The Return of Buddy the Bunting

Spring: it’s here for reals. I have so much to say—things are happening in every corner of my world—but today I’m going to skip over new beginnings and emerging seedlings and bulbs I’d forgotten I’d planted (what a surprise, though!). Instead, I’d like to talk about a returning friend: Buddy the Indigo Bunting.

Every morning last summer, this darling turquoise bird sang from the top of the plum tree. Mind you, we only planted the orchard a couple years ago so this is not a great height, but his song was bright and lively and, as the days and weeks passed, utterly familiar. We would awake and listen for him. He never failed us, repeating his sweet phrase dozens of times before flying off to get some coffee. We are prone to naming and dubbed him Buddy

One morning in late September, we listened for him and heard only silence. It was inevitable, and the way of all things, especially birds with intelligent ideas about where to spend winter, but his absence made us wistful. As the months passed, we would wonder aloud how Buddy was faring. Did the long migration exhaust him? Did he end up in Costa Rica, Belize, or Jamaica, and was he remembering to apply sunscreen? I swear I thought about Buddy when the hurricanes blew through. I know, I know.

We returned from Portugal, the days warmed, and our expectations—and fears—grew. A lot could befall a small bird over the course of several months. As I tilled the garden, I listened for his call. The phoebes were here, and the nuthatches and chipping sparrows and cardinals. Where was Buddy?

One morning, I caught my husband refreshing his memory of Buddy’s song on the computer. He thought he might have heard him that morning. Sure enough, the next day the unmistakable song rang from the woods behind our house. A moment later, a turquoise flash appeared on a small tree nearby.

I ran into the garage where my husband was tinkering. “Buddy’s here!”

We watched him together. We might have jumped up and down. “Hey, Buddy!” my husband called. “Welcome back!”

I’m not even slightly embarrassed at the extent of our joy and relief. To me, this is what it means to live in a beautiful, relatively unspoiled place. We know our neighbors even if they are birds.

Within a few days, Buddy had taken his usual spot in the orchard for his morning song.

It’s the little things. Sometimes the little thing is a bird, and the knowledge that he remembered where he belonged.

Another Row of Peas

If you’ve been following this blog, you might remember that back in December I was hoping for a cold, snowy winter to provide atmosphere for the extremely snowy book I was writing. Can I have backsies? Please?

We haven’t had much snow (*cue the groans from the Northeast) but we sure have been freezing our bahonkas off. And the wind! The other day I saw a bluebird get blown off a branch. Today it is gray, gray, gray. If the sun is shining where you live, I’m happy for you. More or less.

Sigh.

At times like these, my garden is a source of inspiration. Let’s have a look.

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Okay, maybe not so much.

I did, however, plant the first crops a few days ago—while wearing a parka. This hallowed spot contains sugar snap peas, turnips, scallions, and beets. It’s too early for beets but then again, with a snow squall forecast for today, it was probably too early for everything.

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I planted onion sets, too. Hard to believe these tiny guys will become four-inch whoppers.

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But here’s the thing. Spring is dragging her heels but she is nevertheless on her way. If those seeds don’t come up, I’ll plant some more. In the garden, there are almost always second chances. Whether you decide to take them is up to you.

I’ve been thinking about that, about opportunities I don’t necessarily want to take. The book I’ve been working on, The Snow Cave, was my first attempt at a novel and I’d shelved it for five years. The revision has been humming along nicely, thank you very much. But now circumstances dictate I leave that project for now and start work on a different book. I must till the ground again and sow another row of peas. (You: What circumstances? Why would you stop work on a project you love? Me: PUBLISHING.)

It’s fine. It really is. Because no matter what I’m working on, some days the sun shines and some days it snows and some days, like today, it’s gray, gray, gray. That’s why we have memories, and faith.

If you believe in spring, your bootstraps will be close at hand.

Surviving the Deep Freeze

It’s 32 degrees and sunny this morning in my corner of Virginia. Compared to the bitter cold of late December and early January (the dreaded bomb cyclone), it feels positively balmy. In an earlier post I wrote about how I’ve been hoping for a wintery winter to provide atmosphere for my work-in-progress, The Snow Cave, so perhaps the cyclone was my doing. Sorry about that.

Like most people (but, sadly, not all), I was snug in my heated home and car, and could bundle up when I had to go out. Wild animals had no such luxury and I thought of them often. I also worried about our bees. We have two hives: Bees and More Bees.

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We did everything we could to help them through the cold. My husband had already installed a wind break and encased the hives in foam insulation. We left them with plenty of honey and gave them sugar cakes just in case. But, in the end, it was down to them.

The population is about 60,000 bees during the summer but drops to less than 30,000 in the fall, losing more numbers over the winter. The overwintering bees form a ball around the queen and vibrate to keep the core at 80 degrees. That’s a lot of buzzing! Imagine how hard it must be to keep the queen that warm when the temperature drops below freezing, even below zero, and stays there.

The bees don’t leave the hive when it’s that cold--they can’t fly below 50 degrees—so we had to wait for a warm day to know how they had fared. At long last a warm front blew in. The first afternoon the temperature reached 55, bees from Bees crawled out of the opening, one by one, and took off. Unfortunately, none emerged from More Bees. I know they are only insects but we do become attached to them. They are fascinating, important creatures and we were sad to lose the colony. (We ordered a replacement colony on-line. They arrive in the mail!)

As we watched the bees from Bees returning to the hive, we noticed their pollen sacs were full. You can see the full sacs on this girl, harvesting pollen in the garden last summer.

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But where were the bees finding flowers in the dead of winter? Something must have been blooming and those clever bees discovered it. As we pondered this mystery, we remembered our tiny lemon tree in the greenhouse was flowering and moved it outside. Within a half-hour, bees from Bees had found it. Amazing!

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The loss of one colony made it clear just how dicey the whole endeavor is and sharpened my appreciation for the endurance of the other. Isn’t that how it often goes, though? A blow to the ego, a lost love, a broken friendship, and a bomb cyclone have pretty much the same effect: the next upswing seems that much sweeter. This isn’t news and it isn’t deep but somehow it’s something I need to remind myself of again and again.

We’re heading toward spring, Bees! Hang in there.

Bloodlands and Stick Season

Writers gotta write but they also do a gaboonload of reading. We read books our friends have written because we love them. We read books for blurbs because everyone needs blurbs. We read within our genre to scope out the competition and outside of our genre for fresh ideas and for fun. And we read for research. 

I'm working on a story partially set during World War II: in Germany and on the Russian Front. My research reading has included novels (Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum is my hands-down favorite), firsthand accounts by German soldiers, on-line war history forums and straight-up history books. I can't get enough of the history. Just when it seems everything about WWII has been written, someone finds another angle.

For the last few weeks, I've been making my way through Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin, written by Timothy Snyder in 2010. 

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The book is brilliant and absolutely devastating. I have to ration how much I read at a sitting and I can't read it at night for fear of nightmares. But I must read it.

Snyder chronicles the policies and actions of Hitler and Stalin that led to 14 million people killed between Berlin and Moscow. Part of this was, of course, the Holocaust and it is a central piece of this history. I did not know, for instance, that most Jews and other targeted groups were not taken to camps but rather killed where they lived. And before Hitler unleashed his evil, Stalin had already killed and deliberately starved millions. The scale of the brutality and the personal stories Snyder includes are harrowing. Like I said, I can only stomach small doses.

The antidote to such reading, to such truths, is found outside. For me, a ten-minute walk in the woods reminds me of the world beyond the influence of men and war (at least for now). I find it hard to express without sounding vapid or melodramatic but nature, and particularly woods, calm me so profoundly and rapidly I suspect magic.

But I don't believe in magic. I believe in trees. Even when they have dropped their leaves to the ground, I believe in them more than I believe in goodness. 

These are my woods. It's officially stick season. 

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I hope you have something akin to these, a place of respite. I hope you seek it out when, as Wordsworth said, "the world is too much with us."

As for Bloodlands, I cannot recommend it more highly: it is brave and scholarly and eloquent. If you do pick it up, remember to also put it down. Go outside. Find sun and earth and air. Stand amid fallen leaves and the stillness of bare trees. Embrace stick season.

 

Earth & Ink: A new blog post series

Gardening and writing. Writing and gardening. It’s what I do and what I have done for most of my life. I’ve had many other pastimes and a couple other careers, but the common thread has been growing things and making words fit my thoughts. 

Have you ever heard authors say they don’t understand their books until at least the first draft is complete? The same is true about understanding ourselves, I think. The first draft of my self was written a long while ago and I’ve been undertaking extensive revisions since. Looking back at the process, my attachment to gardening and writing reveals something deeper about me, as any decent theme should. I’m on a quest for two things: patience and humility. Ask anyone who knows me and they’ll agree I still have a ways to go. Okay, so I’m a work-in-progress!

That’s the scaffolding for these new posts. In truth, I will be light on philosophy and heavy on news from my vegetable garden, orchard and berry patch and how I’m using the bounty in my kitchen. We will talk FOOD. Beautiful food. 

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And miracles. I know, that’s a big word. But tell me something, what else would you call it when you start with this…

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(The seed. The object in the middle. I would like to grow money, but alas, I’m not that clever. If you are wondering about the rubber chicken, well, it’s the world’s smallest rubber chicken! It speaks for itself. Well, not literally. That would be a teensy bit worrisome. Even as the world’s smallest mute rubber chicken, it blows my mind every time I see it. Just to be clear, I am also not growing rubber chickens.)

…becomes this?

That’s a kohrabi, by the way. Normally green, I grow the purple variety. I’m all about eating all the purple things but perhaps we’ll talk about that more another time. I know you are still wondering about the world’s smallest rubber chicken and quite possibly are overwhelmed. I know I am and I’ve had it for years.

Until next time, then. Grow yourself. Eat well. Use your words and use them like the miracles they are.

The View from Here

I'm not sold on astrology but I'll cop to one thing: I'm a Capricorn and I'm truly a goat. 

I'm stubborn and will eat almost anything and, most of all, I like to be on top of things. Yes, "on top of things" as in organized and up-to-date, but also literally.

 Beachy Head, East Sussex, England

Beachy Head, East Sussex, England

I know exactly where I got this proclivity: My father. He was a mountaineer with first ascents in the Alps. I haven't taken up technical climbing (although my daughter has), but I do like summits.

 My father defying gravity.

My father defying gravity.

 His idea of courtship was dragging my mother up a mountain. It worked.

His idea of courtship was dragging my mother up a mountain. It worked.

Now don't get me wrong. I'm not a peak-bagger--someone who collects summits. I don't keep track of the mountains I climb; I just love being on them. 

Luckily, my best friend feels the  same way.

He doesn't like venturing as close to the edge as I do, though, which means I'm the one in charge of cleaning out the gutters. 

It's funny, isn't it? We inherit so much from our parents, through nature and through nurture, but it can be a funny little quirk that ends up meaning so much. Mountains speak to me, as they did to my father, and living in Virginia, where I can see the Blue Ridge Mountains every day, is paradise.

Wherever you are, I hope you enjoy the view. And don't worry about the edge. That's where you can see the best.

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Spring in November

Something strange has been happening in my garden and it's got me thinking.  Not surprising, really, because the garden is a beautiful place to have a ponder, and lately, when beauty and grace have seemed in short supply, I'll take it wherever I can find it, even if it means weeding. 

Like much of the East Coast, our unusually warm summer has segued into an unusually warm autumn. Our first frost is four weeks behind schedule and counting. Raised in a Vermont snowbank, I'm one of those freaks who loves the cold, but even so you won't catch me complaining about this weather. Because instead of succumbing to brittle brown dormancy, my garden thinks it's spring.

Seedlings are popping up everywhere, fooled by the warmth into putting down roots and reaching for the sun.

 Cosmo seedling

Cosmo seedling

 Sunflower

Sunflower

 Coriander

Coriander

 A veritable forest of baby dill!

A veritable forest of baby dill!

 

I belong to the Tall Poppies Writers, a collective of smart, energetic, talented women authors, and grew poppies from seed packet the members received at last fall's conference. In early summer, they bloomed magnificently and when the winds blew and the rain lashed down, the tall slender stem leaned on each other, just as they were meant to. Every time I saw the flowers, I thought of my Tall Poppy sisters, and was heartened. These seedlings won't have time to bloom but I know I will see them in a few months time. 

The weather has not only been warm, but also extremely dry. Every few days I water the fall vegetables I planted and take a few extra minutes to include the brave, misguided seedlings. I can't help it. 

And that's what got me thinking. A little extra warmth was all it took to make November feel like May. Most of it happened without my intervention, but sprinkling some water now and then has made a difference. Not everything will bloom again; most will need the patience to wait for spring. But the seedlings themselves give me hope and remind me it won't be brown and dry in the garden forever.

Just look at the bouquet from my November garden.

Like you, I've been appalled, dismayed, angered, and disheartened by acts of hatred, stories of abuse and crimes against decency over the last several months. On this Election Day, I'm taking a lesson from my garden. The days may still be getting longer, but with a little warmth and a sprinkling of generosity, we can't help but grow, lean on each other, and reach toward the sun.

It's spring in November. Go high.  #ImWithHer

Plotting a Garden

We moved into our new house! Nearly two years in the making, we are, at last, in our forever home. The furnishings are sparse, and there is some finish work to be done, but that didn't stop us from heading straight outside to work on our garden. For us, the garden--and the orchard and the fields and the woods--are as integral to our home as the kitchen or the laundry. 

On a day like this, who wouldn't choose to be outside?

That's the rototiller guy. Isn't he cute? The rototiller is called Attila, of course. You can't see how large the garden area is from this angle, so here's a shot from the deck.

Rototiller guy is still at it! And would you look at those redbuds. 

A garden of this size requires a plan.  I started with a border of flowers, then divided the rest into twelve 4-foot by 16-foot beds, with walkways in between. The flowers have been selected for their pest control properties, their attractiveness to bees (Next post! So excited!) and general loveliness. 

As I worked this out, I realized the parallels to sketching out a plot, not of dirt, but of words. Just as in writing, once I established the basic structure, I fleshed it out.

Warning! If you are not interested in plants, you might want to come back for the bee post next week. This is vegetable planning at the level of Badass. 

I divided the sixteen planting areas into four groups of three: one for nightshades (tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, potatoes), one for legumes and light feeders (peas, beans, carrots, lettuces), one for crucifery (cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, chard, beets, kale) and one for curcurbits (squashes and melons). Why? Because diseases and pests tend to plague members of the same family, so each year I'll shift the groups over one column. I dare the baddies to follow! In veg-speak, this is called crop rotation. Riveting, huh?

But there's more. Asparagus gets its own bed because it's going to stay there for twenty years; eventually I'll be mashing the spears with my dentures. Also, you'll notice numbers under some plants, like carrots and arugula. Those are succession plantings. I'll seed a few rows every couple weeks so we're not buried under a pile of carrots in a single week. 

I like complicated plots, so I'm adding yet another layer to the design: companion planting.  Did you know plants have friends (and enemies)? Cucumbers like to hang out with nasturtium, and tomato adore basil in the garden, as well as on your plate. Beets, on the other hand, would like to wrap beans around their stupid poles and snap their heads off. Designing a garden at this level is like creating a seating chart for a Mafia wedding. 

If all goes well, I hope to have a harvest as glorious as this one from my California gardening days. I'll keep you posted. Meanwhile, I'll be plotting, and planting, and maybe, just maybe, I'll sneak a little writing in on the side. 

Happy spring! 

 

 

Hope is a Thing with Branches

New year, new leaf. I will spare you the excuses for the hiatus, but assure you I was not lolling on a beach somewhere or hiking up a mountain or indeed doing anything more thrilling than trying to get the next book on its way to you. (ALL THE BEST PEOPLE. MAY 2017. It's a date!)

I've been itching to write this post for a while, because I'm so excited to tell you the news: we planted an orchard! Yup. In November, we drove the truck to Edible Landscaping in Acton and hauled twelve fruit trees home: three apple varieties, three pears, two cherries, two plums, a mulberry, and a persimmon. 

Here's what it looked like after we got them in the ground.

What trees, you say? Yeah, you have to zoom in. They are tiny! But that's the best way to start. You can see my husband, digging the last hole. And, YES, I dug, too. I actually dug more because he was doing the technical work of installing the electric fence. I'm the grunt.

Each tree received a circle of hardware cloth to protect the trunk from nibbly mice. The electric fence is for deer (and groundhogs) but I read that it is best to train the deer. Animal behavior--right up my alley!

The idea is to attract the deer to the fence. I know, it's counter-intuitive. But if they see the white flags, they march over to investigate and...ZAP! I'm not a mean person, I just want apples. The deer are free to forage over our remaining 40 acres. Also, I put aluminum foil on there, smeared with peanut butter, in case they missed the white flags. According to what I've read, and basic principles of conditioning, a single zap should keep them away for a good long time.

Of course I don't know for sure that the deer came over to the fence for their lesson. However, after the recent snow, I did check to see if there were any tracks nearby. Those little buds would've looked mighty tasty.

But, no, not a track in sight. Success!

We do worry about our trees. Those spindly guys look awfully vulnerable. There's a saying that the best time to plant an orchard was 25 years ago, and the second best time is now. 

It may not yet be a thing of beauty, but planting our orchard was an exercise in hope. And even on a snowy winter's day, there is warmth in that.