The Nightingale

nightingaleI don’t know if it is my general busy-ness right now or one of those pockets in life sometimes experienced; times when books sit on the literary burner for a spell, simmering. Unlike many folks, summer is not generally a season where I have time for much reading. I’m often found outside pulling weeds, hunting caterpillars, photographing flower petals or visiting gardens and garden centers, botanical gardens and arboretums. My personal reading well has run dry, which will soon become a challenge as our book group will soon be discussing “The Goldfinch” and I,  have managed a mere 46 pages.

I have, however, recently finished an audio book that kept my attention and had me riding around the block in my car a few more times for just one more chapter.

“The Nightingale”, by Kristin Hannah, begins on the west coast, 1995. An elderly woman, whose voice is heard periodically in the story, will be moving into a senior living with the help of her son. She has a recurrence of cancer for which nothing more can be done. She harbors a secret.

We then meet Vianne, whose life is somewhat idyllic on the family farm about a mile outside of the French town of Carriveau. Her husband, Antoine, is quickly drafted into the French army as rumors of a German invasion spread. No one thinks the Germans will invade.

Isabelle, 18 and headstrong, has been dismissed from her current school. It is one of many schools where she was invited to leave. Isabelle returns home to her father, Julien, in Paris. He promptly sends her packing to her sister, Vianne. This is something he has done to Isabelle all her life. Isabelle learns quickly and first hand that, indeed, the Germans will stop at nothing and do invade France.

A German captain is soon billeted in Vianne’s home. She can either allow this to happen, or be thrown out with her young daughter, Sophie. When Isabelle arrives, a tenuous situation becomes even more precarious for Isabelle’s temper and defiance threaten the household’s safety. Isabelle soon leaves, compelled to do something about France’s occupation. She joins the French Resistance, eventually becoming the infamous Nightingale as she leads downed British and American pilots over the Pyrenees. Vianne is left to cope with the horrors of the Nazis in her village, coping as best she can, starving, witnessing the rounding up of Jews, including her best friend, leaving her baby boy, Ari, for Vianne to raise; a crime to the Nazis.

This is the story of resilience. It is of the plight of French women in World War II and of their often unsung wartime efforts. It is also the story of sisters, complicated and often volatile, but full of love and endurance. It is a historical journey of the horrors of war in France, but, I think could also be applied to any war. It is about courage; courage of different kinds, for Isabelle’s is of outward resistance and action, while Vianne’s is one of protector and hidden defiance.

There are many hard scenes in “The Nightingale”, especially those in concentration camps and what women do to save their children. In spite of this, I encourage you to read Kristin Hannah’s latest book, even if it means while driving your car.






A Country Garden

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In a bucolic setting, along a less traveled road, standing steady against modern housing sits an 1847 historic home. It is surrounded by an equally historic small farm where one can step back in time in the potager and vegetable gardens, learn of newly introduced produce, rediscover old garden favorites , and learn that what you thought to be a weed, purslane, is really a herb rich in omega 3 fatty acids as well vitamins.

So it was, in a heavenly spot called Country Garden Cuisine, which is owned and operated by Penny Newkirk, that I took a local park district day trip with my friend Sharon and a busload of other good souls.

Country Garden Cuisine was a life-long dream of Penny. As she sold her culinary shop in nearby St. Charles, a nearby convent came to the point in DSCN9558time when they needed to close their doors. When they learned of Penny’s interest in their house and that she wanted to open a culinary school, the deal was sealed, the house was moved to a historic farmstead that had a 1860s barn and outbuildings, and her dream became a reality.

Some years ago, I read about Country Garden Cuisine in a house and garden style magazine. It was a lovely article, but, it was the name that popped out at me. You see, Penny and I went to the same university and managed to land on the same dormitory floor. Both of us being Penny’s, and Pennys being hard to find, we struck up a friendship. That friendship eventually became one of yearly Christmas cards, a few visits, and eventually time and space did what it often does in life, widening the tide of contact. When I saw the article, I cut it out, my heart went pit-a-pat, and I vowed to self to try to contact her and see her school.

Of course, more years went by until one day my friend Roz mentioned, then made happen a field trip for our garden club out to Penny’s school and I finally was able to see her and her wonderful farm. Recently, my friend Sharon mentioned a trip to Country Garden Cuisine and thought I might like signing up for it. I did.

On Wednesday, I was fortunate to visit Country Garden Cuisine again. Penny demonstrated to the group of women in attendance how to make appetizers; grapes covered in Roquefort cheese and a delicious kale pesto, which eventually went into the squash “bowl”, just brought in from the garden.


We took a stroll around the herb and vegetable gardens, “oohed” and “ahed” over the sunflowers and zinnias, that are excellent pollinator attractors in the gardens, and took in the scent of the many herbs that abounded, even as the season ends. The squashes and pumpkins are coming to harvest and, oh, dare I tell you of the treat we were directed to? Yes. Yes, I will, for it is too good to keep to oneself. At the end of the vegetable garden was a large bed of raspberry bushes, their tempting red heads beckoning us to come and eat up a handful of sunshine. Joy supreme.

Then, time for lunch, we wandered back in where Penny demonstrated and prepared a raw beet salad and quinoa pilaf that would accompany a pork tenderloin (topped with a peach salsa). We ate in the dining and sitting rooms of the old and welcoming house.

Food, history. and connections with the past linking to the present. A moveable feast.

This is actually a Kobocha squash, just about ready to pick from the garden.


Love Story

Harry_Volkman_WGN_TVIt was not quite midnight on a New Year’s Eve. One of the typical bitterly cold Chicago New Year’s Eves that are common hereabouts. I was wearing a long, black dress. It had colorful rick-rack on the hem and neckline and long black sleeves, accompanied by my long, brown hair; a girl in the ’70s dressed up for a movie, Love Story,  downtown on New Year’s Eve. A college student with nary a nickel to spare, my Aunt Christina gave me with the dress. I had casually mentioned seeing it in the window of a little dress shop near her house. A few days later, she gave me the dress so that I would have something nice to wear for my Uncle George’s surprise birthday party. I was so touched by her generous gift and her thoughtfulness – I still am.  I loved that dress and I wore it on many  occasions for years.

My New Year’s Eve date (can you guess who it was?) and I walked out of the Oriental Theater – and directly into bright lights! Really bright lights, and a television camera, only we didn’t see the camera right away. We didn’t see it until we accidentally walked right in front of it and Harry Volkman! Tom swiftly steered us away from the camera, whispering “it’s Harry Volkman“! We had just stepped into a weather forecast. There he was, Harry Volkman,  a weather map at his side, giving the late night weather report in downtown Chicago, the last forecast of 1970!

Tom and I reminisced about that New Year’s Eve on Friday. We hadn’t thought about it in decades, but, it was one of those moments, part of our own Love Story, that works its way back into our long running conversation of life. These moments in time that stay with us, sometimes hidden from thought for decades, but, reappear when such things as the news of the passing of a celebrity occur.

If you lived in the Chicagoland area between 1959 and the early 2000s, no matter which television station you got your news from, you probably heard your weather report from Harry Volkman at some point in time. He was among the first to use weather maps, sometimes drawing in crayon or chalk, to show weather patterns. Sometimes silly, even outrageous for the times in his on-air weather reports, he was a daily fixture in Chicago news television for many decades.

Harry Volkman brought many young children, now adults, to their television sets as he would often visit area schools to talk to students about the weather. It was customary for schools to honor him with a boutonniere. Mr. Volkman would then wear it during his evening’s forecasts and he would mention the school during the weather report. He also visited retirement homes.

Harry Volkman also encourage young viewers to call in weather conditions. He would mention them by first name on the air; names like Tom from Aurora reports . . .  It would be anything from cloud formations to rain or snowfall and temperatures. By-the-way,  that kid named Tom grew up to be our revered meteorologist, Tom Skilling, who now gets paid to report the weather and is a well-known and respected meteorologist in the Chicago area.

I was thinking about all of this as the news of Harry Volkman’s passing hit the airwaves last week, as well as of this rather noble idea of citizen scientists, which I mention here on the Cutoff from time-to-time. Harry Volkman made weather interesting. He captured our attention with weather details in a new way that we could relate to, and invited his viewers to be part of the process of not only predicting weather, but, in being active citizens – citizen scientists – as they noted weather conditions. He was a true mentor to those entering his profession, and a moment in time for two college kids out on a date.

Rest in peace, Mr. Volkman. Rest in peace.

Image from here.

Oh, what a tangled web we weave


It was one of those mornings.

I wandered around the grounds checking for blossoms, deer damage, and caterpillars, a cup of coffee in one hand, a camera in the other. I enjoy the quiet of early morning with hazy hints of the day ahead.

The swallowtail caterpillars have vanished. Day-by-day, one-by-one they disappeared, having grown as large as my thumb.  I was surprised by a Swallowtail butterfly that flitted out of the meadow rue; exactly where the caterpillars had been munching. The Monarch caterpillars have also disappeared, though I can find no cocoons, I’m hopeful for a few more butterflies this summer.

I sipped my morning brew while the bees sipped the Echinacea and dipped into the August Lily, dusted in pollen and sated with nectar.

Early mornings are like this, here on the Cutoff. A buck roaming from yard to yard, his proud demeanor and growing rack leading his confident stride. Chipmunks and squirrels, telling one another off.  A yellow wooly caterpillar making its way toward colder weather as a wren scolds me for being too close to her nest.

The sun was inching toward the purpose of this day, sending its golden rays through the nooks and crannies of our little acreage. As I looked toward its  rising, in between the branches and brambles of the boundaries between our little acreage and the clear-cut lot next door, I saw a few strings of silk glistening.


There. Between a branch and thicket was the weaving of a web.


As I aimed my camera, shooting at different angles, at times not even sure I was capturing the handiwork of an industrious spider, a hint of red caught my eye. He moved quickly, so assuredly, that before I could aim my camera’s lens he was across two acres and out of view.

So goes a red fox on a sunny August morning whilst I was webbing.

I’m sure there is a fable in here somewhere, but, I have not as yet learned how to knit one on my web.


August’s Lily


As summer begins her slow bend into fall, her riotous colors fade to more subdued tones. Tree frogs begin their nightly chorus, while crickets accompany them on their strings and I look to one of the garden’s later season blooms for some visual distraction before Autumn’s splendor.

The August Lily really isn’t a lily at all. It is a member of the hosta family; Hosta plantaginea. It is a late season show stopper, both for its exotic beauty and its seductive scent.

The ideal location for an August Lily is near a window or door, or along a well-worn path, for there is such a sweet fragrance as one’s clothes brush against this plant and its scent drifts past an open window or ousidet a door.

DSCN9422This August Lily sits quietly in a corner of the front border, hugging a coveted place of honor, waiting for me to open the front door and enjoy its sweet scent on a late summer’s night. Other August lilies sit along the arbor, where they wait for brief interludes after I’ve been working in the prairie garden or the arbor’s adjacent shade garden.

Like many white flowers, the August Lily’s scent grows strongest at night, which also makes it an attractive night pollinator. Some plants work harder at night, attracting moths and small insects who are nocturnal and spread pollen when the rest of the garden’s cast of characters is at rest . . .


. . . and if one of the August lily’s stalks should happen to bend under the weight of its blooms, what finer spot could there be but in a vase placed in a prominent spot, such as the kitchen counter?



DSCN9317I have a new wheelbarrow.

This isn’t it.

My new wheelbarrow is gray with a cup holder and a little shelf for tools. It toddles along with me as I weed and snip and dig and tug and it was a surprise from the Antler Man, who thought it would help me in my gardening chores. He was right. It does.

It is not my new wheelbarrow that is the subject of this post, however. It is the one pictured here.

Let me start again and ask you first to click onto the wheelbarrow. Can you see the LEGO pieces that connect to make this a wheelbarrow? Isn’t it great? It sits in the entry of the Children’s Garden at the Morton Arboretum and is one of many items that pepper the arboretum grounds as part of NatureConnects. These phenomenal pieces, a baker’s dozen throughout the Arb, are the work of Sean Kenney and will be on display through November 1. You can find out more about the exhibit here.

Along with the wheelbarrow, we happened upon a vegetable garden being tended. I wish my garden looked as neat and productive as this one. DSCN9325


DSCN9327Aren’t they remarkable?

Have you been to see this at the Arb, or seen such exhibits elsewhere?



A Glorious Harvest


A few weeks ago, I mentioned a book we received in one of the private gardens during an Open Day for the Garden Conservancy. I meant to post on it sooner, but life, in the form of young grandchildren and lots of great family time, filled my days until now.

And do, once upon a time in a garden  . . .

When we approached to ticket table at Mettawa Manor, we were given a raffle stub, along with a map of the estate and some general directions. Our delightfully informative greeter invited us to return with the stub to the ticket table when we finished our garden visit and to return it in exchange for one of the many books the estate’s owners were giving away from their personal library.

What a generous gift – and a great idea to file in my revolving folder of a mind –  perhaps to use sometime in one of my activities.

There were still many lovely books about gardening, landscaping, cooking and such when we wandered back to the table. As soon as I saw the cover of “A Glorious Harvest”, I knew it was destined to follow me home. Poor Tom. He didn’t have a chance.

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“A Glorious Harvest: Robust Recipes from the Dairy, Pasture, Orchard, and Sea”, by Henrietta Green, is filled with enticing recipes, informed text from the author, a culinary writer, and the most delectable photographs.

From entries like Paper Bag Potatoes and Roulade with Asparagus, to Tarte Tatin and Whole-wheat Bread, I am putting on weight just browsing this engaging cookbook/reference book/instruction manual on all things gastronomical. As I sit here putting words to screen, a recipe, really quite simple, called Paper Bag Potatoes, is calling to me. Perhaps I will visit a farm stand tomorrow, dig up some new potatoes from one of the bins, pull out some parchment paper, and see what aromas and tastes issue forth.

Ah, the many wonders of visiting gardens on Open Days.

Have you eaten, I mean read, any good cookbooks lately?


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