Sunday, December 20, 2009

First Major Snow of 2009-2010

We had our first major storm of the winter season last night, dropping about 8-10 inches of snow in Derby, by my own estimation. Here is the storm warning that was posted yesterday by the Valley Independent Sentinel, suggesting a potentially serious winter storm.

The photo below gives you a general idea of the quantity of snow we received, although much of what you see here is wind-blown accumulation, as this was the lee end of the yard during last night's blustery winds:

And there was, of course, considerably less snow in the vicinity of the back entry-way, given the protection of all the trees to the north:

But the south end of the yard, sitting in the lee of last night's winds, received much deeper accumulations (I know -- this is very boring discourse, isn't it?) :

One of the things that always concerns me whenever there's a heavy snow fall is the tendency of my front porch roof to get heavily loaded with snow. It worries me because I don't feel this structure is all that substantial, and fear too heavy a loading might bring about its collapse:

[ And note the interesting, wind-carved cornice on the south-side of the porch roof. This cornice never formed in previous winters -- at least, not since I've lived here: ]

So, naturally, one of the first things I do is clear the front porch roof following a significant snowfall. Leaning out the landing window and pushing it away with a shop broom is all it takes...

... and the porch roof is cleared.

The City of Derby, for reasons unknown to me, always does an incomplete job clearing the sidewalk on the south side of the Hawkins Street bridge, finishing just short of the west terminus, and turning the cleared path right out on to the street, rather than simply clearing about another forty feet to the beginning of my sidewalk. Any pedestrian heading this way (and there are a lot of them) either has to cross the street while still on the bridge, or walk the remaining distance in the road until they can get back on to the sidewalk:

So guess who invariably takes it upon himself to complete the job for the sake of his Hawkins Street neighbors? Yes, you guessed correctly. The completed path is shown below:

This season, I think I will finally write that letter to Derby's department of public works... :-)

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Vintage Bird's Eye Views of Derby and the Old Hawkins House

Recently, I discovered two bird's eye view illustrated maps of Derby, one from 1920, the other from 1898. Both are digitally archived by the Library of Congress. And each contains an image of the Hawkins house, situated at its present location, on Hawkins Street.

The first map, City of Derby, Connecticut, was published by Hughes and Bailey in 1920. While its illustrations are not necessarily drawn to scale, this map reveals a remarkable amount of information about the town, its streets, its buildings, and their relationships to one another.

Hughes and Bailey's "City of Derby, Connecticut" illustrated map (source: Library of Congress)

When I zoomed-in on the intersection of Hawkins Street and Seymour Avenue, I found a surprisingly detailed rendering of the Hawkins house. In the expanded illustration below, it is right at dead-center of the image. The house appears to be drawn largely out of scale with regard to most of the neighboring houses and other features, and I can not readily account for why it was drawn in this manner. The fact that the house originally stood on a large, raised foundation might have skewed the artist's perspective, while another possibility is that the artist considered it a significant landmark, and drew it out of scale to emphasize it as such.

Close-up of Hughes and Bailey's "City of Derby, Connecticut" map, showing the vicinity of the intersection of Hawkins Street and Seymour Avenue (source: Library of Congress)

Zooming even closer in on the house revealed a number of its most prominent features. The large center chimney is there, and is represented as being slightly offset from the ridge line, toward the back of the house. I know that this had, in fact, been the case, as it's obvious from the roof system in the attic. The raised foundation is also captured in the illustration, as are the three descending windows on the first floor of the south end.

Zooming further in on Hughes and Bailey's "City of Derby, Connecticut" map reveals an accurately detailed image of the Hawkins house (source: Library of Congress)

Finally, the three old homes directly across the street are also shown, with fairly reasonable spatial relationships to my home. The only significant error in this rendering is that the artist appears to have included a third window on the second floor of the south end, whereas in reality, there are only two.

The other map, published by Landis and Hughes, and entitled Derby & Shelton, East Derby, Conn. 1898, is shown below, with a red rectangle delineating the area of the intersection of Hawkins Street and Seymour Avenue.

Landis and Hughes' "Derby & Shelton, East Derby, Conn. 1898" illustrated map (source: Library of Congress)

Zooming-in on Hawkins Street reveals what appears to be the Hawkins house correctly situated between Tenth and Eleventh Streets, and generally in correct relation to the same three old homes on the opposite side of the street. However, the representations of the buildings themselves are rather boilerplate and lack any significant detail.

Close-up of Landis and Hughes' "Derby & Shelton, East Derby, Conn. 1898" map, showing Hawkins, Tenth, and Eventh Streets (source: Library of Congress)

My discovery of these illustrations -- the Hughes and Bailey map, primarily -- is significant in the sense that it tightens up a loose end in the history of the house; namely, the exact location of the original home site. While it is generally accepted that the house was moved to its current location in the 1950s to avoid the wrecking ball during the construction of Connecticut Route 8, there had always been some uncertainty as to where the house actually came from.

Although it had always ostensibly been associated with Hawkins Street (Samuel Orcutt's History of The Olde Town of Derby, for example, often states this to be the case), several nineteenth century cartographers failed to accurately record the location of the house on scaled maps. And, perhaps as a result of this, more recent architectural surveys of Derby missed the house entirely. This situation is, in fact, described in a Derby Historical Society article published just a few years ago. However, the Hughes and Bailey map strongly suggests that the present-day Hawkins Street location is also the original seventeenth century home site.

Right after discovering this, I thought: If this is the original site, then what traces of the old foundation might yet remain? And it suddenly struck me that I'd been staring at the old foundation all along, in the outline of the somewhat odd, modern concrete pavement currently surrounding the south-end and back of the house. It just never had occurred to me before that moment.

Above left: The ca. 1939 photo of the Hawkins house, with raised foundation extending out beyond the back of the house, a stone staircase, and an overhead awning where the mudroom is now located. Above right: The modern stonework surrounding the south end and back of the house appears to conform exactly to the outline of the previous raised foundation.

As you can see from the two photos shown above, the modern stonework aligns perfectly with the grade-level footprint of the old raised foundation. And the peculiar "landing from nowhere" abutting the concrete slab in the photo on the right almost certainly appears to have been the base of the old stone staircase shown in the 1939 photo on the left. My guess is that these modern concrete slabs are actually capping a large number of old dry-laid stones that had comprised the lowest-level courses of the original foundation.

So, my conclusion is that the Hawkins house had been re-situated at its original site when it was moved in the 1950s. Not only is this conclusion supported by physical evidence, but it is also consistent with claims by contemporary Gaynor-Farrell family descendants that my home had, in fact, been moved twice during the 1940s-1950s, with the first move relocating it to a point on Hawkins Street that today is somewhere within the vicinity of the east abutment of the Hawkins Street bridge. While the exact reason for moving the house to that particular location is not well-remembered, the location itself is still strongly upheld as such by the Gaynor-Farrell family.

Clearly, the second move of the 1950s simply returned the house to the location from whence it originally came, albeit to a modern foundation of concrete blocks constructed within the confines of what had been the old foundation, with most of the original, dry-laid stones having long been removed and taken away.

For a related article, see The Old Hawkins House.

Since publishing this article, I've discovered yet another illustrated map of Derby, entitled Birmingham, Conn. 1876. The particular rendering of this map that I initially came across is printed on p. 6 of the Derby Historical Society's Images of America: Derby (Arcadia Publishing, 1999), and carries the label "Wilkinson Brothers & Co., Derby Paper Mills."

However, Randy Ritter, of the Derby Historical Society, informed me that the map had been created by O. H. Bailey, and that an online copy is maintained by the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center of the Boston Public Library. The 1876 map is shown below (and many thanks to Randy for the link).

Bailey's "Birmingham, Conn. 1876" illustrated map, with a red rectangle pin-pointing the location of the Hawkins house and surrounding homes (source: Boston Public Library)

Zooming-in on the vicinity of Hawkins Street reveals the Hawkins house and the various surrounding homes and structures. It's interesting to note that the large colonial house with double-ended chimneys that today sits directly across the street from the Hawkins house had not yet been built in 1876. This house is, however, represented in both the 1898 and 1920 maps.

Close-up of Bailey's "Birmingham, Conn. 1876" map, showing the Hawkins house and adjacent homes (source: Boston Public Library)

Another interesting aspect of the 1876 map is that it illustrates the gentle dip of land that once existed just behind the Hawkins house. Today, Connecticut Route 8 cuts through this area, just where the dip begins to drop more steeply (as shown in the old illustration), as a considerable amount of the original land behind the Hawkins house had been excavated away.

According to my neighbor Gary Farrell, his uncle, Len Gaynor, had had a herd of cows grazing on this land, as recently as the early 1950s. An old cow shed and stone wall still exist behind Gary's house, the only surviving remnants of those earlier times.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Hewing a Roubo Workbench Slab

Some of you may recall that earlier in the spring, I began working in earnest (well, sort of) on a green-wood carpentry project to construct a Roubo-style joiner's bench from several large sections of a very old silver maple on my property that I needed to take down the previous year. This had become something of a background project that I'd regularly put aside for stretches at a time to honor more pressing commitments, and then return to whenever I found a spare hour or two.

Jacques Andre Roubo's bench, from Plate 11 of L'Art du Menuisier (ca. 1769)

This past week, I declared success in removing bulk wood from the large maple log that eventually will yield a slab for the bench top. A hefty cant (although I actually rather enjoy calling it a proto-slab) had finally emerged from the log:

So, on a brisk, but very sunny, early-fall afternoon, I began hewing (or, shaping) the cant:

For any one unfamiliar with the techniques and tools being described, the earlier process of bulk wood removal (scoring) was accomplished using a traditional felling axe to essentially slice away sections of wood within the boundaries of scoring lines drawn on the log. Scoring lines basically define the intended shape of the timber.

Hewing, on the other hand, also involves wood removal, but is more focused on defining and squaring-up the actual sides of the timber. This is accomplished primarily with a broad axe, which, compared to the felling axe, has a wider cutting edge, a much shorter handle, and is considerably heavy for its relatively small size. A broad axe is used, in general, to shape wood.

The photo below shows a face of the cant up-close. The face is oriented vertically, using an adjustable cradle that I had built specifically for this purpose. You can easily differentiate the hewed area on the left from the scored area on the right:

One strikes the broad axe about thirty degrees to the direction of the wood grain (not necessarily as shown in the photo above), using a series of short, well-controlled strokes. The cutting edge must be kept extremely sharp to avoid tearing the wood, as well as to minimize the number of strokes required to do the job. Since the axe head is quite heavy, you don't need to force the stroke that much; rather, just initiate the stroke and allow the weight of the head to do most of the work.

You do need, however, to use quite a bit of muscular effort to carefully control the placement and angle of the blade. So it can be rather tiring work. During the initial hewing, we're mainly concerned with clearing out the roughly scored wood and leaving just a reasonably clean surface. On subsequent iterations, we'll attempt to smooth and flatten the surface as much as possible, periodically checking it with a level or plumb-bob.

Of course, the ultimate goal is to shape the cant into a relatively flat and squared slab of wood suitable for fashioning into a precise bench top. This means that one face (the top of the slab) must be as planar as possible. The other face (the bottom) need not be that perfect, but it should still be reasonably clear. And at least one of the two lateral edges must be completely planar and at a right angle to the top so as to accommodate stock being edge-planed. So these are the requirements for true-ness that the hewing process ultimately needs to support (not to mention the countless hours of planing that will ultimately follow hewing).

In an effort to make this work as precise as possible, I cut a reference edge along one of the scoring lines at one end of the cant, and pared it down to a smooth, straight surface:

The reference edge provides a good, solid place to position a level or plumb-bob to ensure that the cant is always in the same orientation every time I return to hewing it. It's simply easier to hold the level against a squared piece of wood than attempt to align it with a drawn scoring line. Periodically, while hewing the faces, I'll check this reference edge to make sure its completely vertical, just in case the cant shifted slightly while being worked. I'll also check the area of the face I'm currently working with a plumb-bob to ensure that it's heading in the direction of relative planarity, with a parallel orientation to the reference edge.

If I happen to flip the cant over onto one of its faces, I'll likewise make sure that the same reference edge is completely horizontal as the cant lays in its cradle, adjusting or shimming the cant as necessary. I might then attempt, for example, to hew either of the edges into a vertical planar surface, or perhaps adze the exposed face to remove more material using a different group of muscles. As hewing progresses, I would expect to occasionally establish other reference edges at various locations on the cant, as well.

The photo below shows the reference edge. I used a small carpenter's hatchet to finish the edge to a straight line:

This next photo shows the hewed surface of the stem where the reference edge was cut. When you take great care to use the broad axe precisely, you can get a surface that is nearly as smooth as what could be accomplished with a hand plane. Although the photo might not do an ideal job revealing it, this is the case right in center area of the upper stem, where a rough oval of spalt can be seen. Note also the beautiful bands of colors (including the silver-blue) running through the surface of the wood. This will eventually make for a beautiful bench top when finally finished:

Yet another view of the cant is shown below. The face of the cant shown here (and in the preceding photo, as well) is destined to be the bench top, and the bottom edge (the edge the cant is currently resting on in its cradle) will be the front edge of the bench. This particular face was selected as the bench top mainly because the bottom edge exhibits far less sweep (or end-to-end curvature) than the top edge, and will be that much easier to straighten:

And since this edge will face the woodworker, it must be shaped so as to form a vertically planar clamping surface with the bench legs on that side. I also intend to fashion the smaller branching stem into a crochet for holding the far end of stock secured to the bench-front for edge planing. That should make for a very functional and also aesthetically pleasing feature of the bench.

The bifurcated area of the cant, where the two stems of the living tree had split-off from the main trunk into a Y-shape, was perhaps my single biggest motivation for using this particular log for the slab. In addition to providing a base for an integral crochet, I am anticipating that its additional mass will add to the overall heft and stability of the bench. And from a purely aesthetic perspective, the wood in such areas of trees often yields myriad unusual coloration and grain patterns, lending itself quite well to the creation of a unique piece of furniture.

So, it is for all of these reasons that I am constructing a bench top from a whole section of a silver maple, rather than assembling one from pre-fabricated slabs or milled lumber. Not to mention the fact that the tree had been in my yard for many years; hence, using it in this manner also provides quite a bit of meaning and relevance.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Tobacco Cloth Curtains and Other Developments

Some primitive-style window coverings I had ordered arrived this morning at the house. These consisted of several tobacco cloth tie-up panels, and a pair of double-draw festoons. I purchased them from Farmhouse Primitives, and was very pleased with their customer care ethic, as they made an extra effort to ship them to me as quickly as possible. Since these coverings are only made on-demand, the orders naturally take a little extra time to fulfill.

The use of tobacco cloth as a window covering is something that has long intrigued me. Being a descendant of Georgia turpentiners and tobacco planters, I harbor something of a misplaced romanticism for the nicotiana tabacum, despite the long history of evils associated with its cultivation and use -- slavery and cancer, of course, topping that list.

Newly arrived tobacco cloth tie-ups adorning two front windows of the hall chamber. This room is currently empty due to my removing wall board and inspecting this section of the house frame.

Furthermore, my house had once been part of a large colonial plantation whose main product was tobacco. In the later half of the seventeenth century, tobacco was the big craze consuming Europe, beginning with the Portuguese, then the French, and finally the English. Many planters in the American colonies profited handsomely from growing tobacco and exporting it back to England. This was not only the case in the southern colonies, but here in New England, as well.

In fact, nearby Hartford, Connecticut, to this very day, has a reputation for being the shade tobacco capital of the world. As you're driving into Hartford on I-91, you'll see shade tobacco farms with large coverings of tobacco cloth stretched over the crops to protect them from sunlight. This had traditionally been the main use for tobacco cloth, although it was also used extensively for packing tobacco for shipment. It's various domestic uses in earlier times -- as a cheese cloth, for brewing tea, as window treatments, etc. -- are also well known. It's conceivable that centuries ago, tobacco cloth might have been used in the Hawkins House for these same purposes. Hence, it can be put to good use as a period artifact in my home.

Another view of the new tie-ups in the front windows. As the windows are somewhat small, the tie-ups look a bit large, but c'est la vie. I generally prefer coverings that hang close to the floor, anyway, and according to the weaver's instructions, they'll shrink a bit when washed in cold water.

Anyway, after unpacking my new window coverings, I wanted to try them out immediately. I am still not totally sure where they will ultimately go, but the hall is a definite possibility. The parlor is another. Since I was working upstairs anyway, I decided to place them in the hall windows. Some of you may recall a post from last winter, where I found that heavier linen drawback festoons -- by the same textile manufacturer as the tobacco cloth coverings, by the way -- made a good winter time covering for these windows, as they provided a decent block between the cold column of air hovering about the windows and the rest of the warm air circulating through the room.

However, as nice as the heavier linen festoons are, they simply carry too much material and some how just don't seem to fit the house well in the summer months. It looks like these tobacco tie-ups, on the other hand, are a perfect substitute: They are light and airy, and still have a primitive style to them that suits the house quite well. So I am definitely going to be utilizing these tie-ups and similar lighter coverings in the warmer months.

The third tie-up on the larger 12/8 window on the end wall of the room. Unfortunately, there was a lot of sun light coming in, so the photo is a little washed out.

I also ordered a pair of left- and right-sided double-draw festoons, which are heavier than the tobacco cloth, but still a bit thinner than the heavy single-draw linen festoons. According to Farmhouse Primitives, these coverings are based on an early 1800s design. I liked these very much as well. They are probably going to end up in the dining room, where I am currently considering introducing a lot of red fabrics (runners, table squares, etc.), anyway.

One the double-draw festoons in the same window. Again, the large quantity of sunlight unfortunately backlights the festoon and reveals its draw-pull mechanism. But the downstairs windows are darker, so these should work just fine downstairs.

On another note, you may have noticed that these are some of the first interior photos of the house showing exposed timbers in one of the main rooms. The reason why is because I have finally initiated a systematic, detailed inspection of the entire house frame, something I had planned to do for a long time, but given the effort involved, had habitually postponed.

However, my recent discovery of termite damage in one of the front posts motivated me to re-prioritize and begin this lengthy inspection and assessment now, rather than putting it off any further. I anticipate this process lasting throughout the fall and well into the winter months, but it will also provide a lot of good fodder for further blogging. So expect many more postings on this topic as this effort builds momentum!

Wherever I am, my tools are never far away. Here, I was using the level essentially as a large straight-edge with an attached protractor to measure how close my posts are to being plumb. The interior post in the background leans a whopping 5 degrees toward the south end of the house, while the partition wall itself leans several degrees in the other direction (need I be concerned...???)

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Reel Mower Madness

We're very green here at the Hawkins house. Partly because I've always been something of an environmentalist, and perhaps also in part because of the centuries-old spirit of self-sufficiency and parsimony that seems to still hover about the place. Face it. In colonial America, people had no choice but to do things in what might be called "green" or "sustainable" ways, simply because there were no other ways back then.

So this past spring, in accord with those sentiments, I ordered a reel mower from Lee Valley Tools. A reel mower is essentially the modern, light-weight, high-tech equivalent of those clunky old cast-iron, hand-powered mowers that you might have had the pleasure of using many decades ago.

I have to admit I had my doubts about how effective even a modern version of a hand-powered mower could be. But even if it enabled me to simply reduce, if not eliminate, my use of a gas-powered mower through out the course of the summer, I felt that would be a positive thing. I don't know about you, but I can't stand a pleasant summer evening being ripped to shreds by the sound of a gas mower, no more than I can stand the sound of snow blowers on what should be a peaceful winter's morning.

The mower arrived packed in a cardboard box that was disarmingly small in size:

I brought the box into the mud room, and opened it. The mower also came with a grass catcher that hangs off the back of the mower and handle, but its capacity seemed so small that I never even bothered attaching it. (Though I subsequently found it useful for catching trimmings when the grass isn't very high):

The reel mower and all its parts, organized on the mud room floor:

Assembly was no big deal. The only tools I used were my knife (just to open the packaging) and a spinner with a 7/16" socket. A total of four machine bolts needed to be inserted and nuts tightened, and two clip rings put in place by hand. That was all:

The mower is extremely light - you can easily pick it up by the handle and carry it outside. When not actually cutting grass, the mower can be pulled backwards without the blades being turned. I found that, with a little bit of practice, you can also easily pull the mower around the lawn by flipping it completely over onto its small wheels. That helps to keep the blades out of the way when transporting the mower over hilly terrain:

The mower also stows very easily - it can stand almost completely upright against the wall, and easily fit into a corner of a garage:

Sharpening - What I did discover is that, contrary to claims in the product literature that the mower's blades are sharp enough when delivered from the factory, the blades really needed to be well honed before initial use. I found them just too dull on the first try, and quit my first attempt at cutting grass to hone the blades.

Now, sharpening the blades on this thing involves a rather bizarre process. At least, it seemed bizarre to me at first. But it's actually quite sensible when you understand why you need to do it in this manner. But first, let's go over the sharpening process itself, and then we'll return to why it must done this way.

I ordered the mower with an optional sharpening kit. If you choose to buy this mower, you really need to get the sharpening kit. You can't do with out it. The kit consists of an angled handle that you insert on the pinion that drives the rotating blade assembly off one of the mower's wheels. You have to turn the mower over and place something on the handle to keep it in the position shown below. Then remove a wheel, lift the small gear off the shaft, and carefully insert the handle over the shaft, being careful not to displace the small woodruf key that the gear sits on:

Next, you apply a lapping compound to the outside edges of the rotating blades. The lapping compound is a highly viscous gel that contains some sort of grit suspended in it. Once all the outer edges of the blades are coated, you use the handle to rotate the blade assembly in the opposite direction from the way it normally turns when cutting grass. The owners manual says to do this for about 5 minutes, and the lapping compound eventually changes color as the gritty particulates get used up:

So why this bizarre process? It turns out that there are actually two sets of opposing blades on the mower: There's the cylindrical, rotating assembly of blades, but then there is also a stationary cutting blade. The rotating blades apparently catch the blades of grass and force them against the cutting blade, which produces a shearing effect. In this sense, the reel mower is superior to most conventional gas mowers, in which a single cutting blade tears at the grass, rather than cleanly shearing it:

However, the rotating blades and cutting blade are shaped to fit together perfectly in order to work. In fact, the blades actually, and ever so slightly, come into direct contact with one another:

During the sharpening process, the blades are forced to move past each other in a direction opposite to that of cutting. And their mutual contact causes each type of blade (rotating versus stationary) to sharpen the other. Think about it - when you sharpen a knife or tool with a whetstone, you re-shape the cutting edge by moving the blade against the stone opposite to the normal direction of cutting. And that is precisely what is happening here. In fact, the grit in the lapping compound effectively transforms each opposing blade into a whetstone for the other.

So, my main advice to anyone purchasing a reel mower like mine is to keep the blades exceedingly sharp, and furthermore, respect this sharpening process. If you attempt to sharpen these blades in any other manner -- for example, using a stone, or one of those steel sharpening tools that you might use on the single cutting blade of a conventional gas mower -- you will most likely ruin these precisely engineered cutting surfaces, and severely compromise the mower's ability to deliver a clean, shearing cut.

Here's a photo of my side lawn, where the grass was quite tall, and I was able to cut consistently clean rows. The actual performance of the mower is certainly more than acceptable (and higher than I had expected) for a hand-powered tool:

The one thing the reel mower seems to have difficulty with are weeds with large diameter stems. Unlike grass, their tough stems seem just too resilient to get grabbed by the rotating blades, and they often manage to evade the reel mower. Sometimes, you can manage to cut them by making several, full-speed passes over them. But not always. In this case, one must be content with going back to the garage for the weedwacker and making a final pass over the large weeds:

Finally, when finished, it's a good idea to thoroughly clean all the metallic surfaces, and give them a light spray of WD-40. Personally, I like to use an air gun to clean the blades, but a soft synthetic brush or a rag would work just fine. (I happen to love my air tools, by the way, and am always looking for an excuse to use one of them, anyway).

So, my final conclusions are that the modern reel mower is an excellent alternative to a noisy, air-polluting gas-powered mower, most of the time. If you decide to go this route, you might not want to retire the gas mower altogether - in my opinion, you're still going to need it on occasion, especially if you go for extended periods of time not mowing the lawn, and have to deal with very tall, thick, or damp grass.

But the reel mower is more than sufficient for the average situation when you're routinely mowing a reasonably well-kept yard. If you manage to reduce your usage of the gas mower to once or twice or three times a season, that's a big plus for the environment and the general peace and quiet of the neighborhood. And also remember that you're still going to have to rely on that weedwacker for those large stemmed weeds that the reel mower just can't seem to consume. But chances are, you're going to have to use that weedwacker for fine trimming, anyway, so hopefully taking a few extra paces about the yard shouldn't prove too onerous.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Conjunction of Moon and Jupiter

Conjunction of the moon and Jupiter, August 7th, 2009, at 12:10AM EDT

There was a spectacular conjunction of the moon and Jupiter this evening. I managed to catch the above photo by laying prone on the sidewalk, using the sidewalk surface to steady my camera, with the exposure setting adjusted for night time / no flash, and using the timer and holding my breath to prevent the camera from shaking (my tripod just wasn't handy tonight).

Another photo of the celestial pair, peeking through a cloud-roughed sky. You can see Jupiter just on the tip of a wispy peninsula of cloud.

Jupiter has been plainly visible for many months now, usually fully risen by about 10:30PM EDT. It's the brightest "star" in the sky, and is easily spotted above the Eastern horizon in the early part of the evening. Hope you manage to catch it some night!

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Miscreants Decorated My Home

Some one -- I have no idea whom -- occasionally discards a few items of trash in the extreme end corner of my yard, near the side walk. This doesn't happen all that often. But it's invariably the same collection of stuff, namely a few empty 4.5 oz. bottles of Sutter Home white zinfandel, and an empty Newport cigarette pack. Perhaps some young person in my neighborhood simply finds this a convenient place to jettison the spoils of a pleasant evening stroll before returning home. But in any event, this has been an infrequent, but consistent, phenomenon over the course of the past few years.

Sutter Home white zinfandel and Absolut Apeach bottles reposing in the shade of one of my pine trees about two days ago.

In the past, I'd simply curse a little, pick the bottles up, and drop them in my recycling bin. However, during my last clean-up of the yard, it struck me that these bottles are precisely the same kind I'd pay money for in an antique shop, as small decorative window bottles for floral clippings.

I had just collected a total of four Sutter Home bottles, as well as the small Absolut bottle shown in the photo above, when this revelation struck. I peeled their labels off, soaked them in a bucket of hot, soapy water for a while, and then used a Scotchbright pad to remove the sticky residue left behind by the labels.

The cleansed, de-labeled bottles in my dining room. One has water and a few herbal cuttings. The others look strangely deformed, but it's just the light refracting on their surfaces. The Absolut Apeach bottle has an interesting orange-peach color to it, though it's clearly sprayed on, and some of it came off with the label.

The result was just as I had hoped; they worked perfectly well in their new role as window bottles. They're just the right size, and look great in the sun. And since they're clear glass, having a little color is simply a matter of adding some food coloring to the water.

The Sutter Home bottles nicely fit in this tin bottle base, which I had purchased a while back from a place called The Country House.

Placing the wine bottle between two of the broad-necked bottles that originally came with the base also makes a nice arrangement.

So, whomever you are, public drinker & litterer, who occasionally deposits your refuse in my yard, I'd like to thank you for contributing in a small, but meaningful way, to the beautification of my home. And on the odd chance that you happen to be reading this blog, I'd like you to know that it's okay to continue leaving small wine bottles under my pine tree, as long as you don't break anything or cause any mischief (and I actually don't think you ever will). But I could, however, do without the Newports.

Just a random shot of a corner of my dining room.