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Words that take us along our paths

If the world were merely seductive, that would be easy. If it were merely challenging, that would be no problem. But I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.
~ E.B. White

One such day, which was already planned, was not a particularly seductive one, but, it was a challenging one filled with the usual chores, responsibilities, and the this-and-that of life to attend to. There was someone to visit and a stop at the vegetable/fruit market before returning home where I set about preparations for our supper.

While the chicken was marinating, I checked my emails, my blog comments and your posts, then suddenly realized that there was a lecture I had hoped to attend; The Pen and the Trowel with Marta McDowell. When I first read about it, the lecture sounded interesting and the name of the speaker was vaguely familiar. Funny, isn’t it, how life’s tidbits of information marinate as we wander along in life?  I clicked onto the saved informational link, which still sounded interesting, and wondered aloud if I could still attend.

Explore the ways that writing and gardening intertwine with author and speaker, Marta McDowell. For years, McDowell has been occupied with writers who garden, and how their horticultural interests have changed her planting beds as well as her bookshelves. Starting with Mark Twain, and connecting to authors ranging from Henry David Thoreau to Louisa May Alcott, this lecture explores that rich, writing-gardening connection. Instructor: Marta McDowell, author and horticulturist. *

The lecture was at 7pm. It was already 4:30. Could I make it? I scurried about like the little chipmunk who gathered the stuffing out of the pillow on my porch rocker (not the one pictured above). I registered online, changed clothes, made sure all was in place for Tom’s supper and off I went to one of my favorite places, the Morton Arboretum.

I parked in the lot behind the Sterling Morton Library and enjoyed the short walk to its doors. If you have not visited this library you should. Membership to the Arb allows you to check out books but all visitors may enter, browse the stacks of books, learn something from the curated displays and more! The Sterling is, indeed, sterling in its embrace of nature.

Like the seasoned gardener and horticulturist she is, Marta McDowell sowed her words like flower seeds through the garden writings of such notables as Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens) and Emily Dickinson, Louisa May Alcott and Ralph Waldo Emerson. She shared photos of her own garden’s many transformations after being influenced by the writings of many authors, as well as having visited many of their gardens while researching her several books.

In the course of Ms. McDowell’s lecture, I learned of the friendship between Samuel Clemons and Harriet Beecher Stowe. Stowe would often cross the lawn between their two homes and take plants from his large conservatory. Their neighbor was Charles Warner, who wrote “My Summer in a Garden” (note to self, check this out). She reminded us that before Louisa May Alcott’s  “Little Women” there was “Flower Fables” and that Beatrix Potter used features of her own Lake District home and gardens in her adored illustrations. The web of writers, illustrations, photographs and more cast a spell upon me that made me want to learn more about writers who did, indeed, improve the world while also enjoying it. It also reminded me of the shelves of books I have about gardening; shelves groaning with poetry, essays, literature, and lifestyles and I am filled gratitude for how words and photographs have shepherd me along my own garden paths.

My “aha” moment came when I saw Marta McDowell’s newly released book, and I realized she had authored such books as “All the Presidents’ Gardens”, “Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life” and “Emily Dickinson’s Gardens”. It was my dear friend Janet, aka Country Mouse, who recently alerted me to a book giveaway she knew I would be interested in, which I was, and which included some of these books as well as her newest book, “The World of Laura Ingalls Wilder”.

Do you have a favorite gardening writer or author who influenced your garden or your lifestyle?

The link to that giveaway can be found here

Here is a link to Marta McDowell’s lecture schedule. She might be in your area, in case you are interested: http://www.martamcdowell.com/events

*From the Morton Arboretum website.

 

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I

have been

chasing sunsets.

Ever since August’s solar eclipse, which cast its spell on random groups of strangers, I have been wandering off our little acreage just before to sunset to bid farewell to the day.

While we reside in a semi-rural area nestled underneath a generous canopy of trees, the windy city’s skyscrapers loom to the east and suburban development rises to the west. We are not in the best of spots for capturing the rising or setting sun.

So it was the other day, with nary a ray of sunshine shining upon on our little prairie, that the Antler Man encouraged me to head down the road in search of the sunset. He reminded me of the many times we’ve driven up the hill only to be blinded by the setting sun as we reached the apex.

Thus encouraged and energized, off I went and sure enough, I was startled by sunlight before making my way around the bend in the road.

I headed over to an unlikely spot on a well-traveled road that the locals frequent. My cell phone app conveniently told me the hour and minute the sun would set, giving me an ETA with ten or fifteen minutes to spare.

There were several cars already parked in the narrow wayside at the Saganashkee Slough. A few fishermen set their lines over the rail while two teenaged girls were having fun with what appeared to be carpool karaoke. I could see them mouthing words, gesticulating and bouncing to music, which I could barely hear (thank goodness) as they politely closed the car’s windows. A serious photographer had what looked like an intricate camera perched on a tripod and other sunset-seekers were sitting on portable directors’ chairs while a few children did what children do – they ran around laughing and shouting and bickering and hugging.

Two boys, around the ages of eight and ten, darted to and fro, stopping to ask “Papa, did you start it?”. “Yes” said Papa, patiently, while another child, a girl, a few years older than the oldest boy read a book in a nearby chair.

I found a spot along the rail, looking toward the descending sun, then turned my back while I engaged my cell phone’s camera.

“Did you set your camera to time-lapse?” a younger voice asked me.

Well, no, I had not, and told the older boy I was just taking photos. He thought I needed to do a time-lapse. I had a few minutes, Papa indicated it was okay, and I was given a mini-lesson in time-lapse photography by a ten year old boy!

I looked across the slough, really a big lake, and told my two new friends that it was time.

“Papa, are you ready?”  He was and I said “There goes the sun. Let’s start counting down from 3, 2, 1!” The sun disappeared as we exclaimed our collective delight. The children’s father thanked me for being nice to his sons and I thanked them all for showing me how to work my camera in a new way. Cars were started, the karaoke kids stopped performing, fishing poles and tripods were dismantled and another day was done.

As I opened the door to my car, the older boy ran up to me and asked if I would come back another time. I told him I would and that I hoped we could all watch another sunset.

There have been other sunsets to chase since then, and there will be more in days to come, but this one sunset gave me a just a few extra rays of hope in this troubled and turbulent world we live it.

 

 

The Sweetest Kind

Oh, September grass is the sweetest kind, it goes down easy like apple wine.
Hope you don’t mind if I pour you some, made that much sweeter by the winter to come. – James Taylor

 

There is an aged apple tree: near death if-truth-be-told. It stands, barely, far back on this equally aged property we call home. The tree has a newly splintered limb as well as a hallowed-hidey-hole demeanor. It is related to an apple tree that straddles the neighbors’ property and ours along a grassy peninsula of ferns and creeping Charlie.

We take turns looking at the drive-by apple tree and contemplate its condition in times of neighborly chats, musing over its gnarly stature, remarking over the observance that we can now see through the trunk and hoping that it doesn’t topple in the next big storm. That the apple tree still bears fruit is remarkable.

The deer wander down our respective driveways, munching on the windfall apples or tugging on the branches, stripping them of fruit. Oddly enough, there are still plenty of apples that one side will bake a pie with, the other applesauce.

The wasps arrive, come September, attracted to the apples’ juices – road cider pressed from the weight of our cars. The scent is noticeable now, not only along the drive, but also in the grassy plot of sunshine and fallen oak leaves further back. What the deer don’t eat the riding mower will devour. We will, however, manage to claim some apples for ourselves. They are easy enough to harvest in the grass and a long pole with a basket grabs the hanging fruit, plucking them from the  tree branches.

As the long slant of the warm September sun casts her golden glow upon the apple trees, I feel gratitude for the earthly stewards who planted them so many years ago, for these apple trees provide shelter to birds, squirrels, butterflies – and they host a vociferous chorus of tree frogs that serenade us well into these soft September nights. The shade us from the sun in summer and they add to the winter landscape when the snowfalls arrive.

Do you have any fruit trees or pick fruit yourself at orchards? Do you cook/bake with apples?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Flood Friday

It was in the Roosevelt grade school library that I found Lois Lenski and her series of regional books.  “Strawberry Girl”, “Cotton in My Sack”, “Houseboat Girl” and other books managed to follow me home from school. These books took me to places I had never been to and introduced me to children in other parts of the United States, their schools, their homes, their regional dialect, their family life and in the places where they lived in. Some of the children were itinerant workers along with their families, some lived in poverty and a few were put in harm’s way. These books were adventuresome and, in spite of troubles that came, they were uplifting. They were also illustrated by Lois Lenski. The artwork often told as much of these stories of the 1940’s and ’50s as her words did.

Watching the devastation of Hurricane Harvey and its continuing aftermath in Houston, Texas has been sobering, to say the least. The loss of lives and of livelihoods, homes, jobs, infrastructure as well as the peril to all involved – the list is far-reaching and will be never-ending for many. Yes, people are resilient and will persevere. They will rebuild, move, leave the area. Time may heal and it may not. From afar, I can only hope and pray and do what I can, which seems meager, to help in the recovery effort. Each of you grapple with similar concerns and many have had your own “hurricanes” in life.

As I tend to do, I look toward books in times such as these, and, in so doing, I remembered one of Lois Lenski’s books, “Flood Friday”. I read it, several times, as a child and I tried, unsuccessfully, to find it in one of the libraries in my loan system this week. The book is based on a flood in Connecticut in the 1950’s and one I hope to find someday soon.

The flood takes place on a Friday, as the title suggests, and finds the town’s children displaced, first to the grade school, then to a neighbor’s house on higher ground. I remember the book being riveting as the characters experienced everything being safe and secure as they went to bed at night to their rescue from the roof of their house the next day. I also remember the feeling of people working together and of helping each other out. Lenski’s words put me into the school’s gym and I imagined our own gym being used as a shelter with cots lined up across the floor and my friends and neighbors, out of context yet there in a room where we played dodgeball and duck-duck-goose. I tried to imagine having only the clothes on my back and could not quite grasp how my grandmother would have gotten up on the house’s roof, remembering family lore of how the ushers had to carry her down from her seat at the circus. Sigh. My thoughts rambled even as a young girl. The drift of this line of thought is how books transported me to other places in time and allowed for my imagination to grow.

Like Pearl Buck’s “The Big Wave”, which I came across after the tsunami in Japan a few years ago, I find myself pondering the miracle of books and their ability to help us understand and to heal. I know how they can help children work through issues, troubling or frightening times and to understand what others may be going through, how they live, where they live.

I will continue my search for “Flood Friday”, perhaps finding an old, used copy in one of my antique store haunts, and I will continue to pray for the victims of Hurricane Harvey as the storms continue and in the long period of recovery.

A Chorus of Crickets

Eclipse Day

 I had a meeting to attend, which was held in a local library.  The library has rooms that can be reserved for groups to gather in. The library was also hosting a live-stream viewing of the eclipse. Libraries do so much more than share books. They bring people together for good causes, information, lectures, workshops – and unique observations of this small planet we live on.

Our meeting commenced with facts and figures, observances and suggestions – and the increased “ping” of cell phones, alerting this one or that of where the moon and sun were in their celestial dance.

Citizen scientists and nature lovers, there are also several retired teachers who were itching to see Mother Nature in full solar force. One-by-one the chairs were vacated, business was concluded, and off we went to check out the live-stream or exit out onto the library’s outdoor grounds to experience this rare and unique phenomenon – a solar eclipse.

 

Here I am, my friends, expressing my own partial eclipse of the sun and the moon and my hair! (No, I did not look up with my bare eyes.)

Garden club members, who had been in attendance at the meeting, mingled with small children, library patrons, curious passers-by and library staff. Our dear friend Marilyn had eclipse glasses and shared them, as did the library’s director and others, passing the special spectacles around, sharing this special moment in time. I think I was as much in awe of those gathered as I was of the eclipse. A gaggle of dissimilar folks of all ages and backgrounds, abilities and interests, gathered on a walkway experiencing an eclipse of the sun.

I tried to imagine how our ancestors experienced an eclipse. They would not have had the big “build-up” we have experienced with scientific information, medical warnings, long lines waiting for free glasses – or the despicable scammers who sold glasses that were not what they claimed. Many of us remember altering boxes with pinholes, set upon our heads, class projects and spending time outdoors trying to catch images of the eclipse.

A few viewers were checking the weather on their cell phones, announcing a drop or two in degrees, which really is not unusual in Chicagoland.

We chatted and continued to share the sun glasses, a small consortium of curious folks following the sun and earnestly engaged in the moment. A chorus of crickets and locusts were strumming their music usually heard at dusk, though it was only midday. Their premature chorus was a call and response as we. in turn,  oohed and ahhhed and wowed and expressed our emotions at the awesome show in the cloudy sky on a hot summer day.

How about you? Did the eclipse’s path cross yours on August 21?

Have you ever experienced a solar eclipse?

Baker’s Twine and Kraft Paper

Baker’s twine and Kraft paper;  items that bind boxes and bakery together into neat bundles of laundered shirts and school books. They are as useful as they are evocative of other eras, and they came to mind several times lately, reminding me of my childhood.

Bakeries – stand alone, family owned, old-fashioned bakeries – are harder to find these days. We are fortunate to have a most excellent Swedish bakery  nearby. I frequent it now-and-then for their outstanding pecan coffeecakes and the best hot cross buns during the Lenten season. A German bakery bustles, especially on Saturday mornings when the small shopper area is elbow-to-elbow and where the best molasses cookies and apple pie can be found. Earlier this week, I was on the hunt for a Czech bakery a friend recommended some time ago which is in another nearby suburb that once was peppered with many such bakeries.

I selected a few brownies and a cherry coffeecake for a special someone who I hoped would enjoy it. The checker, who was efficient if rather no-nonsense, quickly wrapped up my purchases, hand tying the boxes of sweet wonders as if strumming a guitar. Her motions were almost musical as she mentally measured the chord of string and tied my bundle in a sturdy bow, handed my bundle over and sang out “next”.

I think a few Linzer cookies might have made their way to my mouth as I drove away.

Later, homeward bound, I stopped at The Farm. The Farm it is a favored summer vendor of mine for produce – and flowers. They grow most of the flowers they sell from a large plot of land behind the old barn from which vegetables, fruit, honey and seasonal items are sold, especially sweet corn.

I selected some bell peppers, pickles, plums and peaches. A jar of honey was set in the cart . . . and then, there were the fresh cut flowers, bundled in sturdy vases of Kraft paper. The bouquets reminded me of bouquets long before the plastic sleeves without a soul that we find today – and they reminded me of my grandmother.

Yia Yia grew a circle of zinnias every year in our back yard.  Come September, a few days after school resumed, Yia Yia would pick the choices zinnias from the garden and gather them together in a bouquet. She would wrap them securely in newspapers, creating a vase to keep the stems together, sending me off to school with a glorious garden bouquet for my teacher.

I selected a bouquet, not the zinnias, but instead an arrangement with hydrangea and grasses, knowing they would sit comfortably in front of the window, where they will primp and pose until they are passed their prime. It will be right about then that more sweet corn will be calling – and perhaps a bouquet of zinnias will follow me home then.

I am sorry for the darkness of the photos here. I tried to lighten them up, unsuccessfully. I hope you have an idea of the textures in the bouquet.

Do you use baker’s twine? How about Kraft paper?

A little on-line research, and a few off-line gardening books, brought me to Childe Hassam’s painting, At the Florist, which is pictured on top of this post. The bouquets from The Farm reminded me of Hassam’s painting.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Often a butterfly stopped to rest there.

Then Laura watched the velvety wings…”

On the Banks of Plum Creek – Laura Ingalls Wilder

 

Like the young Laura Ingalls of the Little House books, I watch the “velvety wings” of butterflies. I squeal with girlish glee when a Monarch flits by, dipping around as if by the mere breath of the breeze, partaking of the abundance of native flowers flourishing in our prairie garden.

The plight of the Monarch butterfly has been well documented and its migratory flight has been monitored for more than a decade. I have often shared photos and thoughts about the Monarchs and bees in the journey of this little blog, from travels afar to what is right under my nose here along the Cutoff.

Last summer was alarming, especially here when I saw but one Monarch. One. This year, I have spotted at least a dozen and have found Monarch eggs and caterpillar on the milkweed – enough times to have perfected my happy dance. Butterflies have been flitting about and stopping to sip on the Joe Pye Weed, the Monarda (bee balm), and Echinacea (cone flowers) which are all a bloom in these dog days of summer. There are bees and moths and other pollinators that also show up on sunshiny days, sipping sweet nectar from the cups of flowers. It is a regular insects’ tea party, if ever there was one, here among the native plants and some of their distant relatives.

This increased activity is encouraging for those of us who have worried about the changes in nature that have occurred in these past decades; we counters of bees, planters of pollinators and taggers of “velvety wings” who have become a small army of citizen scientists. I am cautiously optimistic.

As I brandished my watering wand, I reflected on how much is yet to be done and how much has already been accomplished on our little acreage . I watered some newly introduced cone flowers and pulled that rascal, Creeping Charlie, who was cavorting  among the feverfew and indigo, and I imagined Laura’s life along Plum Creek.

How our little prairie has grown! Established in August, 2013, it is now a crowded confusion of exuberance and joy that will need dividing and some expansion of plots come Autumn. For now, I’m enjoying watching those velvety wings of nature as the plants reach for the sun and spread their arms in a blowzy embrace of prairie life.

I remain appreciative of all the green thumbs who shared their plants in our little adventure, and I am optimistic with this glimmer of hope for the Monarchs and the bees.

Here are a few photos of the prairie garden being developed in 2013

and recent photos of the garden today.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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