Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Birdland at the Wednesday Market

In Birdland we seem to have mighty thunderstorms every night. It’s quite a show. First the heat gets more and more oppressive as the day wears on, the clouds seem to add to the humidity like wet grey blankets above us. Then the wind picks up, blowing in a sudden coolness. The clouds get heavier. We hear the thunder in the distance, see the lightening flicker. We rush around opening windows to rid the house of the damp heat, then run around closing them again when the rain hits, sometimes with some hail mixed in. The grass and fields are emerald green, but the yard has muddy spots that don’t dry up. You catch a whiff of decay, as if the roots are rotting beneath the green. Our corn looks okay so far, but when we get too much rain the corn doesn’t have to send the roots down too far to get a drink. The stalks grow tall and lush, but the roots are lazy and weak, so that a heavy storm will blow them down. I’ve lived out here long enough to see a few very wet summers, when whole fields lie down in one direction, as if a giant sat down to rest and got up again.

This week I was hoping for a dry Wednesday. We went to the Mahomet Market and set up our table, despite the forecast for rain. The Mahomet Market sets up every Wednesday from 3-6 in the grassy area West of Busey Bank at 312 East Main Street in Mahomet. The bank is kindly hosting the Market for several weeks because of roadwork at the usual location. It was pleasant to sit in the shade of my umbrella, visiting and winding balls of cotton rags for rug-making. Lisa was there from Tomahnous Farm with a table full of color. Tie-dyed t-shirts and cut flowers, Basil, Broccoli, and a basket of Garlic with a hint of purple shadowing its white, papery skin. Ed from “Ed’s Place,” a sustainable farm, presented samples of Sugar Snap Peas and Purslane, his table spread with offerings of woodwork, potted Ferns, and Tomato plants. He had simply crafted trivets of wood and tile, small potpourri boxes with intricate patterns cut out to emit the scent of the herbs within. I just love farmers’ markets for their diverse offerings. You never know what you’ll find. I love them too, for honoring the important connection between consumers and the growers and makers of the goods. Buying Lisa’s certified organic vegetables or Ed’s purslane means that for one meal, at least, I’m supporting sustainable agricultural practices. And since I have visited Lisa’s farm, just a few miles East of the market, I can envision her broccoli growing, picture her cutting it from the stem, her long braid flopping over her shoulder as she bends. I also know I’m limiting the oil and carbon emissions in bringing that broccoli to my plate. It didn’t come from California, but from Champaign County. As always when I visit with Lisa, our talk turned to chickens, and in between customers we traded tales of predators, comparing horror stories of blood and feathers, or sudden-overnight-disappearance-of-an-entire-flock-with-no-trace. Birdland is getting rather short on chickens, and I think next week Lisa will bring me some chicks. I tell her I’ll bring a crate, and if she doesn’t have time to bring them, I’ll just stop by after the market. I ask her how big they are and she cups her hands so I can imagine them—big enough to be feathered out. I think she said they are half Cochin and half Auracana, which means they’ll have feathered feet and might lay greenish tinted eggs. They’re half bantam, so they’ll be small. I’ll keep them in the aviary, the safest place for chicks.

Our talk is pleasantly interrupted by a patron who stops at my table. We exchange mini-biographies. She grew up in Mahomet, left, returned. I grew up in Champaign, moved to the family farm. The afternoon passes; I finish winding my rug cotton and pick up my knitting. I move my chair to keep in the shade of my umbrella until I’m sitting under the tree next to Lisa’s table. Suddenly somebody notices that it’s 6:00 and the promised rain hasn’t come. We each pack up our wares and everybody helps with the tables. I enjoy this camaraderie. I hope it won’t rain next Wednesday.

Grow in Beauty; Purchase Peace; Blessed Be.

Mary Lucille Hays lives in Birdland near White Heath. She will bring her books and fiber arts to the Mahomet Market on Wednesdays from 3-6, and to the Steeple Gallery Coffeehouse on second Saturdays from 10-2 this summer.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Alternate Realities

It’s been raining again in Birdland, keeping the yard emerald green, but also turning the new grass waterway Jim and Sean planted into a running stream, and sections of the bean field into puddles. Parts of the yard have become a jungle. Yesterday I hacked away at the Thistle and Burdock surrounding the garden coop, trying to get some morning sun for my tomatoes. I cut the root of the largest Thistle, and used the shovel to carry it to the mulch pile. I’m guessing it weighed at least 10 pounds. This time of year I’m always chasing chores around the yard. I get one plot looking halfway decent, and turn around to admire the bed I cleaned out last week—only to find forest of Mulberry and Hackberry saplings, Goldenrod and Burdock, already crowding my Asters, Day Lilies, and Iris. At times it seems like Birdland is too much for one woman to keep up with.

I’ve been living a funny sort of town and country life—helping Chad, my oldest, with some yard work in town. He has moved to the West Coast, and now will prepare his house to sell, or rent to another set of tenants. His house has a beautiful yard and my mind wanders as I pull Smartweed and Lambs’ Quarters from the rain-softened earth around his Boxwood. I imagine an alternate life in town—a brisk walk to work, to the library, (where my town address would get me a library card!) to a coffee shop, maybe even to the grocery store if I had a sturdy cart. In Birdland, it is easy to talk myself out driving to town, an hour’s round trip, a quarter tank of gas, so I rarely attend community events, lectures, meetings. In town I could ride my bike, the bus, share a ride with someone. The yard here is so small. After thirty minutes I have finished the front yard, all but for trimming the bushes. Maybe on Saturday I’ll tackle the back yard and sleep in town, just to see how I like it. I could wake up and walk downtown for morning coffee, meet a friend.

Is this simply a grass-is-always-greener chain of thought? I don’t think so. I think it’s good to periodically explore your options. I would lose a lot by moving to town. I’ve spent almost twenty-five years in Birdland, putting down strong roots in my rural community. Ellis is about to begin high school. We’ve put a lot of work and money into this house. From my bedroom window I can see the sun set every evening. From my kitchen window I can greet the sun in the morning as it clears the woods while the sky is still a golden red. My children mark the seventh generation of Heaths that has lived on this land. I have my family for neighbors, and just yesterday while walking the dogs I got the chance to meet for the first time a more distant kinswoman, who lives a mile from my door. She guessed who I was by the description of my dogs in these letters and stopped to chat for a moment. My family is scattered all over this county like poppyseeds on a bagel.

Moving to town would mean giving up on goats, cutting down on chickens. And I have this house to think of. I only have to look a mile West of here to see what happens to a house that stands empty for twenty-five years. It loses its soul. A grand white house sits on a hill, somebody’s broken dream, a cupola on top looks eastward with empty eyes. So many saplings have grown up in the yard that the cupola is about all you can see now. Over the years I’ve watched it the paint weather off, the door hang open to let in the rain and wildlife. I think about the waste and how many people need homes. I don’t want that to happen here. Oh, I don’t flatter myself that I’m the only one who would want to live in this house and take care of the place, but it’s not always easy. I’m whining now, but keeping up a smaller yard feels suddenly less demanding, more do-able. Which brings me back to the question that darts and hovers around my head like a Hummingbird around a Trumpet Flower: Could I leave Birdland? I don’t know the answer, but I have come to one important conclusion. Birdland is not a place; it is an attitude and a way of life. Wherever I live, I’ll look for the positives, and I’ll keep Birdland in my heart.

Work in Beauty; Keep the Peace; Blessed Be.

Mary Lucille Hays lives in Birdland near White Heath. She is interested the balance of growth and decay, and finds examples of both in her own back yard. Birdland has a fan page on Facebook.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Tomato Stakes and Garlic Scapes

Mulberries are ripe in Birdland, dropping their abundant fruit like black, juicy rain. The daisies are fading, but the Day Lilies have come, a whole bouquet on each stalk, opening, then closing, one flower every day. A bunch in a simple vase or jar coupled with Cattails make a lovely arrangement. The Curly Dock has gone to seed and has turned red, a tiny, whisper of autumn in my garden. Curly Dock is another “weed” that I like to leave a little of. In another week the seeds will be a rich, deep brown, perfect to set off the golden orange of the Day Lilies. They also work very well with various grasses to make a dry bouquet. I like to reward myself after a chore by picking a bunch of flowers. My friend, Barb, calls this my “non-calorie dessert.”

In Summertime my projects seem to multiply with the hours of daylight. Sometimes I have too many big ideas and I think I should just focus on a few small ones. It’s so easy to get sidetracked when the day stretches out until evening. I’ve been squandering the morning coolness by working indoors, then live to regret it when I have to go out in the afternoon sun to just pretend that I’m still trying to keep ahead of the garden. Indoors I have been making screens and organizing the art closet. The screens are my answer to living without air conditioning. We have double hung windows, which use natural air currents to cool the house. One day last summer, after reading about it, I tried opening the top and bottom of each window, upstairs and downstairs. It was a hot day, but the house felt very cool. The only problem was the house also filled with flies since we never got around to buying screens when we put the windows in. I found I could buy screen kits and make them for about half of what ready-made screens cost to fit my windows. I have installed them on the shady side of the house, and although the humidity comes in, the flies stay out. The air circulates and it’s noticeably cooler in the house. In times of low humidity, I like it much better than the window air conditioners we used to run. (No central air in this big, old farmhouse.) My power bill is lower this summer, and the reading on my guilt-o-meter has gone down. The Gulf disaster has showed me that it’s easy to blame BP. Clearly their practices are unethical, reckless, and treacherous, and their response to the “event” would be laughable if it weren’t so tragic. But they were feeding our appetite for cheap energy, and we bear some of the blame. In addition to unplugging the air conditioners, I’m even more committed to hanging my laundry outside all summer and to my low-mow philosophy. Which brings me back outside.

I hadn’t given the garden coop much attention since I planted the tomatoes and peppers a few weeks ago. The Creeping Charley had crept in, carpeting the bed, in a lovely green, but I was afraid it would bury my poor tomatoes. I pulled all that out and discovered some cucumber seedlings I had forgotten planting, and a few volunteer beans from last year. Once again I talked myself out of ordering the nifty, but expensive stainless steel spiral tomato stakes and staked my tomatoes with a tripod of bamboo poles. I tied them up and pruned the lower branches. I want to train them up the poles to allow light in the floor of the garden. I was happy to find several tomatoes set on, like green golf balls. I mulched the whole bed with old hay. The garlic I planted in the fall and thinned earlier was putting out curly scapes. This morning I found a recipe at Terra’s Food and Farm Notes: www.foodandfarm.blogspot.com. I’d never heard of eating them before, but they sound delicious.

In June, especially with all the rain we’ve had, the grass grows tall and fast. I’ve modified my once-a month mowing scheme somewhat. Originally I’d planned to mow the whole yard each month just to keep the ragweed, hemlock, and trees from taking over. But the west pasture looked pretty choppy after being mowed, and I decided to just identify clumps of flowers, mulch around them, and then mow paths to create a winding walkway on the way to the pear tree. If I see noxious weeds in the tall grass, it’s easier to cut them individually than to mow the whole patch. Right now my goal is to create a few pockets of civility in the yard. My mulch pile slowly shrinks, and the weed pile slowly grows. Time will tell how many pockets I can keep up with.

Walk in Beauty; Work in Peace; Blessed Be.

Mary Lucille Hays lives in Birdland near White Heath. She is interested in the intersection between community and nature.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Rain Barrel

In Birdland, we enjoyed the Asparagus, but after 6 weeks you have to let it bolt to replenish its roots. The thick dragon tails are magically transforming into delicate feathery bushes that will provide a backdrop to the peonies for the rest of the summer. The peonies have wilted and dried on the bushes. I should dead-head them, but they have kept their color, and the burgundy blossoms still go so nicely with the deep green that I just leave them there. The Daisies are fading, but the Day Lilies are just bringing the season of the fiery, flowers of summer—oranges and yellows and gold. The various Black and Brown Eyed Susans will soon follow.

The yard work has kept us busy with a couple of projects. Ellis and I went to an extension workshop to learn how to build a rain barrel. The Macon County Master Gardeners came to teach us. For $40 they provided the materials and know how, and even helped us tighten the sillcock and drill holes to secure the screen. We now have a better source to catch rainwater than the watering cans I had under the downspout. According to Sandra Mason’s Homeowner’s Column on the University of Illinois Extension’s web page, for a roof area of 1000 square feet, you’ll get about 10 gallons per minute per inch of rain. Our rain barrel is 55 gallons and after our first overnight rain last week it had filled to the overflow pipe. We now have plenty of naturally soft rainwater for watering indoor plants or the garden. We can hook up a hose at the spigot at the bottom of the barrel, but it doesn’t have high pressure like we get from the well, so we’ll just use a soaker hose. The Master Gardeners showed us how to protect the barrel from mosquito larva with judiciously placed screens. They told us we could get spray paint specially made for plastic furniture. Our barrel was a bright swimming pool blue, and we softened it by spraying white (to match the house) over a section of chicken wire. The pattern is reminiscent of both chicken coops and beehives, and we’re planning to add more stencils of chickens and bees as soon as we come up with a design and some other colors of paint. The Master Gardeners said they would come again to Piatt County for more workshops if they get enough interest, so if you’d like to make your own rain barrel for about half of what they cost in the stores, call your Extension office. Other counties may have similar programs.

My other project is my container garden lining my path to the barn. It began with the leeks. I love leeks, but I’ve never had good luck growing them. I’ve tried planting seeds, and seed tape, even starting them indoors, but never harvested a single leek. A while back I bought a three-inch pot thickly planted with tiny sprouts of leeks, and an idea began growing. I set some old baskets and various pots along the edges of my path, dug them into the ground a bit, and filled them with soil. I divvied up that bunch of tiny leek sprouts and planted them in plugs around the wide basket. On the other side of the path I planted the bag of onion sets I had bought but hadn’t the time to put in yet. The leeks and onions grew, and about every week I thin out each basket and begin a new pot with the thinnings. As I thin, the plants they grow sturdier and it looks so far like this method might be a success. Although I have plenty of space for a large garden at Birdland, planting in containers seems somehow both less work and more elegant. The baskets, will, of course decay in the earth, but they were old baskets, and I think, meant to decay. Meanwhile, they provide a boundary for my leeks with natural drainage. Each week I add a few more containers, and have begun planting them with other flowers and herbs.

Decay is always with us, and we lost half of a tree behind the house in that last storm. It was, of course, not the dead one I need to cut down. The Cattails on the pond have come, and the Water Lilies open their bright faces every day when the sun clears the top of the house. The summer brings storms and rain and heat and bugs. And I am learning to be grateful for it all.

Walk in Beauty; Work in Peace; Blessed Be.

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