Wednesday, June 29, 2011


YESTERDAY'S STORM BLEW IN some lovely, cool weather and I spent the morning in the yard, doing chores I should have done months ago, namely deadheading the Peonies and Sedum. The Sedum should have been deadheaded last fall, but the flowers turned a rusty brown as they dried and they looked so pretty that I left them there all winter. They stood out bravely against the snow even after the vegetative parts of the plants had died back and disappeared, but now, they are grey stalks amidst the succulent green leaves, and it's time for them to go. As I crawl along my path, weeding and trimming, I notice that someone has been making a snack of the lush buds. Probably deer, but it could be Ursula. My dog is mostly good, but she has the bad trait of stealing what I want for myself: tender spears of asparagus, low hanging grapes, fuzzy, green quince. I'll be lucky to get any Sedum flowers at all. I'll use my grandmother Nanny's trick of sprinkling cayenne pepper in the garden to deter illicit snacking.

Last night's storm also deterred some from the Solstice Bonfire at the Kalyx Center. It rained some here, but I hear it was far more blusterous in Town. By 7 only a few people had arrived. I had orders from Ellis, who had band until 8:30, to find out whether the bonfire would be rained out. My youngest likes potlucks, but the conflagration was the real attraction. The potluck would carry on in the barn, rain or shine, and I have great faith in Bill's pyrotechnic skills, but even Bill can only do so much with wet wood. The storm had passed, bringing a delicious coolness to the barn (with the help of the new ceiling fans Bill had installed). The sky outside was showing a lovely blue. “I hope you like small gatherings,” Bill said, and we nibbled on the small feast, so far mostly my bread and Margaret’s crackers and cheese. Pretty soon Andy showed up with a pasta dish and convinced Margaret to go home for her dulcimer, so she could treat us to a reprisal of her “rock star” concert. (While she was gone, Andy explained that she had played her music on stage at a dulcimer convention.) Margaret’s voice is like warm honey, and the songs she writes are lovely. I sat mesmerized as she played one about a surprise visit from an old friend that made me want to show up unannounced on her doorstep. As the sky cleared, more people drifted in, adding dishes to the table. When Andy's neighbor, Carolyn, showed up I discovered that Andy's neighbor is my chicken lady from the Monticello Farmers' Market. (Actually, she once asked me if I was “the chicken lady” too, and when we see each other at the market we always talk chickens.) Carolyn added substantially to the feast with her home-made rolls so round and plump I thought at first she was carrying was a bowl of peaches. She brought a crock pot of Sloppy Joes and butter in a glass dish and strawberry jam dated a few weeks ago, so we could eat our rolls two ways—delicious!

More people, more music, more food threaded through the evening. Ellis brought a friend after assurances that Bill would light the fire. The barn filled with an inter-generational crowd, and people mingled over cobbler and salad and quiche and roasted chicken. I met a man from South Africa and a woman from down the road. Dusk fell and I shamelessly asked Bill to ignite the fire so I could get home before dawn without disappointing my bonfire-loving son. As always, the carefully constructed brush pile was impressive, and Bill asked for dedications for the fire. One man dedicated the fire to his wooden flute, and Bill dedicated it to Central America. The fire caught slowly from the center, but soon burned a chimney up the center of the pile, and bright sparks flew up into the dark night like shooting stars. The flute accompanied the kindling of the fire, slowly and lightly at first, and then faster, more energetic, the music and the flautist dancing with the growing flames. Friends gathered and danced and circled the big fire, celebrating the birth of summer. Bill's beautiful daughters and their friends sang “Country Roads” in a lovely harmony. I joined in very quietly. We stayed until the fire burned past the volcanic stage, the main structure of brush burned away and fallen to glowing logs. I imagine there were s'mores and more music, dancing and talking late into the night. Driving home I thought about this day, the longest in the year, and how it holds the seeds of the beginning of the journey toward winter.

Burn in Beauty; Celebrate Peace; Blessed Be.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

An Act of Grace

IN BIRDLAND LAST WEEK'S HEAVY STORM BLEW OUT our internet, and just this morning I finally convinced technical support that they do, in fact, need to send someone out to climb our roof and fix the dish. It took three hour-long calls before they would believe me, just an old Prairie woman.I said I'd climb the roof myself and send a photo of the naked workings of the receiver, its poor guts hanging out, open to the wind and rain, after the storm blew the cover clean off. They said “That won't be necessary, ma’am.” I think they could hear the irritation rising in my voice.

In some ways it seems like an act of grace, this storm that has allowed me to see how my life has become enmeshed with the internet. Yes, in the summer, I do all of my teaching online, so it has been inconvenient to drive to town in order to work. I spend more time and money in the coffee shop, and have memorized the library's hours. I am using much more gas than I'd like to. On the other hand, it has switched up my day in a kind of pleasant way. Instead of spending my mornings online, I'm out in the yard while it's cool, or sometimes inside, continuing my progress on ridding out the closets. This morning I did the pantry closet, finished before noon. I'll have to go to town soon, to get my teaching done, but it already feels like I've accomplished a full day's work. I know I'll have a long list of emails to answer when I get there, but for now I'm enjoying the symphony of the wind, frogs, and various birds, with the undertone of cicadas.

 The color wheel has turned around again to orange, and the Day Lilies are beginning to bloom. Even this late in the year we are one step behind the town's fashions in our blooming. I've been seeing Yucca bloom in yards and along sidewalks, white bells dancing sweetly in the breeze. Here, they have just begun to stretch out from their shoots. Last week they were like giant asparagus spears, today, they are empty candelabra. I walk out to my little path to the barn and discover that the Hollyhocks I planted last year are blooming, bright pink to match the purple flower that may be Larkspur, growing from a bulb I planted on the same path. In the fields, the beans are up in curving, velvety rows, and further out, the wind ruffles the corn, creating shiny ripples. I think again about the idea I had while my sister and I were walking the labyrinth yesterday, to use my week-wacker to cut a labyrinth, or at least a spiral path of some sort, in the tall grass. I had stopped mowing several areas of the yard, and now in the evenings the fireflies sparkle and dance just like they did when I was a child. I think that cutting just a pattern would leave enough of the meadow intact so that the fireflies would still have their shelter.
This morning I mowed a section of the yard, and then weeded the Iris border that almost completely encircles the house. The Irises are thick enough that the weeds were mostly rogue mulberry trees, that I cut out every year. I also cut the spent stems of Iris. The border looks much neater now. The weeding is hard on my knees, but the mowing gives me exercise, and a chance to help Ursula run off some of her energy early in the day. She brings me her frisbee and I throw it over and over. Each time she faithfully retrieves it and drops it in front of the mower, tail wagging, looking hopefully up at me. I'm so much enjoying my walk around the yard that an idea begins to form. What if I declare one day a week no-internet-day? Sometimes we need a little break from something just to understand how it affects us.

Since I'm not tied down to the internet signal now, I sit outside under a canopy of maples writing my letter. If we'd had internet today, I wouldn't be sitting here, with my glass of iced tea, listening to the rise and swell of the summer songs. I wouldn't see the tiny, yellow toadstool that sprouted from the mulch. I wouldn't have this view of my little pot of geraniums against a background of bean field through the bottom of a glass.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011


IN BIRDLAND THE CICADAS SING their buzz-saw songs. Ode to an Outboard Motor is my favorite. I remember a cicada visitation a long time ago. This year's emergence may even be the same clan. I'll have to do the math. My niece and nephew (now 19 and 20) were small and they were on an overnight visit to the farm. It was the same visit when I bribed them with the promise of waffles for breakfast to get through the entire night without crying for their mama. Instead of waking every hour or so to lull them back to sleep with reassurances that they'd see my sister in the morning, I woke to small voices calling into my bedroom “Aunt Mary? Aunt Mary! We didn't cry!” Monica was holding her brother's hand and Justin looked hopefully up at me. It was still dark, but I was so grateful for the uninterrupted sleep. What would you do? I jumped out of bed and fixed them waffles. After breakfast I sent them outside and they came running back to show me the bug they had found. It was the size of Monica's thumb, white with maraschino cherry red eyes. It looked like a model of a cicada carved delicately out of cream cheese. It wasn't moving much. I had never seen anything like it.

We three went out to investigate and found them all over the yard, climbing out of little holes in the earth. I had never seen a cicada commencement, and the rest of the morning we watched while they kept ascending from their quiet, underground chambers. Over the next few hours they gained color and voice, and the use of their wings, and the three of us left whatever mundane activities I had planned to wander around the yard and wonder at the sheer number and volume of their songs. I haven't witnessed this magical event since then, either. This year by the time I noticed the cicadas, they were already on the wing. Constellations of perfectly round holes in the dry earth give witness to their origin. It's something, isn't it, to be buried for so long, like Rip Van Winkle, not knowing what you will find when you come out? I wonder how deeply they burrow and what might disturb their rest. Will new subdivisions destroy whole colonies? I imagine the plowing in the fields displaced whole populations long ago. I don't know if my small diggings in the yard bother them. I hope not too much.
Yesterday the cicadas' song provided background music to my visit with my high school friend, Valerie from California. Although it was hot, it was lovely to sit under the umbrella at my little picnic table, sipping iced tea and catching up. She told me about her travels and her California home, and I showed her the beginnings of my summer project: to visit each corner of my house one by one, and give it a thorough cleaning and “ridding out.” (Our friend, Nancy, once told me that her grandfather used the term “rid out” to mean getting getting rid of things you don't need, as in “rid out the drawers.”) I began with my grandfather's tool shelf, which now lives in my kitchen and holds books and curiosities. I pulled it from the alcove Michael had built around it so many years ago to find great clots of dust and cobwebs. I also found 26 cents and a plastic green marble-shaped gremlin. How satisfying to vacuum back there, to rub orange oil into the baseboards behind it, even though they'll be hidden til next time I rid out that kitchen corner. The shelf has chipped and crackled sea-green paint, and I thought about my grandfather who built it. I made myself part with several of the books and a box of trinkets. Mostly the shelf is a museum to artifacts we've found in the yard: a headless, armless china doll, spoons, a brass bell, a tin whistle encrusted with corrosion. It is good, once a year to revisit all the corners of my life, to contemplate what buoys me up and what drags me down.

Cherish Beauty; Contemplate Peace; Blessed Be.

Saturday, June 4, 2011


THIS WEEK IN BIRDLAND I got to realize how spoiled I am. First the floods. I was happily digging into some projects in the back of the house, when Ellis popped in. My youngest was on his way to an overnight visit, and went to the basement to grab some clothes from the drier. That’s when he alerted me to the basement’s flooding. I ran down to see about 2 ½ inches of water. Luckily he found it before it got too deep, and I quickly surmised that it was a sump pump malfunction. I got the sump going again and the floods receded, but that adventure reminded me that I’d better check the well pit. In the spring when we get a lot of flooding, the well pit that houses the workings of our pump gets full of water. If the water level comes up to the pressure switch, it will short out, and that’s an expensive repair. It’s easy to forget to check the well pit. Since I have to lift a 70-pound cement plug to check it, it’s easy to put it off even when I do remember.

Sure enough, the well pit was full of water, only a few inches below the pressure switch. I ran to get the spare sump pump, but it was a top-heavy pedestal pump and when I tried to lower it into the water, it would tip, wetting the motor and shorting out the connection. By then, Ellis had taken off for his visit and I was alone.
Picture a plump, middle-aged woman trying to empty a good-sized pit with a bucket on a rope. 
With all the rain we’d had, I was afraid the water was still rising. It was still flowing like a river through the grass waterway, and more rain was on the way. I pulled out gallon after gallon, and then went to town to buy a new submersible pump. My middle boy, Dylan, came back with me from town to help and we pumped out the pit, thinking we’d solved the problem.  

 Next morning I went out to check and found it filling up again, which was strange since it had stopped raining, and the floodwaters in the fields had receded. I lowered my new, expensive submersible pump into the water and pumped it out again. When the water got low enough, I saw the problem: a leak in the ancient pipes leading from the well to the pressure tanks.  Then the drought: I called my aunts next door, and warned them that we had to turn off the well. We each filled pitchers to get us through until the water could be turned on again. Of course this happens on Memorial Day. In the morning I got a hold of Perry, who would come out later, although he already had a full day of work  scheduled.
"Don't it always seem to go, that you don't know what you've got till it's gone? Living without running water for a little while is not big deal. Dishes and laundry pile up, you can’t wash your hands properly, and you think that all you want to drink is some cold water. A nice hot shower sounds pretty good, too. These little inconveniences gave me a chance to reflect on the 1.3 billion people who don’t have clean, safe water to drink, the 2.5 billion who don’t have access to sanitation. I begin to see washing my hands as a luxury, and I ponder my connection to these people. Am I using more of my share? Perhaps not in my household usage (though I can certainly revisit ways to conserve at home), but Tara Lohan tells us in her Alternet article, “Our Drinkable Water Supply Is Vanishing” that 70% of the world’s water usage is agricultural. Is there a connection between that number and the half gallon packs of plump strawberries I see at the grocery store? Are they a product of irrigation? How many gallons of water are pumped to produce a gallon of strawberries?
I ponder my connection.

Perry arrived around dinnertime, and assured me he would eat later. He strapped a light to his head like a miner and descended into the well pit. He diagnosed the problem and measured the pipe for the correct fittings. It was dark when he finished. He’d return the next day and restore our running water. We would go another day with the bucket flush. We would have another day to ponder our connection to this element that is vital to our communities and our lives, another day to be grateful for small things we take for granted, like hand washing, and friendly professionals who go without their supper to attend to our needs.

Appreciate Beauty; Repair Peace: Blessed Be.