It’s the coldest weekend of the season for us here at Maplehurst.
The week did not begin well. The same night Jonathan left town for a business trip, the tank of heating oil that supplies our furnace ran dry.
Elsa and I spent the next morning wearing coats by the parlor fireplace waiting for an oil refill and a technician to restart our heating system.
However, the week ended with the installation of our much dreamed-about, much anticipated woodstove. It sits in our once freezing kitchen, but, as I type this from the kitchen table, the room is throbbing with warmth.
If you’re looking for any of us this weekend, you’ll find us here. In the kitchen. Feeding logs into the mouth of a cast-iron stove on four, pretty little legs, reading picture books and gardening books and the woodstove manual.
You’ll find us here, drinking coffee and cocoa, reading about mice who drink “acorn coffee” and deciding the very important question of whether or not acorn coffee might be something we’d like to try.
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The acorn coffee appears in Winter Story (Brambly Hedge) by Jill Barklem, but we love every beautiful book in the Brambly Hedge series. You might begin with the four seasonal books (I am very fond of the June wedding of the miller mouse and the dairy-maid mouse that takes place on a bark raft floating at the edge of the stream), but don’t miss the other stories. My boys, especially, love to follow the winding staircase in one of the images from The Secret Staircase (Brambly Hedge).
These books are thirty years old, but they were old-fashioned when they appeared. They celebrate English seasonal folk customs as depicted in a community of hedge-dwelling mice. The mice wear straw hats and drink delicate, floral wines. There is a lord and lady and a palace, but they store their food communally in a stump. They enjoy picnics and outings to pick blackberries. Do I need to say more?
I will say more but only this: it is the highly detailed illustrations that make these books so magical. Every intricate twist in a mouse cottage burrow is depicted in delicious detail. A patch of trees lights up with tiny mouse windows. A cottage kitchen drips with stored crabapples, homemade jam, and embroidered tea towels.
I pretty much want to move in to Brambly Hedge.
One of the most surprising and inspiring books I’ve read this winter is Keeping House: The Litany of Everyday Life by Margaret Kim Peterson. Recommended by a friend who studied with Peterson at Eastern University, this is a book about the spiritual value of housekeeping. It is for men and women, married and single, university students, empty-nesters … what I’m trying to say is that this book offers something important and encouraging to anyone who has ever found themselves with a dirty dish in their hand or a bed in need of making.
As someone who values the home but loathes just about every task associated with keeping one (I tolerate laundry, I despise cleaning, I rarely make my bed), this book completely reoriented the way I see my home and the work involved in caring for it. I’ve always said that washing dishes can be holy work, but I don’t think I ever really believed it, until I read this.
Keeping House is rich in theology, but it is clearly written, thoroughly accessible, and seasoned with personal stories. I loved it. I can’t recommend it enough.
One book I’ll keep close to the woodstove this weekend is Dirr’s Encyclopedia of Trees and Shrubs. This is an enormous, treasure of a book, and it is not inexpensive. Even though I was cashing in a gift card, I still debated quite a bit before I hit purchase.
But, wow! I am so glad I did. This book is the work of a lifetime, particularly of famed botanist Michael Dirr’s lifetime, and you will not find a more exhaustive, thoroughly researched, delightfully written, well-photographed book of trees, shrubs, and vines.
I love the personal, witty writing style (if a tree is rubbish for gardens, Dirr will let us know), I love reading the histories of familiar trees, I love the lists of particularly worthwhile varieties. I’ll be planting three crabapples this spring, and I’ve already chosen the named varieties based on Dirr’s descriptions.
If you aren’t quite ready for the financial commitment (not to mention the commitment of coffee-table space), you might prefer to read Dirr’s earlier volume Dirr’s Hardy Trees and Shrubs: An Illustrated Encyclopedia. This is a smaller book (though not small), and the information is slightly less up-to-date, but it remains an excellent resource. Also, you should be able to find it at your library.
Today, I have one bonus recommendation. Dawn Camp’s just-released collection The Beauty of Grace: Stories of God’s Love from Today’s Most Popular Writers is lovely. It is brimming over with brief reflections from some of my favorite Christian bloggers. I love that this book gathers some of the best of ephemeral internet writing and gives it permanence.
I think this book would make an especially fine gift. I love giving books as gifts, but sometimes it is difficult to find just the right book match. This book solves that problem entirely. Everyone will find something to love in this book. But my highest praise? It has earned a place by my bedside table.