Thursday, April 22, 2010

Reinventing "Weeds"

We had a touch of rain last night in Birdland, just enough to dampen the ground and release that earthy rain smell. The dogs and I walked down the grass waterway to look at the blooming Plum trees on the edge of the field. Yep, they’re blooming, all right. The petals are starting to snow down into the grass, leaving furry asterisks of stamens, and, let’s hope, the germs of many wild plums. Birdland is rich in blossoms right now—the Lilacs remain crisp and aromatic even as the Peony buds swell. The fruit trees in the yard are covered with blooms, the Apples that our friend, Brian, pruned; Pears; Cherries; Peaches; and especially the ancient Quince tree. Grandma’s yellow roses have only the tiny beginnings of buds yet, but the Sweet Rocket is sending up little bluish clusters that will soon open into a riot of violet heads, and Iris has sent up stalks with white, papery sheaths, getting ready to unwrap the present of a bud inside. Weeds are coming up, too, and I’m continuing the experiment I began last summer: mow with the rotary push mower just around the house, and limit the mowing of the rest of the yard to three times this summer. Meanwhile, my goal is to reduce the area that needs to be mowed by expanding flowerbeds and intensively mulching. I want the yard to eventually resemble a semi-wild park with winding paths lined with flowers that lead to various corners, like outdoor rooms: the bonfire area for nighttime parties; the glider for quiet contemplation; the picnic table for meals; the pond, chicken house and vegetable coop for pleasant chores. My first path leads to the barn, and the bulbs I planted in the fall are taking turns offering their parade of color. The daffodils are drying like crepe paper, tulip petals are falling to reveal fat, juicy pistils and stamens furry with black pollen, but the grape hyacinths have popped up, taking over in defining my path.

Another big part of my experiment is to redefine “weed.” Dandelions, for example, have medicinal uses (The flowers make Dandelion Wine, for example, medicinal purposes, of course) and people do grow it as a crop for the roots (Dandelion Coffee) and the greens are very nutritious. Um…why is it a “weed?” I actually like the sunny, yellow flowers, the snowy seeds, like tiny, white, umbrellas. I remember as a child, driving across town with my dad. He was playing a puzzle game with us. As we drove down the street he’d point at the various lawns, saying, “I like that yard, but I don’t like that one.” Our job was to find the pattern and guess what distinguished the yards he liked from the ones he didn’t. I can’t remember if we finally guessed or if he gave us the key: It was the absence or presence of dandelions. (Being my dad, he liked the lawns with dandelions.) For years now, I’ve left at least three common Thistles in my flowerbed because they attract butterflies. Left alone, Thistles are majestic plants with beautiful and complex purple flowers. If you mulch around them, creating a natural frame, they look like you’ve planted them on purpose. Now, more than ever, I am hesitant to mow down any plant that may help bees and other pollinators carry on. This year around the house, the Creeping Charlie has become a ground cover by default. Yes, it’s choking out the grass, but guess what? Since I haven’t mowed there at all, it has offered up heaps of gracious, blue flowers that contrast so beautifully with the deeply green leaves. I don’t think I’ll have to mow that part of the yard at all. I think I’ll just let those few clumps of grass that have managed to push through go to seed to break up the field of blue and green. I’ve lived in the country long enough to know that if I don’t mow at all, I will wake up one day in a jungle of Ragweed and Hemlock (and I know from experience that this is not a good thing). My goal instead is to mow a little less every year. Robert Wright wrote in his New York Times “Opinionator” column, “The Dandelion King,” “the war on weeds, though not unwinnable, isn’t winnable at a morally acceptable cost.” He cites the dangers of pesticide use and advocates for a new standard for lawn care. I’d like to join him in tweaking our perception of attractiveness to incorporate a more natural and holistic beauty.

Walk in Peace; Reinvent Beauty; Blessed Be.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Dragon Tail Soup

Birdland is quiet this evening. Ursula is on an overnight stay at the hospital for a little procedure. I got a call this afternoon reporting that my puppy is just fine, if a little groggy, and she had a pedicure while she was napping. We went to town early this morning and had a nice walk while waiting for the vet to open up shop. Most of our walks are in the country, so whenever we hike in town I like to look around and think about an alternate lifestyle where I might wave to my neighbors as I walk downtown for a cup of coffee or a bank errand. I shamelessly peer into yards for landscaping ideas, and gaze into gardens for color combinations. I saw a rounded dogwood tree bursting with crisp, pink petals. An elderly couple nodded to me as they shared a brisk morning walk. A man practiced his golf swing at the head of his driveway. Recycling buckets lined the curb awaiting pickup. The lawns were fresh and trim and green. Ursa needed an empty stomach for her surgery and hadn’t eaten since the night before. She was snapping at the grass and trying to root in the soil. When our walk ended at the vet’s office, I told them we had an emergency; Ursa was surely going to die if she didn’t get her breakfast soon. She trotted naively to her fate, and I went on with my day.

It was a lovely town walk, but when I got home I wondered at my envy. The warm weather is coaxing the blossoms out of their jackets and new colors emerge from the calyx to decorate Birdland. The gentle pink of Redbud harmonizes with the purples of Violets and Ground Ivy. The Lilac bushes, white and lavender, add their soft scent to the breeze. Weigela scatters flashy magenta petals in the grass to set off the Violets. I spent the day trying to work at my desk, but accomplished little, because I kept finding myself outside. “I’d better check on those chicks,” I’d think, and leave my typing mid-sentence. Half an hour later I’d come to, and find myself examining the bluebells I’d transplanted in the little spinney of woods several years ago. They are just beginning to bloom, and spreading nicely.

I don’t know how the day disappeared, but suddenly it was dusk, and I went out to check the chickens and close up the coop. I passed the asparagus patch on the way to the aviary, and though I’m sure I saw no hint of shoots yesterday, now they were two feet tall, and more. A handful was too far gone—already branching out and turning woody. Darkness was falling fast, and a moon hung in the Western sky like the tiniest sliver of cantaloupe. I went in and grabbed a flashlight and a sharp knife, then called for Ellis, since I could not juggle both with the asparagus. My youngest came along, grumbling only a little. He held the light for me while I cut them close to the ground, like Nora suggested last spring. We also checked the rogue patch by the bonfire pit, but those had not yet surfaced. I carried my green bouquet to the kitchen. If you bend the stalk it will snap at the perfect point to separate the tender part of the shoot from the tough base. Too bad we’d already eaten. I put the shoots in a vase of water, mixing the feathery, overgrown stalks with those still scaled on the tip like the tail of a lizard. Tomorrow we’ll have dragon tail soup.

I’ll pick up Ursula tomorrow. I miss her, but I appreciate the tranquil house tonight. Kali, the ghost kitten calls from the basement. I set her dishes of food and water in the kitchen and urge her to come up for her supper. Emboldened by the absence of canine (Isis is asleep in the living room), she stays a little longer, tolerating, for a while, my mindless soliloquy.

Walk in Beauty; Eat in Peace; Blessed Be.

Mary Lucille Hays lives in Birdland near White Heath. Birdland now has a fan page on facebook.

Dragon Tail Soup

Snap fresh asparagus into 2 inch lengths, reserving the tips. Steam the stem ends gently, just until they are the color of spring grass. Now steam the tails (I mean, tips) while you puree the stems with a little water, stock, cream, milk, or yogurt. Pour in bowls and drop in tails. Garnish with yogurt, sour cream, and fresh herbs of your choice. Enjoy!

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Signs of Spring

Birdland is greening up, and the parade of colors continues. This week features shades of red and blue. Here come Violets and Ground Ivy from the bluer end of the spectrum, Redbud and Weigela from the pink side. In the woods, the Dutchman’s Breeches, Dogtooth Violets, and Trillium, are blooming, and Ramp is up. I’ve always gathered the Ramp (wild leek) leaves to add to salad or stir fry, but this year I plan to dig it for the first time to try the root end. I won’t dig too much—I don’t want to deplete the population. In the Teats Timber where we harvested lumber last fall, the newly opened canopy brings in more light and Mayapples stand like a tiny grove of Truffula Trees. Mayapple, or Mandrake, has a two-year cycle. First it sends up one stalk with an umbrella-shaped leaf. The second year, the stalk branches and two tiny beach umbrellas open to protect a lone blossom, which later brings one yellow “apple.” If you can find a ripe one before the deer get to them, they taste a little like a mild fig.

With such a wild fertility all around, it’s hard not to write a whole letter about the flowers and herbs, but my mind is on another sign of spring—the trash I see everywhere. Cans (mostly beer) and fast food wrappers thrown from cars litter my walk to dig wild leeks for my supper, rubbish on the sidewalks and overflowing dumpsters embellish my walk to work. Many of these things on their way to the landfill could be salvaged. After one wild weekend I found a like-new hooded sweatshirt and a woolen V-neck sweater—both purple. As I stuffed these into my bag to take home and launder, I wondered how they landed on the sidewalk at my feet. Did somebody get jumped for wearing the wrong school colors? Or did he suddenly get so disgusted with the color of violets that he had to rip off his clothes and fling them on the ground? Either way, after a trip to the laundry to wash out the smell of beer and cigarettes, these will keep me warm at chilly track meets this spring while I root for Ellis’ team.

Last week while driving home I saw a fat, drawstring garbage bag in the median on the highway. My first thought was that someone was moving and lost part of their belongings. The bag was stuffed so full, and so neatly tied that I thought it must be a load of clothes. Then I noticed another about a quarter mile away, and another, and several more, evenly spaced, and a different scenario presented itself. Someone who didn’t want to pay for garbage services taking a nighttime ride when the highway is quiet, tossing bag after bag of trash from the back of a truck. Living in the country, we see it often enough, many times in our own roadside. I felt the familiar anger rise as I drove, but it was followed by the realization that even if we pay for someone to take our garbage to the landfill, it still enters the waste stream, and like most streams, might potentially end up in the ocean creating a floating mass of plastic soup twice the size of Texas. The whole “Don’t be a litterbug” concept I grew up with is really just sweeping the problem under the rug. Sometimes I think if we’re going to use disposable items that won’t biodegrade, maybe we should just throw them on the ground when we’re through with them; they’ll end up in the same place whether we’re litterbugs or not, and if we have to look at them maybe we’ll realize we have to stop using plastic. If we don’t want to add to the crisis, we have to break the trash cycle before we even get to the choices to recycle, throw in the landfill or toss out the window.

One way the University YMCA is encouraging people to Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle is with their Dump and Run program. Each May, when students are leaving the community en masse, and trying to fit 9 months worth of accumulated goods into the family car the Y collects useable goods to sell at a gigantic garage sale in August when students return. For dumping dates and a list of items they will accept see their webpage: This program does double duty—keeping things out of the landfill in May, and giving students a low cost alternative to buying all-new furnishings for the school year in August. (This is especially a good idea if they’re just going to dump them again when they leave.) The Dump and Run is one antidote to disposable consumerism, and a terrific garage sale.

Bloom in Beauty; Recycle Peace; Blessed Be.

Mary Lucille Hays lives in Birdland near White Heath. She is interested in sustainability, cycles, and her own back yard. Birdland has a fan page on Facebook

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Spring Cleaning

Spring has come to Birdland, bringing sunshine colored Daffodils and Jonquils, tiny scarlet maple blossoms, and chores, chores, chores. The other day my vacuum cleaner made the noise you never want to hear in the middle of spring cleaning: a sudden switch from an even roar to a high-pitched whine. I didn’t hear it myself. I vacuum with my hearing aids turned off. No need to waste batteries and hearing to amplify industrial noises. The kids flagged me down. I switched the vacuum off and my hearing aids on. They told me about the noise. I hadn’t noticed any drop in suction, but just then I caught the slight scent of an electrical burning.

My vacuum is an ancient Electrolux. It’s very similar to the vacuum cleaner my mother inherited from her mother when Nanny got her new Hoover. It may even be the same model. It doesn’t have any fancy features, but that’s okay because we don’t have carpets. A few years back I tricked it out with an extra long cord and a new hose. When the wheels fell off I attached Ellis’ old skateboard wheels. This electrical burning was bad news. It was time to visit a repair shop.

When I told my sister I planned to take it in to Byers Vacuum Sales and Service, she seemed surprised. “How does that guy stay in business?” she asked. “I would think most people would just go to Wall-Mall and buy a new one.” This, of course gave me the perfect opening for yet another diatribe on our modern consumerism, fueled by an article I recently read by Sharon Bloyd-Peshkin, from In These Times. She could have written one of my usual rants, but she introduced me to whole new vocabulary: “Slow Consumption,” the name of her article—a play on “slow food,” which I took to mean consuming with intention, responsibility, and consideration: “heirloom design,” a built in (or designed-in, rather) antidote to disposable consumption and planned obsolescence, “heirloom design” refers to products that are carefully built to last and easy to repair and upgrade. (Bloyd-Peshkin credits Tim Cooper for “Slow Consumption” and Saul Griffith for “heirloom design.”) All this reminds me of the Arts and Crafts Movement and artists like William Morris and Antonio Gaudi who saw workers in a holistic relationship with their communities. Shouldn’t work nurture the worker as well as produce quality goods and services? Would you feel better creating a solid, quality product (whether a piece of furniture, a loaf of bread, a computer printer, or a vacuum cleaner) or a mass-produced, cheap, throwaway item for consumption that someone will use briefly before tossing in the landfill? Instead of endlessly chasing after more jobs to fuel the economy, which too often means dreaming up new “thneeds” (Dr. Suess’ “Fine-Something-That-All-People-Need!”) What if we slow down, take a breath, evaluate what we really do need to nurture a community, and then teach people the skills to produce those goods and services? What if we pay people fairly for this labor, share knowledge and expertise, and build products for the long haul?

Bloyd-Peshkin also talked about replacing the “burden of ownership” of some items with sharing or renting them. Once I was visiting my friend, Nancy, when a man burst into her kitchen door with a laundry basket under one arm. I was startled, but she quickly introduced me to her neighbor. “We share a washer and dryer,” she explained. “No need to have two sets.” This arrangement not only saves money and the resources to build laundry facilities, but encourages regular neighborly interactions.

I took my vacuum in to the repair shop. For good measure I brought in a broken hand-held vacuum that had been sitting in the barn for years. The friendly repairman sold me a $3 belt for the hand-held, and patiently showed me how to put it in, offering suggestions for the seized up brush and a history lesson in the manufacture of this specific model. He told me he could put it in for me, but it seemed a pity to charge me the minimum for such a small job. Then he examined my Electrolux. He thought he might have to replace the motor. In the end he was able to fix it for $77, including fixing the broken handle and adding a used screw somewhere that I didn’t even realize was missing. “Here you go,” he said. “Maybe it will last your family another fifty years.”

Work in Beauty; Walk in Peace; Blessed Be

Mary Lucille Hays lives in Birdland near White Heath. She is interested in how good work can nurture the worker and the community. Birdland has a fan page on Facebook.