
  • Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon read by Jonathan Davis
  • The Fortune Teller’s Daughter by Lila Shaara, read by T. Ryder Smith

 


Zzzzzzz……IMG_5111_2

… or How I “Baroqued” a  Violin That Had Been Previously “Un-Baroqued”.

Try as I might, I could not come up with a catchy phrase that would indicate the opposite of “back to the future”. I love my profession for its fastidious regard for the past, its devotion to the present and its dogged assumption of a future. Because I work with things that are sometimes older than two, three, even four human life spans, I am frequently reminded that the path from here to there is rarely a straight line. In contrast, I think of my beloved Honda Civic which, with 110k miles, is surely headed for the trash heap – a short life lived on a simple trajectory.IMG_0476_3

The inspiration for this post is a violin made by an unidentified member of the  Amati family in Cremona, Italy. That would place its construction probably in the late 1600’s. Perhaps this violin was growing and maturing as Antonio Vivaldi assumed his post at the Ospedale Della Pietà in Venice. Certainly by the time J.S.Bach composed the Brandenburg Concertos, it had found its voice. How it ultimately found its way into 21st century America may never be known, but clearly it would have stories to tell.

My mission was to undo some of what had been done along the way. In the 1800’s many old instruments were retrofitted with a neck in the modern style. The earlier “baroque” style neck, was shorter, shaped differently, and had a ramped fingerboard. At some point, this Amati family violin had been “modernized”. The neck and fingerboard had been replaced with the modern version that we are most familiar with today.

Since my client was a teacher and performer of Baroque music, she wished to have her instrument returned to something approximating its original configuration. A note about early violin construction: originally, the neck of an instrument was secured with a nail driven from the inside of the body through the upper block. The top was glued on last. Here is an example, in this case, an ancient violin from Mittenwald, Germany. IMG_4965

In converting an instrument to baroque, one must decide how far to go. In my client’s case, we wished to change the neck without opening the body. Perhaps in the future, if the instrument needs to be opened for additional reasons, we might discuss changing the bass bar too.

Essentially this job required grafting another new neck. But in this case, a standard modern dovetail joint was modified to achieve the look and feel of a nailed baroque style neck. This is the instrument as it came to me, with the standard contemporary configuration of neck and fingerboard:

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The first few cuts are always made with the door locked and the phone turned off! The neck is removed from the body, and then the scroll is carefully cut away creating a tapered mortise, to which new neck wood will be fitted.

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Here the scroll is ready to receive the new neck wood.

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The joint fits perfectly and can be glued. Later, the peg box will be carved out and the neck shaped in preparation for setting into the body.

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 With the fingerboard temporarily glued on, the neck is set into the body in the usual manner.

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Before gluing, modifications will be made. A cutaway is planned to create a step at exactly the rib height. This will replicate the look and feel of the nailed neck. Also, the underside of the fingerboard will be reshaped in the baroque style.IMG_0555

This is how it looks with the fingerboard removed and the neck pushed back into the dovetail mortise. The top of the violin was cut through to accept the first modern neck. We now have a gap that will be filled with matching spruce, to restore the unbroken perimeter of the upper bouts.

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Fitting this piece of spruce happens before the neck is glued. It will be glued in, shaped, and varnished to match after the neck is installed.

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I use a baroque fingerboard made by Helmut Pöser in Germany. The core is spruce while the playing surface and sides are ebony. The fingerboard comes to me oversized so that it can be shaped and fitted appropriately.

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The underside of the board is precisely ramped to create the correct pitch over the body of the instrument. The length that is suspended is shaped in an aesthetic manner, although in the ancient method of construction, this shape had a practical purpose as well. The bump near the base of the neck provided a positive point to insert a wedge which would exert downward pressure as the top was being glued onto the body.

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The final neck shaping is done with the fingerboard permanently glued on. All new wood has been varnished to match the original.

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The graft blends well into the old scroll.

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The shape of the neck replicates the dimensions of an original Jacob Stainer violin neck c. 1620.

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The new neck is finished! The violin is set up with new baroque tailpiece, bridge and gut strings.

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Now, back to the future? Or would that be forward into the past?

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Chop or Die, But Do Vote!

Chopping has come up in a couple of conversations with women friends lately. Yes, chopping, not shopping, thank you. Since I am who[sic] I am, sometimes a word or an image repeated, even in completely different contexts, lights up some mysterious part of my brain. I got to thinking.

The friends in question and I are all artists/artisans. One friend mentioned that after working at a computer for an extended period of time, she needs to go into the kitchen and chop vegetables. Another friend had her work with a cutting tool admonished as being “choppy”, not to mention unbecoming her gender. What? I thought about how I enjoy a job that requires getting out my bamboo froe. More about that later.

In my view, the act of chopping means taking an edged tool in hand and inviting a certain blend of speed, momentum, and larger muscle groups to augment an already practiced partnership between the hand and the eye. For instance, tonight’s butternut squash was bisected with one formidable whack. Had I not spent much of  the day fine-fitting a ridiculously little piece of wood, I may have been happy to simply lean into the vegetable with my biggest knife, rocking with it until the blade hit cutting board. That squash got whacked and it felt gooood!

Now this post, begun in all innocence, is about to take a timely turn. Next Tuesday, we here, in the States, exercise our civic duty to stand behind the candidates of our choice. This is a privilege and, in my view, an obligation of the highest order. I have never missed an opportunity to vote. I consider myself a humanist, sometimes even an optimist. That said, I recognize my not-so-inner curmudgeon. People are basically self- interested and short-sighted jerks. I have been closing my ears against the barrage of measured lies and twisted truths. Unfortunately, there’s not a heck of a lot else to listen to. So I find myself trolling the neighborhood for places to be on Tuesday night, where I might  drink with abandon in case this election heads for the crapper.

The alternate title to this post was “Chopping Therapy 101”, which may help explain why this election digression is not totally a non sequitur. If I were still heating with wood, you can be sure I would be out there with my maul and axe reacquainting myself with my right-side rotator cuff. Instead, I chop vegetables. I use the biggest knife I have. I fit little pieces of wood all day and then split out a bunch of end blocks and bass bars. Whack! Here is the aforementioned bamboo froe: It’s a Japanese tool that is used for splitting bamboo. Someday, perhaps I will understand where it figures in terms of  Japanese craft and construction. It fits nicely in my hand, with a comfortable balance and confidence-inspiring heft. For me, it’s the tool I turn to when I need to be assured that the grain direction in a given piece of wood is appropriate to the purposes to which I am employing it. I use it to split out bass bar stock and also endblocks. I pick up a small hammer, position my froe, and  give it a whack. The split follows the grain line. There is no deception here.

Chopping exposes the nature of a material, the propensity of the tool and perhaps the mindset of the chopper. It’s an activity  that employs a kind of controlled abandon, or calculated wrecklessness. The perfect antidote to a day filled with the questionable minutiae of modern life.

Bones of Autumn

With only some regret, I’ve pulled the last of the tomatillo plants. And just tonight, while a handful of hot peppers are still turning orange on my windowsill, the last of the kale was consumed. Next year, I plant smarter, tend smarter, hopefully cook smarter and eat smarter. That’s what they all say! No traffic jams in the kitchen! Hah!

In any case, it’s almost time to put the garden to bed, and yet I keep finding the most interesting things out there.

I especially like this time of year for its odd mix of hope and resignation. I am relieved and delighted to see that the dogwood I planted just this year survived the drought and indeed has buds that I hope to witness in full flower next spring. If this baby tree had not survived, I would have been put in the awkward position of having a cosmic discussion with the Golden Retriever-in-a-can that I’d planted with it.

Likewise, the rhododendrons have buds, and the little peach tree, in spite of having lost all its fruit shortly after I planted it, seems to be healthy and willing. Sometimes it is wise to hunker down and focus on setting roots, even if it means passing on the flashy stuff.

As I walk in the woods and tidy the garden these days, I remember that there are things that are beautifully and inextricably entwined with their own decay.

It’s a good time of year to share a meal with friends, to visit children and aging parents. It is a good time of year to contemplate the dying and turn toward the living.

My life improved dramatically the day Mr. G moved in.

If you are a violin restorer, you probably have all the clamps required to make a violin, plus a plethora of other specialty gadgets for holding and clamping every finished part of an entirely curvaceous instrument. Multiply this by x if you work on cellos, too. If you work on viols, you are probably smart to specialize and outfit accordingly. If you work on basses, there is no hope. Usually the violin clamps work for violas, but the cello clamps are, of course, a lot bigger, generally used less frequently, and that much more of a pain to store.

One truism of violin making/restoring seems to be that there are never enough clamps. At least that’s the way it always feels. My answer to this mental state (besides buying more clamps) is to make sure that the ones I have are accessible. Even that thing that I use maybe once every three years. Even that thing I bought because it looked like a good idea at the time, but I still haven’t used it. If I were to put it REALLY away, I would forget that I have it, and then I would need it. And, having forgotten all about it, I would have to suffer hearing myself whine, yet again, about not having enough clamps.

So when I saw Mr. G in a fancy woodworker’s catalog, I thought: “He ain’t cheap, but he might be worth it”! The big question was: “Are we truly a good fit”? Well, Mr. G has exceeded my expectations, so I think I’ll keep him.

I know it would be hard for the general public to understand what’s at issue here. So here is a sampling of some of the clamps I use  on a regular basis:

Now imagine a pile of these oddly shaped objects jamming up your drawers:

I like neat. And I like being able to pick up one clamp up at a time, without a snaggly bunch of hangers-on coming along for the ride. And that’s why Mr G and I get along so well. Look at this:


And this:

And this:

Wait, I’m not done…this:

And finally, this:

Yeehaaw! That just about takes care of everything. ‘Til death do us part!

Did I mention he comes with wheels and is great at holding a glue pot?

Mediate, Mediate, Mediate

This is a follow up to my last post, Not Just Any Open Seam.

Helen commented: “In Australia, we experience very hot summers. Is it more likely for my violin to experience seam bursts”?

Hmm… I live at 42˚N. Helen, if I were to take a random guess, might live at 27˚S, which would place her in or near Brisbane. Please forgive me , Helen, if I’ve got it all wrong! In any case, I think we can explore this topic by making some generalizations, even if she is heading into a prodigal summer while I am inevitably crashing into a long desolate, lonely, cold and miserable winter. No hard feelings.

My initial response to Helen’s query is, “not necessarily.” A basic overview can be helpful in establishing a maintenance plan that may help in troubleshooting some of these seasonal headaches.

My first piece of advice is to find, if possible, a local (to you) violin restorer/maker with a good reputation and establish a rapport. It’s like finding a good doctor or car mechanic – you hope you never really need them, but if or when you do, it’s nice to have a relationship already established. By the same token, it may be smart to schedule a yearly check-up even if you don’t notice that anything is wrong. Your local luthier will have an opportunity to establish a “baseline” for your particular instrument. She or he  will also have insights into local climate-related issues and possibly a sense of what other string players in your area experience as a result.

Beyond that, it’s good to be educated! Here in New England, USA, we have hot humid summers and cold dry winters. Rapid changes in climate conditions, especially humidity, can be stressful for wooden instruments. Your instrument will be happiest if you can protect it from sudden and extreme changes in temperature and humidity. Frequently, I tell my clients “if you are comfortable, your instrument is probably comfortable.” The thing to remember is that humans adjust more quickly to environmental changes. Your instrument may need a little more time and coddling than you are likely to allow yourself.

Your instrument case is a micro-environment. Take advantage of it! Arrive at your destination 15 minutes early and allow your instrument to warm up or cool down in its case before you introduce it to a radically different environment. If you are experiencing dry weather, or if you are moving into a dry environment, add a case humidifier.

The interior of an aircraft, for instance, is notoriously dry. Use a case humidifier! If you are getting onto a plane in Brisbane, in January and landing 24 hours later in Boston, be sure to have a humidifier in your case to help mediate the transition. And keep that humidifier moist. Boston is cold and dry in January! So, a case humidifier can be a very useful tool for mediating cold and/or dry conditions. By the way, anyone who knows me, knows I am not crazy about the kind of humidifier that is inserted into the f hole of an instrument. I see too much interior water damage in instruments.

The trip from Boston to Brisbane in January might be a little safer. Generally, moving from a dry environment to a humid environment is less traumatic in terms of structure, although there can be tonal ramifications. Generally speaking, if I am executing an important gluing operation, eg assembling the top of an instrument, I will want to do it in a dry environment. When humidity is introduced, I may be in for an adjustment, but I will have most likely avoided the possibility of wood cracking.

So what about in the summer? Instruments seams are more likely to open up when the wood dries out in the winter. However, wood moves both ways. I’ve seen seams open up in the summer, too. Also, hide glue can soften in the heat. Consider where you store your instrument – hopefully away from a heat source and out of direct sunlight. An instrument should NEVER be left in a hot car in the summer. If it has to be in the car for a while in moderate but sunny weather, throw a white sheet over it. There is sense in keeping your instrument in a white case.

In the summer, I advise my clients to air condition the room in which their instruments live most the time, if possible. Similarly, in the winter, humidify. Don’t go crazy! Most of us move in and out of different environments and the idea is to MEDIATE, not control everything. Which is impossible anyway.
Mediate, mediate, mediate!

Not Just Any Open Seam

Today I had a client in with a violin in need of gluing. While that in itself is nothing notable, there is an aspect of this encounter that may qualify as a teaching moment, especially apropos to those of us in the Northern Hemisphere who are heading into the heating season.

Violin family instruments are put together with hot hide glue, which has unique properties that are particularly advantageous in some circumstances. I’m not a “science guy” so I can’t answer questions about crystalline structure or tensile strength as opposed to other kinds of strength. I do know, for instance, that drywall screws have incredible holding power unless you whack’em sideways with a hammer, and for some reason, I am reminded of this when I think about violins and hide glue.

Hide glue, made from animal byproducts, is essentially the same friggin’ stuff that’s been used for hundreds of years in the assembly and repair of violin family instruments. The remarkable characteristics of this adhesive include its strength and its weakness. We have a wealth of instruments with top and back center joints that have retained their integrity for hundreds of years. Be thankful. Then we have the treble side upper bout and the lower bass side seams that, on so many instruments seem to open up on a regular basis. Again, be thankful.

Wood moves seasonally, especially here in New England. In moist weather, it swells. In dry weather it shrinks. Plain and simple. In my house here in Holyoke, the oak floors creak in the winter and in the summer, I can’t close the doors on the antique cherry corner cupboard without risking not being able to open them again until October. In my last house, the oak floors in my living room developed summer speed bumps that would have been the envy of any gated community.

An instrument seam glued with hide glue will break apart when stressed. This is a good thing in mid-winter when the heat’s been on and the wood shrinks. It’s preferable to having the wood itself crack. Having open seams glued is a normal part of violin/viola/cello maintenance. This characteristic of hide glue is also the reason that it is even possible to disassemble an instrument to do interior repairs. So we’re thankful, right?

That said, if a violin maker/restorer is smart, and skillful, he or she will take advantage of the properties of the materials at hand, in this case I’m considering the glue. Hot hide glue can be mixed in ways that varies its strength. A fresh pot of glue will be strongest. With repeated heatings, its strength diminishes. The strength can also be altered depending on the proportion of  water used in the batch. Theoretically, one would be very smart to use the strongest glue, say, for the center joints in the top and back, for setting the neck joint, and for joining fresh cracks. It may be smart to use a weaker glue mix for securing the fingerboard, and assembling the top, which could be subject to seasonal stresses. Remember, an open seam is preferable to a crack.

Speaking as a restorer, we like the fact that hide glue is reversible. It may seem counter intuitive, but the reversibility of hide glue actually increases the chance that an instrument will live a very long life.

Back to my client, who was smart to call in an emergency. She was concerned with the lower block area of her violin, which looked like this (violin is viewed with the back up, so we can see the area where the tailpiece is anchored by the end button):

Indeed, the glued seam had released, but in this case, the loose seam extended over the lower block, leaving the body of the instrument vulnerable to the longitudinal string tension. I suspect that the end grain of the lower block was improperly sized on this relatively “new” instrument, before the top was glued on, causing the area to seperate.

One can see from the photo how the string tension has compressed the body from end to end, and the button/rib assembly has abandoned the original glue line. The lower block is no longer secured to the top, and the spruce top is now bearing more than its share of structural tension. Not a good scenario, structurally speaking, BUT one that is easily remedied at this stage. When I loosened the string tension, my client and I both heard the lower rib/block area pop back into place.

This story ends with a simple gluing and a happy violinist! The moral of the story is that all open seams are not created equal. This particular seam opening demanded immediate attention due to the structural issues it presented.

Focus: Varnish Restoration

By the time a restoration project is complete, it’s sometimes hard to remember what it looked like to begin with. I try to take lots of pictures, especially when I expect the transformation to be dramatic. Working with a camera and lighting is an ongoing adventure for me and my success rate is not as consistent as I would like it to be. I do not manipulate my photos with the exception of occasionally adjusting the tint or color saturation so as to come closer to the original.

Violins come in a million subtle shades of…well, brown. Red brown, black brown, yellow brown, orange brown and green brown. That almost covers the spectrum. Blue is probably the least used color in my retouch palette, although it’s occasionally useful to push a reddish brown toward a deeper purpler red brown. I have a 19th century Parisian instrument that may go in that direction.

Here are some sets of sequential photos that show a recent project undergoing extensive retouching of the varnish. If the color of the instrument  seems inconsistent from photo to photo, it’s because the photographer is inconsistent! If there happens to be a digital photographer out there with a busted fiddle, I’d consider trading for some lessons!

I repaired a bad break near the left f hole. The lower right corner has been rebuilt and there was extensive wear and tear to consider. Click on the thumbnails to enlarge.

Here is the finished front:

Here’s a close-up of that f hole break before, during, and after:

Here’s an area of the back:

Finished, the back looks like this:

This is a rather dramatic example of varnish retouching as part of a larger restoration project. Retouching on a small scale is also part of a regular maintenance plan. We use our instruments, and as a result, they suffer some wear, and the occasional hit. Retouching is a way to assure that they age gracefully!

Reuniting the Continents

Okay, I can see where North America may have been conjoined to Eurasia. That would have been a looong time ago.

Ooops! and here’s where prodigal South America tries to patch up a bad break with Africa. Clearly, neither party was thinking straight that day:

There are times when you just have to revisit an old break up, and see what you can do. Joking and scotch tape aside, here is our intrepid fiddle again.

In previous posts about this violin, I’ve replaced a missing bit in the scroll, and described the sensation of feeling the top becoming a healthy vibrating entity. Here, my mission is to rejoin, or in the case of the second photo, reposition a chunk of top wood that was previously rejoined badly. Obviously, my posting chronology is off. This operation would have happened long before “Signs of Life.”

I don’t like to think about what this fiddle has been through in its 200+ years, to have arrived at my bench in this condition. I do know, upon examination, that the purfling channels were cut so deeply that the strength of the edges may have been compromised from the get go. That would account, in part, for the rift in photo one. I say in part, because plenty of instruments are constructed this way without serious repercussions.

If I’m “reading” this instrument properly, this fiddle has some story to tell. Someone put their left thumb through the bass side f hole. Said someone decided he was handy enough to fix it himself. Said someone ripped the top off, shredding the edges, realigned the broken piece badly (scraping it flush on the INSIDE which was the only saving grace), then glued the top back on with gobs of casein glue, assuring that fifty years later when the top has to come off again for repairs, the edge is ripped away. Thankfully, I wasn’t there for any of that.

Not to dwell on it, but here are some more before shots (click to enlarge):

Our wayward edge required a relatively simple gluing operation since most of the surfaces were free of old glue: careful positioning and something only slightly ingenious to hold the pieces in place, then an application of thin, strong hide glue followed up by an interior reinforcement and that headache was history, mostly. The f hole break was a different matter. It required serious soaking to separate the pieces and the removal of old glue and retouch varnish. Bringing the errant piece flush to the varnish side revealed how our handy man scraped wood away from the inside – a minor crime, all things considered. There were splinters missing from the varnish side too, and that was more of a problem. This repair would have structural integrity, but I would also prefer that it not visually scream through the Bach Partitas.

By inlaying some slivers of soft-grained summer wood, pilfered from the inside of the top in areas that would be otherwise sacrificed to doublings, I was able to create some visual “bridges” that would preserve the continuity of the  exterior appearance where wood was missing. The rest would be taken care of by some clever varnish retouching.

The varnish work on this instrument will deserve a post of its own.

By the way, the super continent of Pangaea rifted apart 200,000,000 years ago:

Pangaea

Brown Out Be Gone

Yesterday I delivered a bunch of home grown veggies to my neighbors. I was grateful for the short term loan of a dehydrator, with which I dried my first batch of Principe Borghese tomatoes. I look forward to committing these little red gems to olive oil and herbs, probably sometime in January or February, when a hit of summer will be ever so much more effective than the latest designer “pick-me-up.”

So my thanks to M and her partner T, with whom I remarked about how this summer seemed to be  unusually difficult for many of us. I say was, because we have just been kissed by our impetuous lover (if you live in New England), Autumn. Yes, the temperature dipped below 60〫F just the other night. In New England we love and hate the weather. It is unreliable – glorious and disappointing in turn.

For the better part of the summer we have been looking at this:
I did not mow the grass during the month of July. And while that would seem like a strange gift of time otherwise unallocated, the “brown out” has, overall, been a serious downer. I’ve been thinking about my first year in this house – only last spring/summer, really – in which I sweated through a dramatic late winter thaw that flooded the basement, a nearby spring tornado, an almost unheard of East Coast earthquake, Hurricane Irene, and a devastating late October snowstorm that downed trees still dressed in showy yellow, red  and orange foliage. The aftermath of that last storm inhibited mobility, left thousands without power for days and caused several deaths including the old lady up the street, who died wrapped in a blanket, in a comfortable chair, because she would not leave her 45 〫F house.

For me, the weather events of 2011 were all near misses. Still, I admit to becoming weather shy. Maybe it is a function of my age, or of circumstance. I am a newcomer to this community. In any case, as this dry, dry weather seems to take a needed turn, it is a joy to be sharing the bounty of a summer salvaged by care and diligence:

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