Thursday, March 31, 2011

Mayan Equinox

In Birdland it's suddenly balmy, but we are not in Birdland. My middle boy, Dylan is home while Ellis and I are traveling.We have come to the Yucatan to visit our friends, Heidi and Chris, and their lovely daughter, Gabriella. We flew first into Mexico City, circling, circling. As we decended, we could see green trees, and thought of the bare branches we left at home. The city held various textures and colors, with distinctive palms and the more familiar shapes of deciduous trees. Scattered throughout the city were trees in full, purple bloom. From above they looked like a purple variety of brocolli, but I should never be amazed to see color in Mexico.

My bag first went missing in Mexico City, but we were assured in a mixture of Spanish and English that we would be reunited with it on our last leg, in Cancun. It was there that we discovered that our bags had been mismarked way back in Indy, where our journey started. For the next three days we would be haunted by someone else's bag marked with my name, while mine dodged my best attempts at reconciliation.

We are staying in a sweet guest house in Heidi's back yard where weare collecting ideas for Birdland improvements: a composting toilet, a sleeping hammock, a solar shower, a bamboo grove. I'm not sure we can import the coconut or banana trees to our northern climate. The yard is fenced with a high wall, topped by the traditional broken glass bottles, which Gabriella tells me sparkle when lit, artificially, or by the sun. The back garden contains a variety of tropical plants, but also a few temperate ones, like sorrel.

They also have a rooftop garden, with tomatoes, chard, arugula, and eggplant. Our first Mexican meal was a pasta dish with gorgonzola and arugula that our friends had cooked for the long drive from the airport. I had always eaten my aruglaraw in salads, but cooked it was delicious, heartier than spinach, with just a hint of the smoky peppery flavor that I love in my salad. In Birdland, arugula is a crop that grows well, and now I'll have something more to do with the abundance this summer.

On the Equinox we got up at 4:30 to go to the Mayan ruins at Dzibilchaltun to see the sunrise. On the equinox the sun aligns to illuminate briefly a window set in the stone wall. We were, apparently, not the only people with this idea, and we joined thousands of people making slow progress toward the ruins, while the sky gradually lightened. The line moved slowly, and we sang soflty, “here comes the sun,” hoping to make it past the gates before it slipped over the horizon. By the time we had the stone window in view, the sky was so bright I thought we had surely missed the sunrise, but no. We found a place with a good view, behind thousands of other people, and waited. We saw a gradual brightening of a distinct spot in the sky, but it was not centered on the equinox window. Gabriella asked a

worker who was intent on keeping people off of a particular patch of grass, and he told us that this far away from the window, you had to stand in a very specific spot for viewing. Turns out, perspective is very important for this expedition. We hurried about 30 yards to the left before we could see the sun aligned with the window. By then it had slipped up over the top of the stones, but was still spectacular. The moon, of course, was coming down from full, and getting ready to set. As we drove home, toward an early morning siesta before breakfast, I thought of Dylan and the dogs in Birdland enjoying the same moon.

Align in Peace; Survey Beauty; Blessed Be.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Spring Flowers

It's sunny in Birdland, a welcome relief after a long cold snap. The early morning sun angled low over the corn stubble, bringing out the gold against the damp earth. By 9 the broken stalks were a common straw color against the mud. That rosy morning light casts a lovely glow on everything, and when I can get outside for even a few minutes to smell the morning and walk around the yard to see what's growing, I feel more connected for the rest of the day.

The lawn is still brown, with just a promise of green sprinkled in the grass. The flowerbeds still hold dry stalks of last year’s flowers—especially a large, bushy aster with a decided family resemblance to its cousin, the thistle: no spines on the more civilized cousin, and flowers a sunny yellow, with a warm, musky, pollen-filled scent, but the very same silohette, a soft shaving brush of the tiny florettes that we see in the common thistle. But I am pulling this image from memory. At the moment, it is a brittle ghost of its summertime self. Soon I'll find time to kneel in this bed with clippers, making slow progress around the house, cutting old growth, digging out grasses and ground ivy, to make room for other flowers. This morning, amongst last fall's detrius, strong, fresh leaves push up from their secret place at the center of bulbs.They shove aside sticks and decaying leaves in their haste to greet the sun. In the spring I can get as excited about leaves emerging from the soil and the buds on the trees, as I can about any midsummer's blossem or the blessing of fruit or the fall of leaves.

On the drive to town today, my friend, Tina, and I were talking about the flowers we've seen so far. In town I found snowdrops blooming on my walk towards campus last week and noticed for the first time their resemblance to Trout Lilies, also called Dog Tooth Violet—I can never decide which name I like best. These will soon bloom in my woods with the Dutchman's Breeches and Spring Beauty. They will come after the ground is a bit warmer, but before the canopy has darkened the forest and filtered out the sun. Tina told about crocuses blooming smack in the middle of her neighbor's yard, right where the foot of a front stoop used to be. She told about small red tulips that bloom in her own back yard marking similar architecture of the past. They are the old fashioned tulips, with pointed petals. This floral archeology reminds me of Frost's “belilaced cellar hole” in one of my favorite poems and connects us to the people who came before us, planting crisp bulbs to make a home on the prairie. I told Tina about the Ghost Lilies that used to push through the cinders in my yard where they used to burn the trash. You get a sense of the strength of the life force when you see the persistance of some of these old fashioned flowers. The yellow rose that has bloomed for over a hundred years watches over the row of Day Lilies my aunt planted when I was a child. The rose hides behind the cedar my brother planted, and I have to remember to check it often in the spring because it blooms for only a few days—hundreds of fragrant yellow flowers peek around the lilac tree that now overshadows it, only to drop their delicate petals at its foot. Some years I catch them in time to bring in a bowl of the short stemmed flowers to decorate my table; some years I'm too late and have to content myself with a bowl of fresh petals. Either way, they remind me to step outside and join in the cycle of life that has no beginning and no end.

Dig in Beauty; Remember Peace; Blessed Be.

Welcoming Crocus

I was sure I'd missed the crocuses. And no wonder, as distracted as I've been lately. I feel like my life is in the car or in front of the computer and I hardly notice what's going on in my yard or the fields or the woods or the sky. Or the branches of trees.

But finally I stole a sunny afternoon last week to kneel in the dirt and pull the newly sprouting grass and last year's dried flower stems from the long strip behind the clothesline. We had last year tilled it up and broadcast alleged "American Wildflower" and "English Cottage Garden" seeds for a ribbon of color. The butterflies and bees were a bonus. Never mind that the seed content was mostly identical from both packets, we still had the summer full of cut flowers and a focus for daily walks–always refreshing to begin or end a walk with a long turn around the garden, or to cut a few stems after hanging the sheets. Still, it was a lot of weeding to encourage the flowers and I wanted to get a jumpstart now. A few perennials were included in the mix, and I had saved seeds from the annuals to sprinkle in the beds this year. My plan was to dig out the grass and "weeds"–plenty of room on the rest of this farm for burdock, plantain, dandelions and sorrel–and toss more seeds in the open spaces, hoping the uprooting was enough cultivation to encourage the flower seedlings.

As I worked my way down the row I met the sprouting green from the bulbs I set out last fall. I didn't plant them in any order, just bought a packet if it caught my fancy at the hardware store, or if it was on sale at the grocery, and then tried to sprinkle them evenly down the way. (I also planted a couple of bulbs' worth of garlic once when I was in the mood.) As I weeded I would come upon a new sprout of green and remember "Oh yeah, I planted daffodils too–unless these are narcissus." And then I came upon a spray of past-their-bloom crocuses.

There weren't nearly as many as I remembered planting, and as I said, I've been so distracted lately that I had to turn this over in my mind for a moment. Sometimes when I get out of touch I have a hard time remembering exactly where in the spiraling of seasons we are. And suddenly I remembered seeing crocuses pushing bravely through the late February snow. And here it was March. What else had I missed? The running of the sap. Yeah, we bought–how many years ago?–several pegs to hammer into the maple trees to try to collect sap for syrup. Had never remembered to use them yet, and now another missed opportunity. I looked up at the maple tree at the end of the garden. The boys' old rope ladder swung in the breeze. The tips of branches were exploding with the velvety red flowers. I sat for a moment and thanked whatever had knocked me out of my stupor of class prep, commuting, and housework so I could look around me and notice what goes on in the world. Notice what doesn't care if I am up til 2 a.m. making lesson plans, frantically trying to make my 8 o'clock on time, stressing on the juggling of my own shyness and the reticence of my students, struggling to stay one jump ahead of the syllabus. I sat for a moment and felt the wind on my face and just breathed in the scarlet of those maple flowers.

And you know?–maybe I didn't miss those crocuses after all. Over the next few days I found more crocuses just blooming in the grass where I'd planted them in the front yard. Maybe the rest of the bulbs–the daffodils and lilies–are just earlier than I remembered. And this morning we awoke to snow driving down in a straight line from the north. I'll be willing to bet that when the snow stops we'll find the crocus blossoms bravely pushing up through the crystals.

Grow in Beauty; Bloom in Peace; Blessed Be.

Baking Bread

In Birdland the mudscape stretches all the way to the treeline. The dogs do their best to preserve our farm’s topsoil from draining down to the Gulf of Mexico by bringing what they can into the house. Today I was cleaning up for a very special guest, my littlest niece, Stephie, who was coming to bake bread with me. She brought her baker’s hat and her apron, which I had made for her a few months ago. She also brought her mother, and the three of us had a very nice visit.

We talked about the ingredients we need to make bread, and what each adds to the loaf. We used a mix of wheat and steel cut oats for a hearty sweetness and chewy texture. We discussed how the yeast and sugar and grain work together to make the bread rise, and how the salt adds flavor. Since it was the weekend, we decided to make the bread special by adding herbs and cheese for a richer loaf. We put our ingredients in the bread machine and Stephie pressed start. We had an hour and a half break to amuse ourselves while the bread machine kneaded the dough, rested it, kneaded it again.

The break began with plans for a tea party, followed quickly by Stephie asking when the tea would be ready. We all agreed that it might be ready sooner if I turned on the fire under the teapot. With the water finally beginning to heat we could now turn our attention to the important question of whether to knit or to bake something sweet while the bread was rising. We could even crochet. After a spirited debate about the virtues of brownies versus chocolate chip cookies, we decided to knit for an hour, and then make cookie dough, so we’d only have to heat the oven once. In an hour, the bread would be ready to loaf. Another energetic debate ensued about the merits of circular needles versus straight, with Stephie eventually trading her circular needles to her mother for the straight ones. Meanwhile I worked on my crochet project, finishing up my recycled shopping bag I began last week. We chatted and knitted and ripped out stitches to begin again. Steph worked on a scarf with fuzzy yarn, which she later abandoned to play guitar hero. My sister took over the scarf, and I pressed on with my crochet. When the timer rang we began the cookie dough, Stephie and I cooperating to drop balls of cookie dough onto the sheets. Next, we had to decide what kind of bread to make. As the oven pre-heated we loafed half of our dough into little slider rolls, making a cross on the top of each one. The other half of the dough went for pizza. With pizza, rolls, and cookies all baking we cleaned up the kitchen and went back to our needlework. The fuzzy yarn was running out, but Steph proclaimed the scarf a little blanket, and asked me to finish it off since neither she nor her mother could remember how.

By the time the pizza was done, the dusk was gathering, and we shared a little meal before I packed a sack of the slider rolls and cookies for Stephie and my sister to take home. As they drove away I thought about how warm they made my kitchen and my cold winter day. I can’t wait for the next time they come.

Bake in Beauty; Knit in Peace; Blessed Be.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

February Thaw

A February thaw in Birdland means that the floors are crisscrossed with an attractive paw print motif. I am training Ursula to stop at the door and let me wipe off her paws with an old towel, but if she gets past me even once she will decorate all the floors. Now that it’s warmer, we’ve been playing our “fetch” game more often. She even likes to play it in the house, bringing me her tiny squeak soccer ball so I can toss it across the room. However, she doesn’t quite get the concept that in order for me to throw it for her, she has to let it go. Yes, being greedy with the ball does put a crimp in the rhythm of the game. She gets stuck in holding on and fetch becomes a game of tag and tug of war. I want to tell her to go with the flow and stop hoarding the soccer ball.

Almost all of the snow has melted, bringing a dramatic color change to Birdland. Instead of a blinding brightness, the world now holds more solemn browns, grays, and shades of black with just a tinge of tawny gold and woodsy green. Everything is damp and the snowmelt had generated a winding stream through the south field. Last night’s sunset turned it into a molten ribbon of fuchsia, until the full moon rose and the sky darkened and the miniature river turned golden in the dark earth.

The moon has me thinking about the difference between letters and email. Odd thought process, I know, but the full moon has been filling my bedroom with silver light and keeping me awake. I could send you an email and see if you’ve been having the same experience, and you might write back the same day and say, “yes, I can’t get any sleep at all” or “no, I have room darkening shades.” I could send you a text message and say, “look out your east window right now if you want to see the most beautiful bronze disc in the sky.” And you might text back: “it’s lovely.”

But a letter is another story. By the time I mail the letter and it travels across the land to your box (the trip will be longer if I’ve misheard your zip code and sent it to Desert Hot Springs, California first) or by the time the newspaper prints it, the moon will no longer be full. That bronze disc will brighten our nights only in our imagination, perhaps frozen in time by our letters. Other things might be keeping us awake, or maybe the dark of the moon lets us sleep.

The snowmelt has turned the yard soft and muddy. Tiny glaciers dot the lawn, and the receding snow line has uncovered the tips of bulbs, waking up after a long hibernation. Green points of iris emerge, and the blunt blades of daffodil. Catalogs arrive daily in the mail, both gardening and poultry, and I’ve got chickens on my mind. In another month I’ll make an order, or perhaps pick up a box of day old chicks at one of the farm stores. My poor, lonely rooster will have someone to crow for in the spring.

This morning I woke to rain, slicking the trees and dissolving the last little lumps of snow.

The dogs dance at the door, and I let them out. I breathe in the damp scent of warming earth, feel the fresh breeze on my face. I linger, before turning back to my morning routine, standing for just a moment on the threshold of spring.

Flow in Beauty; Welcome Peace: Blessed Be.

Conscious Consumption

In Birdland one of the first chores of the day is to feed the animals. On weekends, if I sleep too late, Shiva, my tortoiseshell cat picks a ball of yarn from my basket and silently bats it around my bedroom floor creating a spider web of color. This morning was a two-ball morning. I blame it on Shiva, because she is the most social, and most likely to be in my bedroom, but Kali, the basement ghost cat may have had a hand in this art project.

She is coming around. Since her kittens left, she comes upstairs more and more for companionship.

I find Kali and Shiva gently roughhousing. We have frequent conversations, and occasionally she lets me pet her for just an instant before running away.

This morning I was lingering under warm covers. Wouldn’t you? My woodpile has dwindled, but may as well be gone, since all the firewood left is frozen solid in the ice. With this constant bitter cold, the snow still squeaks when you walk on it. It doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. I think if I could chop out blocks of it, they would be so solid I could burn them in the woodstove.

They would make a cold, blue flame before melting. On my walks in town I notice the oak trees are finally releasing their leaves. I notice them because we have a lot in common. They are loath to let go, and keep their brown leaves through the winter. But suddenly, I find the lovely scalloped brown leaves just lying on top of the snow. Like me, oaks know that eventually they have to let go to receive their new gifts, but still they hold on as long as they can.

I’m dreaming of spring and using my indoor time to work on projects—sewing, knitting, and crocheting. I was inspired by something I saw at the Common Ground Food Co-op: reusable bags crocheted from strips of plastic. Plastic shopping bags (and bags for products, like cheese and frozen vegetables) have had me worried for quite a while.

They’re so light that they “float” to the top of the earth when buried, or they sail for miles and miles if released into our Prairie winds. They’ll cause problems wherever they end up—whether it’s high on the branch of a tree or in the boneyard to be carried downstream to eventually float out to sea. For years I’ve used the plastic shopping bags for garbage—have never, ever, bought plastic garbage bags, but am now re-thinking that use. Even filled with my household waste (which is minimal after recycling and composting) they will cause problems by their very permanent nature. Also, I have far more white, two-handled shopping bags than I could ever use for garbage. I finally figured out that the only way to stop them from multiplying in my pantry is to block their entry into my household. At the grocery store, I have to be alert to stop cashiers from bagging my purchases. I try to tell them immediately to please just put my groceries back into the cart (if I’ve forgotten my canvas bags, as I generally do). I’m not above asking them to empty the bags they’ve already filled, if I don’t get to the end of the belt in time.

And yet, I have a bulging oatmeal box full of them. However, after seeing these artful shopping bags at the Co-op, I’ve found a new way to reduce my stockpile. Now, a more generous soul would have simply bought these lovely bags, crocheted, says the sign, by a 17-year old girl, with proceeds going to charity. But I’m a skinflint at heart, and when I see something really cool in a shop, instead of thinking, “I’ll buy that and support that marvelously creative person,” I think “I could make that!”

I went home and used my rotary fabric cutter to slice shopping bags in a variety of colors, then joined the strips and wound them into balls. I’m well into crocheting my first bag, and rather pleased with the results. I’ve also been sewing bags from 40 lb. chicken feed bags, which have suddenly been converted from paper to poly-weave (unrecyclable for all practical purposes). I like to sew, and could probably convert all of my chicken feed (and even cat chow) bags to shopping bags, but I don’t see it as a viable way to deal with yet another source of plastic on its way out to sea.

We need to think carefully about what we consume, and how it is packaged, and how it affects this big blue marble we call home.

Salvage Beauty; Recover Peace; Blessed Be.

Snowbound in Birdland

This morning in Birdland the sun is trying to burn a hole through a shifting layer of clouds. It is a silver-black shining disc, and the winds shape the drifts into the spines of cold brontosauruses, a whole herd of them sleeping in the fields with their heads toward the Southeast. We are snowed in. It started yesterday, gently enough, and I began to doubt the reports, but by noon the snow came in earnest. I had just left my desk to make a cup of tea and start a load of laundry when the power flickered, and then went out.

I called Aunt Jane and Aunt Kate down the lane to see if they had a fire going. I convinced them to come down to my house, which is much easier to heat with a wood stove, if the power didn’t return soon. By the time I hung up the phone and walked to the window, the wind had already picked up, sleet was furiously hitting the glass, and the drifting had begun. I called them back and said I’d better pick them up now, or there would be no getting down the lane until Jim and Sean came after the storm to dig us out. They agreed, and I started the car and began scraping the ice that was already half an inch thick on the windshield.

The snow came down in tiny, stinging bites, and blew across the lane where drifts were already beginning to gather.

The wind blew so fiercely, and from an unusual direction—Northeast—rendering my snow fence useless for keeping the lane clear. I pulled the car as close to my aunts’ house as I could, and we helped Maggie, their Great Pyrenees into the back seat. By the time we were all loaded, my tire ruts were already filling. Clearly, we made the trip in the nick of time. Back at home, we sent Ellis, my fourteen-year-old, to the woodpile. He pushed the wheelbarrow through the snow, then brought the whole thing into the house. He’s resourceful when it comes to keeping warm, as long as it doesn’t involve wearing a heavy winter coat. Or mittens. Then we all scurried around preparing for a long night. Ellis filled pitchers of water until the pipes were drained. In Birdland, no electricity means no running water. We drain the pipes while we can so we have something to drink for the duration of the storm, and so the full pipes won’t freeze. It was about 2 pm when we lost power, and already the house was beginning to cool. The heavy clouds and blowing snow obscured the sun, so it was already a little dark even in the mid-afternoon. We hung a flannel comforter over the doorway to the dining room to concentrate the heat from the stove. We pulled in the sofa bed, and I went around the house gathering blankets and quilts and pillows and candles. The dogs were a bit of a problem. Ursula was happy to welcome a guest, but old Isis wasn’t so sure. Some snapping and warning growls convinced us to try to give Maggie her space. Maggie wouldn’t go further than a few feet from Aunt Jane, so Isis went to the cold side of the house where she was very comfortable in her soft winter coat.

Once we got settled, I pulled some butter bean soup from the fridge, and set it to warm on the stovetop. We amused ourselves with a board game about gardening, which reminded us that we woke that morning to overcast skies on groundhog day, so spring was not far off. We ate our soup, but left the dishes. Aunt Jane told stories and reviewed genealogies by candlelight, but we went to bed early.

I woke to dogs’ barking and ran to the living room to let Ursula out. I thought it was morning, but the power had snapped back on, the lights waking the dogs. It was only about 1 AM, so I had to coax Ursula back inside, and run around turning off the lights and music, quieting the house. By then the wind had stilled. We must have been in the eye of the storm, because the cloud cover was gone and moonlight reflected off the bright snow. Crystals clung to branches, softening them like Bullwinkle’s antlers. All that would be gone with the morning winds.

With the power back on, we could do dishes, play wii bowling, listen to the radio, finish the laundry, but we were still snowbound until Sean came with the tractor to plow us out. How lucky we are for the kindness of neighbors.

Warm in Beauty; Maintain Peace; Blessed Be.