Friday, December 24, 2010

The Longest Night

In Birdland we are caught in the firm jaws of winter. The snow has encrusted, and the wind carries dust from the field to add a layer of soot to the once pristine drifts.

The furnace barrels on endlessly despite the fire I try to keep burning in the woodstove. The longest night of the year has just passed, but it’s still a long, hard journey until spring. The Winter Solstice is my favorite holiday. I always think it’s the darkest it can get. The sun has turned the corner of the year, and though it’s a long way off, Spring is on its way back.

I had been thinking about running again, thinking that this school break would be a good time to get back into an exercise routine. Ellis said he would be my trainer. My youngest's cross country experience means he knows all the stretches to avoid injury. The other night Ellis came to offer me a small square of a chocolate bar. As I took it, he said, "Now you have to run tomorrow." I agreed, and when he was up the ne

xt morning already dressed in his purple under armor, I knew he wouldn't let me off the hook. We did a slow jog to the mailboxes, then he showed me how to stretch. He said he was going to do two miles and I told him I'd just run as far as I could, hoping to make it to the grass waterway. I figured if I could make it there, then the next day I might make it to the pineys, and a bit further each day after that. With luck I'd make it around the corner and to the Benson timber within a week or so. Ellis took off, and Isis hung back with me, both of us bouncing along at our slow lope--two old ladies, my dog and I.

I always knew that running was a great way to de-stress, but I didn't realize that the rhythm of my breath and the pumping of my heart and the slow clop-clop-clop of my feet would act as a meditation of sorts. In the beginning my mind was running through troubling events, and before I knew it, I had passed the grass waterway, my original goal. I surprised myself and kept going. As I ran further, I began to pay less attention to my troubles and more attention to the various pulses in my body. I passed the piney woods and the cemetery, and felt no need to stop. I began to get curious about why I could keep running. Ellis was long ago out of sight, and I thought I might make it around the corner to the Benson timber. Sights and sounds and scents began to replace my troubles. I smelled the warm scent of my neighbor's horses, heard a high, warbling birdsong. I passed my uncle’s house and saw Ellis coming toward me on his way back from the one mile mark at the bridge. As he neared I called to him, "Can you see me?"

He slowed his pace a little, and as he approached, I made a long slow u-turn to run alongside him. He gave me an odd look. "Um...yeah," he said. "Why?"

"Well, I thought maybe I dropped dead on the road back there, and this was my ghost running. If you can see me, I'm probably not dead. High five!" At that moment I felt like I could run forever, and my ghost running while my body lay on the road behind made about as much sense as the idea that I could actually run as far as my uncle's house the first day of training.

Ellis gave me a high five, and I told him he didn't need to wait for me; I'd see him back at home. He picked up his pace and soon he was out of sight again. Isis and I followed with our slow clomp-clomp through the ice and snow.

Run in beauty; Absorb Peace; Blessed Be. Mary Lucille Hays lives in Birdland near White Heath. She has decided on a goal to run five miles before her fiftieth birthday. She is interested in cycles and rhythms, celestial and earthly.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Summer in the Midst of Winter

Winter seems to be settled in for a nice, long visit in Birdland. Winter changes my perspective, and 30 degrees seems warm to me, but we haven't seen 30 degrees for awhile. The snow covers the yard with tight little crystals that squeak when I walk out to fill the woodbox.

My pile of firewood is melting away. I love the cozy feel of a wood fire in the winter, and keep a kettle on top of the stove for tea. I usually have a pot of soup or stew cooking, too. My stovetop gets crowded when I have a hot fire.

I bundle up in sweaters and throws and woolen slippers, but I keep warm another way too. The taste of summer is distilled in my pear butter and apple sauce. I pull it out of the freezer to spread on toast, to pour over chicken, and it brings back a little of the sunshine that went into it. Before the freeze I pulled out my tomato vines--some volunteer yellow cherry tomatoes that come up every year in the garden coop whether I invite them or not. They kind of take over the coop, growing like a true vine, not a bush. In the summer I forsake them for the varieties I actually planted--big, beefy red ones, and the Romas.

But I brought the vines to the basement and laid them across my laundry rack. The leaves withered and dried, of course, but the little green tomatoes quietly turned yellowy-orange, even though I forgot all about them. I happened to glance at them while pulling clothes from the drier, and saw them hanging like bright Christmas tree lights—or maybe it’s the Christmas lights that hang like ripe fruit. They, too, have distilled the summer sunshine, and seem to be lit from within. They're a little wrinkled, but tasty. As I pull them from the vine and pop a few in my mouth, I remember the summer sun spilling down as I weeded in the garden coop. I close my eyes for a moment and call up that summer heat to get me through this cold snap.

The winter is hard on old ladies, and Isis, my yellow dog, sleeps later and more soundly these days. She has a more difficult time getting up to go out, but once she’s stretched out the stiffness, she’s happy to walk even in the worst weather, her yellow tail wagging slowly back and forth like a flag. In the mornings, she’s not quite sure she wants to go out until Ursula nudges her with her soft, black nose. Still, Isis doesn’t want to go far on our walks, so I’m glad that Ellis discovered the lazy person’s method of dog exercise—leave it to my fourteen-year-old son to come up with a techie plan for virtual exercise. At night, he lets Ursa out on the porch and stands in the doorway, shining a tiny laser beam through the window onto the snow. Ursula never tires of chasing the red light around the yard, over the snow, around the tree, into the field. In fact, once she’s started, it’s hard to get her back inside, but once she comes in, she sleeps like a baby.

We all find ways to keep warm in the winter, to savor a little bit of summer sunshine until the Earth turns us around to face the sun again.

Savor Beauty; Remember Peace; Blessed Be.

We still have kittens to give away in Birdland. Email Mary if you'd like to adopt one.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Keeping the Home Fires Burning

This morning it's 13 degrees in Birdland, and I can't get the fire started. I've been known to skimp on preparation, but this time I used everything I was taught about fires. I cleared out the ashes so the stove could breathe; I made sure the flue was open and the window slightly cracked to provide ventilation; I piled a generous handful of kindling over crumpled paper; I propped a split log over the kindling. It should have been a one match fire. It started enthusiastically enough, and I took my coffee back to my desk to work, confident that my soup would cook on the stovetop and the house would warm. I worked a little, then went out to the kitchen for a refill to find the stove quiet, no shadows of orange flames dancing behind the sooty glass face of the stove door. I tried again and again with more kindling and more paper, readjusting the log just a bit. Each time the kindling would catch, and I’d leave a merry blaze only to return fifteen minutes later to ashes—my soup barely warm, the room still cold.

This morning I have at least sixteen things to do before 2:00, and I’ve only managed to smear my hands with soot. I need a new plan. I decide to begin again and go out into the snow for fresh kindling. The wind bites my face and the snow squeaks under my feet. I see some twigs sticking out of a snowdrift and pull out a dry branch. I snap it into stove lengths as I walk back to the kitchen door, thinking about the snow. The cold has made it stony and a little cruel, but when it first fell a week ago it was lovely. I was out at the First Friday celebration in Monticello, making my way around the square with my friend. We each had a wine glass and had a little taste of wine, and maybe a bite of cheese from each shop. It was a festive evening as we visited from store to store, seeing friends from the community in a new context. We talked about travel with our sons' teachers, we discussed grandchildren and drank sparkling grape juice in a toy store. We’d step out into the night and be dusted with snow as we walked a few doors down. Bulky snowflakes would sift down on us, and it was just cold enough that they’d land on the sleeve of my fleece and stay whole for a while. I can’t get tired of examining a snow crystal: tiny, perfect three-dimensional worlds. I could get lost in them if they would stay long enough, but suddenly they melt and it’s time to go into the next shop.

Now I go back inside and begin again with my fire. I pull the charred logs out of the stove and lay them on the brick hearth. They are smoking slightly, so I hurry to crumple paper and pile kindling over it. I lay the logs over the kindling and reach for a match, but before I can strike it I see that the coals of my almost-fire have ignited the paper. I watch through the open stove door until the kindling catches. I shut the doors and go to wash the soot from my hands. I grab my coffee and sit in front of the stove. By now the kindling is crackling and I peek in to see that the logs have begun to burn. The heat warms my face and I sip my coffee and stir my soup. Sometimes a fire just likes to be watched.

Burn in Beauty; Watch in Peace; Blessed Be.

Mary Lucille Hays lives in Birdland near White Heath. She is interested in community and the balance of work and life. She still has a few kittens who need homes.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Stones of Winter

Winter has brought its leaden skies to Birdland. In the winter I can find plenty inside to occupy me. The Christmas cactus has burst with flowers on the window, with a bright pink that seems to glow despite the overcast day; the teakettle sings on the wood stove, which fills the center of the house with a cozy warmth. But the wood box needs filling, the dogs need walking, and I can't stay inside forever. It will be dark soon, so I bundle up, and the dogs and I head out to trek across the back field. I can walk them there without leashes. They run ahead of me as I follow the dotted line of bean stubble back to the hedgerow. I appreciate the austerity of a winter field. The gray stalks, the dry earth, broken by the occasional patch of green—weeds that will be plowed up in the spring to make way for planting of the corn. Don't get me wrong. I'm not so into the monoculture of our Midwestern corn and bean fields; I don't think it's healthy for the land. But something about the starkness speaks to me in winter, as much as the lush greenery of April articulates spring for me.

Today we head out and before I’ve gone 50 yards I start eying the stones that lie on top of the soil. I have forgotten to bring a cloth bag to carry them home for my various rocky projects, and anyway, I don’t want to pick them up until I’m on my way back. Ahead, Ursula begins to dig. She has found the den of a field mouse or perhaps a mole. She works busily, throwing a splash of dirt up behind her. The wind picks up, and I dig my hands deeper into my pockets. I have forgotten my gloves, too.

My grandmother used to tell a story about how she went out into the corn as a child and got turned around. Eventually she found a big boulder in the corner of the field and climbed on top of it to wait for her father. He saw her and came for her on horseback. I must have heard that story 10 times before it hit me that it happened right here on this very farm.

“Grandma,” I asked. “Where is that boulder now?” The story happened in that magical pre-automobile country; where the roads were paved with mud; where corn was seeded with a foot between each plant; where the fields were fenced with hedgerows of Osage Orange and Multiflora Rose; where the barn was full of animals: a dairy cow, a horse named Bunker and his Billy goat friend, some chickens. To suddenly realize that this story happened in my own back yard was to connect that magical country with the present, that little girl waiting on the boulder with my own grandmother. But I’ve never seen a boulder on the farm.

Grandma waved vaguely. “Over there,” she said. “In the corner by the Benson Timber.”

“But Grandma,” I persisted. “There’s no boulder there.”

She looked surprised. “Why, this whole country hereabouts was filled with boulders when I was a girl.”
“Then, what happened to them?” I asked.

She leaned back and looked over her glasses at me. “Dynamite,” she said, as if it were obvious.

Of course. What else? She told me that a man made his living driving all over the county blowing up boulders.

Now I am crossing the grass waterway. Soon I’ll turn back and pick up a few stray rocks from that long ago explosion. I pick up a sand colored shot put, and then see a small piece of flint. I put that in my pocket. I pick up a few more stones to cradle in my arms, muddying my coat, but then discard one for a lovely, brownish burgundy stone. In this way, I make my way back to the yard, shoulders aching, and finally dump the stones in a pile next to my spiral rock garden. The sky is getting heavier, and a few tiny snowflakes swirl down around me. I call the dogs, and go inside to cuddle with a kitten until time to start supper.

Gather Beauty; Ignite Peace; Blessed Be.

Mary Lucille Hays lives in Birdland, near White Heath. She is interested in issues of ecology and her own back yard