Friday, May 28, 2010

Mulch Magic

In Birdland we received a huge pile of mulch. Did I maybe bully the utility tree trimmers into dumping it in my yard? Let’s just say that I persuaded them that they didn’t need any paperwork in triplicate to leave me the remains of my own trees. The mulch has been an inspiration as I spend my mornings chasing the shade around the yard building islands of flowerbeds. I go back and forth with my wheelbarrow designing random pockets of order. As I sweat, I become aware of two facts: one, that I could work in the yard for two or three hours every morning of my life and be completely satisfied; and two, that there is a narrator in my head dictating a how-to list. By 9:30, the only shade left in the yard is in parts I have already weeded and mulched, so I come in to breakfast and my computer and surrender to the narration.

How to stop mowing and discover the kind of garden your yard wants to be in three progressive steps.

1) Stop mowing and see what happens. Unless you have been keeping your yard very trim and using chemical herbicides for a while, you’ll probably notice first the diversity of plants in the yard, even different kinds of grasses. Let them go to seed. Did you ever examine a grass flower to see the pollen-covered anthers glitter like tiny golden wind chimes? For me letting the grass grow was fairly easy. In our big, country yard the entire yard has been completely mowed about three times in twenty years. My new policy of mowing only once a month in the summer has already yielded plenty of wild spots in the yard.

2) Rethink your concept of “weeds.” My friend, Mary B. told me about visitors from the city who ask self-consciously they could dig some Queen Anne’s Lace from her yard. Queen Anne’s Lace is nothing but wild carrots, escaped from cultivation. It grows like a weed around here, but it is also a lovely, delicate umbel of antique-looking flowers with delicate, ferny leaflets. When we visited England we discovered a very popular garden plant, a purple variety of broad-leaf plantain, also a “weed.” When we toured the gardens at Japan house with our friend, Susan, our guide talked about each careful addition to the garden, and Susan leaned over and whispered: “In South Africa, Cotoneaster’s a weed.” Visiting my friend, Diane’s lovely back yard garden, I noticed some 6 foot tall plants with broad leaves, a long cluster of glistening black-purple berries, and a tropical look carefully surrounded by mulch. I told her that Pokeberries are poisonous. “I know,” she said. “I just like them.” I looked again. The plants were lovely! Yes, the berries are poisonous, but so are the red berries of Yew, a popular landscaping choice. We just need to be educated and careful. As soon as my boys could hike around in the woods with me, I would teach and then quiz them on the edibility of each plant. Look at each plant that comes up with the grass with an open heart. What are its qualities? Does it have a blossom that could feed pollinators? Is it hardy? Most “weeds” are, or nobody would think them a problem. The first thing we noticed in Birdland was that Creeping Charley spread out all over the West side of the yard in a thick, green carpet dotted with lovely purple flowers. It seems to me a perfect ground cover, only letting a few tufts of grass through, only growing about 4 or 5 inches high at the most.

3) Now that your heart is open to the unwanted stepchildren of the vegetable kingdom, rethink your concept of “weeds” again. Opening your heart to weeds doesn’t mean you have to let them take over your life, and certainly some plants are noxious. Make a list of true weeds—those you will always pull out. Your list should be shorter than it was before your conversion. My eradication list looks like this: poison ivy, hemlock, ragweed. These plants have plenty of places to grow outside of Birdland. I don’t need to host them. Next think of second level weeds—those you won’t completely eradicate, but want to limit. Thistle, for instance draws butterflies, but I don’t want it to take over the whole yard. Goldenrod is lovely, but it would choke out everything else if I let it. Burdock, can be quite majestic, with its elephant ear leaves and funky, purple blossoms, and apical dominance, but the burs will be impossibly tangled in Isis’ tail if it grows in an open field of grass. As our grass began to go to seed, whenever we noticed Shasta Daisies and Black Eyed Susans we’d pull the grass surrounding the flowers and mulch it. We did the same with a few Thistle and Burdock. Next, we mowed the space between the islands of flowers, working toward the idea that the islands will grow and the mowed area will shrink.

Pay attention to what your yard is telling you. Different light, different soils, nurture different flowers As various plants come up in the yard, my vision grows and changes. I’m taking it slowly, letting my vision unfold.

Notice Beauty; Respond in Peace; Blessed Be.

Friday, May 21, 2010

What Ships Are Built For

Birdland is lush with vegetation and slick with rain. The corn is coming up in fuzzy green stripes, and the beans are still just tiny leaflets adding thinner green lines to the field. We are rich in flowers; sunny Daisies and Grandma’s yellow roses have joined the red-blue hues of Iris, Sweet Rocket, and Nanny’s Peonies. We fill every vase and bottle and old teapot with bouquets. Spring is such a time of growth. Last weekend we had a small family party to honor our two graduates—Dylan from College and Ellis from Middle School. I was so busy with party preparations—baking, cooking, cleaning, moving furniture to accommodate conversation and mingling—that I didn’t have time to let the reality hit me of having watched my middle son’s transition from the shelter of school into the cold world. Chris Matthews spoke at Dylan’s graduation in Chicago, giving refreshingly realistic advice. He spoke to the entire graduating class as if they were all journalism graduates facing the grim prospect of scrambling for the few jobs that experienced reporters are also competing for. He gave a five-point plan for surviving long enough to prosper in this difficult job market. His advice was about networking and friendship, remaining humble and working hard. I can’t remember all five points, but I came away sharing his hope that these young people can face their tremendous challenge with vigor and grace.

Dylan’s graduation also gave me a reason to revisit something I stumbled upon when I was facing one of the biggest challenges of my life. When it seemed like my road was rocky and all uphill and filled with peril, I realized that although I may not be able to choose the landscape, I can choose how I walk down that path.
I do have the power to walk with dignity and respect, to face those hazards with honesty and elegance. I can also choose which direction I walk, and I’m choosing to walk my path toward Joy. That doesn’t mean taking shortcuts toward gratification. At times the path may wind around and go back upon itself, but maybe I just needed to come upon something from a different angle to understand its particular lesson. In Birdland I made myself a reminder of my path to Joy, in my winding trail to the barn. It is bordered with Sedum and Day Lilies, Daffodils and Lavender. Before the party I mulched it and set out some baskets and pots with leeks and onion sets.

It is part flower patch, and part vegetable container garden to remind me that we need both beauty and sustenance; we need to nourish both body and soul. My path will remind me of where I am going, and how to maintain my dignity and optimism. It will remind me that honest labor can be satisfying. My hope for my sons is that they discover their own paths to Joy, and travel them with vigor, buoyancy, and grace.

Dylan begins a fresh adventure next week, as he sets sail with his grandparents across a wide ocean. I encouraged him to go, but as he gets ready to embark, I admit I’m more than a little nervous. He will be out of sight of land and out of touch with the world for three weeks or more. No facebook or twitter updates for me to check—the equivalent of tiptoeing into my sons’ rooms when they were babies, to watch them silently breathing in the night. The soft rise and fall of the blanket assured me that all was well just like a status update can provide me with reassurance without intruding too much. I know that the trip may be dangerous, but I also know that this is an important passage for him. Plus, he can put a new bullet point on his resume: • Deckhand on a Transatlantic Crossing. I was admitting my fears to my friend, Barb, and she gave some wisdom in the form of a quote: “A ship in harbor is safe -- but that is not what ships are built for.” A quick google search revealed that this is from John A. Shedd’s Salt from My Attic, published in 1928. Bon Voyage, my Dylan. Your ship was built to take you on an exciting journey toward Joy. It’s only now beginning.

Sail in Beauty; Navigate Peace; Blessed Be.

Mary Lucille Hays lives in Birdland near White Heath. She is very proud of her three sons and will spend the next several weeks checking weather updates for the Atlantic Ocean.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Bless the Beasts--Even Predators

Purple has come to Birdland in the Irises and Sweet Rocket. My once-a-month mowing plan has already had benefits. I found a Redbud sapling in the tall grass, which would surely have been mowed over in the old days. Yesterday, we toured the gardens of Japan House with our friend, Susan, and came away inspired, hoping to bring a little of the spirit of the tea garden and dry garden to Birdland. What a lovely, fragrant, and informative walk.

But these peaceful musings were interrupted this morning. I was measuring coffee into the percolator basket, and happened to see Ursula cavorting outside the kitchen window. Now, I love my puppy, but I brought her to Birdland for a specific position, as an apprentice to Isis. At Birdland, everyone has to do a little bit of work to make this a farm, and Isis, the Lionhearted, is the defender of Chickens, but she is 14 years old, and, let’s face it; she won’t be around forever. She is failing in many ways. She is as deaf as I am, and sometimes would rather sleep in the sun than defend her home. She deserves a tranquil retirement. The plan was for her to teach Ursa the ropes. Isis, my yellow lioness, and Ursula, my black bear cub, would protect their realm.

I pause between spoonfuls to see what my puppy is playing with. She is crouched down (not in pounce posture, but with rump up, tail wagging, head extended up in a playful manner). I step forward to see who she is greeting—and drop my spoon, knocking over the basket and spilling coffee because her new friend is…a Coyote!

I run outside and the coyote is clearly confused, pacing back and forth on the edge of the field. Isis, in her dotage, seems to be taking cues from Ursula instead of leading the attack. And Ursula has probably already given the posture of submission. (Hi! Please don’t hurt me! I just want to play! Want to play? Do you? Please don’t hurt me! I’m harmless! Look—here is my belly; here is my throat! I’m harmless!) Ursula looks back at me and jumps for joy. My presence apparently indicates approval of her game. Maybe I’ll even join in the fun!

I advance toward the interloper, and she retreats a little, but not much. I’m in my socks and robe, and the grass is still wet with dew. The canine signals are all mixed up. The dogs want to play, the Coyote wants breakfast of chicken and eggs. The four of us do a strange quadrille. I shout and wave my arms. “Seriously?” says Ms. Coyote, eyeing the dogs inquisitively. I begin walking, then running towards her, and the dogs run too, tails wagging. I reach the edge of the bean field, and Madam Coyote stays about 20 feet from me. When I stop, she sits, waiting for me to go away. When I press forward, she gets up leisurely and strolls toward the meadow. We cross all the way to the grass waterway in this fashion, where she lies down, biding her time. “What fun!” says Ursula.

Where is my lion? Where is my bear? My wet socks are now icy, and not much protection against last year’s corn stubble. I realize I’m going to have to signal to everyone that this is not a game, and I suddenly run, yelling—Braveheart style—toward the coyote, my arms windmilling. The dogs lope along after me. The Coyote retreats some, grudgingly. However, the herd of deer I hadn’t noticed before at the back edge of the field starts, and runs for the woods. Imagine a middle-aged woman in her socks and nightclothes running across the field. Of course she’s going to trip. Of course she must then get up and run again so the Coyote doesn’t interpret her fall as the posture of submission. Eventually we reached the edge of the meadow, but I’m not sure we got our message across. When I finally turned back, she was lying casually just beyond the field. I walk back, thinking I might just keep the chickens cooped up today. Thinking about building scarecrows with pinwheel heads and flopping arms to stand watch at the edges of the yard.

Respectable Coyote, I honor your place in the web of life. If not for you and your fellow predators, we would surely be over-run by voles and moles and rats and even cute little bunnies. But can’t you find plenty of those in yonder meadow? Can we agree to respect each other’s territory?

Run in Beauty; Hunt in Peace; Blessed Be.

Mary Lucille Hays lives in Birdland near White Heath. She is interested in the balance of nature.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Broken China, Mending Hearts

The china—simple, elegant, white with a delicate ramble of pink roses—came to Hutsonville, Illinois from Limoges, France. I’ll guess that it was a wedding gift to my great grandparents. Weaving a history from that guess, I’ll imagine that the china traveled, carefully packed, by train to Montana before my grandmother, my Nanny, was born. When my Uncle Gock was a "babe in arms," according to Nanny, her father disappeared. It was the depression of the 1890's and he took off, maybe riding the rails. Eventually he found work and sent for my great grandmother, and "What could she do?" asks Nanny. "She had to pack up everything and take that baby West."

Nanny was born in 1902 in Anaconda, Montana, so let’s assume that's where he was. Perhaps working as a postman. In Anaconda, the china survived the tornado. (Nanny would tell of snow coming into the house from the broken roof, families wandering the street, trailing a sled with all their belongings.)

For decades the china gradually moved eastward, first to Lincoln, Nebraska, then Omaha, where my mother was born, and finally to Champaign, Illinois six months later.

It was a complete collection of 12 place settings with all the trimmings. A gravy boat, a big platter, a china bell to call us to dinner, tiny salt dishes. One plate had a small chip, but the set was otherwise perfect. "The Haviland" was mythic for us. Only pulled out on occasions worthy of "Bobby's Torte" or "Nanny's Purple Eggs." Washing "The Haviland" was an enormous responsibility and honor.
pickled eggs with beets
Now here's some personal background: I have sometimes an unhealthy relationship with stuff, especially personal artifacts. After Nanny died, my mom had 5 sets of china, "The Haviland" plus her own wedding china, Nanny’s, and mom’s other grandmother’s. Now the sad part of the story: My mother has four daughters. Why, I would lament, is she hoarding all that china? Why not keep one set and give us each one? I didn’t necessarily need "The Haviland," but I guess I did think there was enough to go around. I confess I was sometimes a little angry about it.

One day my sister, Betsy, called, in tears. She was helping mom sort through things before moving. Mom had decided to give us each a set of china, and the two of them lovingly unwrapped each piece, reminiscing about my grandmother. They had decided that I was to have "The Haviland" because I was the oldest, very close to Nanny, and the only one who possessed even a sliver of memory of my great grandmother, my mother's "Nanny." Betsy and Mom were in the basement, sorting the china.

My sister described what happened next, when abruptly, the center leaf of the table gave way and suddenly, my mother, reaching out to stop the inevitable, was weeping in a heap of broken china. My sister, confused (Was mom having a heart attack? Was she cut...?) rushed from the other side of the room. Betsy said most pieces simply shattered, but the heap somehow cushioned a few small dishes.

Betsy coaxed mom upstairs, then called to tell me the story. I felt sad, but crying wasn't going to bring back my grandmother's china. I firmly comforted Betsy, who put my inconsolable mother on the phone. Mom inventoried the remains: 5 dinner pl
ates and 5 soup bowls, the gravy boat and a few mismatched serving pieces (oval lid, round dish) My mental picture grew from a few chipped saucers to something we could still serve a meal on.

Now the bittersweet nugget: My mom is still sobbing apologies, and I'm fighting tears, trying to reassure her. My heart is suddenly buoyant with the news that mine was the only set broken. I thought that all the china was gone, but they had just boxed the other china. My Haviland was the only casualty. I focus on what is left instead of what is l
ost, but I'm starting to worry about mom. She is still crying, because it was a complete set. And she gives me this gift: "I wanted you to have that one because it was the best."

Now, I don’t think my mom loves me any more or less than my sisters or brother, but sometimes we can lose track of what is important. In fact, both of us have been fix
ated on stuff. If I am too attached, I come by it honestly. On the other hand, if I am openhearted, I come by that honestly, too. To hear that my mom planned to give me "The Haviland" was amazing.

I heard later that Betsy told mom to just give me her set—Nanny’s wedding china—but mom said, "No, I wanted Mary to have 'The Haviland.'" In fact, each of my sisters offered me their sets. I guess we can all be openhearted.

I felt stunned, but amazingly at peace given my sometimes unrestrained sense of entitlement. Later, I woke in the night with this realization: I didn't need a set of china; I only needed to hear that my mom wanted to give it to me.

The next day we celebrated, and it was like the world opening up after a storm. After a big drama, life goes on. We were festive, though tears were still close to the surface—because really, it wasn't about the broken china. Another tenuous link was lost connecting us to precious loved ones, valuable history. We ate carrot cake and reminisced.

I am grateful to my mom for many gifts, both spiritual and physical, including one perfect set of Haviland China that will remain whole in both of our hearts. Meanwhile, the remnants are displayed on my shelf—waiting for four friends to come for soup.
Memorize Beauty; Give in Peace; Blessed Be.
Mary Lucille Hays lives in Birdland near White Heath. She wishes her mom a very happy Mother’s Day. Birdland now has a fan page on Facebook.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Garbage Old and New

Birdland is windy enough today that I think twice about hanging laundry before deciding to go ahead, using four pins instead of my usual three. The wind is warm, but the house has a residual coolness left from the spring chill of the past few days. I’m not complaining; I know that soon enough we’ll wish for a break in the heat. The flowers seem to keep a while longer than usual in this mild spring. Lilacs are just now fading, and Iris blossoms linger in their spiral wrappers. Grandma’s yellow roses have sent out small, tight bud. I have to remember to check often, because they hide behind the big lilac bushes, and only last a day or two.

We moved the chicks from the aviary to the chick creeper, where they can enjoy fresh grass. Today I’ll move the birds from the indoor winter aviary to their summer home. The chicks can venture out of their low, creeping coop, but can duck back inside if the big hens come to bother them. The Maples are dropping their helicopters and the leaves are pushing out. In just a few weeks the winged seeds grew from tiny, green mustaches to straw colored commas swirling down from the sky. I scoop them out of the little pond, but they still spiral down to float on the dark water.

The wind picks up and the dogs and I head for the woods. The Spring Beauty, Dutchman’s Breeches, and Dogtooth Violets that carpeted the forest floor a week ago are mostly gone, but the triple leaflets of Jack-in-the-Pulpit push through the fertile mulch. The double umbrellas of the 2nd year Mayapple now each shelter a yellow flower. Ursula tugs at her leash and we make our way through the Teats Timber where we harvested lumber last fall. The undergrowth hasn’t come back yet, and the walking is easy, even with a leash. We come upon the little stream where folks used to dump trash. After a good rain, we can often find old bottles. I’ve been pulling antique glass out of that gully for years, and I keep thinking I’ve found most of them, or at least most of the best ones, but today, right on the surface are a cobalt blue Milk of Magnesia and a ketchup bottle—both perfectly whole and predating screw caps. I pick these up and carry them home thinking about trash, and especially plastic. I’m sure the people who dumped these bottles never imagined I’d one day comb these woods searching for treasures. Today’s trash is another story. I find plenty of modern garbage, too, which will never be any good for anybody. Water bottles, soda bottles, a child’s car seat have been washed down that gully too, thrown casually or deliberately from a passing car.

My mind returns again to that Pacific Garbage Patch, the plastic island of floating debris. For years I’ve been patting myself on the back about garbage. Most weeks we don’t generate enough garbage to fill our trash barrel. We recycle and try to buy things second hand. In the grocery story, I consider my purchases carefully: how much packaging comes with this product? I’ve never ever bought plastic garbage bags, using instead the plastic grocery bags that somehow collect in my kitchen even though I try to be diligent about bringing my own bags, or requesting paper, or even using the trick my friend, Mary B. taught me. When I’ve forgotten my canvas bags, I’ll put my groceries back into the cart without bags. It’s an easy transfer from the cart to the car, and at home, I can grab the bags from the kitchen to unpack. I’ve had some weird looks at the checkout counter. I think they’re getting used to me now, but back to the inappropriate self-congratulation. Until those grocery bags are biodegradable, they, too, might end up in the floating mass of plastic soup that could very well lead to our destruction. I know I can do better. No, I’ve never bought garbage bags, but I can stop buying plastic sandwich bags, freezer bags, stop using the free bags in the produce section to bag veggies. I can use more permanent containers and wrap Ellis’ lunchtime sandwiches in waxed paper, closed with a small piece of tape.

The dogs and I walk back to the road. I’m clutching my bottles, planning new challenges for myself. What if I went one month without buying anything with unrecyclable plastic? What if I did some investigation to find out how much of the plastic I take to the recycling drop off actually gets recycled? We’re all in this together. Small but important steps in the right direction may put us on the right path and give us courage to take large ones.

Walk in Beauty; Work in Peace; Blessed Be.