Saturday, August 27, 2011


 BOTH OF MY DOGS LOVE A WALK, but our evening route is too long for Isis, so Ursula and I have to sneak away. In Birdland, our walks down the grass waterway—a wide, green ribbon of short grass curving between the cornfields—give me a chance to see how dramatically the drought has affected the countryside here.
 Of course, this time of year the corn is always drying out, green fading to brown, but the ears are usually swollen, showing golden kernels where the husk is pulled back by wind or nibbled on by deer. Now forlorn ears hang from the stalks, showing gap-toothed through the brown paper of their wrappers. Some years are like that, and it makes me think of other agricultural systems, like Community Supported Agriculture, where the risk of a low harvest is shared across the community. The grass is still showing some green but any barren ground has cracks wider than I’ve ever seen them—two and three inches across, and so deep that I think I could drop a penny down and hear it hiss when it hits the earth’s molten core. The rain we got last week would have been enough in normal times, but it didn’t even close up the cracks, just rounded off the edges at the surface. They still run deep into the dark earth.
 The wheel of the year has turned again so that we get respite from the heat in the mornings and evenings, but midday is still hot. School has started, and my walking takes a different rhythm, providing food for thought. City walking takes me through a sequence of deliberation that I began many years ago, when I first started parking my car off campus to enjoy easier parking and a brisk walk to my office. My walks take me through various scenes and I’ve witnessed changes in the landscape, some for the better, some for the worse. Some days my route winds through some lovely, curving walkways away from traffic and buffered by natural plantings and waterways. Other days I walk through neighborhoods where more and more I see front lawns dedicated to native plants rather than tightly mowed grass. Once last week I came upon a yard fencing in a flock of Rhode Island Red chickens and Buff Orpington Ducks, right there in town. The poultry was happily grazing, oblivious to the people on the sidewalks. Only a soft, satisfied clucking brought my gaze to their yard. We wouldn’t have seen this ten years ago. All this is a pleasant progression for my decade of walks.

 On the other hand, I see more and more litter in the streets of Campus Town. I see more cans for recycling, but move in day brings larger and larger piles of discarded furniture at apartment complexes. One truck-sized dumpster sat next to an empty building overflowing with mattresses, cushion-less sofas, lounge chairs, appliances. Another pile sat next to it, even bigger than the dumpster and I wonder where it all came from and where it will go. We have programs for recycling and re-using and sharing the paraphernalia of our transitory existence—the web community, Freecyle, and the University Y’s Dump and Run program come to mind—and yet we seem to generate more and more rubbish every year. I wonder if the basic problem is a disengagement between what we buy and what happens to it when it is no longer useful to us. When we acquire a new toy, gadget, furnishing, do we pause for a moment to consider the cradle to grave impact our purchase will have? Do we consider the cost of disposal (not just our monetary cost, but the cost to the community of filling the landfill or abandoning things in an empty lot)?

 My walks meander through different topics and last night I found myself talking to my sister on the phone. She was on the West Coast, I was walking in the dark toward the grass waterway, looking up at the stars. It was the clearest night I’ve seen in awhile, the waning crescent of the moon nowhere to be seen, the Milky Way splashed across the sky in a broad spattering brushstroke. As we were saying our goodbyes I said, “Wait, I have to tell you about the stars. The Milky Way is just beautiful tonight.” She said, “That’s wild. It’s still daylight here.” We chuckled together about this for a moment, I under my starry, starry night, and my sister watching the golden sun sink into the peaceful ocean. Then Ursula and I headed toward home down the dark waterway.

 Walk in Beauty; Wonder in Peace; Blessed Be

Sunday, August 21, 2011


TODAY BIRDLAND IS PLEASANTLY OVERCAST. The sun winks through grey cloud cover once in awhile. I stepped out to grab the laundry off the line and saw constellations of dark raindrops in the dust. But when I reached the laundry, it was no more damp than this morning's dew had left it. (Yes, I left it out all night. Again.) We got rain last week, but the parched earth swallowed it up and asks for more. I've always liked this kind of sky once in awhile. It feels a bit like the protective feeling you get walking under an umbrella, or sitting in a tent listening to the gentle rhythm of raindrops. I'm hoping that gentle rhythm will come soon. I rigged up a hopeful mini-rainbarrel—the bucket from an old dehumidifier under the downspout to siphon water through a garden hose into my little pond, which is going dry.
 The Ghost Lilies, which have been reticent this summer—only a few blooming in stunted fashion here and there—had a party after last week's rain. They have popped up from all their secret spots, soft pink clusters of trumpets calling the bees with their gentle fragrance. They remind me that it's time to indulge my fascination with them—the ultimate reminder of invisible, subterranean forces that eventually blossom. I hope you are not tired of hearing about Ghost Lilies by now, because I'm not sure I'll ever be through with them.

Do you remember them? They have many names, and I've collected a few new to me in the past couple of years: Magic Lilies, Surprise Lilies, Vacation Lilies, Resurrection Lilies, Naked Ladies. They are like pale pink Amaryllis, emerging in the spring as a nubbin the size of your thumb—a tight bundle of leaves lined up like the pages of a tiny, green book. Then they grow like Jack's beanstalk, inches per hour, until they are a like a giant spray of leaves of grass, up to your knees. Except for their growth rate, they are unremarkable, just naked leaves that bravely collect sunshine for a few weeks, then, as suddenly as they came, they collapse in a yellowed heap and disappear until you see no trace, even of the wilted leaves.

We go about our summer business—weeding the garden, repairing the chicken coop, driving kids to soccer practice and swimming pools, paying bills, working, peeling peaches, trying to keep cool—and forget all about those green leaves. Then one day, when you least expect it, you walk out to the chicken coop with a scoop of food in each hand and there comes the first Ghost Lily of the summer. It wasn't there yesterday, and now it is. No leaves, only a crisp stalk with a tight cluster of elegant, long buds, like fingers. Tomorrow they will be twice as tall, and open into pink bells, long slender stamens topped with anthers full of golden pollen. One long pistil waits for the bee. Tomorrow, more stalks with more buds will follow, but look deep into the blossom. Down in the center of the bell the pink fades to a bright yellow, as if a golden light is shining up the stalk with fiber optics. And who's to say it isn't? Do we know what goes on deep in the earth in that secret bulb below? Something magical and transformative. I once dug a bunch of Ghost Lilies to spread around the yard and was surprised at how deeply I had to dig to find the bulbs. More than a foot. I was surprised at how crisp and bright the bulbs were, all the way through. (I had cut some with my shovel.)

Now play the part of the bee. Put your nose right into the bouquet and breathe in. The flower will give you a gift of fragrance and dust your nose with golden pollen. Let's sing a song of gratitude to the flower, the bee, the darkness and the light. Each part of the cycle is important, especially, perhaps, the quiet, dark, underground part. Gathering thoughts, sunshine, beauty, fragrance, creativity—ready to emerge when you least expect it.

Gather Beauty; Inhale Peace; Blessed Be.

Monday, August 15, 2011


IN BIRDLAND, WE HAVE A RESPITE FROM THE HEAT, but not the drought. I'm jealous of the rain that  Champaign had the other day, where it “poured.” I can hear my grandmother's voice complaining that “rain on pavement never did anybody any good.” Here we haven't had a drop for weeks and the yard is dusty. The flowers that have it in them to bloom anyway are shy, with spare, small blossoms, their leaves drooping.  Ghost Lilies tentatively emerge, half their usual height, the flowers smaller, tighter, only weakly fragrant. Shrubs show signs of stress. But at least it's been cool the past few days, the humidity rising up to the sky to fall as rain far away.

 This morning I went down to visit my aunts and they invited me to pick peaches. My little peach trees are all barren this year. We had a cold snap when they bloomed, and I didn't see any bees. My pear tree only has a handful of fruit.  I was surprised that my aunts' tree had peaches. Their tree has always offered an abundance of sweet, plump peaches every year, occasionally taking a year off to rest. A spring gale broke off the best half of their tree, and when I went out to survey the damage, I didn't see any peaches set on, but it fooled me. Instead of a wheelbarrow, we used a couple of grocery bags for our harvest, filling each about halfway. My Aunt Kate shook the heck out of the tree, while I tried to pick up the peaches before Ursula got them. They look just like her rubber ball, and she thought she had hit the jackpot.

The sad little harvest, while better than the nothing I thought we would get, reminded about the workshop I went to in Ames, Iowa last week. It was called “Conserving beneficial insects with native plants,” and offered by Iowa State University. The first speaker, Dr. Lisa Schulte, introduced me to a new way of thinking about our place in nature called, “Ecosystem Services.” Scientists have been using this model for awhile, but it was new to me. At first the term put me off. It sounded kind of corporate to me, like an economic term, rather than one describing nature, as if ecosystems were just put here to benefit human society, and isn't that attitude how our ecosystems got to be such a mess in the first place? But as she spoke, and showed her slides, I began to understand that acknowledging the goods and services that seem to come “free” from nature might help us acknowledge that we'd better take care of the sources of these services. For example, the bean fields outside my window are pollinated by wild pollinators. They come, as if by magic, and we harvest the beans without a thought for these seemingly “free” services. However, I know in some places farmers pay beekeepers to park hives in their orchards. Here, at least, is an acknowledgment that pollination services are worth money. What if we had to pay bees, or even hire people to pollinate the beans in our fields? Our wild pollinators do it for the pollen and the nectar, but if we don't protect their habitat, how will we attract them to our fields? Another speaker, Dr. Mary Harris, said, “It's a tough life out there for pollinators.”

What can we do to help reestablish populations of wild pollinators? We can provide diversity of native plants in our gardens, roadsides and yards. Even on our farms, according to Dr. Harris, “diversity of crops themselves can help pollinators." We can think about the needs of the pollinators. What do bees need? They need floral resources for food—pollen and nectar, throughout the season. That's how a diversity of plants can help. They need nesting spaces—undisturbed soil, wood, even hollow stems, like those left over from Day Lilies after they've bloomed, can provide shelter. Really, they just need nature. In my own yard I can encourage wild Asters and Black-Eyed-Susans that come up in my yard, banking some of the ecosystem services (pollination services, yes, but also more selfish ones. I can pick some of those flowers for my table, saving $5-$10 to fill each vase. I get spiritual benefits, too—stopping for a moment to smell, or appreciate the colors in the sun). In our yards and in our farms, even in our roadsides we can consider diversity of plant life, which supports diversity of pollinators. As we viewed slides of diversified farms, I began to imagine our own grass waterway—the lovely, green, well-clipped road through the fields built to preserve the soil—as a prairie waterway, or a bee road, hosting myriad native plants and pollinators. Imagine.

Diversify Beauty; Imagine Peace; Blessed Be.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011


But I promised you a ride on a horse, didn't I?
OUR CAR CAME BACK TO BIRDLAND A LITTLE THE WORSE FOR WEAR—we found a small ding in the windshield about halfway. I meant to have it fixed in Seattle, but forgot all about it until I was ready for the return trip. Then I saw it had become a full-blown crack. But in one way our car came back a tiny bit better. When I bought it and put on my new license plates, I discovered that one of the screws that holds the front plate was broken. The corroded screw prevented a new screw from attaching. I knew I could get a special tool and dig it out, but had been putting it off. If I tightened the good screw, I could straighten the plate for a while, but after driving through several states, the vibration would set it askew again.   

At a rest stop in Montana, I returned to the car to find Ellis talking to a man. My youngest is a little shy, so I was surprised to see him visiting with a fellow traveler. They shook hands as I walked up to the car. “I'll be right back,” said the trucker with a smile. True to his word, he returned with a plastic fastener. He threaded the plastic through the plate, and pulling it tight, he sliced off the end with his pocket knife. “Better than a screw,” he said, proudly, and hopped back into his truck. Once again, I'm awed by how a brush with a stranger can enrich a community—sometimes a rooted neighborhood, sometimes a linear community of travelers. My license plate has been straight all the way home.

 But I promised you a ride on a horse, didn't I. Back in Wyoming, after visiting the foals, my friend, Claire offered to introduce Ellis and me to Pockets, a gentle gelding. We are not experienced riders, maybe 5 or 6 trail rides between us, but Claire's calm advice and instruction reassured us. Ellis was first, so I got to sit back and observe. I noticed Claire's respectful manner toward the horse, even down to the vocabulary she used to teach us how to let Pockets know what we wanted him to do. As she spoke, I began to understand that her method of riding and teaching was based on respect, even reverence, for the animal. I noticed how communication between the rider and the horse (rather than a set of assumptions on the rider's part—that if I yank the horse's head this way with the reins, he will go this way; If I kick him harder he will trot.) was paramount, and the key to that communication was careful and respectful observation.

She had us notice Pockets' ears, one cocked back. She said it meant that he was paying attention to Ellis, waiting for cues. This seemed natural, and reminded me of child rearing. By “respect,” I don't mean that she lets the horse do whatever he wants to do. She made it clear what kind of behavior was acceptable, and gently corrected him when he got too pushy. I came away with the idea that the rider needs to be assertive. When the horse lets us know he is waiting for prompts, we have a responsibility to prompt him. I told Claire I wish I lived closer, so I could take lessons from her, and we sat for a moment, wishing.

After the lesson she rustled up Chris, her husband, and he gave us a demonstration of some of his training methods. They give clinics at home and away. After seeing them in action, I'd love to invite them here. We sat in chairs just outside the arena and Chris brought an unbroken horse in, an older mare. He told us that horses are social animals, and communicate with each other through body language. Having someone yank on a halter to tell the horse to go somewhere is kind of a foreign concept, but they're smart animals, so they can learn it. However, it is simpler, and more respectful if we can learn the horse's language. 

I'm thinking the road to Wyoming isn't so long after all.
Of course, I'm paraphrasing and adding my own emphasis, also writing a few weeks after the fact, so I may misrepresent some of their ideas. Neither of them said the words, “horse whisperer,” and I forgot to ask them how they feel about that term, and whether they would use it to describe what they do. But I swear, Chris got an untrained horse to walk in a circle with a small, but assertive gesture. He got her to set her feet in a certain way (like they do in a show?) just by looking at her legs. At any rate, they made me want to learn more about horses, and I'm thinking the road to Wyoming isn't so long, after all.

Respect Beauty; Communicate Peace; Blessed Be.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Head East Young Man

FOR OUR LAST NIGHT IN SEATTLE, CHAD MADE CHANA MASALA FOR US, and naan on the grill. My oldest is an ambitious cook, making the dough from scratch, turning the flatbread on the grill with tongs. The meal was delicious and next morning we packed ourselves back into our little car and headed east to do our drive in reverse. Going out of town on I-5 we had a last look at the city where even a chink in the pavement becomes a garden. One small triangle of soil at the corner where Olive Way goes over the interstate is a wildish patch that looks weedy at first glance, but a closer inspection shows it has some kind of golden Asters in bloom and something with delicate stalks of lavender gray petals.  Hollyhocks stretch up to the sky with their tight, green buds that look like tiny Vidalia Sweet Onions. This patch is behind a chain link fence and surrounded by concrete, which juts out over the cars speeding by below. On one of our walks I showed it to Chad and he said that nobody tends it. “Probably it just grew there, or somebody seed bombed it.” I said, “I know. That's the point. Gardens just grow here for no particular reason.” Then I went home and googled “seed bombing.” Turns out it is a form of guerrilla gardening.
Ellis drives across the plains.

On the way home we did the longest leg first, across the state of Washington and the thumb of Idaho, then through the long state of Montana, which is aptly named. We passed the exit for Anaconda, where my grandmother was born. Anaconda is an old mining town, and I could see the smokestack in the hills. I have at home a copper spoon with a picture of that smokestack, proclaiming it the “World's Largest Stack.” I regretted not taking that exit as soon as we passed it. When would I travel this road again? 

A few miles later another sign marked the exit for the road to Opportunity and Anaconda. This time I took the opportunity to visit the land of my grandmother's birth.  We had to backtrack about seven miles, but it was worth it to see the rows of close set houses and imagine my grandmother walking here as a child one hundred years ago, looking up at the smokestack in the hills. It was worth it to call my mother from the grocery story there, and say, “Guess where I am?” 

"The World's Largest Stack"

We decided to sleep a little in Montana, and then continued on to Claire's ranch in Wyoming. On the way to Seattle we stayed with my childhood friend, but did little more than wrinkle up her sheets. This time we arrived in time for lunch and I asked to see the new foals she had been facebooking about. Claire's ranch home is in a natural bowl formed by the rolling hills. A road of red clay leads up to her house. I imagined we'd walk over one of these hills and find a little paddock with the horses. But this is a cattle ranch, and this is Wyoming. If Claire's house were at Birdland, the horses would not be in a pasture in the back 40 where I could see them from the kitchen window; they'd  be up at the ball diamond in town, and we'd have to drive there to see them. We got into the truck and drove out through two gates, Claire hopped out to open and then shut each gate, until I suggested that Ellis could do it. My youngest got an introduction to a wire gate, which is not common in the Midwest—simply fence wire stretched between two posts, one of them moveable so you can walk it across the drive and let the truck through. The foals were just 10 days old. One was a little skittish, but the other we could pet a little.

After the visit, Claire offered to call up a horse we could ride, and I thought I was in heaven. But my goodness, look at the time! I've got chores to do, so our riding adventure will have to wait til next time.

Journey in Beauty; Ride in Peace; Blessed Be.

SEATTLE TREASURES--Readers Respond and Request

Seattle really got people's attention--especially the donuts. I had more email and letters in response to the Seattle columns than any other. Most were interested in places to eat. Here are a few:

  • Top Pot Donuts We went to the one on 5th street, since we were on our way to the needle, but the web page shows other locations including one on Capitol Hill. They also tell the fun story on the web page of how they got their name. My son says they have "the world's best donuts" but I have only tried the Old Fashioned Maple Iced. It might qualify, but more research is needed. (To help fund this important research, please see the sidebar.)  ;)
  • Phở Cyclo Café  I've been there each time I've visited, and always enjoyed my lunch. The first time I had a lettuce wrap, and didn't realize until I was on the way out when I saw someone eating one, that I should have used the lettuce like a tortilla. Oh well, it was still delicious. Murals on all the walls open your view to a street scene, complete with other shops and restaurants, street signs, pedestrians, and cyclists.  I'm happy to suspend myself inside the belief that I'm really eating lunch on a sunny day on a Vietnamese street.
  • B & O Espresso on Capitol Hill--here is where I had my first Seattle Breakfast last year. The pancakes with real maple syrup were just what I needed after my long trip.
  • And don't forget to check out the Victrola Coffee Roasters (several locations. In some you can see them roasting the beans through a window to the roastery.) 
but honestly all my meal memories are running together into one big bite of deliciousness. Here's the thing about eating in Seattle. You'll find lots of international restaurants, and not too many national chains (except, of course, for coffee.) If you want Denny's or Applebee's you have to go to a suburb; we were very happy to stay in the city.

Do you have suggestions for places to visit in Seattle? Good food or quirky artwork? We'd love to hear them. (It's easy to comment here!) Or, if you have specific questions, please enter them too.