Saturday, June 23, 2012


WE HAVE BEEN "HELPING" IN PAM AND DAVID'S COUNTRY GARDEN. They have beds of vegetables and flowers, and we've been working on both. Thinning the beets and lettuces to give them more room to grow really means helping myself to delicious salads and side dishes. Thinning the beets means Mary gets her antioxidants. (Thanks for your generosity, guys!) 
 This morning I cut off the beet greens for dinner later, and divided the beets by size. Everything smaller than a hickory nut went into my fruit smoothy, and added a lovely magenta color and a sweet, earthy taste. A fruit smoothy has become my summer breakfast. I put an orange, an apple, a banana if I have one, a carrot, a slice of ginger, peanuts, flax seeds, brewers' yeast, yogurt, and ice cubes in a blender. That's the general recipe, but can vary depending on what I have on hand. Sometimes I'll add strawberries or blueberries, or use a pear instead of an apple.

 I'll peel the larger beets (easy, since the skins are still so tender) and dice them into the lentil dish I'm making in the crock pot. It's a variation on a recipe Chandra gave me, but I'm out of sweet potatoes—a key ingredient, so I'll add another brightly colored, sweet tasting root crop instead. All my boys like to cook, but my oldest is the source of most of my Indian recipes. I'm sure it will be delicious. I can smell the garam masala, fragrant in the kitchen.

It's been so dry lately. Today, it finally rained, but here in Birdland we only got a few drops. It didn't even sink down into the ground, and so I'll have to water again tonight. Pam and David's country garden got almost an inch, and the earth was so rich and moist when I pulled up the beets and a few lettuces. It's amazing how a few miles can make such a big difference. In the summer, the thunderstorms are small, playing hopscotch across the Midwest. Earlier in the year, they mean business—huge cloud banks slowly rumbling their way Eastward—and will give us a good soaking. This time of year, it's hit or miss. 


The green fields belie the drought conditions. The corn is green, yes, but if you look closely you'll see the signs of distress in the plants. The leaves are beginning to curl to preserve moisture. Instead of relaxed blades of green, the leaves have rolled themselves in tubes, and stand straight up in a prickly posture—more like pineapple plants than cornstalks.

In Pam's garden I pick peas, which are abundant. She has planted “sugar snap snow peas,” the best of all possible worlds. You can steam them or eat them raw. I plan to do both. The next row over is another variety, but I'm not sure if it's more snow peas (not sugar snap) or just regular peas. A few pods are swollen, almost ready to shell, but some are still flat though very big. I'll have to call to ask what kind she planted, and whether I should go ahead and pick them for steaming or just let them go a little longer. The broccoli has sent up small, auxiliary heads where the large heads have already been cut.

 The lettuces and beets are still so abundant that I can harvest several meals just from thinning them giving more room to grow. The potatoes are blooming, larger pink cousins to the tomato flowers—you can see the family resemblance. I sit for a moment considering the tassels on the sweet corn, stalks only half as high as the corn growing in our fields.
 I walk over to the smaller plot of tomatoes, red cabbages and Brussels sprouts. I adjust a tomato plant that was trying to grow out of its cage and then peer into the cabbage plant, leaves cupping to curl protectively around the head that is forming. 

 And just like that I understand why they say babies come from cabbage plants. 

Look deep into the center! See the mysterious, fertile dark? Two leaves open to reveal the crowning of the head. From the moist, dark, earth will come something shining and wonderful. Here is why I think we should honor our sacred connection with the food we eat:

Because we all come from the same place.


THE SOIL IN MY GARDEN IS AS DRY AS BREAD CRUMBS. MAKE THAT CRACKER CRUMBS. Birdland got a nice rain earlier in the week, a quarter inch, which would have been respectable if we hadn't already been in the midst of a drought. But here we are, and now the ground is warm and dry as dust even in the shade. Luckily it's fairly cool. But even though the sun is not scorching every drop of moisture out of the earth, the grass is brown and even native plants like Jerusalem Artichoke are wilting. 

A wooly bear caterpillar has succumbed to the dryness and lies as still and stiff as a fuller brush. I pick it up to make sure it's not just playing possum, but its bristles break off in my hand. It has shrunk itself into half its usual length. I turn it over and its six arms are curled inward, the claws still sharp enough to cling to my thumb.

We water the garden every evening, and the seeds I poked into the beds last week are sprouting: cucumber, beans, and peas at the edges to climb up the chicken wire that coops the chickens out of the garden. Tomato and pepper plants are growing very slowly, but the tomatoes have their first blossoms. In the beds between the tomatoes, thousands of tiny sprouts show green, and I'll have to wait a few days to see how many of these are weeds mixed in with the beets and lettuce and chard I planted.

I'm sitting in the glider under some mulberry and choke cherry trees, enjoying the breeze and the view. A smooth motion catches my eye: it is the chicks, sweeping in one group across the yard from the shelter of the lilac to the shade of the big ornamental quince. They remind me of cartoon birds, tiptoeing to hide behind first one tree, then another. Ursula roots up something in the yard, oblivious. After a few minutes, the flock begins to leave the shelter of the quince, and graze and cheep in the yard, but one of them startles and they all run under the pine tree to perch in a line on a low branch. They are all such copycats. The chicks are growing suddenly bigger, the Lavender Orpingtons a few weeks behind the rest. I bought all but the Lavender Orps as pullets, but I'm beginning to suspect that a few of them are actually cockerels. 


One of the Rhode Island Reds, and one of the Auracanas have suspiciously red combs. All chickens of either sex will have combs of some kind, but some breeds have prominent combs and wattles, and others have just a hint of these. Hens have red combs when they are laying, but a pullet who has not yet come into lay, will have a pink comb. The first sign that you may have a rooster, is a comb in a young chick just beginning to show red. The comb of one of the lavender orps seems a little red, but I bought them as straight run (unsexed) and the best possible combination for them would be one cockerel and two pullets, because then I'd have a laying pen, and could breed more, so seeing red on the little lavender may be just wishful thinking.

Ursula pounces suddenly, crumbs of earth spray up behind her, her snout buried up to her eyes. I get up to see what she has found. It is a mole, now lying on its back in the grass. My dog sniffs and then trots away, head high, tail wagging, amazingly abandoning her quarry. 

The mole has a thick, grey pelt and a strange, elongated nose—almost a tiny trunk, no visible eyes, and big, flat, pink hands, like paddles, with long, tough nails. The hands are turned backwards, awkward-looking to us, but suiting its life of swimming through the earth just fine. I know an unearthed mole doesn't have much chance of survival, and within minutes it is dead. Our yard has been free of moles for many years, and now we trip over mole hills at every turn. I'm not exactly sorry that it's dead, but I stand for a moment and bless its solitary life, burrowing, burrowing through the earth, always searching for something.

Friday, June 15, 2012



AS THE SUMMER STRETCHES OUT IN BIRDLAND THE EVENINGS ARE AS LONG AS LUXURIOUS AS A CHILDHOOD DREAM. The sun gets low and the day cools. I bring in the laundry, still smelling warm from the sun as I fold it. It wasn't windy today, and the jeans are a little stiff. Still, a good laundry day. Warm enough to dry three loads all the way through. I fold the laundry fast so I can get back outside to finish the evening chores before the sun slips down behind the corn. When I come up from the basement it's hanging above Jim's machine shed. Good. Still time to plant the seeds I bought in town today.

I had planted most of the garden coop, which protects the tender vegetables from my chickens. Tomatoes and peppers at intervals, one hill each of zucchini and summer squash in the southern corners, various greens and roots (beets, lettuce, turnips, broccoli, cabbage) in the beds between the tomatoes. I'll train the tomatoes to grow up some sturdy lines to the roof. Along the chicken wire walls I have planted cucumbers on the west side, but pole bean seeds are hard to find. It would have been easier to order them from a garden catalog, but I seldom think ahead. I've been pawing through every stand of garden seeds I come across, but can only find bush beans. It takes a while, too, to read those descriptions. Finally I found a packet of Kentucky Wonder, the beans my grandfather used to train up strings he nailed to roof behind his garage. I picked up some peas too, regular ones and sugar snaps.

By now the sun was low in the sky and I poked the beans one by one into the soil on the east wall of the garden coop. The peas went on the short ends—regular peas on the south, sugar snaps on the north on either side of the door. I'm trying to hurry. I want to get these watered before it gets dark. I finish and dust crumbs of earth from my hands and the knees of my jeans. I close up the garden coop and join Michael who is checking on the chicks. They are beginning to mosey on back to the coop, hopping one by one over the high threshold. A few weeks ago, when we first started letting them out of the chicken yard, they would go under the coop at night, and we'd have to kneel down and pull them out. They would scatter and it was quite a production getting them all in, counting to make sure. Now they go in on their own, but not always before I want to close up the door. Tonight the three little lavender orps are nestled in the dark between the supports of the floor underneath, but by the time I kneel down to get them, they have gone out the other side. I walk behind the coop to herd them; they peep frantically, hopping through the little doorway. Michael latches the door and we count: 3 Buff Orps, 3 Rhode Island Reds, 4 Auracanas, and 3 Lavender Orpingtons. Yep. All there.


Now it's time for my favorite chore. The watering. On any day when we didn't get rain I try to water the garden and all the new plantings of flowers. We have a sprinkler around somewhere, but I have a habit of forgetting to turn it off. Besides, I find this very relaxing in the evenings: a chance to reflect on the day and plan tomorrow. I also get to visit all the various parts of the yard, the shady plants around the ornamental quince: Coral Bells, Japanese Painted Ferns, and various Hostas; the sun loving plants that line my path to joy: Hollyhocks, Mullein, Sedum, Peonies, Irises, various ornamental grasses. I've also planted just a few more vegetables there that wouldn't fit in the garden coop: Chard, Arugula, Basil. Watering is a chance to treasure all the gifts of my yard. They'll be there, blooming, offering fruit and greenery, whether I appreciate them or not. 

Breathing in these gifts at the end of the day is pure selfishness: it is for my own enrichment. But if I gather these gifts into my soul, maybe I can spread them around a little. The sun has finally slipped behind the corn. I stand aiming a gentle sprinkling of water at my garden and watch the sky darken. Fireflies begin to blink their secret signals, rising like prayers to the sky.


IN BIRDLAND IT'S BEEN DRY FOR SO LONG THAT THE FERTILE SMELL OF RAIN WAS A DISTANT MEMORY. In the past few weeks we'd had two middle-of-the-night thunderstorms that carried a lot of sound and fury, but in the morning, though the dust was dampened down, the cracks in the earth were still there. Yesterday's showers were very welcome. It began as a gentle sprinkling and grey skies. It brought with it a welcome coolness and the lovely, earthy smell of rain. I didn't want to get my hopes up, though. The skies weren't all that grey.

We had been preparing the beds in the garden coop for planting. Yes, it's very late to start a garden, but it's always June before I can get into the summer rhythm. The dryness actually made the soil a bit easier to work after the digging, and I thought maybe I could get the beds ready and planted before the rain, but I am always over-optimistic. The forecast was for rain in the night, and I was racing the sun to get the last bit of soil turned over. The sun always beats me. I went to bed dreaming of a little house full of lush greens and dotted with bright tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers.

The garden coop is a little house of chicken wire next to the coop. We built it to keep the chickens away from the more tender plants after we saw what they could do to my tomato crop. They are worse than tomato horn worms, which can eat half a tomato or all the leaves on a stem before you even realize the caterpillars have arrived. They start out small, but soon turn into monsters. They're hard to see even after they grow fat, so close in color they are to the plants. I usually find them by following their little packages of poop, in neat, geometrical stacks, or looking for the decimated leaves. I've heard that Guineas eat the bugs but leave the plants alone, and they are probably a very good fit for my garden. I should try them sometime, but I think I'd have to build another coop first. Chickens are great for preparing soil—scratching it up and eating grubs, but you can't trust them in the garden itself.

 The garden coop will accommodate about 6 large tomato plants. I try to plant some herbs in the corners and lettuces in beds between the tomatoes while the tomatoes are still small. The tall walls are great for growing cucumbers and pole beans. We can live for the whole summer on fresh cucumbers. I keep one big ceramic bowl on the counter filled with them, fresh off the vine, and another in the fridge to float slices in a vinegar and herb marinade. The vines grow up the walls and make a lush little house. If it weren't so full of tomato plants by midsummer, it would be a great place for a picnic.

The rain didn't come in the night, after all, and next morning I was able to finish digging the bed. I like to make raised beds around the periphery with a low valley for a walkway and kneeling space down the center. I was just about to start digging that when I began to smell the rain coming. It started gently, and I had time to put away my tools, enjoying that lively scent and the chill on my skin. I spent the rest of the day on indoor tasks—guilt free, since it was raining. I sorted my seeds into piles for inside the garden coop, existing flower beds, and other possibilities. I envision a rambling squash bed a little ways off. Maybe they will develop their leathery skins before the chickens find them. 

This morning it's even chillier, and the skies are still grey, but we only got about 1/3 of an inch. The cracks in the earth are still there, though softened. But the fields! The corn looks like it's grown 6 inches overnight. The soil in the garden coop will be dry enough to rake out in a few hours, and then I'll get my seeds planted this afternoon. The seeds will begin to sprout and we'll look to the sky and hope for more rain, and the cycle will begin again.


Thursday, June 7, 2012


I JUST DISCOVERED THAT FOR FORTY YEARS I'VE BEEN KNITTING BACKWARDS. Of course, it doesn't feel backwards to me. It feels perfectly natural. I knit just like my Aunt Jane taught me. But I was trying a new pattern that was supposed to be easy. It only had a few variations of the basic stitch: knit, yarn over, knit two together and then one thing I never heard of before. The abbreviation was k2togtbl.

I'm in the aviary this morning, with the parakeets. They happily scold each other, or maybe they're scolding me. Why did I come to just sit here with the computer, ignoring them? Ursula busies herself digging for something in the grass. She looks and listens, still for the longest time, then pounces and digs, soil spraying up behind her. In a nearby tree a bird makes a regular clicking sound, like a Geiger counter counting...what? The proximity of whatever my dog hears tunneling through the soil amidst the roots of grasses and dandelions?

The knitting abbreviation stumped me, so I asked Sheree. She said it was “knit two together through the back loop.” I couldn't imagine it, so she showed me. Her demonstration was slow and careful, and easy to see. She repeated it several times. I thanked her, but when I tried it, my knitting began to twist in a weird way. The problem was, I couldn't see any difference between what Sheree's demonstration, and my normal method of knitting two together. I put that pattern aside and turned to other projects.

We had a big storm last night, which gave us a lot of wind, a little rain, and chased away the heat we've had for the past few days. I had to put on a fleece this morning to sit comfortably in my shady aviary with the breeze in my hair. In a little while I'll take advantage of the newly damp earth to pull some weeds. I love pulling weeds in the rain-softened soil. I dread it when it's dry, so I just wait for the rain. I'd better hurry, since the rain just made the cracks in the ground smaller—didn't make them disappear—and the wind will dry it quickly even with this coolness.

After a while I got tired of knitting my usual washcloths, and wanted to try that lace pattern. I asked Sherree to show me again how to knit through the back loop. I had the same trouble, so I asked her to show me how she normally knits. It was...backwards. She slipped the needle through the loop from the front, so for her, and for most people, I guess, knitting through the back loop is strange and worthy of its own complicated abbreviation.

I decided to follow the thread back to the source and told my story to my Aunt Jane, who taught me to knit. She thought for a moment and said, “Well, my grandmother, who taught me, was left handed. She did a lot of things differently.” I thought about how patterns are passed down and repeated through the generations. I thought about all the people I have taught to knit backwards: all three of my kids, each of my nieces, a couple of my son's girlfriends, and probably some other folks. It made me think I should be more careful of what I want to pass down. Kindness, tolerance, responsibility, forgiveness, generosity, love. I want to pass these down even if I have to learn some new habits to do it.

I started that pattern again, with some yarn Paula gave me. It is easy and goes quickly, until I get to that one stitch. I thought about teaching myself to knit forward, but it felt so awkward that in the end I decided to just reverse the pattern. I'll knit the whole thing through the back loop, and then knit in the front loop when I get to the special stitch. I have memorized the pattern and can knit it without looking, until I get there, and for me that stitch is a time machine. On every ninth stitch I am an clumsy 7 year old sitting with my aunt, pudgy fingers pulling the yarn too tightly, breathing hard in my concentration. I rest the end of the needle on my knee to stabilize it while I labor to slip the point into the two stitches from an unfamiliar angle. With time, it will get easier, I know. With time, acting in tolerance, generosity, and forgiveness will become a habit.