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dairy-farmwalking-to-barnThe way to the barn was a well-worn, rutted path, uphill and scenic, past acres of pasture on a Illinois Centennial Farm, now in its 5th generation of dairy farmers. As we trudged up the path, we noticed most of the herd in the distance, congregating companionably under a brilliant sky. We headed toward one of the farm buildings. This was our third stop on the McHenry County Farm Stroll.

I first heard about this free event from a University of Illinois Master Gardener publication, which caught my attention. This year, 12 private farms would be opened to the public. The properties included orchard, vineyards, dairy farms, hobby farms, and the Loyola University Retreat and Farm campus.

Tom and I marked our calendars and bookmarked the event, intrigued by all the options available, familiar with the rolling hills and farmland in McHenry County, and knowing the wide and well-informed network of the University of Illinois Extension Services and Master Gardeners, as well as the McHenry County Farm Bureau.

We knew we would not be able to see all 12 farms, so, selected 4 that we were most interested in,  mapped out a route and off we went for a Sunday stroll.

This dairy farm was our 4th stop and different from the others. We soon found ourselves observing the cows and their bairn eating in the barn, followed by a very informative mini-lecture on hay and straw, how hay is harvested and stored, the often “iffy” reliance on erratic weather in the midwest. Our docent in the hay stall was from the Farm Bureau and she was a gifted and knowledgeable speaker who had all ages of visitors engaged in her subject matter.

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One of the farmers also walked us through a typical day of milking the cows with insight into small dairy farms versus large conglomerates, how he knows the names of all of his cows, and reminding us to check out his Guernsey cows and a calf just born who were just outside the barn.

I did take a few photos of the newborn Guernsey, which did not show well. It was not yet 24 hours old, curled into a brown ball of body and big eyes. If it had some spots I would have thought it was a fawn. Mom, however, was close by, keeping her eyes on the intruders passing by.

 

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So it was on this enlightening leg of our Farm Stroll, that we wandered back down the path, rutted with decades of use. Onward we went, headed toward our car. We stopped as we departed to thank the volunteers stationed there who asked how our visit was – and we were given a choice of carton of milk.

White or chocolate?

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We chose wisely.

 

 

 

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It is, officially, Autumn; and so begins the long, slow goodbye . . .

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 . . . as the days shorten and the shadows grow longer, the leaves begin their free fall and many of us in a northerly climate begin to turn our thoughts inward as we relish the harvest of the cold crops, the gourds and pumpkins, especially the pumpkins.

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img_0650Illinois is the top producer of pumpkins. Last year was a sad year for pumpkins here in the Prairie State, but, this year – ah, this year looks to be a a good one for those glorious orbs that are traditionally orange, but, appearing in other colors and shapes as well.

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We stopped at a local farm stand, The Farm, where I often visit for fresh, local vegetables as well as the flowers they grow and sell. The zinnias have been particularly spectacular this year, and this bouquet caught my eye, but, it was organic tomatoes and pickles that I was after this day. I’ll be back soon for a bouquet – and I think I will try one of these pumpkins. Goosebumps. Their unique bumps are rather wart-like and the color and name are intriguing. I’m sure one will lighten up our little corner of earth here along the Cutoff.

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img_9997Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? 

Mary Oliver, “The Summer Day”

I no longer remember whose post it was that first introduced me to Mary Oliver, but, I am forever grateful for it and the moment when I first experienced her words; words so well woven that they continue to ring the clarion call to nature and life for me.

It was the quote above that captured my attention, probably six or so years ago. I am still trying to form an answer. Perhaps, for me, what I plan to do is what I have always done; searching for meaning and purpose in my wanderings through the pathways of life.

On a recent pleasant, clear and less humid evening, I had an itch to be out and about in nature. Not quite dusk, I knew it would soon be, so needed to move with some purpose and plan, which led me to Lake Katherine and the mile or so walk around the lake.

Isn’t it funny how a place can sometimes beckon us?

I am glad I answered the call.

My reward was a time to reflect after a busy day and time to clear my head of details and worry. As I walked, I could feel the beat of my heart and the echo of my steps. A gaggle of local geese held a conference and two small children crept close to a pair of black ducks. Runners slipped past me and young lovers toward me as the sun slowly swallowed the shore and a lone Great Blue Heron waited patiently in the reeds for his next bite.

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Mary Oliver’s birthday is today.

While I am still not clear as to what is my plan, I am clear that I will continue my brief but meaningful wanderings in nature as my steps creep all the closer to my own setting sun.

So it was on another day’s walk-about that I came upon a field of gold. I thought I could hear the “goldenrod whispering goodbye” as I marveled at its bright, yellow color; a mass of madness in nature’s closing performances as one season sets into another. Here’s to Mary Oliver and to each of our own wild and precious lives.

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Song for Autumn by Mary Oliver

In the deep fall
don’t you imagine the leaves think how
comfortable it will be to touch
the earth instead of the
nothingness of air and the endless
freshets of wind? And don’t you think
the trees themselves, especially those with mossy,
warm caves, begin to think

of the birds that will come — six, a dozen — to sleep
inside their bodies? And don’t you hear
the goldenrod whispering goodbye,
the everlasting being crowned with the first
tuffets of snow? The pond
vanishes, and the white field over which
the fox runs so quickly brings out
its blue shadows. And the wind pumps its
bellows. And at evening especially,
the piled firewood shifts a little,
longing to be on its way.

From “New and Selected Poems Volume Two”

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The Bee is Not Afraid of Me  

by  Emily Dickinson

The bee is not afraid of me,

I know the butterfly;
The pretty people in the woods
Receive me cordially.

The brooks laugh louder when I come,
The breezes madder play.
Wherefore, mine eyes, thy silver mists?
Wherefore, O summer’s day?

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Roadside stands, farmers markets, seasonal enterprises – they are the heart and soul of summer in the Midwest – and probably in your neck of the  woods as well.

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I didn’t buy the Speciality Basil Bouquet (top photo), but, I couldn’t resist taking a picture. The arrangements look, and smell, of summer. I grow my own basil along with thyme, oregano, and sage in a whiskey barrel on our deck. I love to step outside and snip fresh herbs for our dinner, and I love slipping herbs into bouquets – or just in a jar of water for color and ease on my countertop.

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The bouquet of zinnias, above was from The Farm, a roadside market not far from our house. They grow their produce on two farms nearby and have a large plot in back of the barn/store where they grow flowers that they sell from the stand. The bouquets are picked and arranged each day and last for most of a week. This bouquet has strawflowers and Billy Buttons, which should also dry well for Fall arrangements.

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Last week, onions, new potatoes, zucchini and string beans were available. One glance and I knew what i would be making for dinner that night and leftovers thereafter – Greek string beans and potatoes! I used some freshly picked mint leaves from another pot on the deck and it was, I must confess, unabashedly, THE BEST Briami  I have ever made!

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Sweet corn is abundant now. I prefer to get corn from Farmers Markets and stands, where I know they are as locally grown and as fresh as possible, but, there are also berries, and fruit, much of which is coming in from Michigan. These yellow plums are quite sweet and juicy.

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What are seasonal delights are you enjoying now?

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Walden:Oct.

Aug. 9. Wednesday. —To Boston.
“Walden” published. Elder-berries. Waxwork yellowing.

Henry David Thoreau’s journal entry of August 9, 1854

On August 9, 1854, “Walden, or Life in the Woods” was published. While not a best seller of its time, the book was favorably received and  the 2,000 published copies eventually sold. It has remained in publication since 1862. Thoreau was an early environmentalist, attune to nature and living simply. “Walden” continues to be a source of inspiration and Thoreau is often quoted.

I have posted the photo above before in my ramblings here on the Cutoff. It was taken one crisp, sunny, perfect October day a decade or so ago. That day remains one of the best days in my life. Tom and I ordered a lunch from a deli in Concord, Massachusetts then headed to Walden Pond, where we took a long walk in the woods of Thoreau, and ate our lunch sitting on the sun-warmed stones along the pond’s shore, watching rowers and swimmers and shorebirds as we soaked in the brilliance of time and place.

I thought about Walden Pond this morning after reading of today’s anniversary of the publishing of “Walden” and found my mind, then myself, wandering in nature.

As I pulled into the parking area of Lake Katherine, my cell phone rang. It was Tom wondering if I wanted to join him at Maple Lake, where he was headed. It’s interesting how our unspoken ideas often intersect. Tom said he would meet me instead at Lake Katherine.

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I started walking around the lake, stopping to look at the beauty around me. A large congregation of ducks were taking their afternoon nap, close to the shore. I stepped a little closer, hoping not to disturb them, when something fluttered in a nearby tree.  Can you see it on the far right branch?

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I watched for a few minutes before it swept down, slipped amongst the ducks, then wandered to the water’s edge. It wasn’t a duck. It looked like a heron, but, was much smaller and I could see a crop of molting head feathers.

The ducks continued their nap while I inched closer to this shorebird, which reminded me of a black-crowned heron,  with long still-like legs moving slowly through the shallow water and grasses.

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This bird was surely a youngster, just getting his feet wet, not at all concerned with my closeness (and I was less than a yard away at times). At one point, the bird grabbed at a reed of grass and looked surprised when it didn’t budge or taste as expected.

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It walked along the edge, sometimes hidden by the tall grasses, other times perched upon a rock. A gaggle of youngsters in bright pink shirts came by, looking for clues on a summer camp adventure. A trio of men walked by, white shirts and ties loosened, taken a walk on their lunch break, wondering, I’m sure, at what I was intent on photographing.

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I think this is a member of the Bittern family. The photos are a bit dark, but, if you click on them they are easier to see the bird.

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Tom found me and we walked the mile or so around the lake, sat for a bit while he ate his lunch, enjoying the gorgeous day, before we parted, each of us having a place to be. As I drove away, I thought of Walden and Thoreau and of how his legacy of actions and words resonate even today, and I thought of his essay, “Walking”, and of a simple walk, full of discovery, in nature today.

I wish to speak a word for Nature, for absolute freedom and wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and culture merely civil—to regard man as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of Nature . . . from “Walking” by Henry David Thoreau

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IMG_8771Our prairie garden is flush with native species and an abundance of prairie grasses, while the perennials in the front islands bravely attempt to establish their permanence amid a colony of advancing ferns.

Then, there are the aggressive appetites of the wandering herd of white tailed deer. What’s a gal to do?

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Well . . .

. . .  I have been  experimenting with composing prairie inspired floral arrangements, cutting armfuls of grasses out back and small snips of what the deer don’t eat from the front.

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Oat grass, Big Bluestem, Monarda, Indigo, Joe Pye weed, and a curtsy to Queen Anne’s Lace, which was frolicking too close to the road for me to resist just a few of her lacy caps.

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These flowers, both tamed and wild, pose quite fashionably in vases, jars, and other containers that are scattered around the house. A few arrangements have even made it to friends’ homes and a graduation party. Prairie Arrangement:2#3

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Part of my daily routine is to wander, clippers in hand, from garden bed to garden bed, observing what is blooming and what is spent, what the deer might have munched on and what I might cut and bring inside.

Sometimes,  just a few buds pinched back from overflowing pots are all that is needed to bring the garden indoors. Have you ever used parsley or basil in a vase? Snipping a few stems not only helps the plant regenerate, but, it brings fragrance into the kitchen and is a quick herb to pinch for extra flavors in a simmering pot or summer salad.

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I love the abundance of summer.

Here are a few more flowers from our garden, and a bouquet I picked up from a vegetable stand where I buy locally harvested sweet corn. The owners are growing flowers and herbs in raised plots behind the barn and selling them from the stand as well.

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Do you keep floral arrangements outside on your patio, porch or deck? Do you pick from your garden, a favorite floral shop, or grocery store? Do you have favorite flowers for bouquets?

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