Monday, August 18, 2014


Naked Ladies

IN BIRDLAND WE CONTINUE WITH BRIGHT MILD DAYS interspersed with mild drizzle. A highly unusual summer. I made a joke and Ellis rewarded me with a half grin: "Seattle called. They want their weather back." Any grin, even a half, from my youngest is precious, especially these days when I find so much to despair about: wars erupting; the specters of racism and apartheid; our children being gunned down; challenges in our country to our dearest held principles, freedom of the press and academic freedom; a great, generous heart succumbing to sorrow; and even small despairs, like the predation in Birdland which has decimated my flock this summer.

Trumpets of Hope

A friend introduced me to the idea of a "talisman of hope," an idea that he discovered in Scott Russell Sanders’ book Hunting for Hope. These help us keep hope alive, like an ember from a fire that can be passed on to light another hearth. I look around and find one, right here in my yard. The annual visitation of Ghost Lilies is almost over, but I am gleaning some hope from this talisman.

One stereotypical sign of aging is that we repeat our stories, and if you've read this column for a while, you know that I return to the topic of Ghost Lilies again and again. But the stories my grandmothers repeated over and over are those that I remember best, and now retell to my own children, and the children of my sisters. If we listen, we will find that each telling is different. With time each story gathers detail and perspective. Just yesterday I picked two stems of these Naked Ladies (one of my favorite things about them is how Ghost Lilies (like the goddess of wisdom, or the god of war) have gathered so many names. I grew up calling them "Ghost Lilies," but "Naked Ladies" makes my yard seem like a party) and they perfume my living room even now. I cut two stems to put in a simple bowl of blue glass. Their long stamens curl upward, like eyelashes on a cartoon bird.

Pipping Eggs: Talisman of Hope

Ghost lilies first come in the spring. Sideways stacks of flat leaves push up from the earth. In the first days they look like tiny green books with fat pages emerging. The leaves grow quickly and become long blades arising from a central point, like a giant grass plant. Knee-high, they gather sun for a while, adding a vertical green to the garden, and then one day we find them collapsed in a heap. They yellow on the ground, and then just disappear. Now they are quiet. Gathering time is over. I don't know what happens underground, in the deep, cold earth. But above, we go on with our lives, mostly forgetting about the Ghost Lilies. But they are at their quiet work and patient waiting.

In mid summer, when we least expect it, we'll see the buds rising on crisp, bright stems. Again, they grow quickly, magically, and unencumbered by leaves. The buds are clustered at the top of the stems, and push up towards the sky. In the beginning they are a dark, dusky pink, almost maroon. But as they stretch and open, they lighten until they look like little, pink lamps, shining in the morning. Each stem has 6 blossoms trumpeting outward from a circle. They call a variety of pollinators with their perfume, but what interests me the most is the bulb below. What kind of magic does it hold down there in the darkness? How does it take in June sunlight to light lamps in August? What calls those trumpets back up to the sky?

Seeds of Hope in Decay

Here, now, the flowers are fading. They are tattered and the petals are bruised. Some stems have already flopped over. They are at the end of their cycle. Some of the blossoms have created new seeds—we can see swollen ovaries where the petals drop off. Again, they will fade. Again they will disappear.

But I have dug deep into the earth to find the source of this loveliness. The bulbs are big and crisp and deeper than we think—deeper than we planted them. The bulbs themselves are growing beneath the ground, dividing and creating more colonies. And here is what gives me hope: That growth and planning and gathering and waiting is all going on beneath the surface, without our help, without our attention, maybe even without our knowledge. They will go on, with or without us.

This is not meant to be an argument against action. Now, more than ever, we do need to work for peace and justice. But I do offer it as an offering of hope, a talisman against despair. May the trumpets call us to our urgent, peaceful work.

Perfume Beauty; Trumpet Peace; Blessed Be.

Sunday, July 13, 2014


The Archives Research Center with Prairie
A  FEW WEEKS AGO I TOOK MY CLASS ON A PILGRIMAGE, as I do every semester, to the Student Life Archives. There we explore artifacts from past students, some objects as old as the university. Ellen Swain, the archivist showed us the old apple warehouse in the heart of the building where the artifacts are stored when people aren't examining them. It is three stories and climate controlled, to keep the artifacts from degrading. We have a chance to examine old yearbooks and newspapers, meeting minutes so ancient they were typed on a typewriter. I found myself explaining what a ditto machine was. I described the clacking rhythm as you cranked the drum, sheets of paper flying off with pale lavender print, the smell that wafted up from our worksheets when the teacher passed them out, the paper still a little damp from the spirits. We also get to look at non-text artifacts, like dance cards, footballs, megaphones, and a letter sweater that looked like it was hand knit for an unbelievably slender athlete. All of these help us see what student life was like in the past. It's always fun to go over there, but this was the first time I'd taught in the summer, so I got a special surprise.
False Sunflower
Over the past few years I've noticed a slow transformation in the front yard of the archives building. The Student Life Archives is housed in the old Horticulture Field Lab. Since it is a couple of miles from my office, I ride my bike out to the archives. The Horticulture Field Lab is near the President's house, and set back from the road with a large field in front of it. A few years ago it was a big empty lawn, and then it became a No Mow Zone. I've noticed signs around campus that alert us that the lack of mowing is intentional, part of the University's sustainability plan. When it became a no mow zone, I would take my class out in early September and it was full of the usual weeds you expect to see if you simply stop mowing: grass, goldenrod, thistles. I preferred those weeds to the monoculture turf that was there previously, but the end of mowing was only the first step.

Some stands of plants have markers.
 Each semester when I visit the archives I chat a little with Ellen while we wait for my students to arrive. I can't remember which semester I noticed the plantings, but Ellen told me that people were working hard on it. I've since watched it evolve, but visiting for the first time in the Summer semester, I got to see the plot in its full glory. The prairie restoration project still has a lot of work, but right now the field is ablaze in color. Pale pink Bee Balm (Monarda fistulosa,) the deeper pink of Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea,) the yellows of Yellow Coneflower (Ratibida pinnata,) and Golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea,) and fire orange of Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa,) are putting on a lovely show right now, but there are other, less showy, but no less important prairie plants. Biking out a little early gave me the chance to wander the paths that are cut so we can walk out into the heart of the prairie and get a close up view. The field is abuzz with life, butterflies, bees, and other pollinators. Some stands of plants have markers, identifying both common and scientific names, so walking out there is also an education.

Purple Coneflower
Ellen knows I'm interested in prairie plants, so she put me in touch with John Marlin, who coordinates the work as a volunteer. Last week I met with John, and Jessica, one of the student workers. They gave me a guided tour of the Prairie, and next week I'll tell you about our conversation. But for now, I'll just tell you one of John's main points: Prairie plants are a beautiful way to landscape. I didn't need convincing, but if you do, stop by the corner of Florida and Orchard in Urbana and take a little walk. John said that careful walking on the mowed paths is okay, but no motorcycles, and no going off trail. The plantings look lush, but some of the more delicate plants are not yet established. Parking is limited, but you will find metered spaces in front of the Archives building (still labeled the "Horticulture Field Lab"). Even if you just drive by, you will be able to see the rich diversity of plants, but do get out and walk if you have time.
A Diversity of Colors
I like the idea of a Prairie Archive in front of the Student Life Archives building, to archive the original plants that evolved here, in this soil, alongside our native animals and insects. The Prairie Restoration Project at Florida and Orchard is a physical reminder of our very roots in this land.

Plant in Beauty; Archive Peace; Blessed Be.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014


And That's How He Earned His New Name: Houdini

WE'VE BEEN LUCKY WITH RAIN IN BIRDLAND. The whole yard is green and the cucurbit that sprouted volunteer where the old chicken coop was, has become a lush patch with leaves the size of platters and big, trumpeting orange flowers. It is vining out into the yard and green bulbous egg-sized fruits have set on. Maybe it's pumpkin, maybe squash. I can't wait to see. I did plant a pumpkin patch for my sister where the old compost pile was before we spread it out in the vegetable and flowerbeds. I planted both pie pumpkins and big ones for Jack-o-Lanterns. My sister wants to have a harvest festival in October, and we have to plan ahead. These seedlings are just emerging from their hills.

The Whole Yard Is Green
Last week I got an email from Mary in Bement who offered me a rooster. Now, as much as I love chickens, I have turned down many generous offers of roosters. A nicely balanced flock has one rooster for every dozen or so hens. Too many roosters will fight with each other and exhaust the hens. We already had 2, and everyone was getting along, but this one was a Lavender Orpington. If you have never seen one, you should look it up. They are grey with a rosy tint. Orpingtons are gentle by nature, and these are just lovely. I agreed to try to integrate Mary's rooster into my flock. We put him in a cage after she brought him over, just for the day. We would wait until after dark to introduce him to the coop. Sometimes chickens will accept a new member in the dark, and by morning forget that they were ever strangers. Well, the first thing that happened is that he got out of the cage. Ellis walked out to the car and saw the rooster in the crate by the garage. My youngest was going out on the town. He started driving away, but saw the empty cage in his rear-view mirror. He parked and came to tell me, and we were able to catch the rooster and put him back. After the flock returned to the coop for the night I snuck the new rooster into the coop. In the morning, I let everybody out but him, hoping a day in the coop would teach him that this is his new home, or at least that this is where he can find food and water. But by chicken-dark, he was gone again. Again we didn't know how he escaped. That's how he earned his new name: Houdini.
Integrating him into the flock didn't go well. With chickens you are always going to have pecking order issues. Mean Mr. Mustard, our old, one-eyed rooster is the big cheese, and he took issue with his new coop-mate, chasing him away when Houdini went near a hen. Houdini lost most of his tail feathers in the scuffle. To make matters worse, Ursula chased him, too. My dog learned long ago not to chase chickens, but who was this new bird of a different color and smell? Whenever Ursula saw Houdini, she would tear after him. The poor guy took to hiding under the cedar tree. My best efforts to stop the terror were fruitless. Finally I decided that Ursula wouldn't go outside unless she was on a leash. I thought I could train her to leave Houdini alone if I could immediately correct her. The problem was, Houdini was already so terrorized that he would head for the hills every time he saw Ursula coming, so we could never get close enough for me to correct the chasing behavior.

The Chicken Didn't Know This
That day Michael came home with a new idea. At work my husband had lamented about the chicken chasing behavior to a friend who had a solution. It was simple, but so silly, I didn't see how it could work. His friend had said, "Let Ursula smell the chicken's butt." The idea was that Ursula was just trying to check out this new member of the Birdland community by sniffing his butt. The chicken didn't know that, and would run away, thus a chase would ensue, and the problem just kept getting worse.
Sniff in Beauty: Foster Peace: Blessed Be.
I went out and easily caught Houdini. Michael was waiting inside with Ursula. It took about 3 seconds. I offered Houdini to the dog, butt out. Ursula sniffed. She sniffed again, and then walked away. I put Houdini down on the floor. He walked around cautiously. Ursula went into the other room to look for her ball. The crisis was over. It was anticlimactic. Now Ursula can go back to stealing sandwiches, and Houdini can go back to asserting himself into the flock.

Sunday, December 8, 2013


Foggy Seattle

IT'S FOGGY IN SEATTLE, AND THE SUN IS JUST RISING. I'm at the airport, waiting to board my plane back to Chicago. Chandra drove me through the dark streets, down the interstate. My oldest knows the way to the airport. It was not that early, 6:30, but the sun is just now rising an hour later. Winter days are short in Seattle.

Our Elegant Feast
Just yesterday we feasted on a rolled turkey breast, brined and herbed the night before. Chandra eats vegetarian on ethical and environmental grounds, but he made an exception for the holiday. Through the magic of technology, we connected with the rest of the family, feasting in Chicago. We each sent photos of our table. On ours, besides the turkey, was a lovely green salad, some artisan bread, and our dessert, a Persian sweet potato pie, like no pie I've ever made. We peeled and sliced the raw potatoes and arranged them in a spiral, like petals on a flower. Then poured over the petals a spiced brown sugar syrup. The crust was a wild experiment. After bragging that I could easily handle the crust, I decided to get fancy. First I thought I'd add cardamom, then I thought, "what about using half coconut oil and half butter?" At home I usually substitute flax meal for 1/4 cup of the flour, but when I saw that we had only bread flour, I also switched in some rice flour, sorghum flour (new to me) and some other kind of gluten free flour. All was fine until the rolling out, when our neat little ball of chilled dough shattered with the first touch of a rolling pin. "No problem, really," I told him. "We'll just do a pat-in-the-pan crust." Since we used a fancy brown sugar from India, the sugar syrup was dark, giving our potato-petaled flower lovely dark tones. We baked the pie and the bread and then had two hours for the turkey roll to slowly roast. "Do you want to go to Volunteer Park?" asked my boy.

Brisk walking kept us warm, and though it was foggy and damp, it was sweater weather. In Seattle most of our walks seem to be uphill. Walking in Seattle on a quiet Thanksgiving afternoon was peaceful. Winding up through the neighborhood toward the park we joined in the holiday spirit. Smells of turkey and sage wafted from various homes. Every block or so, we'd encounter a new delicious aroma. We passed one kitchen window with partly drawn shades to see hands chopping vegetables, the celery and carrots laid out in neat piles.
Pat-in-the-Pan saves the day.
Volunteer Park has lovely, expansive lawns and well-tended gardens. We walked up to the koi ponds. I remembered these lovely round ponds with lilies from my last visit, but now they were empty of fish. Close by is a wonderful round tower of rustic brick. "What's that?" I asked. "It's the water tower. We can go in," said Chandra. And so we climbed the hill to the tower, and climbed the spiral staircase up and up for a lovely view of Seattle. By now the fog had mostly cleared, but still a haze hung in the distance, haunting the skyline just a little bit. We looked out of the arched windows, through decorative iron railings. Then our turkey began calling us, so we descended the tower, the hill, the neighborhood, and returned to our dinner.
light and shadow in the water tower

Back at home it was time to phone the rest of the family. We had been texting pictures of our preparations across the continent. After we set our little table we made a call to Chicago. They had a lovely roast chicken and mashed potatoes, the traditional pie and cranberry sauce. We had our elegant feast. We teased back and forth. They had already eaten; we were about to sit down. "It's not a contest," said Chandra, "but we're winning."

Water Tower in Volunteer Park
 And now, here is my plane, ready to board. It will carry me over mountains and back to the prairie just in time to have a birthday feast with my middle boy, Dylan.

Fly in Beauty; Feast in Peace; Blessed Be.