Swan Decoys and Thanksgiving

November 27, 2011

Wild Cranberries and Picker

Wild Cranberries & Picker

The four of us had a great family Thanksgiving here this year. We had to forego our travel plans at the last minute due to work, suffered some disappointment as a result, but the consolation is we are having a quiet, relaxed time together in our snug and cheerful home. Thanksgiving dinner was prepared by all of us in cooperation this year.  This was a first, and our children enjoyed participating in the work with my wife and me. Our eight year old son, a budding forager, had picked wild cranberries with an antique-style picker he and I built in the shop earlier in the fall, and so he was more interested than usual in the resulting food.

Our daughter, age 12, is already a fairly accomplished baker, so she was excited to try out a new type of “medieval” apple pie, though none of us are able to discover what exactly is “medieval” about it.

Both children like to eat – must be an inherited trait from Dad – so that added to their enthusiasm.

All in all it has been a lot of fun, and though we are individually busy a good part of the day we have all come together each evening to sit by the wood stove, play word games, read, and practice for our various music lessons. We are enjoying each other’s company and it is very pleasant.

canvas swan decoys

A pair of Canvas Swan Decoys

November is the time of year when the hunter’s blood begins to stir. Over the years I have done a fair amount of wood carving, and one thing I’d like to show is the process of building this pair of swan decoys according to a traditional design used by commercial duck hunters early in the 20th century. Historically, these so-called “confidence decoys” were used for hunting ducks, not swans. The idea is that a swan is a comparatively wary bird, so their presence near duck decoys is supposed to give the approaching ducks more confidence.

I made scale drawings based on a few broadside photos of whistling swans I found, and then blew the drawings up to make full sized plans. The finished decoys are each about three feet long. Their basic structure consists of a wood and wire armature with cotton canvas stretched over it. This keeps them very light for their size.

First I cut oval shaped bases out of some wide pine boards I had. Next I cut out the wooden “spine” piece for each, and fastened it to the oval base with waterproof glue and stainless steel screws. Next I cut the profile for each head and neck out of thick blocks of pine I had left over from the legs of an eighteenth century tavern table I built a few years ago. After shaping the heads and necks using a drawknife and chisels followed by coarse sandpaper, I fastened them to the spine piece with waterproof glue. I used a mortise and tenon joint to fasten the neck to the spine – very strong.

canvas swan decoy construction

The decoy skeleton before attaching the head and neck.

Next I marked where the wire hoops would be attached, which involved a lot of estimation and guesswork. I drilled holes around the edge of the base to drive the ends of the wires into, and sawed small notches in the top edge of the spine to hold the center of each wire in place. Then I attached the wires and fastened them in place along the spine using bronze boat nails. Although these particular decoys were constructed as decorative art, I used durable materials designed for functionality. Drawing on my wooden boatbuilding experience, all materials and fasteners are resistant to saltwater corrosion.

Canvas swan decoy construction

Attaching the wires to the skeleton.

After attaching all the wire hoops and adjusting them by eye, I tied strings along the wires lengthwise to keep them from bending out of shape when the canvas is stretched over them. Stretching the canvas was the most difficult part of the construction, and was very time consuming. It took a lot of trial and error and re-stretching time and time again to get the canvas smooth.

canvas swan decoy construction

Swan decoys nearing completion.

After the canvas was tight and stapled around the bottom edge, I sprayed it with water and let it dry to shrink and tighten it further. After several coats of white paint on the neck and body, painted black bill and buttons for eyes, the decoys are finished.

canvas swan decoy

Canvas swan decoy - finished.

You can also see the finished decoys on the available work page of my web site by clicking here, and scrolling down to “Three Dimensional Work”.

Happy Thanksgiving.


An Increase in the Barn

September 16, 2011

An Old Vermonter


The old Vermonter, Billy, who lived up the road from my parents when I was very young and helped around our place there, used this curious and amusing expression to describe a new birth among the livestock. For example, my parents raised milk goats and one time they had a doe that was expecting kids. Billy came into the kitchen early one morning, having done the chores, and said to my father, “Hey, Bud! There’s been an increase in the barn!”, which was to say that the goat had given birth during the night.

So it is here this morning.

The day after our rooster, King Tut, died, my children decided to perpetuate his dynasty by trying to hatch the last few eggs they knew he had fertilized. As it happened at that point we had a “broody” hen (one with the compulsion to sit on eggs and hatch them, even if there are no eggs to sit on). Though we were only getting about one egg per day it was a good bet they were fertile, so we saved a few eggs out during the ensuing days and placed them under the broody hen.

Two of the eggs have hatched and the chicks are very healthy. The ratio of hens to roosters from eggs is usually about 50%, so it is possible we will have a rooster, and who knows, maybe he will be gentle like his father was!

Hen and Chick Truro

A new and gentle rooster?

Buff Orpington Rooster

King Tut

I would not have thought it possible to form such an attachment to a chicken. However, he was a great chicken, as chickens go, and as far as I’m concerned he died a hero’s death. “King Tut”, our beloved, handsome and gentle rooster, was the victim of an attack by coyotes August 19th. We were all absent, and since we were unable to get the birds inside before we left (chickens don’t herd easily), we took a calculated risk that they would be safe for an hour or so until we could return to close the coop. Later investigation revealed that the predators struck only minutes after we left, leaving one hen dead and partly consumed, another missing, and our big, Buff Orpington rooster mortally injured. One of the raiders apparently became entangled in the portable electric fence, as it was partly knocked over and several of the support poles were torn from the ground. Unfortunately it was not electrified at the time or it might have prevented such carnage. There were feather piles everywhere, showing scenes of at least four separate attacks. The rooster, subdued but alert, and all but two hens were sitting on their perches in the coop when we returned.

The next morning at dawn we heard a hen clucking outdoors who had apparently spent the night on a tree limb. When we returned her to the coop, the seriousness of the rooster’s wounds was revealed. He had very few feathers left on his tail, and only one of his magnificent golden plumes remained. He had received a bad bite on his hind end that tore his back and left a deep puncture on the underside of his tail, probably perforating his gut. The wounds had become badly infected overnight, and by late morning it was obvious he wouldn’t make it. I made the difficult decision to put him out of his misery.

Afterwards, believe it or not, I cried. I buried him in the middle of the yard under an apple tree. The children wrote messages to him and put them on his grave, along with some marigolds from our garden.

He was a favorite because in spite of his huge spurs, curved like scimitars (at the time of the final attack he had only one left, the other having been lost in a previous engagement with threats unknown), he never attacked any of us and was never aggressive toward anyone. He must have fought hard to protect the hens and himself though, as his remaining spur was torn from his leg by the time he made it back to the coop. I found it in the grass days later.

He had my respect because he was the survivor of at least three previous coyote attacks in which numerous other birds were killed, not to mention several hawk and fox attacks, some of which I witnessed. He was tame enough to eat out of our hands, and we all loved him.

Downed Oak Tree

Hurricane Irene Downs an Oak Tree

Hurricane Irene, though barely grazing us, knocked down my favorite Oak tree on our place. It had a 22 inch diameter at it’s base and was perhaps 35 feet tall. Not a huge tree, but it was one I had admired since we moved here, and I had expected my grandchildren to grow old with it. It provided shade for the hill our big vegetable garden is on, and was beautiful to look at as it defined that corner of our property. As a sapling, the trunk of it divided into two main leaders, which grew upward at an acute angle to one another. This was it’s eventual undoing, as the trunk split along that divide in the 65 mph wind of Irene. First one half fell, then half an hour later the second followed.

My twelve year old daughter and I spent a few days cutting it up for firewood. I ran the chainsaw and she separated the tops into one pile and lugged most of the firewood to another pile for stacking and seasoning. I had to split a few of the largest pieces by hand to make them manageable for her. The pungent scent of fresh-cut oak reminded me, as it always does, of an old and great friend, now passed, who burned it almost exclusively in his fireplace. I spent many hours of my youth cutting, splitting and stacking firewood, and I love that my daughter and I shared the experience, though chainsaw work is somewhat harder on my aging and unfit bod than it once was. When we cut the final section off the trunk we counted the growth rings and determined that the oak was almost exactly my age.

I lament the loss of the tree and the rooster not only as the loss of two good friends, but also because it heralds the end of another summer and reflects my own mortality and the relentless passage of time. Of all the disagreeable aspects of life that I have no control over, the passage of time, which seems increasingly rapid as I age, is the thing I resent most. Fighting against it is one of the greatest inspirations in my work. Neither the rooster nor the oak tree deserved to be taken down. They were victims of fate or circumstances. Like many of us, the tree’s downfall was determined years ago by the habit of it’s growth at a young age. Not so the rooster. In many ways I am responsible for his death, which makes it all the harder as I feel that if I had made different choices that afternoon he would still be here crowing his music.

Buff Orpington Rooster

Pumpkin at Truro Ag Fair

Pumpkin at the Truro Ag Fair. Photo by P. Gilson

Hurricane Earl lost power and moved far enough offshore that all we got was some rain and a little wind. It was so minimal that the Truro Agricultural Fair eclipsed it completely for us.

The Truro Ag Fair is on youtube here and here, and on several blogs, including the Chezsven Blog, which has some wonderful photos of it.

I spent the big day selling raffle tickets as a fund raiser for the Fair, so unfortunately I did not get a chance to sample some of the reportedly fantastic food available there. I especially wish I had tried the deep fried lobster on a stick from Mac’s Seafood, but since my seven year old son was the one searching for and delivering my lunch, and he hates eating lobster, all I received was a hot dog (his idea of heaven, so I know he loves me!)

School has begun again, so it is back to the bus and homework routine for our children. Likewise, I will be getting back to making paintings. At the moment I need to frame a couple of prints and get started on the commissions I have lined up for the fall.



Truro Ag Fair painting

Painting to be Raffled at Truro Ag Fair

Today I finished the painting to be raffled off at the second annual Truro Agricultural Fair, which is scheduled for this coming Sunday, September 5th. Raffle tickets will be available at the fair and will be $5 apiece or six for $20. The painting has a retail value of $1800, so if you win it is a very good deal. I will be hawking the tickets and will have the painting on display at the fair. Hopefully the paint will be dry!

This afternoon I can hear a generator being test-run in the distance, and vehicles with trailers have been passing our house all day on their way to Pamet Harbor to haul out boats. Hurricane Earl will be visiting Cape Cod tomorrow, and people are getting ready to receive him in whatever capacity he shows up in. With help from a neighbor I pulled our boat out this morning, and then spent part of the day putting away outdoor furniture, barbecue grills, surf boards, and any other objects likely to get carried off by wind, as well as repairing a critical downspout on one of our gutters.

Thus made ready we are waiting for Earl to show his stuff, and are looking forward to going fishing again once he has passed. A few days ago we went to Provincetown in the boat and happened upon a blitz (feeding frenzy) of striped bass. We filled the freezer, smoked some, and gave some to friends. It is the time of year to share the harvest.

Recipe for Smoked Fish Pasta Sauce:


1 tbsp butter or olive oil

1/2 cup smoked striped bass or bluefish, cut into bite-sized pieces

1 whole large fresh tomato, cubed

3/4 cup light cream

salt & pepper

pasta of your choice for three


Cook the pasta.

Meanwhile, heat 1 tbsp butter or olive oil in a wide sauce pan or skillet.

Add the smoked fish and saute until heated through.

Add the tomato, and saute a few minutes.

Add the cream and cook over medium heat until reduced slightly and thickened. Add salt and pepper to taste and serve.

Best, Tom

North Country Morning art

North Country Morning, finished

Well, this painting is completed, and I am now “officially” finished painting until September. Surprisingly, I am finding this to be a difficult promise to keep. There are still two or three more paintings I’d like to make before the exhibit in August. I need to exercise my will power though and get everything else completed first – framing, cleaning my studio out, and focusing on the other vital half of my business – sales. The most important thing for me to do right now is get the paintings hung and have open studios so the public can see them. If there is still time before the exhibit I will make more paintings.

By the way, the fresh ham we had last Saturday turned out really nicely. That slow cook recipe is bullet proof. To go with the ham I made twice baked potatoes with grated onion in them (a recipe I just learned recently from a friend) and fresh cole slaw. Cole slaw! What could be better for a summer evening with roasted or barbecued meat? It is making my mouth water just thinking about it, and I only finished supper about an hour ago!


Adirondack Sunrise art

Progress on sky and water

This shot is from a few days ago. This painting moved along at a good pace.

Adirondack Sunrise art

Continued progress

This painting is nearly finished now.

We have planted potatoes, corn, lettuce, and the Walla Walla onions that I can hardly wait to sink my teeth into late in the summer. They are a Vidalia style onion, and are so mild that you can bite into one like an apple, if you like that sort of thing. My children would be repulsed at this notion, as I was years ago when I watched E.J. Kahn Jr. of New Yorker fame concoct a sandwich for himself out of two slices of bread, mayonnaise, and a one inch thick slice of onion. Now I am older my tastebuds can agree with his, I guess.

Today we plant tomatoes, and tonight we are having some friends to dinner. We can accomplish both in one day by serving our guests a favorite recipe: Slow roasted pork.

I am using 1/2 a fresh ham (uncured, unsmoked). It weighs about six pounds. Rub with a mixture of about 1/8 cup kosher salt, 1/8 cup sugar, 1 tsp ground bay leaf, 1 tsp coriander and 1/2 tsp black pepper. Season to taste, but the ham will take a surprising amount of salt without getting over seasoned, and some “washes off” while it is roasting etc.

At about 10 this morning the ham goes on a rack in a shallow roasting pan in a 200 degree oven. It will roast all day until about 4:30 or 5:00, maybe longer (monitor it near the end to make sure it doesn’t dry out). By that time it will fall off the bone. I usually chop it into shreds, put it in a serving dish and then pour over it a sauce of cider vinegar, sugar (or brown sugar), small amount of ketchup, worcestershire sauce, a decent shot of hot sauce of some type, pinch of cloves, black pepper and lemon juice, all cooked together to make a hot/sweet/sour sauce. Taste this as you go, and you can use whatever you have on hand – it is different each time I make it. Dry red pepper flakes are a good addition.

You can put this in the oven in the morning, do something else all day while it is cooking, and it never fails to please your guests.


North Country Morning art

North Country Morning #1

I am making a start on what is likely the last of my paintings for the summer. A view looking over a lake toward the sunrise above the hills. When fishing in the Adirondacks we often see views like this in early morning.

Last night we met with family at Ballston Beach for a picnic. Francie took the photo below.

Ballston Beach evening

Ballston Beach looking toward P'town

I grew up on this beach, but every time I go there I am struck anew by it’s beauty. There is something about the sound of waves breaking that I find peaceful and settling, and I am always reassured by the smell of  the water and the sight of the horizon. I have painted this beach many, many times but I still am unable to fully understand what is so fascinating about the meeting place of the three main visual elements – sky, land and water.

Check out the dude fishing in the middle ground – he got a couple of nice striped bass (what we call “shorts” – too small to keep) while we were eating dinner.

I am looking forward to spending time here with my children over the summer.


Adirondack lake art

Mist at Dawn, nearly finished

This painting was pretty much completed but I wasn’t really satisfied with it. I felt it needed an additional element, so I added a fish rising in the foreground.

Adirondack Lake art

Mist at Dawn, finished

Sometimes a very small addition can make a big difference.


Mist at Dawn, Adirondacks, art

Mist at Dawn, Adirondacks, canvas with pencil sketch

Last week I started a new painting, 12 x 17 inches, of a lake I know in the Adirondacks on a misty morning. Below is the canvas with some of the elements roughed in.

 Adirondack lake art

Mist at Dawn, Adirondacks, partly completed.

I will try to finish this one in the next couple of days.

Thursday I took my six year old son to a Red Sox game at Fenway Park in Boston. It was one of the best experiences we’ve ever had together – just a fantastic day, even though the Red Sox lost to Oakland.

There is something hyper-real about watching a baseball game in the flesh, so to speak. I don’t know whether it’s the lights or whether they make the uniforms out of special material or what, but long ago somebody figured out (either conciously or otherwise) how to make the visual experience at a live ball game so intensely rich that it defies reality. The color of the field, the earth spread on the base lines, the white of the bases themselves, they always seem brighter and more saturated than is possible in real life. It is as if one is watching a film with enhanced color, but of course you are watching reality, so it can’t be – the brain almost can’t believe what the eye is seeing.

Add to this the hollering of the guys selling hot dogs, Cracker Jacks, etc., the smells and flavors of “baseball food”, the booming of voices and organ music over the loudspeakers, the various ecstatic and unhappy roars from the crowd – they all combine to create an incredible, interactive theatrical experience that could be called the ultimate art form – it literally plays to every one of the senses, and by participating as a spectator you become part of the art. Absolute magic.

By comparison a lowly oil painting almost seems, well, a bit ho-hum-ish!