Thursday, November 29, 2012


IN BIRDLAND WE TAKE HALLOWEEN SERIOUSLY. Halloween morning I was driving to work, and when I got up to the cemetery, I couldn't believe my eyes. A herd of goats was having a party. They looked like kids, (the four footed kind) or, maybe miniature goats, but they were grazing and gamboling between the stones. I stopped the car and tried to take some pictures with my phone, but the goats were suspicious and started jumping around and heading for the woods. I couldn't get close enough for a good shot, so I called Aunt Jane, thinking she might be able to get ahold of the neighbor whose fence they must have escaped. I told her, "The cemetery is filled with goats!"
"Well, of course it's full of ghosts," she said. "It is Halloween."

"No, goats!" I shouted. "They are gamboling amongst the stones."
"Gambling ghosts? Cards or dice?"
"Goats!” I shouted. “The kind that eat tin cans.”
 I said this, although I know full well that goats don’t eat tin cans. They may nibble on the paper around the tin cans, but not the metal, itself. "Can you call the neighbors and tell them they got through the fence?"

Well, we finally got it sorted out and I went on to work, but not before calling Michael. He must have been in the shower and didn’t answer his phone, so I left a detailed message asking him to take pictures for me. When he got to work he texted me. "No goats." They must have found their way home by the time he went by.

 Halloween in Birdland is my favorite time. I had two pie pumpkins on my windowsill, but they have gone into the oven for pumpkin cheesecake. The big pumpkin awaits carving, and sits right outside the kitchen door. In days gone by I used to make costumes for the kids, but the kids are all grown and making their own costumes. My youngest came home and announced his intentions to trick or treat the neighbors. I was ready with the papier mache, but no. His costume, he said, would be a mustache.
"That's no costume!" I said, “It’s a disguise.”
"Yes," said Ellis. We're going as secret agents, and secret agents need a disguise." With those words, I knew it was the end of an era.
No longer are my services required as maker of masks or of totally awesome swords and shields. No longer are my seamstress skills necessary. I’ll just put my sewing machine away up in the attic. No more capes or hoods or swashbuckling pantaloons. 

 I might have argued that since No-shave November was almost upon us, a mustache was not much of a disguise, either, but they also dyed their hair. Since it was probably the last year that they can get away with knocking on doors and demanding candy, I relented, and stayed home to comfort myself with pumpkin carving.

Treat in Beauty; Trick in Peace; Blessed Be.
The Pumpkin was big and round, but a little flat on one side. It spent the past several weeks silently greeting everyone who came in the kitchen door. It was a little flat on one side and that side still had a little mud caked on it, although it had kept its silent vigil through at least two rainstorms. I wiped it clean and patted its cheek, peering at it to see what kind of face it wanted. It didn’t want to be a zombie, so popular now, with stringy, orange “brains” spilling out of its mouth. I cut its cap and scooped out the seeds, putting them into a bowl to roast later. No, it just wanted a couple of triangular eyes and a lopsided, jagged smile. I found a candle and set it back outside to greet the trick or treaters. The yellow light shone bravely into the dark night.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012


I HEARD IT WAS A "NAKED TREE WALK," BUT WE WERE BUNDLED IN GORTEX AND HEAVY WOOL AGAINST THE AUTUMN CHILL AND POSSIBLE SHOWERS. Actually it was the trees that were supposed to be naked, but only one was truly without leaves, and none of them were walking. Last Saturday I joined about 40 nature enthusiasts to stroll with Bill Vander Weit, retired City of Champaign forester, as he guided us through the urban forest of West University Avenue. Running late, as usual, I drove up to the corner of Victor and University to see a crowd converging on the sidewalk. I received a beautifully printed, green booklet with detailed descriptions and careful line drawings of each of the 45 trees we would visit. In the crowd were at least 3 News Gazette columnists and a Prairie blogger. Do we know how to PARTY or what?
Sycamore Leaves

Bill carried a pruning saw and would reach up into the tree to clip a sample twig to give us a close up of the leaves and sometimes the fruiting bodies, as he showed us the differences between the varieties of Maple or Oak. Sometimes these differences were subtle and I gained an appreciation for close examination of the world around me. For example, we may be acquainted with the general shape of the maple leaf. After all, it is on the Canadian flag. But that familiar red leaf is stylized, and Bill showed us how some leaves are very deeply lobed (Silver Maple) and others, like Norway Maple aren't. We are probably all familiar with the winged seeds—as kids, we called them “helicopters” but they are really called samaras—but how many of us have looked carefully enough to notice that before they fall, they are joined in pairs? I noticed later that that the shape of the pair can make a mustache if you hold it under your nose. Sandy Mason, of the UI Extension showed us one way to identify the variety of Maple through the seeds by checking to see if the two seeds were joined at a roughly straight line (a handlebar mustache) or more droopy, like Frank Zappa's mustache.

We saw some trees that were atypical—like the sassafras with only unlobed leaves. I'm used to seeing sassafras saplings in the understory, or at the edge of the woods. They are easy to recognize with their 3 varieties of leaves. Bill called these shapes the Ghost, the Mitten, and the Football. But here on the parkway, perhaps because it is not shaded by other, taller trees, this poor little tree was bereft of ghosts and mittens. Maybe because it is football season, it was showing its spirit. Bill told us about the aromatic roots (the roots of root beer) and the leaves used as filĂ© in gumbo. I pulled one of the leaves from a low hanging branch and crumpled it to smell the fresh, lime scent.

As we walked, I began to contemplate the oxymoron, “urban forest.” I'm used to thinking of a forest as a wild and unkempt place. Or rather, the wildness is the keeper of the balance in the forest. Here, though, the “forest” was well-trimmed and even planned. Bill spoke about the merits of various trees, how a particular cultivar might be problematic in certain ways. It might be prone to a divided trunk, which could easily split in high winds, or it might have drooping limbs that could interfere with traffic on a busy street. It might be messy, dropping fruit that causes a litter problem. It might be prone to escape cultivation, pushing out native species in forests that are truly wild and don't have such a watchful caretaker.

Look carefully at the
leaves of Maple.

We walked on through the morning, enjoying the wind and the tree talk and the great variety in our urban forest. At one house we saw a stately ginkgo, its fan shaped leaves now a bright gold, fairly glittering in the wind. I stepped back to notice how the leaves hang off the branches almost like ferns. A few doors down one woman pointed to a stately golden tree in a backyard, the crown above the roofline. “Is that Ginkgo?” she asked. We all paused for a moment to admire the trees and the leaves, to contemplate the wisdom of caring for our urban forest.

Walk in Beauty
Cultivate Peace
Blessed Be

Ginkgo leaves hang off
the branches like ferns.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012


She's not a bad dog.

THIS MORNING URSULA ATE MY SANDWICHES. YES SHE DID.  I try to be careful about leaving my dog alone with sandwiches, but these were in my lunch bag and pushed to the back of the counter. I left the room for only a moment to grab my backpack, and when I came back, I saw an apple rolling across the floor. What's that doing there? I wondered. Then I saw Ursula, lying with her head on her paws, just as if she had been lying there all morning. She looked up at me and actually yawned. Then stretched. My eyes traced a line from the apple to the dog, to my poor lunch bag lying on the floor, to my sandwich container hidden way back in her puppy corner. Circumstantial evidence, but I knew what happened.

Ursula is not a bad dog. In fact, she can make herself very useful. She is affectionate and kind. When I feed her and her cat-friend, Shiva, she will nudge Shiva with her nose and bark excitedly, telling her, “Come on down to the basement! Hurry up! She's scooping our food! It's time to eat!” She waits patiently until I tell her, “Okay,” and then she makes quick work of her breakfast. Ursula is very amusing and congenial. She will happily play fetch all day with a ball or frisbee or a stick. She's not particular. If you can throw it, she will go and get for you and drop it at your feet. Ursula is also very protective. She has kept the chickens mostly safe from varmints for several months now. If she sees a predation threat, she will do her best to put the whole yard on high alert—running and barking and charging, until that fox or possum or hawk thinks chicken dinner doesn't sound so tasty after all. Yes, Ursula is a very good dog, but she's programmed to eat whatever food she can find. If I'm foolish enough to leave my sandwiches on the counter, they're really fair game, even if she's already eaten. If I think I can leave a big pile of food for the chickens, I'm sadly mistaken if I think Ursula will leave a few morsels for them. No such thing as trickle down doggy-nomics in Birdland.

Compost is another problem. The bucket fills quickly, and ideally I could just dump it in my outdoor compost pile. Chickens are omnivorous, and very happy to eat leftover crusts of bread, apple cores, wilted cabbage, all the while scratching and stirring the pile into a rich humus. But if Ursula sees me with the compost bucket, she will lie in wait and as soon as I turn my back, she is in the middle of the pile snapping up the best parts while the chickens wait from a hopeful circle for whatever she might leave. The problem is, she doesn't leave any, and doesn't do half so well at the real work of the compost pile, turning it over and letting the worms turn grass clippings, leaves and other debris left into soil. Ursula isn't really hungry; she just acts hungry because she is greedy, while the chickens spend their entire day with their tails in the air, scratching out a living, picking out bugs or greens to fill their bellies. 

Chickens do the real
work of the compost pile.

If I want to sit out in the yard on the Adirondack chair and toss treats to the chickens, I come prepared with doggy treats I can throw far away on one side to keep Ursula busy, while I lightly toss chicken treats on the other side of the chair. Even so, it doesn't work for long. Not only is my dog easily lured by what others seem to be enjoying even if she has plenty already, she is also intimidating. The chickens are nervous around her and run for the cover of the Jerusalem Artichokes as soon as she comes back looking for the next treat. Maybe tomorrow I'll just put her in the house first as I scatter the scraps of bread so that everybody gets some.  

Scatter Beauty
Vote for Peace
Blessed Be


Shaved Fields of Soybeans
IN BIRDLAND FALL HAS COME AND THE COMBINES HAVE SHAVED THE BEANS FROM OUR FIELDS SO THE STUBBLE IS CLOSE CROPPED LIKE A CREW CUT. The morning is crisp but I can't yet see my breath. Once in a while this Country Mouse likes to get in touch with her Urban, so this morning I took a detour on my bike to visit The Cracked Truck that parks near Uni High. They serve egg sandwiches and wraps, hot coffee on a cold morning. Also, I would get a chance to see Dylan. My middle boy works on the truck, frying eggs and chorizo, constructing sandwiches and pouring coffee. It was a brisk ride and a couple blocks out of my way, but well worth it. 
Dylan at the Cracked Truck
 It was my first trip to the truck, and as I was studying the menu, Dylan stepped lightly out of the door to give me a hug and take my order. I asked for the Plan B, and he said, “I knew you were going to order that.” It was a veggie wrap with fresh spinach and hummus. My boy knows me well. I stood on the sidewalk, balancing my bike in the breeze, smelling good smells and enjoying an easy camaraderie with the other people. We sipped coffee and smiled as we waited for our orders. Dylan handed me a warm little packet wrapped in foil, and I hurried to my office to enjoy my brunch. Deliciousness of spicy freshness! Oh, warm wrap of hummus-y delight! I don't often treat myself, but this could become a habit. Best of all, I felt like a big City Chick the entire morning.  

 But I can't stay long away from the country and this afternoon I called on my friend and neighbor, Barb, for a tomato raid. Barb and Dave plant a modest, but artful garden in their front yard. Each year has a different pattern, but always features tomatoes prominently in tall cages. This year, Dave made a circular bed bordered in bricks and planted a central column of sweet corn. Tall wire cages contain 4 tomato plants, set in 4 corners like the points on a compass. Their tomatoes are always plentiful, even in this drought year, and they generously share their bounty with pushy neighbors like me. After several years of their kindness, I now just take it upon myself to announce that I'm coming to raid their tomato patch. It is my excuse to visit and chat a little with Barb, and then we go out together to pick sun-ripened tomatoes. Each of the four cages holds a couple of varieties, so that both grape tomatoes and standard sized ones have adamantly intertwined and appear to grow on one plant.  

Now that winter approaches, Barb and I have been keeping an eye on the frost advisory. She called me to let me know that the light frost we got the other night didn't hit her tomatoes, but that it was time for me to come and pull up the plants. She lets me hang them upside-down in my basement where the leaves dry and crumble to dust, but the tomatoes themselves cling to the vine and slowly ripen over the winter. That's the way we'll have ripe tomatoes in January and February. No,they are not sun-ripened, and they do get a little bit wrinkly on the skin, but they are at least as tasty as grocery store tomatoes, picked green and ripened inside a box on a truck from who-knows-where. Barb and I chat as we pull the ripened fruit from the vines. The bushes are still heavy with green tomatoes, and we pull the plants up, cage and all, and stuff the bulky green column into the back of my car. I take it home and cut the plant out of the cage, stem by stem, to hang in bundles under the stairs in my basement. The sun is going down, and I'm carrying bundles back and forth, dreaming of fresh tomatoes in the depths of winter.

Thursday, October 18, 2012


My window with the Gothic Arch.
IN BIRDLAND THE SKY IS GREY AND THE DRIZZLE IS CONSTANT, BUT AFTER THIS SUMMER'S DROUGHT I WOULDN'T HAVE IT ANY OTHER WAY. It is, after all, October. The grass is finally green again, and the leaves are just beginning to turn. They are muted so far, with only a little yellow. The hackberries outside my window seem to be going straight from a washed out greenish-yellow to a dry brown. Leaves crunch on the sidewalk below and I wonder if the extra stress of the heat and drought drained all the color from the trees. Or will they light up yet in the coming weeks?

The cornfields by my house have been harvested, and it looks like Jim and Sean have already pulled a disc through them so that they're a moist jumble of brown earth and tawny brown stubble. Ursula still runs out into the field to glean the few dropped ears (stunted this year), bringing home one or two a day. My dog will play with these ears for awhile, cheerfully gnawing the golden corn off the cob, and then leaving it for the chickens to peck. Everybody is happy.  

Looking forward to Winter

The days are getting shorter and more and more often, by the time I get home in the evenings, the chickens have already gone to bed and I'm only left to latch the door. Soon I will have to cover the coop and the aviary with plastic. Soon I will have to plug in the lights for warmth. As much as I'm enjoying sweater weather right now, I do look forward to the coming winter with all its glorious ice and cold. For one thing, when I turn on the lights in the chicken coop, I'll finally get eggs again. This flock is all pullets, bought as day old chicks this spring. I've been buying chicken feed since April without collecting one single egg. I can't wait until I get my first one, which usually happens for the first time soon after I put on the lights in the winter.

Reflecting on Peace
 For another thing, Michael's been cutting a lot of trees. Most notably some poplars we planted many years ago, which have lived out their lifecycles. They are fast growing trees, which is why we planted them to shade the south windows in summer, but quick growth means they don't last long—maybe 20 years. They've been dying one by one, and now we have a big pile of firewood. I don't think Poplar is the very best firewood, but it's still nice to have a big pile, and I'm looking forward to warming the house with fires in a few months.
Find a Cozy Hidey Hole

Today I'm cozy in my little office and something about the overcast day makes me snuggle down deeper into my sweater and wrap my hands around my warm cup of tea. I've got errands to do across campus, but they can wait. Today is a day to sit and write, read a chapter or two, grade some papers and talk with students. Today is a day to pause and take a long glance out the old window with the Gothic arch, to see the small, brown berries on the tree outside. Suspended on each berry is a silver pearl of rain, shining with refracted light. Below, umbrellas sail back and forth on the sidewalk. Everyone has somewhere to go. But me? I'm content to sit here and turn another page, take another sip, and enjoy the warm coziness of a fall day.

Sit in Beauty; Soak up Peace;
Blessed Be.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012


The Nature Center at 4H Memorial Camp

THIS MORNING I AM REVISITING A SCENE FROM MY CHILDHOOD. The 4-H Memorial Camp. I am here for a retreat. The cabins have been rebuilt since my time, but the arrangement is the same. I slept last night in Cabin 3, Girls' side. The bunks, I believe, have the same cornhusk mattresses from 30 years ago—petrified now, and covered with a plastic ticking that crunches and squeaks every time you roll over. The cabins are arranged in pairs and I'm sitting at a picnic table between 3 & 4. The table is covered with graffiti drawn with gel pens and sharpies, which we didn't have in my day, but the messages are the same. Confessions of love, names and dates, and to my right, “Showers are cold.” Come to think of it, I might have written that one. The yellow bug light between our cabins is still on this morning, and a spider has built a skillful web, catching the sunlight and casting elaborate shadows.
My Cabin

The retreat itself has been inspiring on many levels. First I went to a quilting workshop with Kathy Martin who coached the beginners like me on details such as threading the needle with the grain, directly off the spool, to keep the thread from tangling. She shared photos of her grandmother's fine work and told stories of Mennonite thrift, showing footstools hmade from seven large juice cans arranged in a circle and covered with upholstery fabric. From the top it makes a sturdy scalloped pattern, like a third grader's drawing of a flower. I want to go home and make one for myself. Thanks to Kathy, I gained inspiration and confidence to sign up for the quilt we're going to make for a Habitat family.

Here I scared up a flock of
Wild Turkeys.

From the quiet murmur of friendly needlework I went out into the sun for a raucous drumming workshop led by local musician, Matt Croissant. I had brought Dylan's toy Bongo Drums from home. My middle boy has left parts of his childhood in a closet, and he didn't seem to be using these drums, so I borrowed them. Most folks, however, used plastic buckets and wooden spoons. With Matt's skillful direction we created rich, energetic rhythms—even those of us who would swear we're not musically inclined found inspiration. We began with simple math—each choosing a secret rhythm to play, which came together to produce complicated tonal patterns—and then gradually began improvising until we built enough energy to “take this thing on the road.” We got up and walked, marched, and danced down the mall of the camp. Each drummer marching to a different beat that somehow merged into one song; each drum beating with a different voice to play complex melodies.

Next the pastors, Janet and Michael led a workshop about telling Bible stories. The story they chose was from John, where Jesus turns water in to wine. It's a pretty simple story, one I had always heard about, but may not have ever actually read. We first read the verses, and then were invited to retell the story to a partner without looking, and then to re-imagine the story from the perspective of one of the characters. I chose the perspective of the mother, Mary. This simple act made the concise verses come alive for me. Without that re-imagining, I would surely have missed a very important dynamic between the mother and her son. Since we carry with us our own perspective and interpretation to any text we read, I'm always grateful when another dimension enriches my understanding of a story.  

The day ended with a fabulous session with local writer and storyteller, Janice Harrington. We had the opportunity to tell our own stories. Janice engaged us from the moment we sat down, first with the rich story of how her mother learned to drive, and then by asking us to share some of our own stories with a partner. Her lively, elaborate telling and the spirited details brought us right into her tale, so that by the time we paired up, our own narratives were virtually bubbling up out of us. Next she told us about a few literary devices, and then showed us examples of how to use them. We were set with our storytelling toolkit, and were ready to spin our versions of our unique perspectives, casting light and shadow onto a rich and varied world.

Spin Beauty; Narrate Peace; Blessed Be.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012


Teapots of Every Variety

LAST WEEKEND WE TOOK A ROAD TRIP TO IOWA. We visited two college towns and two sets of friends in one busy trip. We observed that Iowa has the best rest stops, and both Ames and Iowa City have a culture that is vibrant and artistic, yet grounded in Midwestern simplicity. The first leg of our journey was the longest, and we arrived in Ames late in the evening, but still in time to catch up with our good friends, Elaine and Matt over a glass of wine on their back porch. We compared stories of the summer heat and the drought, because we are, after all Midwesterners.

Next morning, we all walked to the Farmers Market. If anything makes me long to move to the city, it's a walk with friends to the center of town. How friendly, to mosey along the sidewalks, admiring the neighbors' gardens and taking a shortcut through the park. How invigorating to arrive at the market refreshed and energized, instead of having to extract creaky joints from the car after a half hour's drive. The market in Ames is sized comfortably between the bustle and crush of the Urbana market and our small market in Monticello. They have an arts table for the kids and nice variety of tables for garden produce, arts and crafts, and foods. 

Artwork at the Iowa Rest Stop
 We sampled a Scotch egg from Marcus' table. Marcus is a friend of Elaine and Matt. A Scotch egg is like a baseball of crispy deliciousness. We cut them in half to share and spread them with mustard. I quizzed Marcus on the preparation—first, boil and peel the egg, then wrap ground sausage around it, roll it in herbed bread crumbs and then deep fry it. Marcus and his wife LeAnne are the owners of British Foods, which we visited later. It's a shop with tea and biscuits and lemon curd and marmalade, with shelves and shelves of teapots of endless varieties. Matt told me later that they scout thrift stores and garage sales for teapots for the shop. My kind of place.
 While we were in the middle of the continent, Dylan was at the western edge. My middle boy was texting us with updates: “We are having a lot of fun in Vegas.” “At Cannery Row. No Steinbeck, yet, but there is a statue of an Ed Rickets.” (That's “Doc!” I texted back. Take a picture!) “Stanford made their students wear hats. Freshmen wore beanies. The senior hat was called the senior sombrero.” I told him to be sure to visit the City Lights Bookstore when he got to San Francisco.
A Scotch Egg

That afternoon we went on to Iowa City, to help my dear friend, Diane, celebrate her 70th Birthday. Diane's house is always filled with color and art and laughter, but now it was also filled with hundreds of her closest friends. Her yard is full of beauty, divided into several outdoor “rooms,” each strung with lights and divided by trellises and majestic plants. One held a circle of chairs around a fire pit. Another had an area rug rolled out for a dance floor, with speakers set up for music. A vine with clusters of white, delightfully fragrant flowers scented our dancing. Around the corner was a table with drinks and inside was one with food. We ate and danced and toasted Diane and friends and family until late into the night, and then the assemblage of Champaign friends went back to the hotel. 

Alligator Typewriter

In the morning we gathered to have breakfast before heading back home. We found a lovely buffet and afterwards went around to the antique stores and junk shops. I texted to Dylan a picture of an alligator made out of a disassembled typewriter. He texted back that he had been to Fisherman's Warf and Chinatown. He tried to go to the beat museum, but it cost too much. I wrote him a poem and sent it, 160 characters at a time:
Dylan at the Beat Museum

I went to the beat museum
but they wanted $8.
$8 of my hard earned money
$8 of my cracking eggs for the people on the sidewalk
$8 of slicing peppers and peeling onions in a truck
$8 of my eyes weeping as I slice
$8, man.
For $8 I could buy a roll of paper
or a typewriter ribbon
that would unroll my blood, sweat, and tears
down Woodie Gutrhie's highway
in this, MY land of earth, wind, and fire
all the way home.
I stand with my hand out
on the sidewalk.
Not asking for eggs, or egg money or pin money or pin numbers
Not asking for a lower tax rate or higher fences.
Just asking
for $8
Just asking
to see some beats.
I'll gladly pay you Tuesday for the beat museum today
Can I borrow $8, man?

Rhyme in Beauty; Reason in Peace; Blessed Be, Man.


AUTUMN IS A TIME FOR GATHERING, FOR HARVESTING, FOR PUTTING UP STORES TO GET US THROUGH THE LONG NIGHTS OF A LONG, COLD WINTER. After the monstrous drought this summer, there's not much to harvest in my yard—tomatoes accumulate on the vine, but only enough to sprinkle on my salad; the peach trees bloomed early in the premature spring, but then met with a late frost; the walnut tree drops a few nuts one by one, instead of dozens by dozens as it does in most years. I kick 5 or 6 green ones into a little pile to let the husks darken and begin to rot off before I bring them in to crack. Last year I filled bushel baskets and couldn't keep ahead of them. I won't have that problem this year. I keep my eye open for other harvesting options and I found a little feral apple tree over by an abandoned storefront. It wants pruning, but somehow, despite the drought and lack of care, put out a bumper crop of golden apples that are just now starting to fall. I park my car in its shade and pull a canvas shopping bag out and bend to pick up the windfalls.

After the Monstrous Drought
As I come over to the other side, I start. A woman stands silently with her own bag in her hand. “Oh, hello!” I laugh. “I'm glad I'm not the only one who appreciates these apples!” She is friendly, but seems disappointed in the apples. “These are bad apples,” she tells me. Judging from her lovely, colorful clothes and her accent, she is from the Indian subcontinent. I look into my bag. Yes, many are a little wormy and some are bruised from falling off the tree. They seem to be a golden delicious, nicely firm. I tell her that I just pick them up anyway and cut out the bad parts, peeling them and freezing the good parts for pies. We chat a little at our work, and walk away with maybe a half a bushel each. I take my harvest home and that night I sit in the Adirondack chair and peel and core them until it gets dark, then move my production in the house, collecting a big bowl of parings for the chickens.
I stop to watch the flow
of golden kernels..
 But I am not the only one harvesting. Yesterday I came home to find Jim and Sean in the fields, cutting the corn. I didn't have high hopes for the bounty of this year's crop, but I still love to watch the big combine slowly making its way across the field, leaving a wake of cornstubble. The grain truck waits by the road and periodically the combine creeps over to dump its load of corn into the waiting truck. I stop to watch the flow of golden kernels. Dust rises and the pile grows. The air fills with the ringing of grain flowing through the metal tube and dropping into the truck. When the combine is empty, it turns slowly back to cut more corn.

 I stood for a moment and watched. I had laundry to hang and bread to loaf, lessons to plan and papers to grade. I thought about shirking my duties and shedding my cares, running out into the field, waving my hand and chasing down the combine. Whoever was driving would stop and let me climb aboard, sitting up in the glass paneled cabin high above everything. Jim or Sean would kindly listen to my questions about the rhythms of the farmer's year, and entertain with kindly amusement my latest crazy ideas for what to plant in the grass waterway. But this evening, responsibility wins out and I gather my bags and turn to go into the house, thinking that I'll catch them when they harvest the beans.
Harvest Beauty;
Reap Peace;
Blessed Be.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012


Dance Card for a Red Cross Dance

IN BIRDLAND WATER HAS RETURNED, AND IF THE WATER TABLE IS STILL LOW, AND IT'S TOO LATE TO SAVE THE CORN, AT LEAST EVERYTHING IS GREENING UP. A few nights ago, when I was putting the chickens to bed I glanced over at the garden coop, which has been more theoretical this year than an actual garden. I think I've harvested 5 anemic cucumbers and a handful of cherry tomatoes. I have pulled a few weeds over the summer, but even the weeds were overcome by the drought. Anyway, I glanced over and saw that the rains have brought quite a crop of Lamb's Quarters. The earth was still damp from the last little bit of rain, and I made it a point, the next day to spend some time weeding. Now, weeding is probably my favorite thing about gardening, under certain conditions (soft, damp earth, so that the weeds pull up smoothly and the soil shakes off simply.) Conditions were perfect, and I brought a little basket out with me to harvest tomatoes. The vines are full of blossoms, but only a few were ripe on the vine. These were compact, as if the drought had concentrated them. Again, I got only a handful, but how satisfying to weed half the bed in the half hour between chicken-dark and full on dusk.

Now the wheel of the year is turning back to the dark side—earlier nights and later mornings—which is fine because now that school has started I need to spend my evenings prepping for classes instead of mooning around the yard. This morning I threw my bike in the back of my car so I could get to the Student Life Archives where my class went for a field trip. I love the archives. It's a little like a library, only you can't check things out. It has some books, but mostly it has one-of-a-kind objects. It's a little like a museum, only you can closely examine, and even handle the artifacts. Ellen Swain, the friendly archivist always has a selection of objects from student life laid out on the table for my students to see. 

Helpful Advice

 I take my class every semester, and by now she knows which are my favorites. I like to share with my students a longer perspective on the university. They are often surprised when I tell them how the university has changed in big and little ways since I was in their place so many years ago. But here, they can see the props to those stories, and more. I like to show them the green beanie cap that freshman men had to wear all year, any time they were out and about on campus. Some years the caps had small bills, others no bill. A button on the top of the cap was color coded for their college. A freshman caught without his hat would meet with dire consequences—perhaps the kind of hazing that is illegal today. In May, they would build a bonfire and burn their caps to pass the dubious honor of the beanie hats to the next crop of “green” freshmen.  

I also like the little notebook that Alan Hicks, a student from the 40's used to keep track of his expenses while here at the university. I join my students in their awe at his dedication to keeping such a faithful account, and at the expenses he records (coke date—26 cents; graph paper—21 cents; a peephole into the past—priceless). We examine a scrapbook from the 20's and Ellen explains the purpose of dance cards. 

 Some of the most telling evidence of the university's changing relationship to students is in the books written for freshmen by the Dean of Men and the Dean of Women. Facts for Freshmen is the men's version, and very straightforward and, well, factual. It has rules about bicycle use and visiting hours. 

 The women's version (Illini Wise) is much more parental, offering advice and even a helpful chart about what kind of outfit is appropriate for each part of student life. Going to class? “Saddle shoes or Loafers.” Church? “Heels with hose or dressy flats.” The Dean of Women also published a book called Campus Cues, chock full of advice about dating. I like to ask my students to contemplate the difference in their relationship to the Dean of Students today. Would they expect to be told what to wear or how to date? I ask them again, to imagine what will be different in another couple of generations. What stories will they regale their children with about their student days?

Freshman Beanie Hat