My Weekly Post

Loons Alive

August 5, 2011

Tags: loons, baby loons, northern lakes, lead sinkers

When I was first living here, thirty or so years ago, loons were a treasured sight. They were slowly coming back from near extinction and most of us would pull over to the side of the road if we spotted one on a lake as we were driving by. They are stunning, large birds, distinctive for their vivid black and white feathers, the natty black and white ring around their necks and beady red eyes. If you get close to them in a canoe or kayak, you can see all of this in stunning detail. Their return has been closely watched by certain loon lovers on lakes everywhere. Here at the farm, I am frequently treated to the yodel-like chuckle of the loons flying overhead. Since I am in a direct line between Dublin Lake and Silver Lake, both favored by loons, I have always assumed they are flying between these two lakes. Most often, I hear them overhead in the early morning and in the evening, flying home.

Recently, I’ve been reading quite a lot in the papers about the loons, whose numbers are apparently receding after such a successful return, so successful that they were becoming almost common. I was surprised and upset to learn of this, which made me realize I haven’t been hearing my loons pass overhead as much this summer. I felt like I’d been witness to a span of evolution. The loons return; the loons decline. The culprit has been identified as lead sinkers used by fishermen. A movement has begun to ban the use of lead in fishing tackle. I actually had thought they were banned years ago.

Last week, I went out in a canoe with a friend who told me that they had been watching a nesting loon across the lake. Whenever there are nesting loons on the lake, signs are posted and protections are put in place to guard the nest. It’s especially dangerous to have loud motorboats and water skiers passing near the nest. She likes quiet and her loyal mate can be found on guard nearby, whistling and cautioning. We paddled across the lake to see how close we could get. A canoe or kayak provides enough stealth so that it’s possible to drift near to the nest to get a peak. She was on the far side of a small island covered with trees and blueberry bushes, a popular place for people to go to pick. When we got around to the other side, we saw the signs, warning that a nesting loon was near. We backpaddled and then drifted slowly near the shore. Of a sudden, the mother came into sight, right in front of me. Because they cannot walk on land, their nests are typically right at the edge of the water, which was the case here. I could almost touch her. She was curled on the nest, her head curled under her wing, still as a stone. I almost gasped, the sight was so rare, so beautiful. I felt my heart lift. Loons alive! It was intimate proof of their return.

We slowly drifted past and she never looked up or stirred. About thirty yards distant, her mate let out a few nickers of alarm but otherwise let us pass. Coming off the lee of the island, we paddled around the shallows near the shore for a while. In time, we came to a cottage where another friend was picking blueberries with her grandsons. We stopped to talk, holding ourselves steady with our paddles. “We saw the loon!” I said. No need to identify which loon. “Yes,” she said, “but we’re very worried about that loon. She’s been sitting on those eggs for too long. We think that there’s something wrong. Those chicks should have hatched two weeks ago.” My heart sank. These things happen in nature, it wasn’t necessarily linked to the depressing news about the lead sinkers and the corresponding decline in the loon population. But, still, I felt the jarring sense of having had my spirits lift and fall in a short span of time.

A few days later, my friend e-mailed me a blurry image of mother and two chicks. “I guess Barbara was too pessimistic about the state of the loon eggs! These babies were first spotted on the lake two days ago,” she wrote. That would have been just a day after we passed by the tired mother. In the photo, the proud mother swam ahead of her two tiny little ones, cautious new life.



A Recipe for You

July 13, 2011

Tags: watermelon beet gazpacho, remedies for the heat, cousins

Yesterday was hot most places. I saw on television where one man in Arizona fried an egg on his dashboard to demonstrate their intense heat. It is not that bad here, well, it never is. Up here on the hill, there is always a breeze and the nights are cool, 60 or maybe even 50. In the early morning, I do my gardening, deadheading and watering, pulling those relentless weeds. I love the quiet of the mornings as the sun musters itself up and over the horizon and the birds begin to talk. For me, it is like a chapel, the quiet and the feeling of well-being, the feeling of complete balance before the world gets busy and complicated.

This week, I happen to have company, my cousin George and his wife Hazel. At least once a season, they drive out from where they live in Newburyport, Massachusetts, to stay with me for a few days. George is the brother I never had. We’ve been close since we were toddlers, seems like a very long time now, through many chapters. As we like to say of old friends, we’ve got history. Similarly, he and Hazel have been married more than thirty years. Some very long time ago, George went to Jamaica where he taught English in a rural high school. He met Hazel and they’ve been together ever since, their two beautiful children, now grown and off to far horizons. The last time they came was in February. They so happened to arrive the day before a major snow storm. So we happily prepared to be snowed in and the next day, as the snow swirled around the house all day and all night, we talked, read out loud, watched the snowplow make its way past the house, made a big stew, went out into the storm on snowshoes and came back to enjoy the meal we had prepared that morning. This way, we get plenty of time to sort out family news as well as whatever adventures we have had in the interim. When we are together like this, everyone sleeps well.

George is still a high school teacher and so we had to wait for his school to end to plan for our summer visit. They arrived here on Monday afternoon, tired from the hot drive, and we sat out on the lawn, where there were good breezes, and talked about our family news and observed the mountain shifting colors as the sun sank lower. The idea of dinner was lingering as we talked on. I had made an assortment of hot weather foods for our time together: tabouli, potato pesto salad, a big salad from the garden, and my current favorite, watermelon beet gazpacho – this is the best hot weather food I know of. A couple of years ago, I was following Weight Watchers (the everlasting pendulum!) and devised a recipe that was “free” according to their method of calculating safe foods. Some foods, mostly vegetables, you can eat all you want. Watermelon happened to be on this list but how much watermelon can one person eat? I decided it could be part of a great cold soup and remembered a beet gazpacho I’d seen in the newspaper. Using that as a baseline, I put together a few more things that don’t count against you in the world of Weight Watchers. The result was a recipe that’s “free.” Eat all you want, guilt free! It’s also very refreshing in hot weather. In this hot hot time, I wanted to share the recipe with you. When I watch the weather report on television, it looks to me as if the entire country is under a heat wave. So, if you are having a hard time beating the heat, try this as a remedy.

Watermelon Beet Gazpacho
3-4 cups seedless watermelon flesh, diced
1 ½ cups cooked beets (canned, semi-drained, but fresh is better if possible)
1 cucumber, peeled, seeded, diced (about 1 cup)
1 red bell pepper, seeded, diced (about 1 cup)
1 small jalapeño chile, seeded, minced
½ small red onion, diced (about 1 cup) (I often use half of a large Vidalia)
1 tablespoon fresh squeezed lime juice
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
¼ teaspoon salt
5-8 mint leaves, finely chopped
pinch of cayenne

Put everything into the blender, whirl and chill. Garnish with mint leaves and/or a daub of plain yogurt, if that appeals – not only low in cal but beautiful!

I had a big pitcher of this in the fridge so when we came in from the lawn and gathered around the table, we slurped it down and then went for more. I hope you stay cool, wherever you are. And don’t forget to save time this summer for long family visits.


All's Right with the World

July 5, 2011

Tags: Fourth of July, fireworks, yard sale bargains, lakes

And so it is summer. The Fourth is our touchstone here, it is usually hot, at last, which was the case this past weekend. An old friend decided to escape Boston for the weekend and drove out, bearing lobster and salmon as her contribution to the celebration. There were parties on the lawn and on the deck, compliments of my neighbors, no shortage of sun and fair weather, the sky bluest of blue, light breezes. No bugs. An afternoon at the lake. Occasionally one of us would utter: we’re living in paradise! We browsed at yard sales, which were abundant. I reeled in a nearly new salad spinner ($1), a handful of linens, napkins, and grandma-style pot holders ($1), a pair of brass candlesticks ($1!), and, my triumph of the weekend, a beautifully maintained, nearly new Mantis rototiller. I have one that was given to Paul and me for our wedding – in 1984! It's lightweight and agile, able to move between rows without damage. In short, it's indispensable. Two years ago, the pull starter broke and I’ve been meaning to have it fixed ever since. But this is a much snazzier version and cost less than what the repair might have. Score one for the garden!

And of course, there were fireworks. For years I have enjoyed the luxury of living between two towns who somehow manage to stage great fireworks. The displays are usually scheduled on different nights so that I can take in two shows in the weekend. I can never get enough fireworks. Occasionally, they stage their shows on the same night and in that case, I stay home on my hill and watch both from my lawn – look south and see the bursts from Dublin, turn to the north and there is the Harrisville extravaganza, rising above the trees. Harrisville’s fireworks are staged by the volunteer firefighters, I think their favorite activity of the whole year. They set up the pyrotechnics in the cemetery which is something of a peninsula that juts into the lake. That way, the townspeople can gather on the town beach and watch the rockets explode over the water. Dublin’s show is put on by a (private) lake club situated across the road from the town’s cemetery. They launch the rockets from a barge floating in the lake and, using a remote control, set the fireworks off from the shore of their swimming beach. At dusk, townspeople begin setting up chairs and laying out blankets in the town’s cemetery, which happens to be across the road from the club. The cemetery, which is quite old, slopes upward from the road providing a perfect amphitheater for viewing the show. So, in both towns, the shows involve a lake and a cemetery. I often wonder how many other places in this country have a situation like that. Whatever, I’m glad it exists here. Because the Harrisville cemetery is roped off while the firemen engage in legal pyromania, I am more moved by the show in Dublin, as sitting among the tombstones of what are sometimes Revolutionary and Civil war heroes raises the profundity of this uniquely American tradition. This year we managed to fit in both shows. In Harrisville, chatting with friends as we were waiting for the show to begin, we reminisced about some of the better or worse shows we remembered, the time when we were almost literally carried off by the mosquitoes and especially the one a few years ago when thick fog enveloped the lake. The result was a hazy smear of color above the fog. All the booms were there but we couldn’t see the flowery explosions. “Focus!” one humorist shouted out as the fog turned pink and green. But this year there were brilliant shooting stars,chrysanthemums,curlicues that whistled all accompanied by chest-thumping reports that made the earth beneath us shudder. At the end of all this, there was a pause. We knew (hoped we knew) what was about to come -- the great finale! We were not disappointed as the entire sky appeared to be exploding in technicolor right above our heads. We laughed and shrieked right along with the children all around us. And, who knows what benevolent tax dollars led to this but, once that was done, there was another pause as we all began to rise and collect our blankets and WAIT! -- yet another, even more spectacular finale went off above us. It was all sufficiently exciting to require recovery.

Late yesterday afternoon, I bid adieu to my guest and came inside to gather my thoughts and return to “normal.” No sooner had I done that than I looked out to see a huge black cloud approaching from the west. Storm! I quickly unplugged my computer and other important electronics and closed windows, just in time for a torrential downpour and great forks of lightning. It was OK, the weekend had closed, the parties with their perfect summer weather were all over, the lobster shells had been sucked clean and put into the compost pile, the residue of the salmon had been scraped from the grill, we’d taken our harvest from the yard sales, and the fireworks, which we all declared the best ever, were already part of our individual town histories. The storm passed and I went to bed early, frogs chorusing from the pond. All was right with the world, to every thing there is a season and a time to every purpose under heaven. Tomorrow, back to work. Happy summer!

The Angels Among Us

June 26, 2011

Tags: kindness, gratitude, gardens, garden therapy, work therapy, blessings

Debbie's work -- John fixed the fence
I believe in angels. Not the kind with wings but ordinary people who are with us all the time and happen to be there at the right time, when the need is greatest. As I’ve been struggling a bit with the side effects of Lyme Disease (I’ve had it now for ten years, some years I don’t have it as badly as other years but this year has been particularly troublesome), I find it’s more difficult to do things in the garden. One of the symptoms that came on me from the very start was a difficulty bending my knees. When I first had Lyme, I remember saying that it was as if someone snuck in overnight and wrapped duct tape around my knees. One of my favorite postures in the garden has always been what I call a Gandhi squat. I could sit like that for hours, waddling about when I needed to move around the patch but there didn’t ever seem a reason to rise until all the weeds had been pulled. Another description I gave was that, in playing tennis, it seemed like I had suddenly been given two wooden legs. I’d run stiff-legged, which is hardly the way to play tennis. Warm water therapy has abated this and that symptom has left me but I’ve never again been able to get into my squat. I can only pull weeds bending over and, since my back has been painful these past months, the weeds have been growing, which hurts more than anything else. I wrote in my Yankee column this month about a fellow named Pearse who came along late last summer and made a preemptive strike through the garden which helped but it really only scratched the surface. And this spring, of course, everything started up again with a vengeance. I have something called Bishop’s Weed, Lord only know where it got its name, but it’s every bit as invasive as bittersweet, which has strangled more than one tree on this property, or the beautiful temptress, Purple Loosestrife. Bishop’s Weed has obliterated many of the gardens Mary kept – I didn’t choose to keep all her gardens as I knew from the start that they were beyond my limitations but in the ones I did keep, I am constantly battling this strangely named weed. I’m more likely to call it Devil’s Weed.

So I have had to come to terms with some of these issues. I travel frequently for my work and I have these new physical limitations. I’m always looking for help but really can’t afford much. This combination means I have to be content that things don’t look perfect. Well, let’s not even use that word. Things here are comfortable looking, I guess that’s what someone would say if someone were trying to be polite.

So this spring, two angels, one right after the other, appeared on my horizon. The first one was a man who once worked at our post office. I remembered John as bright, cheerful, and helpful. I knew he had two sons because I would sometimes run into him in Peterborough, the boys in tow. Our post office seems to operate like a Catholic Diocese as we get used to one postmaster and suddenly they are gone and someone else has replaced them. Such was the case with John. Years passed and then one day I ran into him at the local natural food store. “Hello there 112!” he said without pause. That is my box number. I was impressed by his memory. We chatted there at the organic meat counter and he allowed that he had been diagnosed with ALS and had to leave his job at the p.o. But, he said, he likes to work and tries to stay active to keep his symptoms at bay. As well, his teenage sons are always needing things like cars or cash. He asked if I had any work I would like him to do. Is the Pope Catholic?

So John came to work for me, a few hours was all he could do in a day but in those hours, he worked hard. There wasn’t anything I asked him to do that he wouldn’t do, shoveling snow in the late spring and then raking the gardens. Spreading compost. Putting a new coat of varnish on the kitchen floor. He told me he liked to organize things so I set him to work on my garage which hadn’t really been tackled since I moved here. He spent two days sorting and arranging, carting things to the dumps and setting questionable things aside. My garage now looks (almost) like a picture book image and I can find just about anything that I need at a glance. He also helped me wash the windows inside and out, which hasn’t been done in several years. For a couple of days, I couldn’t get used to the brightness as I walked into my kitchen. He didn’t charge me very much for his work and his presence was something that I looked forward to. (He loved to talk.) Eventually, he found a job painting which was within walking distance of his house but having John get me caught up on spring chores around here was nothing if not a visitation from above.

The week that he left, Debbie, another angel, swooped in. A few years ago, Debbie survived a near-death experience with an E Coli infection. As she was recovering, she found that gardening was her savior. She once owned a nursery so she was well acquainted with the things that grow around here – and the things that ought not to grow. She didn’t have many gardens of her own but she noticed that her neighbor down the road had some lovely new gardens. She offered to help. That neighbor happened to be a friend of mine. One thing led to another and now she offered to help in my gardens as well. She came with her gardening tools and set to work on my favorite garden, visible from several of my windows – peonies, lilies, hollyhocks are most dominant. And the bird bath. Some of my peonies come from friends and family members and when I have moved, they have moved with me. It was painful to see the Bishop’s Weed get a grip in this one garden where it had not yet taken root. Debbie arrived here like a warrior, pruning shears in her pocket, sun hat firmly in place, gloves and trowels at the ready. She came to my gardens early in the morning and sometimes worked until dark. I would call it a siege as she set about the job at hand, quietly, steadily removing the disease, edging, flinging the weeds into the wheelbarrow and carting them to the pile on the other side of the stonewall where I dump garden waste. Sometimes I didn’t know she was there until she raised her head above the tall weeds, which were slowly vanishing.

One day, she suddenly realized the damage the bittersweet was doing all around, choking one of my lilacs, pulling the branches of my old apple tree to the ground. She stopped work in the flowers and attacked the bittersweet, fiercely offended by its presence. She severed it at the root and yanked the tendrils down from their grip. This was something I used to do semi-annually but it's been more than a year since it's been done. When she left, the compost pile had risen to, quite literally, scalable heights, a mountain of destroyed bittersweet in the pile beyond the wall. If she took it all personally, she also felt the victory just as deeply.

Debbie would not accept any money for what she was doing. She called it her therapy. I gave her other gifts but none so valuable as what she did to my gardens, rescuing them from their near-death experience and bringing them life, light, water, and love. So, for reasons I cannot explain, the angels have been with me this spring. What I find so hard to believe is that these two people, with limitations far greater than mine, came to help. In this world, inspiration and the opportunity for gratitude are set before us far more often than we realize.

Memories of Scott

May 29, 2011

Tags: Scott Nearing, back-to-the-land movement, Steuben, Maine, Larch Hanson, seaweed, Living the Good Life

Larch's cove and his boats, at low tide, in Steuben
This past week, I traveled to Steuben, Maine, where I visited a rather extraordinary individual named Larch Hanson. For the past forty years, Larch has been harvesting and marketing seaweed from his hand-made house, across the road from a sweet, tranquil cove where he keeps his boats and dries his harvest. I had come to hear and record his story. For twenty-five years, he lived in a small cabin with few of the essentials most of us take for granted. He carried water from the stream for all those years and an outhouse was there for the necessities of life. Then, a few years ago, he replaced the cabin with a large, four-storey house, a plain-looking structure except for the lighthouse attached to the east side – the lighthouse conceals a fire escape required by code. From the outside, the house is like a large barn, probably 30 by 40, maybe bigger. His partner, Nina, had been showing me around while we waited for Larch to come home from town. My eye fell upon a neat border of blooming daffodils around the foundation, also adorned with an abundance of comfrey. “Pheasant’s Eyes!” I said, so surprised to see again this most distinctive narcissus, which has gone by down in my part of the world. “Is that what they are?” she replied and added that Larch had transplanted them there from his mother’s garden in Minnesota. We both looked more closely at these hauntingly beautiful faces nodding in the cool sea breezes. It gave me the odd feeling that they had followed me here, or I had followed them or been led by them, the same feeling I had had when I found them on the table of desserts at the talk I gave in Madbury and then, amazingly, once again when I gave a talk in Hollis. Both times, I was able to identify the bloom only because of Mary Liz’s quest (see my earlier post). It certainly was the year for the Pheasant’s Eye. At least for me.

The rest of that week reminded me of what I love about the work that I do. I spent intense hours listening to Larch who had come to Steuben in 1970, a disciple of Helen and Scott Nearing, who more or less established the back-to-the-land movement in New England by building their own house of stone and preaching the principles of simplifying your life and avoiding debt at all cost. “Pay as you go!” I remember Scott thundering at a room full of listeners at UMass in the early 1970s, pounding the podium as he said each word individually. I was in that room and heard his message so loudly that my husband and I endeavored to buy a piece of land and build our own house, all for cash, cash that we did not have before we heard those words. We bought their book, Living the Good Life, which had been written in 1954 but which seemed every bit if not more relevant then, in 1973, than it might have been in those bright-eyed days of the post-war years.

We were revolutionized by what we read and looked around at the potential of the rural land all around us. We turned off the main circuit to the electrical panel in the farmhouse we were renting at the time and brought out the oil lamps. Both of us were employed, doing modest jobs and we worked out a stringent budget. We bought woodstoves (everyone had discarded theirs by then and they were available for not much money) and cut cords of wood, by hand. We tilled up a huge plot of soil next to the house and planted rows of vegetables that I had calculated would provide us with a succession of food throughout the summer and fall and I learned to can. We converted the basement into a root cellar and learned the basics. Turnips and potatoes figured heavily into our plan. We were on a mission! Within a year, we had saved $15,000 – enough to buy 7 acres down the road and the lumber and materials to build the small but comfortable house we had spent the winter designing. The house had wood heat, a wood cookstove, solar hot water, a composting toilet, and a system of hand-pumped water clever enough that it appeared in Organic Gardening, my first published article. We installed each as we saved the money, wiring the house but not turning on the electricity until the very end of the project.

And so it began, just as it did for Larch Hanson and probably thousands of other like-minded young people throughout Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine at that time. We tended our gardens in our relative isolation, in community with this huge band of Nearing worshippers. But by the early 1980s, we started to fade from the landscape as the societal demands that Scott Nearing had railed against gradually overtook those who had so hoped that this kind of conscious living could take hold and substantially influence a world increasingly obsessed with war and material goods. Everyone was at odds. Eventually my first husband and I divorced, which forced us to sell the house we built, a house I still long for in its simplicity and clever innovation.

Scott Nearing died in 1983. He was 100 years old and his face was weathered like a dried apple. After a life of conscious decisions, he made the conscious decision to stop eating. His life work was done and he felt the need to leave the good life. Helen cared for him to the end and lived on. She wrote their last book, Loving and Leaving the Good Life, and it was then that I first met her. She was coming to Peterborough to give a talk on a Sunday morning, a talk sponsored by our local hospice. My husband, Paul, had benefited greatly from their services, which was a new movement at the time. They knew of my affection for the Nearings and asked me to drive to Harborside, Maine, to pick up Helen and drive her down here to Peterborough. I did so with distinct pleasure. I arrived in her driveway, a place much imagined over the many years of my allegiance. She was sitting on a stump next to the front door to their handbuilt house, waiting for me. She showed me the storied house and its stone-walled gardens. The Nearing house was across the road from the cove, so they could be near but not on the water – always thinking about the taxes they did not want to pay, undoubtedly where Larch got his inspiration. We set forth onto the highway, talking most of the way, an extreme privilege for me to have such a lot of one-on-one time with this Queen of self-sufficiency. She was in her late eighties at the time and as hearty as a forty-year-old. She died one year after that, in a strange automobile accident, colliding with a tree just across from their house in Harborside. No one ever knew if she had fallen asleep or steered her car into the big tree on purpose. Life without Scott must not have been the good life. That she should die in a car, something that she and Scott eschewed for many years, seemed like a supreme irony to me.

I had journeyed to meet Larch, expecting an interesting encounter with a man who indulged in a unique industry but had not expected to re-encounter the Pheasant’s Eye as well as the spirit of my old friend Scott Nearing, which revitalized my interest in Scott and his philosophy about life. I read his biography on Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scott_Nearing), itself an innovation of our time, and learned more than I had ever known about him. What I had always known was that he was a pacifist and a man of principle and nothing in the reading dissuaded me from that notion. I couldn’t help but wonder what he would think of our world today, the Wall Street crimes, the proliferation of wars and unrest throughout the world, and the manipulations of information, disguised as “news.” Even his quiet, provide-for-yourself life in Harborside could not have shielded him from the tragedy of this.

I still heat with wood and that very same cookstove of all those years ago remains the center of my kitchen. Locally raised eggs, meat and a CSA, all down the road from me, provide for what I don’t grow myself. I’m investigating the possibility of solar, though it is still fiercely expensive. The problem is that this iPad life is now ridiculously expensive. One of the Nearings' early hand-made houses in Stratton, Vermont, where they had started out in the 1940s, is now for rent for $1200 a week and the house boasts a gas fireplace, microwave and satellite TV, a fact that makes my point better than any words I can conjure. It would be a very tall order to exist now as the Nearings did from the 1940s to the 1980s. At least from what I know about this world, that is my conclusion.

(I will be writing about Larch and his seaweed in a future issue of Yankee. Stay tuned!)

In the Eye of Spring

May 15, 2011

Tags: Pheasant's Eye, Poet's Eye, daffodils, narcissus, Madbury NH

I love a long spring and we have had that this year. So often, it goes by in the blink of an eye but this year, daffodils, abundant here, have been in bloom at least a month. Among the many blessings I have here at Mary’s farm are the varieties of daffodils she planted – who knows how long ago. I have planted some since I’ve been here but mostly, these harbingers of spring are from Mary. I had company last week and went out to pick a bunch for the table. There are several clumps to the east of the red barn, a scattering along the lower stone wall, some in front of the sunporch and in a collar around the hydrangea tree, some on the slope above the house. The early ones have gone by but new blooms have taken their place. While I was mowing the lawn yesterday, I found two rogues, beside the place where the big barn used to be. I can’t imagine they ever really bloomed in the tight shadow of the barn. But now that there's sun where the barn used to be, there they were, pure white, double-headed, with finely pointed petals, rising up out of rubble.

A friend of mine, Mary Liz, who lives nearby in a retirement community, was a great gardener, probably like Mary. She knows the names and the characteristics of many of the daffodils, or narcissus, as she prefers to call them. I was visiting with her a couple of weeks ago and she mentioned how much she missed her Pheasant’s Eyes. Before moving to her cozy apartment, she and her husband lived on a steep hill near Mt. Monadnock where she cultivated extensive perennial gardens. She sometimes won awards from the local garden club. She knew her stuff and has felt a little deprived now living without a garden of her own. I was pretty sure I knew what the Pheasant’s Eye looked like – a smallish white daffodil with a bright yellow center edged in red, which is the “eye” – and I had a feeling that I had some among my profusion of spring blooms. I told her I would look to see if I could find some for her.

On my return home, I searched all the clumps of daffodils around the house and barns. There were big, bright yellow blooms, the iconic yellow trumpets, some off-white with egg-yolk yellow centers, some big trumpets of white petals with faint yellow centers – the combinations seemed endless variations on the them of yellow, but, sadly, I could not find a Pheasant’s Eye for Mary Liz. Instead, I gathered a bouquet of some of each and dropped them off at her residence as a surprise. She in turn identified some of them for me: Mount Hood, Double Down, First Blush.

A few days later, I went to the town of Madbury to give a presentation at the historical society. Oftentimes these presentations are accompanied by a lavish table of sweets and treats and the evening in Madbury was no exception. Beautiful cakes, some dusted with confectioner’s sugar, were set on charming plates on a table adorned with an old-fashioned tablecloth and a large vase filled with daffodils. I was surprised and delighted to see that some blooms in the arrangement were Pheasant’s Eyes. I commented on these rare gems, which are sometimes called “Poet’s Eye,” a name I like even more, and as I was leaving the hall, one of my hosts lifted the entire bundle up out of the vase and gave them to me to carry home.


When I got home, I put them in a Mason jar on the kitchen table, the Eyes facing into the room. They were going by fast in my wood-heated kitchen. Next day, I separated the Eyes, put them into an old blue Milk of Magnesia bottle, and took them outside to photograph for Mary Liz. Better than nothing. In the meantime, her former neighbors had taken the time to cut twenty-five stems from the slope in front of her old house (with permission of the new owners) and took them to her in her apartment. And that day she had ordered bulbs for Pheasant’s Eyes to plant in a place outside her window for next year. In want, comes abundance.

During all this Pheasant’s Eye mania, I looked up the genus and found that the reason it is sometimes, or perhaps originally, called “Poet’s Eye” was because it is thought to be one of the oldest garden flowers. Legend has it that it was the narcissus of the Greek poets. Probably not true but lots of the red-eyed beauty can be found in France and Germany and up into the Pyrenees. They must last a long time up there, as the daffodils have here in this extended spring. Cold rain is forecast for the coming week so it’s likely we’ll hold onto the daffodils a bit longer.

My daffodil lexicon has been expanded. Pheasant’s Eye. The tiny but vivid bright red ring around the edge of the center cup is the kind of delicate detail in nature that makes one believe that, aside from being a poet, God was also an artist. I’m going to order some Pheasant’s Eye bulbs and plant them in the fall. Then I’ll hope for a long, cool spring next year.


A Mother of a Day

May 8, 2011

Tags: Mother's Day, Mothers, Guilt Trips

I’m a bit of a curmudgeon (I was first accused of being that when I was about 25 years old, at which time I didn’t know the meaning of the word) and that sometimes comes out on Mother’s Day. Understand, I am not a mother and my mother is long gone. So the day basically has no meaning to me, personally.

My own mother told me to ignore the day as she felt it was a fabrication of Hallmark and related industries and she was probably right so I was raised to disdain it. She practically begged us not to celebrate Mother’s Day. And yet, now that I'm grown and not a mother, I have to say, it's a painful day. It seems like they make a bigger deal of it than ever. I won't go to church today because in our church they always ask all the women who are mothers to stand up -- so virtually every woman in the church stands up while I remain seated -- and then everyone claps. There are so many women who are not mothers or mothers who have lost their children or even those of us who have lost mothers and miss them or, turned upside down, those who have unpleasant memories about their mothers or even those whose children have gone astray in one way or another. Mother’s Day, as the greeting card industry would have it, only seems to strike one note and there never seems to be any compassion for these possible variations on the word ‘mother.’ In my world, the word ‘mother’ can evoke a whole spectrum of emotion and set me offkey for a week.

I don't really know if it could or should be otherwise celebrated, or, as my mother would have had it, not at all but it seems out of scale at this point, especially with all the men being blown away in Afghanistan or wherever, leaving so many heartsick mothers. We just continue on with hearts and flowers and making sure every man feels great shame for not celebrating his wife or mother on this day. I had a man over yesterday who was helping me with various necessary chores around the farm. We were washing my kitchen windows, me on the inside and he on the outside, and chatting as we worked. He was relating to me the pressure he is under every time this day rolls around. Last year, he told me, he bought his wife a staple gun which he thought she could use for her projects but it didn’t go over very well. Not sweet enough. This seems so needless. As my mother used to say, if you feel it, it will be there all year long.

I suppose if I were a mother, I might feel differently but I always thanked my mother for having such a mature attitude about Mother’s Day. Admittedly, and she would agree if she were alive to read this, she was not a mother who felt any need to trumpet herself as a Mother. It was just one part of her. I recall that my first mother-in-law was pretty harsh on the subject -- if we sent her a card, she wanted a gift, and if we sent her a gift, it wasn’t the right one, and so on, never enough and God forbid we should forget the day altogether. We heard about that for the rest of the year (she was a bona fide tour guide for guilt trips). To make matters worse, her son was an only child. The pressure was intense. Such treatment made me feel grateful to my mother who sat the day out on the sidelines.

So that is my curmudgeonly contribution to this day. God bless all mothers, as they truly are the start of it all and yet, feelings of gratitude should come when they rise up and not on designated days. And certainly not as yet another day to rack one's brain for another gift to buy. As a result, and aside from all of the other reasons I listed, you just might not feel grateful on this day. And that’s a shame.


Fire and Ice

May 3, 2011

Tags: Dale Chihuly, Leavenworth, MFA Boston, glass blowing

I went Sunday to see the blown glass art of Dale Chihuly on display at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. I have been an enthusiastic fan of Chihuly’s for quite a while, having first encountered his work back in the early 1990’s on a trip to visit my sister who lives in Leavenworth, Washington. One of his amazing blown glass sculptures had been installed at a lovely retreat center called Sleeping Lady, which is just down the road from where she lives. She couldn’t wait to take me to see this mammoth creation, an enormous fusion of white glass which burst and drizzled around and unto itself like an icy wonder. What you notice first about Chihuly's work is the energy, the motion and emotion that pops from these glistening sculptures, so alive they all but move. His “Icicle Creek Chandelier” was his first ever installation outdoors, there in the midst of the Cascade Mountains. It was winter and the sculpture, which resembled an icy explosion, frozen in mid-air, hung outside with light playing through it in a magical transformation of glass as ice. My sister lives on Icicle Road as it winds its way up past Icicle Creek. This enormous fountain of curling glass was so appropriate, so organic to its place there at Sleeping Lady, I didn’t know which came first, Icicle Creek or Chihuly.

Now on exhibit in Boston are some of the most dramatic blown glass sculptures in Chihuly’s repertoire. A shimmering green, tree-like sculpture rising forty feet into the air, almost reaching the ceiling, is not in the Gallery where the exhibit is laid out but rather in the cafeteria. According to its label, the glass tower consists of 2,342 pieces of blown glass, weighs 10,000 pounds and took a full week to assemble in its place there at the MFA. Given the enormity and apparent fragility of these many, similarly mammoth creations, one of the unanswered questions of the exhibit was how they might have transported it all to Boston – from wherever these pieces might have been. Very carefully, to be sure.

One of the earmarks of Chihuly’s work is that he exhibits worldwide, notably in Venice, where the water seems to lend itself to his vision. One of the most fanciful sculptures is in the form of “the glass boat” which is a full-sized dory, loaded full to overflowing with blown glass figures, some resembling cranes or birds, others enormous balls, and then some mushrooms or orb-like umbrellas, suggesting cover or protection. All are in brilliant, blazing party-like colors as well as stripes unimagined in the world of blown glass. The explanation of this particular installation came as a quote from Chihuly who said that while in Finland, he became interested in knowing how many of his blown glass orbs would break if he threw them into the water. So he began to throw these large, beautiful objects into the harbor and to his surprise, maybe one out of a hundred broke. They were stronger than he thought. He called on some young boys then to retrieve the ones that had survived and they rowed out in a boat and loaded up the boat. This inspired him to create “the glass boat,” filling an empty boat with masses of colorful glass objects and setting it on a sheer “sea” of reflective glass. Every installation of the boat is different, according to where it is displayed, and sometimes, like in Venice, the boat is in actual, rather than virtual, water.

By hurling these works of art into the water, by setting them to the test under bold circumstances such as the frigid elements of the Cascade Mountains, Chihuly is testing his work, testing the myth of the fragility of glass, which is born out of intense heat, out of fire, if you will. And testing the strength of his own mind, blowing, pushing, pulling, curling, twisting. The glass is blown with stout iron rods, cut with tools that look better suited to steel or ironwork, maybe even horses’ hooves. Due to injury and age, Chihuly himself no longer does much of the work but instead choreographs a crew of able glass blowers, directing them against the backdrop of fiery furnaces. It’s hot, demanding work, needing incredible strength as well as a gentle touch. We see only the cool, bright remains of these efforts, these delicate fronds, these icicles, these medusa heads, these magical mushrooms, and open umbrellas of color and passion. You really ought to go in to see this exhibit. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

Once Made in America

April 11, 2011

Tags: American-made furniture, thrift shops, hand-me-downs, antiques, outsourcing

A few weeks ago, I saw a report on television on what is and what is not made in America. This show was about the furniture in our homes. The reporters went across the country, choosing random homes and families, and made a deal: you allow us to inspect everything in your house and remove anything not made in America and we’ll replace it with American-made items. The visual they gave us were high speed images of moving men removing the offending chairs, tables, lamps and vases – even appliances and, bingo, the house was empty. Even (and probably especially the appliances) had been taken out. Apparently they couldn’t find anyone with any American furniture in their homes because the stunning image was the site of a completely empty house once they had removed all the Chinese, Taiwanese and other pieces of Asian origin. This got me to thinking about my own home. I must say, I haven’t shopped for furniture very recently, in fact, almost never. I’ve bought a couch or two over the years but, other than that, my furniture came to me from my parents, my grandparents and my great-grandparents. What did not come to me from them I have purchased over the years from auctions, yard sales and thrift shops.

Let’s see how I would do: my kitchen stoves (I have two, one burns wood, the other uses gas) are from the 1920s and 1930s, made in Taunton, Massachusetts, by the venerable Glenwood stove company. My kitchen table came from a shop I used to like to pick through in Millers Falls, Massachusetts. It is oak, probably made at the turn of the (20th) century. I brought it home, my husband sanded it down and I applied a coat of polyurethane to make the top durable – and friends and family have gathered around this same table for more than thirty years. The chairs came from an auction house in Swanzey where I used to like to go on Tuesday nights. Even if I didn’t buy anything, I enjoyed the evening, watching the odd sewing machines, bureaus, bookcases go for various prices. All kinds of chairs were to be had for very reasonable prices – in my living room I have two small, matching stuffed armchairs that I purchased there, each one for $10 though I got them at different auctions. One year, I bought one – it was covered with a wild orange fabric that I felt I could live with – and a year or so later, another came up that matched, though the upholstery was light blue flowers. I had them both recovered and, voila, a pair. The other chair in that room is a bold Craftsman-style rocking chair that belonged to my grandfather. He had it painted gray. I spent many hours, stripping the paint to reveal the tiger oak it is made of. The desk I am writing on I bought out of a antiques shop in this town. I like to browse there from time to time. Some years ago, I bought this, an old harvest table, for another purpose, painted the legs Dutch blue and liked it so much, I eventually turned it into my desk. It’s spacious and has depth and is the perfect height.

In this house, old trunks become coffee tables and my grandparents’ lamps light the rooms – one of my favorite lamps came to me from the estate of a neighbor who passed away. I was very fond of her. Her daughters were so kind as to ask me if I would like something of hers. I chose a brass standing lamp and love the light it gives for my evening reading beside the stove. I never turn on the lamp without thinking of her. My dining room table was a wedding present to my great-grandparents, which is incomparable in terms of sitting at the table and feeling the presence of four generations of my family with me. Beds upstairs belonged to my parents and to my great-aunt. My father told me that six months before he married my mother, he bought the bed at a consignment shop and spent weeks removing the many layers of black paint to reveal the beautiful birds' eye maple of the frame. They slept in that bed for nearly fifty years, until they died. You could say I come by all of this honestly.

I don’t have to turn any of these pieces over to see if they were made in America and I’ve certainly never spent much on furniture. You shouldn’t have to. If your parents’ furniture isn’t up to snuff or isn’t to your taste, thrift stores and auctions can yield amazing bargains. The few times I’ve browsed in a furniture store, the prices made my hair stand on end. I imagine a young couple starting out could spend thousands of dollars to furnish their new, heavily mortgaged house and that team from ABC would come in and empty it completely. And I wonder how sturdy or long-lasting those new pieces would be. I think that furniture made in this country can last for centuries, if given half a chance. Maybe that’s the problem. Refurnishing, if I can call it that, does not answer the law of supply and demand.

I was going to write to ABC and tell them (proudly) that all the furniture in my house was made in America but then I realized that half of their mission was to create jobs in this country, jobs that have been lost by importing such a volume of foreign, often third world fabrications. So the idea of buying second-hand items probably defeats their purpose. At one time, the craftsmen who made my great-grandfather’s table and my parents' cannonball bed were revered. But the great furniture factories in this region have vanished from the landscape. Perhaps the craftsmanship has disappeared as well. If we’ve lost the skills along with the factories, I don’t know that abandoning the wares of countries halfway around the globe, made by people who are paid slave wages, will increase the situation in this country, caused, to be sure, by the massive level of outsourcing that was indulged in during the last two decades. But it’s worth trying and maybe that craftsmanship will re-enter our workforce, necessity being the mother of invention or, in this case, the grandmother.

Of course, not everyone can or would choose to furnish their homes with furniture from the last generation or the one next back from that or anything in between. But I think of it as something like heating with wood: it’s not for everyone but for those who choose it, it’s a reliable and economical thing to do. Not to mention that having these old pieces can make you feel connected, in a way that no couch from China or coffee table from Taiwan ever could.

"If you don't like the weather ---"

March 28, 2011

Tags: weather, vorhret, Icelandic Review, Mark Twain, spring thaw

I’ve just been reading about the word "vorhret" in the Icelandic Review, which comes to me every morning in my e-mail. They offer a line-up of the latest news in Iceland, usually about seven headlines on happenings throughout the country. (Much of it lately has been about their ongoing economic crisis, about which, interestingly, the Icelandic people are allowed to vote, that is to say, they have a voice in how the government will handle the deep debt in which they find themselves following the crash in 2008.) In addition, there are columns by local writers which are more about the daily life in Iceland. This morning, they had video of the “terrible weather” they have been having (http://www.icelandreview.com). I watched it with interest. Apparently, early in March, trees in Reykjavik had begun to bud and crocuses had popped up – certainly an earlier emergence of spring than we have ever had. I hasten to tell you that Iceland really does have a milder climate than we do, mostly because of the Gulf Stream. (Most people can’t get past their name, finding it hard to believe a place called Iceland could be anything but 24/7 ice.) Actually, I should say not milder so much as less extreme: their winters rarely give them more than a few inches of snow and it almost never goes below zero. Their summers rarely get above 60 F. What they have in abundance is wind. In any case, after this March thaw, they were treated to fierce storms, which caused blackouts and stranded motorists in the outlands. This is what they call the "vorhret," a time of rough weather following a period of warmth. In the article that accompanied the video, they make this statement: “The weather in Iceland is notoriously interchangeable. They say: if you don't like the weather, wait five minutes.”

That is not an unfamiliar remark. Maybe the folks in Iceland have been saying that for as long as they have been a nation, which dates back to 837 a.d. So I don’t want to take that away from them but we do say that here in New England, all the time. “If you don’t like the weather in New England, wait five minutes and it will change,” is an oft-repeated phrase attributed to Mark Twain. Curious, I looked this up and found that he addressed the subject in a talk he gave at the New England Society's Seventy-First Annual Dinner in New York City on December 22, 1876. He started his lecture like this:

"I reverently believe that the Maker who made us all makes everything in New England but the weather. I don't know who makes that, but I think it must be raw apprentices in the weather-clerk's factory who experiment and learn how, in New England, for board and clothes, and then are promoted to make weather for countries that require a good article, and will take their custom elsewhere if they don't get it.
There is a sumptuous variety about the New England weather that compels the stranger's admiration -- and regret. The weather is always doing something there; always attending strictly to business; always getting up new designs and trying them on the people to see how they will go. But it gets through more business in spring than in any other season.

"In the spring I have counted one hundred and thirty-six different kinds of weather inside of four-and-twenty hours. It was I that made the fame and fortune of that man that had that marvelous collection of weather on exhibition at the Centennial, that so astounded the foreigners. He was going to travel all over the world and get specimens from all the climes. I said, "Don't you do it; you come to New England on a favorable spring day." I told him what we could do in the way of style, variety, and quantity. Well, he came and he made his collection in four days. As to variety, why, he confessed that he got hundreds of kinds of weather that he had never heard of before. And as to quantity -- well, after he had picked out and discarded all that was blemished in any way, he not only had weather enough, but weather to spare; weather to hire out; weather to sell; to deposit; weather to invest; weather to give to the poor."

Twain had a lot more to say as he addressed the gathering. Mark Twain could say anything better than anyone else and this was no exception.

I don’t really want to go head to head with Iceland on whose weather is more changeable. Or who has it worse. Or who said it first. We don’t have a word for when a promising start to spring ends in a snowstorm or worse, an ice storm. We have swears in response but we don’t have a word like "vorhret" that expresses that phenomenon.

I suppose Icelanders could claim also that those raw, unschooled apprentices practiced their weathermaking in Iceland and then moved on to other countries where the standards were higher. In essence, we, the human race, do like to complain about the weather. In fact, it’s something we all have in common, a condition we share as we share the planet with each other. Twain’s lecture could be delivered here today and it would be just as relevant – and just as humorous. Because there is one thing about the subject of changing weather that can be said without doubt: it never changes.



Selected Works

Articles
In 1992, the Bishop of Worcester condemned St. Joseph's Catholic Church and ordered it closed. The parishioners refused to leave, sleeping on cots and on the hard pews. For thirteen months this was their life. In July of 1993, they were removed by the police. In many ways this was the blossoming of their faith. Originally published in Yankee Magazine in November 1993.
Growing up, nothing I could do seemed to please my mother and nothing she said made sense to me. But when my mother, on the threshold of death, came to live with me, I found what seemed to have been lost forever. Originally published in Yankee Magazine, May 1995
(The follow-up article to Miracle at St. Joseph's.) The Bishop turned to them and said, "Your prayers have been answered, the hard hearts have softened." Originally published in Yankee Magazine, December 1996
A reflection on the power of cooking and friendship and the concept of family. Originally published in Yankee Magazine, November/December 2007
Memorial Day, Harrisville, New Hampshire 1995. Originally published in Yankee Magazine, May 1996
My Articles
Libraries occupy a special place in the heart of a town. Evening events at the library give a strong sense of community and make it seem like a great place to live. And in the wake of the online revolution small town libraries have found a way to not only survive but to be indispensable.
In December 2008 an epic ice storm left virtually the entire state of New Hampshire without power. The residual effects of that storm paralyzed the Monadnock Region almost through Christmas. A first person account.
In 1994, sixteen-year-old Billy Best was diagnosed with Hodgkin's Disease. After several treatments, he ran away to avoid chemotherapy. What happened after that may have been a miracle.
Roxanne Quimby once lived primitively in the Maine woods. Today she owns 90,000 acres of those woods, and her goal is to create a national park to preserve the landscape forever. So why do so many people wish she'd just go away?
Multi-million dollar border stations are rising along our line between US and Canada. What was once the "friendliest border" has become deadly serious.
Renowned short story writer, Andre Dubus, reflects on the accident that cost him his legs.
A trip to Poland discovers a beloved family friend
An elegy for the master of the short story.
Fall comes to The County
Thousands seek healing from this innocent, comatose child.
A complete listing of articles published since 1978
Fiction
An encounter with a sick fox brings a young woman to the heart of her grief