Tuesday, October 25, 2011


Birdland is full of Fall.
BIRDLAND IS DAMP AND CHILLY AND FULL OF FALL. Leaves fall, walnuts fall, rain falls, temperatures fall. Night falls early and the day comes late. Last Monday I lay in bed and convinced myself that it was so dark when my alarm went off that surely it was time to set the clocks back again. It was nearing 7, and the sky was just lightening. But when I got up to check, instead of finding I had another hour to get ready for work, I discovered we still had a few weeks left of daylight savings time, and this morning I had to pay with my hopeful thinking by rushing to get ready for the day.

I don't know if I've mentioned it, but this year I just didn't have it in me to garden. Instead, I've been keeping my eye on the tomatoes at Barb and Dave's house. They have the best tomato patch with assorted varieties. Big, chunky salad tomatoes, summery grape tomatoes, sugary cherry tomatoes. I've invited myself over to help keep them picked, and they are very generous with their bounty. The vines always seem to be full of fruit in all stages of ripeness. We've been keeping an eye on the weather, too, hoping to strip the vines just before the first frost. This afternoon I received a frantic text from Barb, asking me to come by and pick. We're supposed to get our first frost tonight. I had told her about my method of ensuring a winter's crop: just before the frost, cut the vines and hang them upside-down in the basement. The vines die, but the green tomatoes slowly ripen, and we have red tomatoes into January. They tend to get a little wrinkled on the outer skin, but they taste at least as good, or better than, grocery store tomatoes. Barb told me she wasn't going to have time to harvest, so I should go and cut all I want. I picked up Ellis and his friends and drove to Barb and Dave's. Their oldest son was home with a cozy fire, and I popped my head in to tell him I was raiding the garden. “That's what it's there for,” he said. I raided the kitchen, too, for a salad bowl and some plastic bags, and first set about picking the red tomatoes, and there were plenty. I left a big bowl of all varieties on their counter, and we filled several bags to take home. Tomorrow we'll have fresh tomato soup.

The sun was setting and the air was crisp. The fruit was cold, too, and the chill was beginning to seep into our hands. The boys thought we had plenty of tomatoes, but the hard work was ahead of us. Barb and Dave's tomato patch has lovely wooden cages, pointed at the top, like tall pyramids, and painted green. The bushes grow tall into these cages, sometimes two plants together, so that big beefy tomatoes are intertwined with the cherry or grape tomatoes. Pulling out whole plants was impossible, so we began cutting off branches and piling them into the back of my car. The boys were glad when the car was finally full to the top, but the work was still not finished.

At home I drilled hooks under the basement stairs and bundled the branches together with string to hang from the hooks. I used to hang whole plants, roots and all, from ancient nails in the joists. It worked well, but the roots brought in a lot of dust, and the plants were so big that picking the ripe ones was sometimes difficult. I hope that hanging bundles of branches will make picking easier.

Yellow Pear Tomatoes

When I finally finished it was dark, but I still wanted to gather the walnuts I've been stumbling over on the front walk. I did it mostly by feel and gathered about a bushel. I thought about how much I love the Autumn when we can reap what we sowed in the spring. And if we didn't have time to do our spring sowing? Our world is pretty fertile. We need only look around to see what is provided for us by the trees and by the generosity of neighbors.

Collect Beauty; Garner Peace; Blessed Be.

Saturday, October 15, 2011


Searching for the Center.
 IT'S A RAIN-ISH DAY, AND WALKING TO CAMPUS FROM MY CAR IS LIKE WALKING THROUGH A MIST.  I have a rain jacket in my bag, but it's not even worth pulling it out. I am enjoying the cool dampness on my face and on my hair. I cross the street and the dark pavement is slick and shiny. Golden and orange leaves are flattened against it like Autumn stickers. I'm on my way to teach, and I should be planning for my classes, but instead I'm thinking about last weekend's retreat at Lake Sara.
Shag-Bark Hickory

 I got to sleep in a luxurious room in a lake house called “Sara's Sanctuary.” The next day, a dozen or so women would join me to write, draw, walk around the grounds, eat, and share tales and strategies. They arrived around nine, and I tried my best to introduce them to Birdland through stories and pictures. Since I write these letters regularly, the act of writing has become a practice for me, something that gives my life rhythm and rhyme, and a reason to slow down and take a careful look at what is going on around me. Through this writing practice I have begun to create a quiet center in my life, one that nurtures and sustains me. I tried to share that with them and encourage them to locate their own centers. We did some childhood drawing exercises, and seeing all the different riffs on childish landscapes was fun. One woman grew up in the Pacific Northwest and drew the same snow-capped mountains I used to draw, with letter “m” birds in the distant sky. Prairie girls have a similar picture vocabulary, it seems, but I don't remember drawing saugaro cactuses, as another woman drew. One woman drew a big, smiling sun and edged the page with intricate borders and ribbons of text. Another asked for pink crayon, and drew what looked like a Seusian truffula tree, with pink, windswept foliage. We shared our drawings and talked about the personal connections we each felt with these archetypal worlds.
The surface and the depths.

After a delicious box lunch (mine was a hummus wrap) we split into small groups and went out to walk around in the woods and down to the lake, letting our cameras lead us to colors and textures and shapes: the unruly bark of the shaggy Hickory tree; a tan acorn in its brown cap, nestled in a bed of leaves; blue rippled water with trees, clouds, sky reflected in the depths, leaves sailing on the surface, stones beneath; women on the dock, talking about travel; a Hobbit hole in the base of a tree, the ancient root flowing out in brown ripples, like a river; the three leaflets of poison ivy, turned yellow and more virulent; my retreat journal laid on the dock, manilla colored poplar leaves surrounding it; a martin house on a tall pole, caught in a prism of sunlight.

Martin House

We walked and photographed and talked and then went back inside to write, each finding a private nook to record our reflections and write our own letters. The day was sunny and warm, and we found ourselves in pockets of conversations, spread around the big house, on the porch, in the living room, in the kitchen. I am grateful for the sharing of ideas and artistic communion on such a lovely day, with such a lovely group, in such a lovely space. I taught a few “parlor tricks,” ways to strengthen our writing, easy to do once you know the trick. They taught me that the simple act of gathering together with the intention of creating and sharing can help us carve out a space in our lives to fill from the center. That center can gently spread outward, like ripples on the surface of a pool.

Center in Beauty; Ripple in Peace; Blessed Be.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011


WHEN YOU MAKE A MISTAKE, DO YOU TINK OR FROG? Late Tuesday afternoons you can find me at my knitting group at the Brown Bag Deli just off the square. I meet with a wonderful group of women to knit and share patterns and yarn and needles, passing jokes and wisdom around the table. Sometimes we put two tables together. We have a lot of Susans.
 This week Sheree taught us some new knitting terms she learned. To “tink” is to carefully un-knit, one stitch at a time, keeping the work on your needles as you go. (“Tink” is “knit” spelled backwards.) To “frog” is to pull out whole rows at a time (rip it; rip it).
 It's fun to see what everyone is working on each week. Barb seems to create free form patterns, a stuffed giraffe for her grandson, a scarf she somehow knit around the corner, like a log cabin quilt pattern, instead of in straight rows. She's not sure where the pattern will lead her and she asks advice for the next block. Paula and Sheree have been making scarves lately, each with her own complicated style of lacy yarn-over design. Paula gave me her pattern, as well as some yarn she was tired of, and now I'm making one too—a pink wool-acrylic blend, which I think I will give to my niece. The Susans all seem to be making sweaters for babies and young children. I think on of them is making slippers: huge, bulky woolen ones to be felted down to a reasonable size.
I took a little poll, asking what everyone does about mistakes. Susan G. said, “It's scary when you start taking all the stitches off! One time I frogged it, but usually I tink it.”

Susan S. said she usually asks Sheree to fix it, but she also takes it to her husband, “and he will tink, but he can frog too.” Frogging can be scary, but it can also be exuberant. Unraveling several rows is satisfying, the pull lending a textured, almost musical, tension to the yarn, which comes out kinked like an old fashioned telephone cord if it has been locked in the stitches long enough.
Susan H. swears, and then she makes up her mind to embrace her fate. She leaves the mistake right there and calls it wabi-sabi. This reminds me of my pottery teacher. When someone's pot blew up in the kiln and spewed shrapnel into the rest of our pots, he'd say, “Look at these zen marks. Aren't they great?”

 We all know what Sheree does. She'll say, “Does this look like a mistake to you?” And we all say no, but she is not convinced and keeps asking. We each reassure her that it looks fine, but the next time we look, she is quietly frogging. When she doesn't know what to do she takes it town and hands it over to Bev, who can fix anything.

Our lovely Paula never makes mistakes. She was making fun of herself when she said this, but we really don't see mistakes in her careful work. She used to be very impulsive. Cuss! Rip! Now she thinks about it, analyzing where she went off track, but she still frogs it out. She and I both tried the same new modification of Granny's dishcloth, and she told me she started over about five times before she produced the lovely, lacy washcloth I saw and tried to emulate.
Me? I usually just keep knitting. My patterns may be irregular, but if the pattern is complex enough, I can pretend it's simply variation on a theme. The only exception is when I make the mistake not out of carelessness or dropped stitches, but because I haven't really learned the pattern. In that case I'll tink until I get back to where I know what I did wrong, and begin again.

Knit in Beauty; Tink in Peace; Blessed Be.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011


Jerusalem Artichoke

Curley Dock
IN BIRDLAND THE DAYS GROW SHORTER. Mornings are chilly and damp, and often shrouded in fog. The grass has greened up after the long summer's drought, and I still haven't pulled out the mower for that last trim. The palette has shifted again, and now the yard is full of shades of yellow, as if gathering the last bit of golden sun to get us through the winter. Jerusalem Artichoke bursts from the old grain wagon west of the house, and spikes of Goldenrod line the lane. It's not all yellow, though. Two different kinds of wild asters are scattered through the yard. One has bunches of tiny white flowers, like stars bursting from within a bush of delicate greenery. The other has broad leaves and a taller stance with pale lavender-blue flowers, a little bigger than the white ones. All of these come up volunteer in the wild, unmown parts of the yard, but we have some tame flowers, too: a dark pink Sedum from Gayle, who is so generous with her plants. These line my path to the barn and will toast to a rosy russet and then to a rich brown as winter comes. On the path is also a Chrysanthemum of deep burgundy. Its spicy smell reminds me of my grandmother's yard, where they always grew in four colors. Nanny never let me leave her house in the Autumn without taking home a big bunch of Chrysanthemums. She would wrap the stems in damp paper towels and aluminum foil to keep them fresh all the way home.

Autumn Field
 I walk out for a closer look at the sunny flowers towering over the old grain wagon, and I find a Daddy-Long-Legs nestled (kneeling?) in the center of a Jerusalem Artichoke blossom. He is either drinking the dew or munching on the pollen. But it's not all flowers blooming, either. Some are done with all that. The Hollyhocks that bloomed ever higher up the stalk in bright colors all summer long, are now dried seed cases, like little round cheeses wrapped in brown paper, holding next year's flowers in a package. Black-Eyed-Susans are now only the dark eyes, having shed their bright petals to scatter to the wind. The Curly Dock has put up its spikes of intensely brown seeds, and I cut these to add depth to a bouquet and offset the bright colors of the flowers, or to hang upside-down in the parakeets' cage for a treat.
Black Eyed Susans are all eyes

Gayle's Sedum
 The fields are drying, too, and Jim and Sean have cut most of the corn. My walk down the grass waterway is still green, but no longer sheltered with walls of corn on each side. Now, instead I can see clear to the fence-line and beyond. I suppose anyone can see me now, too, walking down the green road with my black dog. I kind of miss my sheltered lane, but it will come and go away again, as do all things in Birdland. The beans are drying to a pale brown, and will soon be dry stubble in the field.

Tonight it's windy, and a sliver of crescent moon hangs over the bean field. It is low and vast against the dark sky, like the silver earring of an immense Goddess. Tonight I feel a little lonely, thinking about the fading summer and the coming winter. The Autumn will wisely lead us to Winter with her gifts of nuts and apples and wood smoke and sweaters and cozy evenings with friends.

Preserve Beauty; Affirm Peace; Blessed Be.

Hollyhocks Gone to Seed