Sunday, September 26, 2010

Gifts from the Sky

My grandmother once told me, “Mary, you’re like the water. If you can’t go one way, you’ll find another path.” I like to think this was her way of blessing me, of discovering the silver thread running through my life. If I am like the water, it’s surely better to flow than to be spreading and stagnant. I’m not always good at cutting my losses, but I can certainly flow in a new direction with enthusiasm. That’s what happened with Ursula’s Frisbees. She loves chasing them, and if I’ve learned one thing about my puppy, it’s that letting her run off her abundant energy is almost more important than feeding her. If she doesn’t get her half hour of chasing the Frisbee at least once a day, she gets a little crazy. But she devours her Frisbees almost as soon as I throw them, filling the yard with plastic shards. The plastic wasn’t working, so I decided to try to crochet a disk., several actually, since I like doing it, and she often loses them.

The softer, floppy disks are a little heavier. They fly more slowly, and don’t sail quite as far. For Ursula, they’re perfect. If I toss one at a high angle, she can catch it in the air. It’s a treat to see her run out and gracefully leap to catch the colorful circle. There’s a tree at the edge of the yard, and every time I tossed the disk, a small herd of Monarch Butterflies would scatter from the tree. The dog would tear past, and then the butterflies would settle again until the next throw. I got caught up in watching the tiny ballet. Yesterday, for the first time ever, I actually wore her out instead of the other way around. She taught herself to retrieve, and generally will bring her toy right back to me. We’re still working on “drop it,” and “leave it.” After 20 minutes or so, she dropped the disk about 6 feet away from my feet, and then came up to be petted. I thought it was an accident, so I retrieved it myself and threw it again. She did the same thing, but I just wasn’t getting it. When I threw it once more it landed in the newly shorn bean field. She casually walked in the other direction, and lay down. Playtime was over.

In Birdland for the past several weeks we’ve had visitations from the sky. At certain times of year we used to get a small but busy bunch of enormous dragonflies. They would zoom around the area above the little marshy part of the yard where the daylilies and cattails grow. They would fly in erratic patterns, like the bats who come at dusk, so I imagine them catching bugs up there. Now that we’ve changed the drainage of the yard and the cattails are gone, or maybe because of my new minimal mowing policy, their airspace has spread out—about 20 feet up, but covering the entire yard—they are like tiny helicopters chasing their frantic prey.

Next came the butterflies. We’ve been hosting various kinds all summer, of course, the small, yellow and white ones, the tiny blue ones, most recently some petite russet ones. Then last week I was mooching a ride to town from my dear friend, Barb. On the way down the driveway a flutter of orange and black caught my eye. There on the mulberry trees were hundreds of Monarchs resting with folded wings, hanging like the rusty leaves of autumn. I yelped, Barb stopped the car and we both got out, then went back in to retrieve cameras. We did a clumsy dance with the butterflies, trying to get close enough to focus a picture without disturbing them. We’d step forward, and the branches would explode with color. We’d step back, and they would settle, folding their wings and showing the muted undersides. We stood a long time, sharing the wonderful sight. Then we got back in the car and drove to town.

Yesterday, as I walked out into the field to get Ursula’s discarded toy, the butterflies scared up again. Not as many as last week—it must be the tail end of their migration—but a few linger in the trees. I thought about the gifts from the sky.

Fly in Peace; Flow in Beauty: Blessed Be.

Mary Lucille Hays lives in Birdland near White Heath. She is fascinated with flying things.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Autumn Apples

For some reason apples are catching my eye. I’ll be driving or walking, and suddenly notice a tree heavy with yellow or red fruit. Sometimes these trees are in yards, and I glance wistfully at neglected windfalls in the grass, but often enough they are next to the railroad track, on the bank of a stream, at the edge of corporate parking lots—semi public spaces. Often enough, the trees are neglected, some so much in need of pruning that several of the fruit-laden branches have broken. The fruits are blemished and a little wormy, so I doubt they’ve been sprayed. These I brazenly pick to fill the canvas grocery bags I keep in my truck. I take them home, peel and core them, cutting out the bad parts. My goal is to fill my freezer with these forgotten fruits so I can fill my winter with pies. But lately I’ve been thinking of taking the next logical step—guerilla pruning. I hate to see the splintered branches dangling from the tree, ruined fruit and wilted leaves. What if these abandoned trees had a little care? Some of them are decorative crab apples gone rogue. Some probably sprouted from a discarded apple core from somebody’s lunch, or carried and discarded by a bird or a squirrel. All of them provide shade and nectar for the pollinators, but they could also provide food for whoever took the trouble to pick it. With a little pruning, the trees would be healthier, the fruit higher in quality.

And why not? Why don’t we have public plantings of food? In Barcelona, lime trees grow in some of the parks. My tree-lined route to campus through an alleyway sidewalk has not only flowering crabs, but some kind of small tree with blueberry-like fruit. I’d been eyeing it, wondering, until I finally came across a young woman quietly filling a basket with the fruit, her bicycle propped in the shade. A group of young men stopped to see what she was doing, and they all stood under the tree, reaching up to pick and taste the berries, chatting as they ate. I felt like I was witnessing the resurrection of a village commons—a fruit tree provides a harvest of fruit and as a bonus plants seeds for a tiny piece of community.

Seeing the young woman gleaning the trees, I knew I wasn’t the only one keeping an eye on the fruit. I did a little web search and found a couple of inspiring sites. One was The Fruit Tree Planting Foundation, It is a nonprofit charity with a mission toward ending world hunger with plantings of fruit trees. Their dream is just like mine, “We envision a place …where one can take a walk in the park during a lunch break, pick and eat a variety of delicious fruits, plant the seeds so others can eventually do the same and provide an alternative to buying environmentally-destructive, illness-causing, chemically-laden products.” They bring fruit to the classroom with their “Fruit Tree 101” educational program and fruit trees to the community in their “Communities Take Root” program. Both of these programs are sponsored by fruit companies partnering with the foundation. FTPF also gives away organic heirloom apple grow kits for a donation of $40 or more.

Another community building site focusing on fruit is Neighborhood Fruit, It allows you to map fruit trees on public land and helps connect owners of private fruit bounty with people who would like to share in the harvest. I found some interesting links on the site, including blogs (one described using abandoned shopping cars as movable planters—for vegetables or flowers.) and the Urban Forest Mapping Project. Both of these sites hold promise of community based in shared harvest.

I toss a pruning saw and some clippers in my truck with the canvas bags. In the next few weeks you might see me munching on fruit as I work. Maybe I’ll send the money I save on apples to the Fruit Tree Planting Foundation and get one of their heirloom apple planting kits in return. Maybe I’ll map some of my secret trees so others can share in the renegade pruning and bounty of pies.

Harvest Beauty; Prune in Peace; Blessed Be.

Mary Lucille Hays lives in Birdland near White Heath. She is interested in picking fruit and growing community. Some people say she makes a decent-enough apple pie.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Cat Infestation in Birdland

In Birdland the days are getting shorter and the weather milder. We’re all enjoying the fresh coolness of the mornings and evenings, even if it means that by midday we’re shedding sweaters. I find myself more often in the yard, trying harder to bring order and peace now that I can’t use the humidity as an excuse. I’ve created a tidy circle of calmness around the house, and I try to expand it a little each day. It’s one thing to go natural, but dainty sprouts of poison ivy are coming up, dotting the yard with danger. It’s a pretty plant, really: three toothy leaflets of bright green. Luckily, mowing it short stops it, and now we have a safe zone around the house. Yesterday I finally cut the spent stems of Iris in the beds surrounding the house. I also cut out the Mulberry seedlings. Some of them were an inch thick and as tall as I am. My yard is such a juggling act. Spend time trimming one area, and another goes wild. Now that it’s cool enough to do yard work, school has started, so I have to steal little pockets of time, and plan quick assignments. I hope it is making me more organized, forcing me to consider my vision.

Now that school has started and the day has shortened, my morning starts in the dark. My alarm goes off even before Ursula gives her short, reminder bark that another day has come and it’s time to get up. In the summer, my puppy is my alarm clock. Morning chores begin with the animals—let the dogs out for a pre-breakfast run. I go to the kitchen to make a pot of coffee, and Kali, the feral basement kitty, greets me. I know she must be hungry since she’s making eye contact, and doesn’t move from the middle of the kitchen floor even as I walk back and forth getting coffee beans for the grinder, rinsing the percolator. Today I feed her even before I let the dogs back in for their breakfast. Kali still hasn’t let me touch her, though she is much less shy now that she’s seen Shiva, the tortoiseshell kitten sitting on my lap, purring or wrestling without fear. Kali is getting curious. Shiva is Kali’s opposite in every way. Her three color pattern is the photographic negative of Kali’s calico. Shiva is affectionate and playful, while Kali is still getting over her suspicion. She seems content, though, in her basement lair—under the workbench. Sometimes the dogs will open the door, and Kali will disappear for a few days, living off the mice in the machine shed. But she eventually comes back if I call her at night, after the dogs are in bed. I have to leave the door open and make myself scarce; then she will slip in quietly and come up from the basement one morning for her breakfast. She’s no longer a kitten, and the last time she came home after a week of carousing, she was suspiciously plump. I was hoping to tame her in time for a trip to the vet before a blessed event could happen, but apparently, I am too late. Now I am thinking of trapping her and setting up comfy den in my bathroom for the rest of her confinement. I did try to trap her once, but only succeeded in catching curious Shiva, who mewed loudly and pitifully for release, then followed me around for an hour, begging to be held and comforted. I think I need a bigger trap to catch Kali before she fills my basement with tiny, feral cats. If they are born in my bathroom, maybe I can have hopes of taming them if not her.

In Birdland we have a cat for every floor, and Dylan’s elderly cat, Knowles, lives in the attic. He is a grumpy, long-haired, yellow tabby, and I believe he was named after a fancy shoe, but his name was shortened long ago, first to Noli, then Knowles. I don’t know why I spell it with a “K,” but it seems to dignify him. He doesn’t like to be brushed, but I do it as often as possible, to defy his dreadlocks. Even so, he sheds little chunks of matted fur, which Shiva energetically bats around the floor whenever she finds them. I have to hold him tightly and pretend that low rumble is a purr, not a growl. We have very short grooming sessions.

By the time the animals are all fed and lunches are made and books are gathered, I am almost late and rush out of the house to meet Tina or Gayle for carpooling. On the ride to town I turn my attention to my day job—grading, lecturing, planning, learning. I ride to town hoping to get enough work done in my office today to justify another mowing session when I get home tonight. I’ll mow around the picnic table so we can enjoy our supper outside until the year turns to winter, and suppertime gets cold and dark.

Walk in Beauty; Work in Peace; Blessed Be.

Mary Lucille Hays lives in Birdland near White Heath. She is interested in seasons and cycles. Some people say she makes a decent-enough apple pie.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Turning the Corner of the Year

Birdland has been so dry for so long that today’s soaking rain is a treat. I woke to dark skies and a muffled morning that feels like a friendly tent made with a blanket over the clothesline. The raindrops are falling straight down like a curtain, and my windows are open, letting in the damp, delicious smell of the soil welcoming the rain, plus the bonus of a gentle breeze.

My rain barrel has been empty for more than a week—ever since I planted another batch of Hosta and drained my rainwater, dragging the hose around the yard to give the new plants a drink. For two days we’ve been getting a teasing sprinkle that barely wets the roof. I kept hopefully looking deep into the barrel, but the water didn’t even cover the spigot. For the first time since installing the barrel, I’ve had to water my houseplants from the faucet.

Jim and Sean took advantage of the dry weather this week to begin cutting the corn. I came home after dark the other day and didn’t notice that they’d been in the east field. In the morning, I saw the shaved bristle of reddish-gold corn stubble. Half of that plot was cut. I missed seeing the combine’s gentle progress through the field, but they’d finished there by the time I got home. I love seeing the combines sailing across the fields, lumbering over to the grain truck parked at the edge to spill a shower of golden corn. The first time I catch sight of a combine in our fields, I feel like having a party. I can totally understand a good, old-fashioned Harvest Festival. A few years back I begged a ride in the Combine, and it was like a carnival ride. I know those guys work hard, but for me it was so relaxing to ride along, imagining that I was hovering over the dried stalks in a spaceship, flying leisurely back and forth across the field. From the side of the road, the cornfield is thick. A person could disappear from view by walking a few rows in. But from above, each plant is individual. I’d always imagined that a rabbit or chicken, or even a dog in the field would be in danger of being cut down along with the corn, but from above you can see clear to the soil.

I stop my reverie and notice that the room has brightened. I look out the window and see that the rain has stopped. The sun wants to come out, but the sky is still gray in the west. We may get more rain, yet. I go outside and check my rain barrel. Now it is full; the overflow pipe has filled the small pot I keep under it. The wind is gentle, and raindrops shimmer on the trees. Above, the sky is busy. Clouds of many sizes move in different directions in different layers of the heavens, like a cloud expressway. Pockets of blue are revealed here and there. I walk around and survey the yard. The end of summer finds my garden overgrown. I part the weeds and pick a bucket of tomatoes—Roma and miniature yellow plum tomatoes. They are milder than the red ones, and my biggest crop: volunteers from tomatoes I planted three years back. I sigh at the wilted cucumber vines, wishing I’d done a better job of harvesting those before they turned ripe and bitter. Wishing I’d planted more variety in the spring. If I’m not careful, my sighs and wishes will turn into regrets, instead of plans for next time. I think that is what I love about the cycles of the year. Each cycle brings a chance for a fresh start. You begin the next ride on the merry-go-round with a little more experience, having learned a few more lessons, with a chance to apply them next time around.

Turn in Beauty; Spin in Peace: Blessed Be.

Mary Lucille Hays lives in Birdland near White Heath. She is interested in the turning of the seasons and fresh starts.