Sowing the Blank Page

The blank page. The cursor blinking, counting seconds, heartbeats. It’s intimidating as hell to stare down that white sheet and find the word with which to begin. Then the next one and the one after that.

I’d like to tell you it gets easier once you’ve written a book, or four, but it doesn’t. If anything, it gets worse. Take the book I’m working on now. (I’m the Henny Youngman of writing. Take my book—please!) I am stalling so badly on writing it that I’ve actually created a synopsis. I hate synopses! We all do. But even a synopsis is less terrifying than that empty page.

Writing must be the one profession in which the more you do it, the less you believe that you can. We’re a strange bunch but try to love us anyway.

To get myself going on this book, I’ve tried all sorts of tactics. Watching Chef’s Table isn’t working, nor is drinking wine. Not even cleaning out the closets is resulting in words on the page. So curious.

Yesterday, I was looking for a photo on my phone and happened upon this one:

That’s my vegetable garden before it had vegetables. South-facing and gently sloped, it was, before my beloved took the rototiller to it, simply part of a field. We added truckloads of compost, creating a blank canvas, and encircled it in electric fencing, to keep deer and groundhogs and rabbits from raiding it. A few months later, it looked like this:

These photos gave me an idea. What if I considered the blank page as a freshly dug plot, empty but overflowing with potential? The earth, the unplanted earth, is not blank. It is moist and rich with nutrients and life. (And weeds, sure, but I know how to pull weeds.) Tomorrow I’m going to open that word document and take a new look at the blank page. It’s not empty. It just hasn’t been planted yet. If I set down the words and tend to them, they will grow; it is the nature of both seeds and stories. So much of what they become is already present—in the soil, in the case of the garden, and in the writer, in the case of the story. The page is not blank. It is simply waiting, like a field looking toward the Blue Ridge Mountains, patient under the sun.

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.


Show Me the Honey

The two hives of bees we installed in April are doing so well we decided to steal some honey from More Bees. (Want to start at the bee-ginning? Go here.) When we visit the hives for inspections, we use smoke to calm the bees. That's not appropriate for honey harvesting because the first thing the bees do when the fire alarm goes off is poke open the capped honeycombs and fill their honey stomachs. Don't you do that when you smell smoke?

Instead, we spray a felt-lined fume board with an almond oil concoction which drives the bees off that layer further into the hive. Worked like a stinky charm! Here is a single frame completely full of capped honey.

Capped honeycomb is not always pale; it depends on what the bees were feeding on. This frame has lighter honey at the top and darker at the bottom, showing how as the flowering plants change, so does the honey color.

Here's a close-up where you can see the color variation. Pollen is every color you can imagine and it does not necessarily correspond to the flower color. For instance, the borage flower is a gorgeous periwinkle blue and the pollen is grey.

We stole six frames, gave More Bees six fresh ones and high-tailed it to the garage. That medieval tool you see my husband employing below punctures the waxy caps of the honey cells. The extractor is a centrifuge; two frames go in at a time. 

It's meant to be hand-cranked but my husband got the brilliant idea of using a hand drill to speed things up. The honey gets thrown out of the cells, hits the wall of the extractor and runs to the bottom.

Bits of comb inevitably get mixed up with the honey and need to be strained out. 

Ta-da! Isn't it gorgeous? We extracted a quart of honey from each of the six frames and will keep a couple of the larger jars in reserve in case our bees need some over the winter. We hope they will have stockpiled the fifty pounds they need themselves, but we want to be sure.

Thank you, More Bees! And thanks also for pollinating our garden in the process. What a miraculous creature is the bee!


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! 



Welcome to Mayberry

Charming. Quiet. Quaint. Historic. 

No, we are not talking about me. Especially not the quiet part. We are talking about Lexington, Virginia. Now technically we live in Glasgow, but when we first moved to the area we rented a house in Lexington for a year, and that's still where we do our business. Why not in Glasgow? Here's what you can find there.

Yup. Plus a Dollar Store, but that's a whole 'nother post. 

So, back to Lexington. Here are a couple of the houses in town.

Lexington 005.JPG

Nice, huh? The town is home to Washington and Lee University (known locally as "Dubya 'n' Ell") and the Virginia Military Institute, and is a popular place to be buried if you outdid yourself in the Civil War. You'll find Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson here. And that's about it. 

Our rental was tucked away off Main Street, not that traffic was an issue. A bad commute here is when you stand at the light in town for more than three minutes. We were given keys to our rental but didn't need them. Houses are bought and sold here without the exchange of keys. I think they just say, "It's yours now." You might not get keys, but if you're lucky as we were, you'll get a wishing well.

You pay extra for caution tape. 

It was a fine place to live while we were getting our feet under us. I've never lived anywhere I could walk to town--what a treat! We had been concerned that living in a college town would mean lots of noise Wednesday through Sunday nights (yes, they start on Wednesdays now), but the parties are out in the county and did not infringe on peace in Mayberry, as we came to call it.

The people here are so happy we chose their town. They say so all the time, and stop to chat at every chance. Visiting time must be figured into the duration of every transaction. An extra ten minutes at the post office, at the bookstore, at the grocery checkout. Even the Comcast guy wanted to tell me about his wife's back and the ten-point buck he saw but didn't manage to shoot. I don't mind in the least. After all, I've got my own tidbits to share. You never saw Andy or Aunt Bea hurrying anyone through a conversation, did you?



Follow the Yellow Brick Road, or I-80.

When my husband and I talked abut leaving California for Virginia, we considered walking. No, seriously. What could be a more deliberate way to leave one coast for the other than marking the entire distance, step by step. We do love to walk.

Sadly, we didn't have the time. We toyed with the idea of combining walking and train-riding, mostly as a way to speed things up and avoid trudging across Nebraska. But in the end we did what most people do: Road Trip! 

Most of our belongings were already on their own road trip, so we packed the Subaru with only the necessities: some clothes, important papers, our laptops, two cases of wine and a ceramic pig. 

He's Mexican by birth and become our mascot after our last dog died. He came to us house broken.

We set off in early April and left California behind the first day. The weather was glorious. This is near Salt Lake.

We soon established a routine, sharing a Subway foot-long veggie sandwich for lunch every day and a bottle of pinot noir with dinner every night. We also made a friend in Wyoming.

Not long after that, it became less scenic and, clear sky junkies that we are, we thought about turning the car around. This was in Nebraska.

A lovely spring day!

We spent the last night of our five-day road trip in Lexington, Kentucky, the place where horses deign to allow humans to care for them. If you have a chance, spend a day or two in this pretty city. 


The next day we set off for our new hometown of Lexington--Virginia, this time. We'd only been there once, in January, when there was snow on the ground and the trees were sticks. I admitted to Richard that I barely remembered it. He shrugged. We could always move. Such free spirits!

Almost there...

We drove through the town. Our jaws dropped and our hearts soared. It was beautiful. I'd never seen so many blooming shrubs and trees in my life. In the countryside, dogwoods and redbuds flowered everywhere. 


A year later, I'm more in love with this place than ever. Every morning when I wake up, I feel like Dorothy stepping into Oz. And, yes, I'm glad I didn't have to walk here.

Folding the Map

Last year, my husband, Richard, and I moved from California to the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. Everyone asks us how we came to choose the remote little town we now call home.

"Wait," you're thinking. "Why the heck did you leave California?" Lots of reasons, but mostly because we'd been there a long time and it was costing way too much money. Our daughters had headed off to college and we wanted to turn a page. Or fold a map.

We were asking a lot of our new home. We wanted land, space to stretch out, to grow vegetables, plant fruit tress and give Richard a reason to fire up his chainsaw now and again. We wanted hills, if not mountains. (I wanted a river, too.) And we wanted something that California was short on: seasons. Of course, that's part of what makes California a hard place to leave. All that glorious sunshine, months and months and months of it. We were clear sky junkies.

No surprise, then, that we talked a lot about weather. We'd visited a good portion of the U.S. but because we are both trained as scientists, we tried to forget that it was 100 degrees the entire week of July we were in Massachusetts and put our trust in data. We studied climate maps: rainfall maps, percent cloudy days maps, misery index maps, trying to figure out where we could land softly and happily.

(I'm going to stop right now and say that there is so much beauty in this country, we'd have been hard-pressed to make a bad decision. We just needed some way to decide!)

We read enough about the weather to qualify for an advanced degree in meteorology. Finally, we took one of the maps (maybe it displayed days spent shoveling) and began folding it. We folded down the West Coast (been there, done that, and too rainy in the north). We made a crease along I-40 and excluded the Far North (too cold), and another along I-80 to the south (too hot). The swath in the middle lacked mountains, so we folded back everything to the west of the Appalachians. We weren't going to get our acres in the mid-Atlantic, either, at least not that we could afford. 

What we were left with was less of a map than a lump of origami executed by an excitable monkey. But at least we knew our state: Virginia. Not in the broad level plain running to the sea, but in the valley cupped between the Allegheny and Blue Mountains.


We are lucky to have portable jobs and the flexibility to choose where we live. If you could up sticks and live anywhere (in the U.S. or elsewhere), where would it be? Or are you already there?