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Spring Housing Market

The songbirds and I are in agreement: Winter, such as it wasn’t, is over. Time to make way for Spring, and for me that means hanging out the real estate.

In the autumn of 2010 I made bird houses out of the decorative gourds I’d grown in the garden. I put the bird houses into service in the spring of 2011 with limited success. Half of them were attractive enough to sparrows, chickadees, and wrens to have nesting material in them. But, full disclosure, I don’t think any of them were used to completion. I never saw mother birds flying back and forth with food for nestlings.

I think part of the problem was that I hung the bird houses too late in the season. I think the industrious mothers were disheartened by my tardiness, and nested elsewhere. I also think I hung the bird houses too low and in too-conspicuous locations. I guess the mother birds were a lot like my Husband — they wanted privacy and elevation.

So I took out my gourd bird houses from last year, and set them out to appraise their condition:

At first glance they looked in reasonably good condition; however, on closer inspection:

The smallest gourd, and also one with the thinnest wall, had a crack.

Husband walked through the room as I muttered, “Dang!” He suggested that all was not lost. He pointed out that I had drilled holes in the bottom of each gourd for drainage, and so what was another crack? Think of it as ventilation. I agreed, but thought I would hang this compromised, sub-standard housing in the most sheltered area. You will see in a moment where I placed it.

The second flaw noticed was that two of the gourds had lost their wire hangers. I use wire and bend the ends at sharp angles to slip into the holes drilled in the necks of the gourds. I snipped and bent a new wire in preparation:

Then I inserted one end:

The gourd bird houses were now ready to be placed.

I walked outside to see my options for neighborhoods. The back of the house boasts a very steep hill, too wild for the dogs, and way too tough for the humans to frequent except in dire circumstances (like retrieving dogs that forgot that the hill is too wild for them):

There is a Beauty Bush up the hill that is a favorite gathering spot for songbirds. They rest there when visiting my bird feeders below. In the winter I can barely see the birds because their brown and gray feathers blend so well with the leafless branches. In the summer I can barely see the birds because the leafy branches provide perfect cover. I hope that expectant mother birds find the proximity to food (for them) and the dense cover (for the babies) to be attractive.

I struggled up the hill and hung the first bird house of 2012:

Here is the view the mother bird will have:

And this is what I will see from my vantage point waaaay down below:

As I looked about to find the next likely spot to hang a bird house, I was distracted by the moxie of a white-throated sparrow at the base of our bird feeder. Copious amounts of millet had spilled, plenty for the tubby mourning doves, elegant slate-colored juncoes, and the one sparrow. But he wasn’t having any of this Kumbayah Sharing nonsense. Spring is about Love and Love often means Crabby Behavior (ask any teenager), and so this tiny bit of alpha went after the other birds and cleared the area. I was impressed. I hope he finds one of my bird houses worthy. I bet he’s the one to start a Neighborhood Watch.

The second bird house graced the cherry tree in my vegetable garden. I needed a ladder to reach the best branch for hanging:

And here is a closer view. I positioned the opening so that I can see it from the house (making me a Nosy Neighbor, I suppose):

The third bird house was placed above what will become my Squash Garden of 2012. Zephyr summer squash and kabocha winter squash below, and….chickadees above?

And the view from afar, so you can appreciate how high I had to reach!

The final bird house was placed closest to my house — on the front porch to be exact. I did place it away from the front door entrance, hoping that the less-frequent activity would be more to the liking of an expectant mother bird. As this was the bird house with the cracked body, I felt any residents deserved the most sheltered location and the most peaceful location I could provide:

And now I wait, expectantly. (sorry)

WORDS FROM OTHERS

“A man’s home may seem to be his castle on the outside; inside, it is more often his nursery.”

— Clare Boothe Luce (American playwright, editor, journalist, 1903-1987)

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I doubt I have anything new, useful, or profound to offer on the subject of Time. But like every other writer, that’s not going to stop me from commenting.

I think about Time all the time. When I was younger, unmarried, and delighted with my life in New York, I was always happy in the moment (work! after work with friends! nesting in my apartment!) and still racing towards the next event. There was never enough Time for what was and what was about to be, and it was all very exciting. When my children arrived, Time became more about survival. How would I manage to move my children through the day, helping them grow and improve and find Time for myself to….forget rest, think, or bathe. How about just time to eat?

Time has brought about my evolution as a parent (from primordial down-on-the-rug mom with an infant on a bright quilt, to cro-magnon mom bent over for the toddler, to upright homo sapien mom as the child-adult packs her OWN suitcase for college. No one ever tells a new parent that part of her evolution will involve not being involved.).

Gardening has rearranged my concept of Time. I realized on this hot summer morning that my time spent gardening changes with the seasons as surely as plant activity changes. I am more in synch with Nature than I realized. Here’s how:

Winter: My gardening time is spent in an armchair, reading. I have seed catalogs for dreaming, coffee-table garden design books for inspiration, garden books for my education, and my garden journal (sharpened pencil at the ready) for planning. Time is fluid, because the armchair is always available, and the temperature inside is always constant.

Spring: Garden time is mid-day, when the sun has warmed both the air and me. I work better when I can feel my nose and fingertips. I dig in the earth with the sun on the back of my neck. As soon as I feel that first subtle shift in the air temperature and the light changing from warm yellow to cool white, I go inside. Garden Time is done for that day. I go back inside to the constant conducive temperature to pretend I am gardening. I watch my seedlings grow, and try not to interfere with those delicate unseen roots, moving through the potting mix. Apical Meristem Time – I am not invited to that activity.

Summer: There is so much to do in the garden, and yet I can no longer work in the yellow light, because now yellow = hot. That means planning my Garden Time for when the sun is up but the air is either still cool or cooling down. I plan my days so that I can be in the garden from 6 a.m. until Life calls me away (the office or the grocery store, both persistent callers), or from 4 p.m. until Life calls me away again (Family wanting my company or my Kitchen Contribution towards dinner. I am so tempted to suggest that they do without me entirely in the summer. Couldn’t they just prop up a photo of me on the dining room table while they eat? Cereal at 9 p.m. is so fine for me.).

Fall: Time = hysteria. The temperature has moderated so that there are no longer Forbidden Zones of time. The plants are producing furiously, unaware of the calendar or the clock. But I am aware. I know that the arrival of the first frost means the loss (well, except for the husband-hated kale) of harvest. Reap what was sown, and prepare for the freeze. It’s hard to know what to do first, and as in those Toddler Years, there is no Time to rest, bathe, think, or even eat. Still, it’s a nice problem to have.

It is already 8 a.m. Time to switch hats, from Writer to Gardener, while the summer air is still cool. I have new string, and the Florida Weave needs another tier. The Garden Hours beckon.

WORDS FROM OTHERS

Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in.

— Henry David Thoreau

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Winter grumbled to an end, and spring announced its arrival slowly, with my senses slowly lifting their heads and looking about. I am still blinking in the brightening light.

Late April found me in a car driving my youngest to a series of colleges, shopping for her Life. We drove north, effectively erasing all signs of spring that were starting to emerge in southern New York. I cautioned her over and over again (to the point where even I was annoyed), to not let the bare trees, cold weather, and weak light color her view of the colleges she had selected. No need. She had wisely selected schools to visit based on a clear set of needs: academics and size. But these schools were also located in beautiful areas. Areas that are beautiful year-round, weak light notwithstanding.

We drove through the mountains of southern Vermont. I kept a close eye on the winding hilly roads, but also noticed the tumbling streams on both sides of the car. As I looked to the right, I looked past my daughter in the front seat, with her long, tumbling curly hair. How apt. What a natural pairing it seemed to me — her hair, and those streams in this part of the country. The comparison brought immense comfort to what had started out as a personally painful trip for me. Helping my youngest launch for college means the world to her, and a changing world for me. But I feel better about it all now. Her spring is going quite well.

My walks in the woods near the Croton Dam have made me think often of the sounds of nature versus the sounds of man. I used to love living within site of the Statue of Liberty for obvious reasons, but hated the sound of the BQE roaring below my window. Now I hear the roar of water over the dam, but its steadiness is a comfort instead of a stressor. I do hear the sound of local traffic, with its spasms of activity, but the steady sound of the water is soothing.

The park around the Croton Dam offers another feast for my eyes: the horizontal blossoms of the dogwoods that remind me of a fisherman’s net cast over the waters — both catch the light, both draw the eye. And then there is the silhouette of cormorants flying past, looking a lot like predator drones. I suspect fish view them in this way.

I feel the crumb of the soil every time I turn a patch over in the garden — not too deep! preserve the tilth! — and think of the rich smell of coffee grounds loosening and lightening its density when I gently mix it in.

A male robin has kept me company these past few weeks by scolding me. His chirps have an edge as he expresses irritation at my interruption. He has a job to do. He has a family to feed and my presence limits his access to the wealth of worms in the garden. No matter that I am the one that provides easy access to the worms. My contribution is not evident to him. He only sees delay, and I appreciate his parental impatience. I feel like that every time my kids do homework. The school has given them a job, but the school’s presence in my home limits my access to them. It’s irritating.

Taste? I planted potatoes yesterday. I will share photos and descriptions of the three varieties put to work for me in the next post.

WORDS FROM OTHERS

“An altered look about the hills;
A Tyrian light the village fills;
A wider sunrise in the dawn;
A deeper twilight on the lawn;
A print of a vermilion foot;
A purple finger on the slope;
A flippant fly upon the pane;
A spider at his trade again;
An added strut in chanticleer;
A flower expected everywhere …”

– Emily Dickinson, Nature: April

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The Dimensions of Snow

The blizzard arrived as promised.

My trip to the grocery yesterday morning is vindicated. How could we possibly have gotten through this blizzard, without the extra 36 eggs I bought, along with noodles for some future tuna casserole? I don’t know why I got so crazy yesterday, except that I wasn’t the only one.

I drove into the parking lot of the grocery store, and told my eldest child that I would only be a moment, as I was only going to buy one dozen eggs. I walked to the entrance of the store and saw that there were NO shopping carts outside. That meant that everyone in the county was inside that store, buying multiple items, and suddenly….one dozen eggs felt inadequate to save my family. I grabbed an over-the-arm basket, filled it to the shoulder-dislocating point, and waited endlessly in line. I staggered back to the car, triumphant. We had eggs for weeks.

It was a two-dimensional trip: the flat plane of the parking lot and grocery aisles, the upright shoppers.

I came home to the world of 3-D, when I went outside to fill the feeders. I am the birds’ shopping cart, and I was determined that they would never face the same situation I just had: no cart to fill before the storm. I poured black-oiled sunflower seed into the “squirrel-buster” feeder. I emptied the questionable, leftover thistle feed from the second feeder onto the brown hillside, and filled it with fresh, dry, worthy thistle seed for the finches.

I took a square of frozen fat (skimmed from our Christmas turkey drippings, poured into a loaf pan and frozen) and slipped it into the suet feeder for the woodpeckers and the chickadees, and as it turned out, a visiting flock of starlings.

Even before I was inside, the birds were wheeling overhead, zooming in and out to feed (this is the 3-D part). Their frantic pace told me even more clearly than zero-shopping carts, that a storm was coming. Who needs breathless weather forecasters, when you have focused flight at the feeder? I stepped aside quickly, to allow full access.

The birds fed all afternoon. Before night fell, I refilled the feeder. The snow began, as blizzards often do, with tiny bits of sharp biting flakes. The air grew blurry, and the brown ground disappeared. This morning there was two feet of snow on the ground, and the wind had covered one side of the feeders with driven snow.

I pulled on my snowboots, and went outside, still in my bathrobe, probably looking like the Madwoman of Westchester. I shoveled a path to the feeder, and brushed the snow off the feeders. I shoveled the ground beneath the feeders, so that the juncoes and sparrows would have their table accessible.

I brushed the snow off of the picnic table, and tried to press as much snow as possible between the slats, creating yet another table for the ground feeders — lofty dining.

Here are a few photos from our multi-dimensional blizzard. I did not photograph the eggs, sad to say, but I did include a shot of a breakfast worthy of the season’s first snowfall:

Fresh baked bread and Christmas cookies: breakfast of champions!

I forgot to remove our harvest pumpkins from the porch railing. In the spring, maybe.

All that is left of our stone wall.

Breakfast for birds.

Minus the cardinals and bluejays, the colors are muted.

The welcome sound of blade on asphalt!

We still have power, and so the snow is beautiful, in every dimension.

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Children

It is Christmas Eve, my favorite day of the year.

Anticipation of what is to come, comfort in what has been accomplished, both metaphors for being a parent and appreciating the miracle of children.

My children are now teens and young adults. I am not yet comfortable in my role as guiding force in their lives, although I am always comfortable in the joy in the journey.

It is hard to parent. It was much easier when they were younger. While the work was literally back-breaking, because I was bending down and lifting up so often, I also got to sit down a lot with them. The best times were pre-dinner, when the afternoon crazies threatened to up-end the household with tears and short tempers and slammed doors. The best remedy was to say the magic words, “Pick out any three books, and I will read them to you.” That meant 9 books, and I was all for it, even though I had repeat after repeat after repeat. How many times could I read “Caps for Sale”? About a million times, it felt like. But I also got to read “The Story of Ferdinand,” and “Six-Dinner Sid” and “The Line-up Book” and “Chicka Chicka Boom Boom.”

I evolved as a parent, much as a child evolves in the womb. Those beginning years I was wet most of the time, from my body and theirs, and focused on the most fetal tasks — sleeping, eating, not talking much. As they grew, my back slowly straightened out, and I stood more. I kept thinking of those diagrams of the beginning of man: the creature that slowly stands upright and becomes more recognizably human. That was me. I passed Neanderthal and evolved to human when my youngest was about 6. I was fully-fledged.

And now they are leaving. Eldest will fly to the other side of the world in two weeks, and live for four months, and learn and grow away from me. My contact will be at her pleasure: emails from cyber-cafes. She is fully upright and walking away.

Middle is planning to drive away during the middle part of his college break to visit a loved one that is not related to me. He will bring her back to share with us, and then he will drive away again to return to his new life in college. His wings are his four tires, and he has evolved into this freedom with grace (assisted by gas money from us).

Youngest is alternately seeking me out and pushing me away, as she navigates her junior year and the world outside the noisy clanging hallways of high school. She is starting to search for a college, shopping for her life for a future four years, and I am caught in this nether-world with her. Wondering how much to help, how much to stand back, when to sit down, when to reach down and lift up. It’s tricky.

I am comforted by what I’ve accomplished in the last 20 years. Look at what I have: 3 children that are ready and happy to leave. Children that come back. My journey continues, because theirs does, too.

WORDS FROM OTHERS

“Human beings are the only creatures on earth that allow their children to come back home.”

–Bill Cosby

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Croquet, Anyone?

It was time to make room in the freezer for the post-Thanksgiving turkey (this is what indulgent moms do when they are invited to someone else’s house for Thanksgiving: Rather than enjoy getting a break on making a turkey for the family, the mom cooks a smaller one the next day so that her children and husband are not left left-over-less.), and so the croquet balls had to go.

Do you remember me writing about Barbara Kingsolver’s adventures surviving August, with a bumper crop of tomatoes? One of her more ingenious solutions was to freeze the tomatoes whole on cookie sheets, and when thoroughly frozen, to put them into zip lock bags and keep them in the freezer.

This worked beautifully for me, until I needed to add the turkey. Actually, I would have had to have removed the frozen tomatoes if I’d wanted to add one more frozen pea — but let’s not dwell on my Fibber McGee’s freezer.

It was time. Out they came.

Several bags of Moskvich and Brandywines, as well as the paste tomatoes.

It was time to cook them down into spaghetti sauce. I’m expecting company for the holiday, and what better way to lead up to turkey, than with spaghetti sauce made from home-grown tomatoes?!

Can you see the frost on those rock-hard shoulders?

I put the paste tomatoes in the pot first, because I’d peeled them before freezing them. My plan was to let the larger tomatoes thaw, and then peel them before adding them to the pot.

The paste tomatoes filled the entire stock pot!

But as the paste tomatoes cooked down, I decided to toss in the whole tomatoes anyway, and deal with the peels later.

They thawed amazingly quickly.

In fact, the larger tomatoes thawed quickly enough that I was able to easily core them before dropping them into the pot.

The tomatoes cooked for 5 hours, and the peels obligingly floated to the surface. I skimmed and stirred all afternoon.

These tomatoes yielded enough for a family dinner for 6, and a future dinner for 3 (when the two olders are back in college). Not bad for an afternoon.

And, there’s room for the small turkey, and now that I think of it, ice cream!

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Not able to write anything worth your time reading — I do not want to waste your time! I hope to post again Friday or Saturday. Here’s what I plan:

— photos and discussion of the amazing Broadfork tool
— recipe and photos of making Crispy Kale
— results of interviewing two farmers, whose opinions I value, that raise animals for slaughter. I want to know their position on raising animals for food.
— as assessment of what did and did not work this year in the garden, and how that affects my planning for next year
— making birdhouses out of last year’s gourds
— what to do with a plethora of gourds from this year that you can’t eat or use for crafts….
— secure fencing
— bringing children into the garden

WORDS FROM OTHERS

“And when your back stops aching and your hands begin to harden…You will find yourself a partner in the Glory of the Garden.”

— Rudyard Kipling

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In Flight

I could say it started with a chrysalis, but it didn’t. I could say it started with the first warmth of the season and a Greater Fritillary dancing towards my seat on the front porch. But it probably truly started in Chilmark, Massachusetts, when I was doubly dazzled with a blooming buddleia and clouds of monarch butterflies. I carried that memory with me off the island, and back to New York. I did not forget.

We moved to this house two years ago, sad to have left our restored home of 15 years. But each time I stepped outside, the sun washed over me and I realized what this might mean: a garden. A garden that could thrive because of the beautiful sunlight that arrived first thing in the morning, and lingered until late in the afternoon.

So I planted a buddleia, and our Good Neighbors gave us a second. I planted every plant I could think of that had these characteristics:

— It was pink, purple, blue or white, and bloomed a long time
— It was a brilliant red and only bloomed a short time, appropriate for an accent plant
— It was food for butterflies, hummingbirds, or bees

Enter the echinacea, hyssop, black-eye susans, and yarrow. Hello to lavender, thyme, and the aggressive monarda. And a loud boisterous “C’mon In!” to the milkweed plants. I found a pink variety. I love every bit of them, in every season, even this gangly autumnal season of seed.

The butterflies came. The fritillaries and the chipper Painted Ladies. We had yellow swallowtails all over the purple buddleia panicles, and the occasional black swallowtail. Here and there, a monarch. Not nearly as many as I remembered from Chilmark, and not nearly as many as are reported by Dear Friend in Brooklyn (who has a two-story tall buddleia behind her Brooklyn apartment building — proving once again that New York City is indeed the Capital of Everything, including the winged-variety of Monarch!), but enough. Even one monarch, if you catch a long-enough glimpse, is enough.

A few photos to share, all taken by my youngest, a light and lovely creature herself:

As cheerful as the blossom she alighted on, the Painted Lady poses.

A tangle of stars? Closer to home: a soft tangle of milkweed seeds.

A black swallowtail on the buddleia colored like a popsicle.

We see so many yellow swallowtails, and it is still not enough.

And late in the season, we saw the caterpillar, on the underside of my blue globe echinops, seeming to fly even while firmly anchored to the stem.

And the evidence of flight, of the beauty of release.

Sailing a sea of metaphors, I could go on and on and on about caterpillars wrapping themselves in a chrysalis of growth and discovery, changing into a beautiful butterfly that flies away. Leaving me.

But anyone who has ever loved knows this. Every parent understands, anticipates, dreads, and revels — to our core we know this truth.

It doesn’t make it any easier. But it is a pretty process, and one that will hopefully be appreciated in all of its profound simplicity.

WORDS FROM OTHERS

“Butterflies are self-propelled flowers.”

— R.H. Heinlein

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In the midst of the August flurry in the garden: weeding, harvesting, peeling, canning, freezing, and the August flurry with the kids: planning, shopping, laundering, packing, driving, delivering, I am trying to find time to think.

I want time to think about important things, instead of just reacting to the moment. I am always happier when I have time to think through a bigger issue , and then act on it. Often, thinking-through results in less flurry. And always, just the act of thinking-through is a calming act.

So it is with children, so it is with the garden. So it will be, I believe, with the issue of eating clean food. Americans are starting to talk about this. The evidence is becoming noticeable: op-ed pieces in the papers, the brief blips from talking heads on the news, the growing population of farmer’s markets, the new “organic” sections in the grocery stores (savvy marketers as always), the new labels appearing on our food: Cage-Free, Raised without Antibiotics, Natural, Organic. There is a lot to think about.

I want to be the logical dreamer about this. The one that thinks big, but thinks logically. I think those are the folks that actually get things done. As a parent, I admire people that get things done.

I have to get something big done today and tomorrow: delivering my middle child to college. But I will make time to think, to stop the rushing, and will share with you if I come up with anything worthwhile, even if it is just more questions. I’m hoping to hear from others, who are thinking about these things as well. Clean food deserves a good talk.

WORDS FROM OTHERS

“”What do people catch in the Queensborough Bridge — bugs?” asked Wilbur.

“No,” said Charlotte. “They don’t catch anything. They just keep trotting back and forth across the bridge thinking there is something better on the other side. If they’d hang head-down at the top of the thing and wait quietly, maybe something good would come along. But no — with men it’s rush, rush, rush, every minute. I’m glad I’m a sedentary spider.”

— E.B. White, “Charlotte’s Web”

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What is clean food? What is a healthy Earth? What are our obligations to others? What is ethical behavior?

When I started this blog, I wanted to share my garden and my thoughts, and to receive: comments, questions, challenges. I have avoided, until this morning, discussing a topic that consumes me daily: our treatment of the animals and plants that we eat.

This will not be a harangue. (I read a comment on FaceBook from someone asking, “Should I write a blog? Will people want to read my harangues?”) I hate harangues. But I chose the tag line for my blog very carefully. “Devoted to raising things well” applies to plants, animals, children, and issues.

A recent op-ed piece in the New York Times reminded me that I intended to start this discussion, even if I’m the only one talking and listening. The topic was one of food-miles, of eating locally, and of the “cost” of shipping food around the world. Locavores will tell you that it is best to eat food grown as close to your home as possible, to cut down on fuel and other shipping costs. I agree in theory, but with my eyes wide open to the facts of the actual costs associated with fuel, fair trade practices, and the consequences of other countries farming methods.

Full disclosure: I am a Locavore. By inclination, certainly, and by a certain amount of thought. But I haven’t given up coffee, salt or sugar, and I do not intend to. Let me start this private discussion of eating locally by pointing out the pleasanter sides of being a locavore:

— food is fresher, and therefore is healthier (more nutrients, delivered in a completely usable form to your body)
— food lasts longer in your refrigerator (that’s my first definition of “sustainability”)
— food tastes better
— shopping is a lot more fun (although it is less convenient, and more discussion on that later)
— you support your local economy (something very much on my mind these days)
— you know the ‘face’ of your food, because you get to know the farmer

The recent concern about salmonella in chicken eggs is another call to action — even if our action is only to talk. Great things come from great discussions. Let it continue here!

WORDS FROM OTHERS

“Don’t you find it odd that people will put more work into choosing their mechanic or house contractor than they will into choosing the person who grows their food?”

— Joel Salatin, farmer, author, as quoted by Michael Pollan in “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”

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