Thursday, November 25, 2010

Last Laundry

For the past few weeks in Birdland, hanging laundry has been a little chillier, a little riskier. It takes a little longer to dry, and sometimes isn't dry even as the sun sets. I have to gauge the probability of overnight rain, decide whether to leave the laundry up or take it down to finish in the drier. So far, I've opted for leaving it up, and always seem to luck out.

Hanging laundry in November is quite different from hanging laundry in August. First, let me explain. I love doing laundry. It's one of my many quirks. I don't understand people who think it's a chore. It's easy and satisfying. I don't have to think, just keep in the rhythm of hanging and folding, so my mind is free to wander. It takes some time, but the job has natural built-in breaks to it. The rhythm of the task encourages a quiet meditation, and I find satisfaction in folding the familiar clothes, now clean and soft, and ready to wear another day. Creating order from a pile of dirty clothes suits me.

Hanging the laundry takes me outside to enjoy the nice day—the breeze and the sun. But in November it begins to get tricky. I wea
r a heavy sweater, but I can’t keep my fingers warm. This makes it both more difficult to hurry, and more important to finish quickly. Laundry in November holds a little tinge of sadness. Winter seems to be late this year, yet we know it is coming. The gray skies hold snow, and the evenings come early. In the summer I can wash three cycles of clothes and have them dry and folded before supper. In November, I have to rush to finish even one load. As I struggle to hurry with the wet clothes, the late autumn air cools them. My damp fingers pull in the chill, and soon they are numb and aching, both at the same time. Now my fingers are clumsy, and my mind is no longer free to wander. Now I am wondering if this is the last laundry I will hang on the line. Will winter stop teasing us and settle in seriously now? Will the blizzards come, the temperature drop? Will my laundry freeze on the line into stiff cardboard cut-outs of shirts and pants? Will I be dispatched to the drier until Spring?

This week my laundry luck ran out. I left a batch of still damp clothes on the line one evening, and it rained for two days. Today the sun has returned, but some of the clothes are streaked with mud, blown across the yard from the field, I suppose. I’ll have to take it down to rewash. I wander around the yard, checking on things I should have taken care of before the frost. A basket of weeds sits in the middle of my half-weeded path; the rain barrel is full of ice, the sillcock frozen shut, so I can’t even open it in case of a thaw. I’ll need to weatherize the aviary outlets and plug in the lights and winter water dishes. All this would have been easier to do before the freeze hit, but every year I get lulled in to thinking Autumn will last forever, or at least one more day.

Now that Winter has come, I’ll turn my attention inward. I’ll work on interior, warm projects—cleaning out closets and painting them, knitting, writing, fixing the thermostat. I’ll take brisk walks with the dog, collecting stones for my spiral herb garden, but I’ll just leave these in a pile until Spring. I’ll make plans, bake bread, sing songs. I’ll clean the basement. I’ll plant seeds for Spring.

Walk in Beauty; Work in Peace: Blessed Be.

Mary Lucille Hays lives in Birdland near White Heath. She is interested in cycles, common things, and her own back yard.

Monday, November 22, 2010


In Birdland we are still teetering on the edge of Autumn. Some days seem to want to spill over into Winter like a sudden slide down a snowy hill, and I regret not digging my mittens out of the closet before leaving for work. But no snow in Birdland, yet. Just when I thought apple picking season was over, I visited one of the public trees on my route and picked nearly a bushel. The little bites of frost we've had so far seem to have done these apples good. They are sweeter than before, and still crisp. This tree is badly in need of pruning. Next time I visit, I'll bring a pruning saw. Meanwhile, back in Birdland I'll take advantage of the weather--cool, but still nice--to continue the job my friend, Brian, helped me begin last year--pruning my own long-neglected fruit trees.

Pruning seems to be a theme for my life right now as I clean out closets and rooms with the goal of filling boxes to donate to Willow Tree or Goodwill. I look at all I've accumulated over the years and realize that this stuff might do someone else some good, but the only thing it's doing for me is adding clutter to my closets and my life. I need to prune deadwood and growth that's gotten out of hand, but some things need to be nipped in the bud—cut off before they even begin to grow.

We'll cut our Christmas tree this weekend. That, and all this pruning talk has me thinking about my plans for Christmas shopping. I never was one for the Black Friday frenzy. They can Deck the Malls all they want, but I won't be there. Instead, I am planning a buy nothing Christmas. My list will consist only of things I make, things I buy second-hand, consumable gifts (baked goods, candles, special soaps, lotions) things people would need to buy anyway (school supplies, socks, underwear--sorry kids), or virtual gifts, like a Heifer donation of a hive of honeybees or a flock of chicks. In this way, my Christmas list doesn’t clutter my conscience, and I don’t contribute to anybody’s closet clutter. Well, my handmade gifts might end up in someone’s closet, but I’ll try to make them useful, consumable, recyclable, or at least biodegradable.

There. Making that decision has me feeling better already. I have nipped that little bud of guilt that always accompanies my plans for holiday shopping. What is the point of it, anyway? To let our loved ones know we love them? I think a modest, but colorful knitted dishcloth could do that, a plate of cookies, a little jar of pear butter. Is the point of holiday shopping to drive our economy by fueling jobs where people make lots of plastic stuff that travels from factory to store shelf to shopping cart to a brief stay under the Christmas tree to closet shelf to landfill? No thanks. I’d rather send a hive of honeybees somewhere out into the world to pollinate the flowers and give honey to fund some child’s education. Black Friday may get Wall Street excited, but this year, I’m opting out. is a site maintained by some Mennonites in Canada. It encourages discussion about the issues surrounding gift giving and consumerism and religion. It has downloadable music, posters, a comic book, study kits, printable coupons (to give instead of store-bought gifts), and even a kit for putting on your own musical. The comic has inspired a lot of spirited discussion from diverse perspectives.

Heifer International is a charity that grants not money, but gifts of livestock or crops that can grow and multiply on their own to enrich a whole village. I’m partial to honeybees, since I worry for their welfare, and the devastation of our planet if bee populations continue to decline. The Heifer website gives the example of one hive enriching not only one family (who would benefit by the bees’ gift of honey to eat and sell, and pollination of their crops) but a whole village. Bees fly right over fences, so one hive would also pollinate crops on neighboring farms. According to Heifer, “Placed strategically, beehives can as much as double some fruit and vegetable yields.” In fact, while they’re at it, the bees would also help maintain botanic diversity of any wild flowering plants, helping to restore health to an ecosystem.

As the winter approaches and the trees sink into sleep, I’ll prune them for health and beauty. I’ll also make judicious cuts to my pile of possessions, and nip in the bud the kind of stifling growth that threatens my clarity and peace.

Prune in Beauty; Opt in Peace; Blessed Be.

Mary Lucille Hays lives in Birdland near White Heath. She still doesn’t have a beehive, so she will pollinate vicariously through Heifer International and send bees out somewhere into the world. She still has kittens to give away.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

A Hard Nut to Crack

What’s going on with the weather? Not that I’m complaining, but shouldn’t we be turning up our collars and digging mittens out of the closet? I wore a sweater over my turtleneck yesterday, and was over warm all day. The sky has been stunningly blue, and the leaves in the yard are toasting to a crispy brown. The trees are more than half bare, but I’m waiting for the last leaves to fall before I climb the ladder to clear them from the gutters. In town the leaves make new patterns of color and texture above and below, but I’m on the lookout for walnuts.

For years I’ve been thinking about buying a walnut cracker. We have plenty of Black Walnuts in the woods, and the lone Walnut tree in the yard had finally, after twenty years started dropping nuts, which mostly fall in the driveway and get run over. Juglans nigra, or Black Walnuts may be the hardest nuts to crack. They begin like green leathery peaches, with a fresh, pungent smell. If you try to remove the husk, your fingers will be stained like an auto mechanic’s for weeks. Wait, and the husk will decay, the green turning to a deep, dark brown—almost black. It is much easier to remove then, but you still have stained fingers to contend with, and you still have to shell them. You can heat them up and hit them with a hammer on a flat rock, but it’s difficult to control the crack, and the shells fly, while the nutmeats get smashed—that is, if the nut opens. Every fall I would look for nutcrackers on the internet, but any that claim to handle Black Walnuts are pretty pricey. A few years ago I bought a used one online for about $15, but it was disappointing. It could handle J. nigra’s cousin, Carya ovata, the smaller, slightly less dense nut of the Shagbark Hickory, but just barely, and after standing at the table cracking nuts one evening for about an hour, I had a backache for a week. The gallon jar of the Hickory nuts I gathered stayed on my kitchen shelf for three years, and the nutcracker stayed in its box in my pantry.

Again this year I searched for walnut crackers, and finally did the math to realize that even if I have to shell out (oops) $75 dollars for a nutcracker, it will pay for itself pretty quickly since I buy Walnuts for $10+ a pound. I mean, I always knew cracking my own walnuts would be a good deal, but even so, making that kind of purchase is hard. Well, this year I found a new nutcracker I hadn’t seen before for more like $50. I impulsively ordered it, and it arrived a few days later. It is cleanly mounted on piece of finished wood, and has fittings to accommodate Walnuts and smaller nuts, like Hickories or Filberts. With gears and springs it looks like a torture device from a tool and die shop. It has a lever, and you can adjust the pressure by turning screws or selecting specific gears. Luckily, before I used it I read an online review which suggested covering the nut with a towel. Even though the lever gives you great control, the nut often explodes under the pressure. I quickly used up all the Walnuts I could find in my front yard, and then switched to the three year old Hickories. The Walnuts mostly came out in halves, but even when I had to pick them from the shells, they came out in large pieces, and I filled a bowl quickly with fresh and free nutmeats. Hickory nuts are another story. I was happy to find them tasting very fresh—the shells do a good job of protecting them—but they are just that much smaller than Walnuts. They seem like half the size, but it took maybe four times longer to fill my little bowl with the sweet Hickory nutmeats. Hickories have a more Maple-y flavor than Walnuts, kind of like Pecans. I like them even better than Walnuts, and they are almost worth the extra trouble. I keep my eyes open for both kinds of trees. I spot a Walnut tree on my walk to work, and on the way back to the car, I bring a bag to fill. The squirrels and I haggle over portion, and we all leave with our share of the gift from the trees.

Shell out Beauty; Share in Peace; Blessed Be.

Mary Lucille Hays lives in Birdland near White Heath. She is interested in the gifts all around and in her own back yard. Her favorite kitten is named Mink, but she would part with her if someone promised to give her a good home. Ditto for her brothers and sisters: Pumpkin Sam, Ruby Pearl, Quiver, Tortiebelle, and Toby.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Wall of Gratitude

In Birdland the wood smoke and the slight chill help us welcome the early evenings and late mornings. We keep warm with brisk walking, sweaters, extra socks, hot tea, porridge (we recently discovered steel cut oats with warm pear butter), and, of course, invigorating chores. Summer rhythms are winding down and harvest season is pretty much over (but for a few lingering apples and pears that need peeling) so I turn my attention to more structural employment: collecting stones for my spiral herb garden and my wall of gratitude. The spiral already has a beginning, like a big snail next to my path, and I imagine it will take me all winter to finish it, but the wall of gratitude is just at the planning stages. Actually, I have no idea how to build a stone wall; I need to do some research. But I do know that I want a tangible reminder in my yard of the kindness of friends and strangers.

Writing these letters has surprised me in many ways. Sometimes it’s a funny, one-way correspondence. I’ll run into people I haven’t seen in a while, maybe years, and they know all about what I’ve been up to, while I know nothing of their adventures. I’m continually surprised when I begin to tell a story, only to be interrupted by, “I know! I read about that.” If I’m lucky, they’ll have time to give me news, but often these exchanges are limited by the general busyness of our lives. We’ve both got groceries to get, other errands to do, kids to drop off or pick up. We part, but the brief exchange endows the rest of my day with a soft glow.

I get surprised another way, too—by hearing from complete strangers through letters or email. Sometimes they want to offer a recipe or a book recommendation, sometimes the news of a connection with my family, sometimes just to tell me about a flock of chickens their grandparents kept, or about their family of Shih Tzus. I’ve heard from readers with stories of my grandparents and great grandparents, and I treasure these connections. Sometimes readers even offer tangible gifts, and I’ve been blessed with yarn and needles from Sue, a fellow knitter; Irises, Day Lilies, Coreopsis and green tomatoes from Nancy and Larry, fellow gardeners with plants to spare after their landscaping project; books for my son about sailing, and t-shirt scraps for making rugs from Edwina; and offers of help with chores from various friends, old and new. Our neighbors, Jim and Sean dig us out of the drifts in the winter. A picnic table and umbrella from Dave and Pam make a focal point for the east side of the house, and a semi-circle of Sedum from Gayle defines the space, while Gayle’s husband stacks firewood he brought us. I can’t imagine what I’ve done to deserve these gifts, but I value these glittering links to my community. And isn’t that what community really is? Sharing our gifts, tangible and spiritual with each other? I feel lucky to be part of such a vibrant neighborhood—both geographic and virtual. When people share these gifts with me, I feel inspired to find new ways to share. I can never really repay these friends, but keeping a balance sheet is not what community is about. Instead I try to think of ways to keep community flowing by passing on gifts of my own. Who in my life might like a little jar of apple butter? A loaf of bread? A visit on a chilly day? A story? A smile? A letter? A card? A kitten? (A really cute one at that. Come on, you know you want one.) Come to think of it, if I were keeping a balance sheet, I’d be in the red. I’d better get busy.

Share in Beauty: Pass on Peace: Blessed Be.

Mary Lucille Hays lives in Birdland near White Heath. She is interested in community and social justice, and her own back yard. Her basement kittens are seeking new homes.

Autumn Winds

In Birdland we’ve had mild weather for so long that we’ve almost forgotten that winter is coming. We haven’t turned on the furnace yet, but this morning I put on two sweaters and then carried in firewood for the season’s first fire. The coming winter begins a whole new arrangement, and the wood stove, which acts as a plant stand all summer needs cleaning. The plants must find a new home. As I move them to the table I remember that the stovetop can be my slow cooker for the apple and pear butter for the final fruit of the season. Life has been so full since last winter that I’ve almost forgotten how much I love cooking soups and stews on the top of the woodstove, and the memory comes back in snatches, like a pleasant dream. The fire has caught now, lighting the glass in the door cheerfully, and I fill the kettle for tea and place it on top of the stove. It will take a while to boil there, startling me with its whistle after I’ve long forgotten my tea, but then I will have hot water for tea all morning and into the afternoon.

The woodpile is full, thanks to our neighbor, Tom, who came last week with a trailer full of firewood, cut to the size of our stove. We are lucky to have such caring friends. I heard Ursula bark and went out to find Tom at the woodpile. Together we stacked the logs, and then I went inside for a little jar of apple butter—small thanks for a huge favor, but I hope his family enjoys it. Winter can be long and lonely and cold, but we get by with help from our friends.

The wind has hit us heavily this week—tipping over my picnic table and tumbling my Adirondack chair across the yard. The wind keeps us awake at night, but makes Ursula’s crocheted discs sail twice as far, and she joyfully races into the field after them, leaping to catch them on the fly. It blows my laundry off of the line and my mail out of the box. The wind blows the leaves off the trees and around the yard, and sometimes into the next county. Last week I built a new mulch bin out of wooden pallets. It is a three-sided framework to pile leaves and sticks, and it took only about five minutes to screw together. I had to reverse it when I realized I had set it up facing east so that the western wind would blow the leaves right out. I turned it around, and now the wind will blow leaves into the bin. We put two wheelbarrow loads into the bin and stomped them down. We could probably fill six more bins with the leaves in our yard, but the point isn’t really to rid the yard of leaves. The wind will do that. Instead, I’m thinking of the rich, dark leaf mulch we’ll have for the garden in the spring.

The radio warns of frost tonight, and I’ll go to the garden and pull last of the little yellow pear tomatoes off the vine, and pick up any apples and pears that have fallen since yesterday. I’ll cut the tomato vines to hang in the basement; the remaining green tomatoes will slowly ripen. Then I’ll walk down the road and hunt for yesterday’s mail, thinking about the ripe but slightly wrinkled tomatoes we’ll have for our winter salad to remind us of the last sunny days of autumn.

Blow in Beauty; Gather Peace; Blessed Be.

Mary Lucille Hays lives in Birdland near White Heath. She is interested in the change of seasons and community. She has kittens ready for adoption.