Tuesday, July 31, 2012


I USED TO BE A MORNING PERSON. No matter how late I stayed up, or how tired I still was, I'd be up at the crack of dawn, unwilling, but relentlessly awake. The moment the sun creeps into my window, sleep is over for me. In many ways this was a good thing. When the sun rises early in the summer, I'm up, and after the blood starts flowing and the grogginess wears off, I'm energetic. I try to get most of my work done early, while the energy is high. It's a little harder in the winter, when I often have to get up before the sun, but I have always embraced that rhythm. The flip side is that I can't stay up late. Come 9 PM, I'm yawning and stretching and thinking about my cozy bed.

But everything changed when I made myself a lavender eye pillow. I first discovered them in yoga class, where we would spend the last five minutes of the session in shivasana, or corpse pose, lying flat on our backs with our arms outstretched. I'd take off my glasses and cover my eyes with a lavender eye pillow, and would instantly relax deeply. It was partly the gentle scent of the lavender, and partly the gentle weight on my eyes, blocking all light that might distract me from my relaxation. Often, I would nearly settle into sleep before Bev's voice would call me back.

 I made myself a lavender eye pillow. It was very simple. I cut a rectangle out of my favorite dress, after I finally admitted that I was not the only one who could see the tiny holes in the floral pattern. I cut it a bit wider than the eye pillows at yoga class—more like a card envelope than a business envelope. I wanted it to cover more of my face. I sewed it up on three sides and filled it with a mixture of rice and lavender buds. I drizzled some lavender oil on the mixture, stirred it and let it sit for awhile. Then I poured the mixture into the pillow and sewed up the last side. I stitched around the edges a couple of times to make sure it wouldn't leak.

I keep that little pillow on my bedside table, and in the morning, when the sun gives its first, creeping call, I decide whether I've had enough sleep. If not, I grab that pillow and lay it over my eyes and let the gentle weight, the powdery scent, and the quiet darkness lull me back to sleep. The only problem with getting this extra sleep, is that it's pushing my bedtime later and later. I'm now in a cycle of late nights and late mornings, and I suppose I'll live to regret all this when school starts again.


This morning, it was after 9 when I got up. I went out to feed the chickens and saw something strange and wondrous in the sky. I was a little frightened, because it was like the whole world was covered with a flossy grey blanket. The sun was nowhere to be seen, and the blanket was low over the corn and filled with puffs and swirls. I sat down in the glider, and as I looked at the sky, I could feel that I had seen something like this a long time ago. Then I noticed another strange feeling. I wasn't sweating! It was cool. I let the breeze wash over me as I sat in wonderment.

As I sat, the breeze grew stronger and started blowing holes in my protective blanket, and I could see the familiar blue of the sky. Around the pockets of blue are the bright, puffy clouds that carry no rain. And now the breeze comes from the east, pushing whole parade. For a few minutes a big hole of blue sails directly above us. The shadows return and I feel the sun on my back. I sit with my chickens, and together we wait, and wait for rain.

Sunday, July 29, 2012


IN BIRDLAND, WE MADE IT THROUGH ONE HEAT WAVE, ONLY TO RIDE ANOTHER. 90 degrees seems cool! It rained enough to dampen the dust, but not enough to soak in. The chicory is blooming, finally, with the Queen Anne's Lace, which has a fat taproot. This drought makes me take seriously our responsibilities to the land. My grandmother used to say she wasn't worried about our well drying up, since the Mahomet Aquifer feeds it, and, she said, “This land will be a desert before that ever dries up.” She was optimistic in the long run, believing in the bounty that runs beneath us, but she took a drought seriously. The drought of '85 inspired the original Farm Aid concerts. When some Hollywood Starlet came out to sing in the concert she said, “It's worse than I thought. The corn is dying in the fields!” Since that first concert came to Champaign, Illinois in September, the corn was drying in the fields, like it does every year before harvest. My grandmother laughed and laughed about that. We did have a crop that year, though it may not have been as bountiful as usual. This year, it looks worse.

The tassels on the corn came, bringing the warm pollen smell, amplified in the heat, but that smell didn't call up any rain. The golden silk emerged from the ears, and then dried and turned a deep brown. The plants themselves are doing that pineapple thing, where the leaves curl up and stick up straight. The other day Ursa got excited and chased a chicken into the brush near the back field. My dog is pretty well trained, but occasionally she forgets that she is. The little chicken hunkered down in the brush and I had a word with the dog. Then I had a closer look at the corn. The ears look like toy ears, and now with the husks beginning to dry, I don't think they'll have many kernels on them. I'm not really a farmer, and I don't know what Jim and Sean will say, but I sure hope the rest of the field doesn't look like this. We got a little rain when the pollen was rising, but not enough. I was here, too, for the drought of 88-89, the worst in U.S. history, maybe until now. I wasn't as tuned in to what was growing around me as I am now, but I do remember the fretful waiting, all summer, for rain that didn't come. 

I walk around the yard with the hose every night and spot water the flowers. It just barely keeps them alive. Even native plants, like Jerusalem Artichoke and Black Eyed Susans are not just wilting, but dying. I don't water the lawn, only the flowers along my little path, and the vegetables. I think about the water cycle: How we depend on that aquifer; how we pull water out of it with no thought to how water gets there in the first place. Many years ago, maybe 15, a couple of scientists knocked on my door and asked permission to measure the water level in our well. Apparently it was an ongoing study. Being curious, I went out and watched them at their work. I asked if the water levels were going down. They had apparently measured our well before, and they told me that yes, the well was lower than it had been previously. At the time they told me not to worry too much, but that we should not think of our aquifer as limitless. According to The Mahomet AquiferConsortium, overpumpumping is the greatest threat to our water supply. I haven't seen those scientists lately, and not sure when they last measured the well in my back yard, but I look around and see how much more water we are using now. In fifteen years, how many new houses have been built just around here, with expansive lawns? How many new swimming pools? I try to conserve water in little ways—turning off the shower while I soap up, running the dishwasher (which I've heard uses less water than washing by hand) only when it's full. But how can that compete with industrial usage, which by some estimates is responsible for about 40% of consumption? How many more industries are sucking water out of our aquifer at unsustainable rates? The only way I see to protect our aquifer is to claim it as our aquifer. Let's call it “Grandmother” and honor it. Let's get educated, active and involved in our future here in this region. The waters of life may depend on it.


Sunday, July 22, 2012

Birdland Writing Retreat Registration

Birdland Summer Writing Retreat                               
Date: August 4, 2012
Registration Form                                           
Name ______________________________    
Address ____________________________    
City, State, Zip ______________________      
Phone ______________________________    
Lunch included--Please select your Choice
__Ham and Cheese Wrap
__Turkey and Cheese Wrap
__Veggie and Cheese Wrap
(These options are also available without cheese.)
Please list any food restrictions (vegetarian, vegan, allergies, etc.) ___________________________________________
Please return registration form                       
and personal                                                
check payable to Birdland Book Arts 

  • Early Bird price: $45
  • $55 after July 14th (Postmark date)
  • to:                                                        
Birdland Workshop —Mary Lucille Hays       
1185 E 1900 North Road                          
White Heath, Illinois 61884                   
Limited scholarships available. Email for details.

(Note: You may also cut and paste this form and send it in an email to letterfrombirdland@gmail.com and use the PayPal donation button for the fee. Add $1 to cover PayPal charges.)

Thursday, July 19, 2012


IN BIRDLAND WE GOT A LITTLE RAIN--JUST ENOUGH TO TEASE US. Not enough to turn off the heat or dry up the dust or coax the wild blue asters into blossom. The corn is in tassel and maybe it was enough rain to get a little bit of a crop this year, but not a big harvest. The corn is sending its sweet, sweaty smell out with its pollen. It's a green, fertile smell, but not particularly pretty. Grandma always used to say that we need rain the most when the corn was tasseling, but we are still several inches down. The last rain was maybe 2/10ths of an inch, and we need an inch a week to pull us out of this drought. Even with watering my garden every evening, it grows so slowly without rain.

What we need is lavender. Lavender will bloom despite the dry weather. Last week some of my knitting friends made a trip up by Rantoul to visit the lavender farm at Sharp'sCrossing. It was hot, but the heat diffused the lovely scent so that when we got out of the car, wafts of perfume greeted us. We could see the smaller field from the road, and turned into the driveway where we saw a big, white barn with old wagon wheels spaced around the wall. A larger field of lavender was next to the barn. We went first into the barn where we could sample tiny little lavender shortbread cookies and see various crafts—soaps, tinctures, sachets, pillows, lotions, wreathes and wands—all made from lavender. In the barn we picked up scissors and rubber bands, and then went out to the fields to cut bundles. There were three varieties, I think, and I picked a bundle each of two of them. As we walked out of the barn, the owner called after us, “Cut ginormous bunches.” she said. “There's plenty out there.”

The plants grew in regular diagonal rows through heavy-duty weed barrier. They grew in pretty, rounded cushions. Some plants were already harvested, and these were hemispheres of greenery, almost like topiaries. Others had sprays of tight, blue flowers, an open invitation to the bees and other pollinators. But I didn't see too many bees. Maybe it was the drought—or the mid-day heat. One field was long stemmed, and I picked plenty of that. I cut and sniffed, and cut and sniffed until my nose didn't work any more. Then I took my bundle inside and started again in the other field. They wrapped up my two bundles in purple tissue paper and gave me ribbon and the directions for making a lavender wand. Lavender is one of my remedies when I have trouble sleeping, and a wand would be just the thing to keep by my bedside. I also got a spritzer bottle of lavender water in case the wand doesn't work its magic.

At home, I have old glass bottles in all the windows, dug up from a stream in our woods, where people sneak in to dump trash. I filled each of the bottles with a few stems of lavender to freshen the rooms. At the lavender farm they had a bunch in a vase that they said was a year old, and it was still fragrant. I figure I'll keep these in the bottles until next year, and then I'll take the buds off these stems to use for a new eye pillow. The lavender lady said to put the stems in a pillowcase and roll your hands over it to remove the buds from the stems. 

I was inspired to research the growing of lavender and found it is drought resistant. I'll get a couple of plants to add to my path to joy, or maybe I'll start another path in the sun, just west of the garden and chicken coop. One thing leads to another in my planning, and I begin dreaming about the marriage of bees and lavender: lavender honey!

Rain in Beauty; Bloom in Peace; Blessed Be.


IN BIRDLAND WE HAVEN'T MOWED SINCE MAY, AND THE GRASS IS STILL AS CLOSELY CROPPED AS IT WAS THE LAST TIME I HAD THE MOWER OUT.  Only now it's as dry and brown as shredded wheat. Everything in the yard is waiting for rain, including me. I generally have something blooming all summer, but the wild Day Lilies are all but gone—only a few bedraggled blossoms when I picked a bouquet for the table yesterday. The tame Day Lilies have mostly decided it isn't worth the bother, and the Asters and Sedum that should bloom next are all stunted, buds not even swollen with hope. I drag myself out in the yard to make sure the animals all have plenty of water, and then I go inside and wait for evening. I water the vegetables and the flowers, keeping them alive, but not thriving. The humid sky muffles the colors, and the atmosphere doesn't seem so friendly now.
Thank Goodness for
Queen Anne's Lace!

Thank goodness for Queen Anne's Lace. I mowed around a patch in the back yard a few years ago, and it has expanded to become a small oasis of green in the desert of my back yard. These wild carrots are not native to Illinois; they escaped from cultivation, but they do so well in the wild that I count them among the common weeds that I am encouraging to take over my yard, patch by patch. I'll bet their fat taproots keep them from the distress showing in all the rest of my flowers. I don't even water the Queen Anne's Lace, and it provides a landing pad for all kinds of butterflies and other pollinators. I watch a bumbling bee skate across the top one wide flower, then another. It is buzzing and rubbing its belly in what looks like ecstasy, pollen dust rising in the arid heat. It's a good thing I can supply a little island of green and pollen to tide these insects over until the rains come.

We have two new roosters in Birdland—a couple of Golden Sebrights. I named them Hopscotch and Roosevelt. The Mayor of Myra brought them to me. She read about the loss of my flock a while back, and offered them to me. I have such kind readers! She is Myra's only resident, so we decided she was the Mayor. She arrived in a charming dune buggy with her gift of two little roosters in a cat carrier. We had a nice visit, touring around Birdland. She told me about her barn and showed me pictures of her chicken coop. I showed her the aviary, and introduced her to the 4 parakeets, Rumpus, Cloudy, Frida, and Dandelion. She told me a story about how her mother lured a feral parakeet into a cage to bring inside out of the weather. He had been hanging out with the sparrows, and had developed a sparrow's song. She mentioned goats, and she shouldn't have done that, because one of these days I'm going to drive over to Myra, invite myself in, and have her tell me all about goats. I'll take notes.

New Roos in Birdland

 We transferred the roosters to my cat carrier to wait for dark. It's easier to integrate new chickens into the flock if you do it in the dark. They get used to each others' sounds and smells in the night and wake up in the morning and nobody can be sure who is supposed to be there and who is new. My chicks are starting to fill out and just beginning to look like chickens, not chicks, but they are the same size as the new roosters, who are banties. In the morning, I was a little worried, walking out to the coop to open the door. I was afraid they might have a few scuffles before figuring out the new pecking order, but everyone was quietly milling around the chicken yard, the waiting punctuated occasionally by some stimulating crows. I opened the door and they started their morning, busily scratching and searching in the grass. The new roos kept watch over the flock, one eye on the sky, looking for the rain.

Crow in Beauty;
Wait in Peace;
Blessed Be!