Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Butterflies Abound

It is the season of the yellow butterflies. In Birdland they huddle in puddles, folded like an origami, then open to rise in their colorful dances. I’m romanticizing, of course, imposing an anthropomorphic narrative on them. It is probably more like a dogfight, but still, lovely to watch, and takes my mind a little off of this humidity. Coming home from Seattle, where I was wishing I’d gone ahead and packed that second sweater after all, I’m finding it just a little bit difficult to feel grateful for the heat.

The Blackberries have peaked, but are still worth a walk to my secret bramble patch. I picked an abundance before my trip, and hoped they would hold out for my return. A few did, but yesterday’s bucket was a little lighter than last week’s. I have enough for a few cobblers put up in the freezer. I freeze them in a single layer on cookie sheets, so they freeze separately into stony, little marbles. Then they are pour-able, and I can use them in any quantity—from a handful on top of ice cream, to a pie-full.

The Black-Eyed Susans are blooming, along with some small sunflowers. They’re attracting both bees and butterflies, and I’m glad to see them. The Jerusalem Artichokes won’t be far behind. Meanwhile, the Burdock and Thistle bring magenta to the garden in festive outbursts like Fourth of July Firecrackers, while the rain has revived the ghost lilies, with their pale pink trumpets. Last summer we learned a new name for them—“Naked Ladies”—and we talk about planting a fairy circle of Naked Ladies to dance in our yard. Ghost lilies have to be my favorite flower for their metaphoric qualities, and I hope I won’t bore you if I revisit them in these letters every year when they bloom. They have numerous names, all poetic. I grew up calling them Ghost Lilies, but I have also heard them called Surprise Lilies, Resurrection Lilies, Magic Lilies, and now Naked Ladies. The leaves come up in the spring, and they are fast growing, but otherwise unremarkable. They begin as fat little sprouts about the size of your thumb, with the leaves neatly lined up like the pages of a book. They emerge pretty quickly, growing several inches a day until they spread out like a bouquet of green leaves and finally flop over and turn yellow. The leaves wither and decay quietly, until you can’t find even a trace of them. You forget about them and turn to other blooms, other chores, and the summer comes in full blast. Sometime in July, usually after a soaking rain, they awaken once again, this time only pointed buds on a fleshy stalk, no shelter of leaves, reaching toward the sky like strange, long-necked birds. Again with the growth spurt, like an adolescent boy’s summer, or Jack’s magic beanstalk, they reach for the sky, and the buds become pale pink bells with a gentle fragrance like Hyacinth. The stalks remain naked—the leaves a distant memory. They last a week or so, and then quietly fade.

This is all noteworthy, but to me the magic is contained in what we don’t see, what is buried underground. The leaves come early, gathering sunlight and soaking up energy to feed the hidden bulbs. I am always surprised, when I dig them, at how deeply they’re burrowed, sometimes a full foot beneath the surface. The bulbs are large and crisp, and surprisingly white where I’ve accidentally cut them with my shovel. Although the lilies are natural hybrids and don’t produce seeds, the bulbs multiply underground, so after a few years they are easy to dig up and spread around. I think we have enough now for a large fairy circle. The only problem is remembering where to dig once the flowers have faded and sunk back into the earth to feed next year’s growth. I might dig them this year, or I might just think about how our secret hidden underground parts can lead to surprising growth and enchanting beauty.

Nurture Beauty; Develop Peace; Blessed Be.

Mary Lucille Hays lives in Birdland near White Heath. She is interested in transformations of all kinds. You can find her at the Mahomet Market on Wednesdays from 3-6 and at the Steeple Gallery Coffeehouse in Monticello on second Saturdays from 10-2. See her Birdland facebook page for an events schedule.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Dear Birdland, Wish you were here...

The seafaring boys came home, and we did a do-si-do as they saw me off to the West Coast. I barely had time to see a few photos and hand them a list of Birdland chores before my flight to Seattle to see my oldest, Chad. The sky was blue in Indy, but thunderstorms in the east and south delayed my flight and shaved half a day off my visit. I got to stay in a posh hotel, but it wasn’t worth the half a day I lost with my boy. It’s been a while since I traveled alone. You get a whole different perspective and talk about topics you might not have if it was your friend or family in the seat next to you. On the way to Detroit I evangelized about backyard chickens, and I think I’ve convinced a man to set up a coop in Indianapolis for his three young daughters.

Seattle is green and cool and filled with gardens and hiking trails. Chad lives on Capitol Hill with the space needle right outside his window making the skyline surreal. At night it glows; the moon sets over its shoulder behind the mountains. In the morning the fog hides the base of the mountains and they seem to hover, like a mirage until the mist clears. It’s hilly here, making our neighborhood walks and our woodland hikes double as workouts. The neighborhood has a wonderful variety of greenery and flowers, shops and restaurants. In fact, I noticed the lack of chains in Seattle. Beyond a very few fast food places and, of course, the ubiquitous coffee shop, I didn’t see any of the names that dot the interstate like weeds in the Midwest. Chad told me I’d have to go to the suburbs if I wanted that, but I said why in the world would I want to step through a doorway that linked me back home when I was on vacation? We chose a lovely Nepalese restaurant where the coconut curry was divine. It was a small basement dining room with a mandala painted on the low ceiling, and prayer flags strung along the walls. After our late lunch he took me to the ice caves. They are actually holes in the glaciers carved out by the spring melt. We hiked in and out of the frigid pockets of glacier breath to the edge of the snow and peered into the caves. They are inviting, but the danger of collapse kept us out. I did have Chad take a picture of me on the other side of an arch, so it looked like I was in the cave, but I first had to promise him that I would keep the blue sky above me. The thought of the weight of all that snow was enough to keep me out of danger. The snowmelt made for lovely, clear streams. We saw red raspberries, bigger than the black raspberries we have at home, and without the mosquitoes that always accompany berry picking at Birdland. Sadly, they weren’t quite ripe, ranging from golden to just red (but still very sour, as we discovered).

Yesterday we went to the market, which had an old world feel to it. Rows of buckets held gigantic bouquets of bright sunflowers and fresh-faced lilies wrapped in white paper. You could buy these for ridiculously low prices: $5, $10. $15 for small, medium, large. Fresh vegetables and fruit, golden cherries from Mount Rainier, organic raspberries, artichokes, a fish market. Various little shops sell antiques, gifts, clothes, acupuncture. One little store had a curious handwritten sign: “Gum for the wall inside.” A little later we discovered the wall: outside the Market Theater is a huge wall of gum of all colors--like an abstract pointillist painting. If I missed “the Pig Sign” back home, I could visit with “Rachel the Pig,” a huge bronze piggy bank in front of the fish market. Part of me wanted to transport Birdland here, but I know I would miss the prairie.

At home my other two boys go about their business, feeding the chickens, playing frisbee with Ursula, maybe taking both dogs to the river for a walk, playing with a tiny kitten. It’s good to be here, and it will be good to get home.

Hike in Beauty; Discover Peace: Blessed Be.

Mary Lucille Hays lives in Birdland near White Heath. She hopes to bring some of the energy and color of the Pike Place Market in Seattle to the markets at home.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Mother of Invention

Birdland is quiet with my boys on the high seas. They’ll return from sailing with their grandparents next week. Meanwhile, I enjoy the solitude and keep busy with work and trying to maintain pockets of civility in an overgrown yard. My experiment with limiting my mowing to once a month has been a success. I’ve got sections of meadow, where the grasses have grown tall and gone to seed, allowing a variety of flowering plants to offer nectar to the pollinators. Close to the house, the grass is shorter, but I’m not sure why, since I was eagerly awaiting July 1st to begin my monthly mowing, and after a few circles around the house the mower broke. Again. The mower and I have a complicated relationship. I can coax it to mow for a little while, before it needs some kind of repair. At the moment, it sits stubbornly outside my window, challenging my orderly plan. This is fine, since I can now turn back to my neglected mulch mountain. I’ve used about half of the mulch, and it looks like it may last me the summer before I have to go get more. My friend and neighbor, Gayle, has been generous with her perennials, giving me buckets of Bee Balm, Clementine, Black Eyed Susans, and various Hostas. My islands and paths of flowers are growing, and I discovered that not only necessity, but laziness can be the mother of invention. I so appreciate Gayle’s floral gifts, but no sooner do I empty her buckets, than she is back with more. I could hardly keep up until I figured out a new way to plant Hostas. They need shade, so I built up a mound of mulch around the base of a Maple tree. Then, instead of digging holes, I just put each plant in a circle around the tree. I give them a little drink of water in the evenings if we haven’t had rain, and they never showed any signs of even transplanting distress. They’re even blooming, with their stalks of subtle, lavender bells. I put another circle around the Walnut tree, too, but Walnuts kill some plants, so we’ll see if the Walnut tree is hostile to Hostas.

The Day Lilies are fading and the explosion of yellow flowers hasn’t yet begun. I depend on the Queen Anne’s Lace, dried grasses and Rose of Sharon for my bouquets, with some Cattails and Curly Dock seed stalks for their deep brown accents. Chicory adds a particular blue that electrifies the green background in the wildflower bed, but the blues fade to a pale pink when you pick it. Chicory, with its toothy, pinked petals, is better in a bed than in a bouquet.

The heat and humidity brought me another discovery, born of more laziness. Alone in Birdland, “I eat when I’m hungry, and I drink when I’m dry.” I found myself the other night, deciding to cook rice for my supper at 9 in a kitchen dripping with stifling mugginess. I measured the rice and water into the pot and lit the fire under it. The heat and the hunger and tiredness made me a little loopy, and I stood sweating in the kitchen, trying to decide what to have with my rice. Suddenly, I changed my mind, settling on a cold salad instead. I turned off the rice just as the first bubbles had formed, turning to the fridge to pull out vegetables for my salad. I completely forgot about the rice, and left it on the stove all night. In the morning, I found a pot of perfectly cooked rice, almost as if the shoemaker’s elves had visited in the night to prepare my breakfast. Now, I would normally not leave my rice out all night, but I can see I don’t need to boil the rice for the 20 minutes or so I used to, heating up my kitchen and using up my propane. From now on, by royal decree, rice in Birdland shall be brought to a hard boil, and then turned off to steep until done.

Lisa from Tomahanous Farm brought my chicks to the Mahomet Market. The aviary has four new residents, mixie chicks—half Auracana and half Cochin. They are small and brown. I was hoping for mostly pullets, but one started crowing last week, and another is suspiciously red of comb and upright of tail. They are growing fast, and I hope I’ll get some eggs soon, but not too soon. It’s not good for pullets to mature too quickly. Will they lay the blue eggs of their Auracana heritage, or the tan eggs of the Cochin side? Maybe one of each?

Wait in Beauty; Guess in Peace; Blessed Be.

Mary Lucille Hays lives in Birdland near White Heath. You can find her at the Mahomet Market on Wednesdays and at the Steeple Gallery Coffeehouse on Second Saturdays. One reader wrote to ask what she sells. You can find her books, knitting and other fiber arts, photos, cards, and occasionally plants.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Zoo Wanderings

This week we’ve had a reprieve from hot and muggy. In Birdland it’s cool and delicious. The rain has held off too, so that I can once again do my favorite end of the day chore—watering the islands of flowers scattered around the yard. It’s my evening meditation and gives me a chance to notice what’s about to bloom, which bed needs weeding, what work needs to be continued tomorrow.

Last weekend we took a day trip up to Brookfield Zoo in Chicago. Ellis had a chance to participate in the Youth Conservation Congress, a gathering of 100 Illinois high school students to discuss environmental issues. I had a chance to walk around the zoo for a day. My feelings about zoos are complicated, partly colored by my childhood experiences. I remember a dark building with large pens with bars, a fence wisely keeping human visitors at a safe distance. In the corridor lined with these pens on each side, each one held a different species of big cat, pacing, pacing, pacing. It smelled like an intense cocktail of barnyard and litter box. Even as a young child I was aware of the concentrated tension these huge animals embodied. At random intervals one of the cats would let loose an agonized roar to echo through the tiled building. Outside the animals had yards, fortified with concrete and steel, but no more comforting or natural than the cages inside. No wonder the big cats paced. No wonder the elephants rocked back and forth in a dreary dance.

The scene at Brookfield Zoo this weekend was much more agreeable. If the habitats weren’t exactly wild, they were more natural and pleasant. Here the big cats had a spacious environment, with a variety of plants and terrain. An Amur Leopard lies on a rock, the sun filters through leaves to further dapple its coat; we can see for ourselves the wisdom of evolution. The big cat exhibit is called “Fragile Hunters,” and I spend a good hour walking quietly through the meandering path, viewing these animals from various angles and reading about the struggles of the predatory lifestyle. Predators get a bad rap. In Birdland I try to remember how necessary the coyotes are, even when I lose some chickens. The “Fragile Hunters” exhibit promoted the understanding of not only the important part predators play in a balanced ecosystem, but how difficult a hunter’s life is. I began to feel something like empathy for the majestic feline sunning himself. By the time I got to the rainforest habitats, I was beginning to understand zoos in a new way. The educational plaques asked us to notice the musky smells, interesting, but not overwhelming. Birds flew casually overhead, and we heard the chatter of various species. A wide variety of plants, some of them real, provided perches and climbing opportunities for the animals. Maybe a while back zoos were mostly curiosities or amusements for the public, the animals studied mostly by zoologists and biologists. In just a few generations, the mission has changed to educate the public on the diversity of species and the fragility of our world. In the text-rich walk from one environment to another we were invited to understand the importance of the interconnecting web of life on this planet, its delicate balance, and the impact of human activity. The Swamp exhibit took us to an abandoned sawmill, the remnants of a real-life ghost town that dried up after they had cut all the Cypress trees. We view Packrats, Black Widow Spiders, and other wildlife that moves in when people move out. We read about the sad history of the damaged swamp, discover ways we can help slow this destruction, for example, not purchasing that fancy red Cypress mulch. (I never do, mostly because it is expensive and comes in plastic bags. Also I can fill the bed of my truck with mulch from the Urbana Landscape Recycling Center for the price of a few of those bags. Still I was glad to discover the connection between our purchasing choices and the destruction of a vibrant ecosystem.)

As I said, my feelings about zoos are complex. As natural as these environments may look, they are not natural, but neither is Birdland. Brookfield Zoo sends important messages about the dangers of plastic in the Oceans, yet they still have vestiges of the zoos of my childhood—in nearly every section one of those Mold-O-Rama machines, that will press out a plastic dinosaur as you watch for a few coins. Where were the educational signs describing the impact of those? I think the modern zoo’s mission to educate and preserve justifies the keeping of animals, but we always have room for improvement, don’t we?

Advance in Beauty; Progress in Peace; Blessed Be.

Mary Lucille Hays lives in Birdland near White Heath. She is interested in the complexities of life.