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.


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


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.


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


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.

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





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

Hive Talking

Yesterday morning the post office called to say our bees had arrived, so we jumped in the car, excited as little kids. We'd decided to become beekeepers last June while hiking in the Pyrenees, where it seemed every house had a couple of hives out back. In October, we'd ordered the bees as an anniversary present to ourselves. Finally the bees were here!


My husband gave me this lovely card before we left to pick up our charges.

We put the bees in the basement where it was cool and dark and sprayed them first with water, then with sugar syrup, which had a calming effect. Don't try this on your children, however.

In the late afternoon we were ready to move the bees into their hives. Notice the electric fencing. Bears are around, and we all know about bears and honey! 

The queen for each package arrived in a cage, which included a few attendants. I thought I had a clear shot of the queen (she is marked with a tiny white sticker), but a bee photo-bombed it! We removed a tiny cork from the bottom of the queen cage to reveal the candy plug. The bees will eat the candy, releasing the queen into the hive. 

The moment of truth. Richard dumped some of the bees over the queen and the rest in the open space we created by removing a few of the honeycomb frames.

Here Richard is replacing the frames--slowly, so the bees move out of the way! The bees were very busy but not at all aggressive. That strip of metal is supporting the queen cage. When we check the hives in a week's time, we'll make sure the queen is out and remove it. 

In addition to provide our spoiled bees with ready-made honeycomb and hand-painted accommodation, we started them off with a stocked pantry--a gallon bag of sugar syrup.

A few bees showed a keen interest in reading the beekeeping manual and were shocked to learn we plan to use a smoker the next time we visit. 

Success! We'll leave them in peace for a week, then see how they are doing and give them more syrup. There may even be some eggs--more bees!

Happy spring, everyone, and have a bee-utiful day. 

The Profundity of Turnips

I've been a bad blogger. Would it help to know I've finished another book in the meantime? Not really? Okay, how about if I show you a pretty picture. This is from 5:30 am today. Can we be friends again now? 

What a glorious spring we've had! That cold, snowy thing called winter is but a distant memory. In fact, I'm sorry I brought it up. I planted the earliest of my crops about a month ago: radishes, spinach, arugula, peas, chard, beets, kale, more kale, and turnips. I don't know why I planted turnips. I can never get them to germinate, much less grow. I've had a vegetable garden nearly every year since I was twenty, and I don't recall ever having a decent crop of turnips. Or even one turnip. But, inexplicably, I had some seeds from last year's vain attempt at turnip propagation, so I planted a small bed of them.

It's not that I adore turnips, but I seek variety in my gardening. I once grew a gorgeous crop of okra that I gave away because I discovered I couldn't get over the slime. (I now know you can cook past that, but this was in my youth. Wise Old Sonja knows better.) I like to grow a little bit of this, a little bit of that, or, preferably, a lot of this and a lot of that. It interests me, both as a gardener and as a food wrangler. 

So I planted the turnips and, big surprise, nothing happened. The peas were slow, too. But the radishes and arugula were speedy!

I convinced myself I had made a mistake in the turnip department. Perhaps I had covered them with too much soil. Perhaps, in a white matter whiteout, I had neglected to plant them at all! So I sowed another bed. And waited. 

Guess what?! The first batch came up. They sprouted! They grew! They thrived! Two weeks later, the second batch sprouted and grew and thrived. It was full-on turnip madness. 

Those beauties closest to the camera are the turnips. Behind them are more turnips, the first batch that I'd already partially harvested. Behind that are the beets (oh faithful beets) and the chard (oh lovely reliable chard).

Aren't they pretty? 

I'm certain you are asking what I made with all those turnips, and if I perhaps regretted that second bed. Not for one moment. They are delicious. First, the greens, especially from the thinnings, are versatile and extremely nutritious. I saute them with garlic or shallots, hit them with a little red pepper flakes and a squeeze of lemon, and serve them on crostini, or over pasta or with eggs. 

And what about the turnips themselves? These fresh garden lovelies are not bitter. I've diced and caramelized them, added chopped kale and mixed with pasta and lots of Parmesan.  Heaven. I've sauteed sliced turnips and leeks in olive oil as a base for a savory tart. Gruyere and lemon thyme are great choices for this dish. And I created a pureed turnip and carrot soup, with a sauteed turnip green garnish which I served with grilled cheese sandwiches on homemade bread. 

Yes, you can come over. Please bring wine.

The other spring surprise in my garden was the cilantro that popped up on its own. I rarely can get my favorite herb to germinate, and here it was growing all by itself from the plants I let go to seed last fall. (If you grow cilantro and have never allowed it to set seed, you are missing something. The seeds, especially when green, are tiny flavor bombs. This is coriander seed, natch.)

This year it's turnips and cilantro, another year it's a bumper crop of butternut squash and I can't grow a zucchini (a zucchini!) to save my life. Most of the things I grow do just fine, but gardening is always a bit of a crap shoot. You can't control everything, certainly not the weather and definitely not the deer.

There is little room for despair in gardening. You try, you learn, you live to garden another year. There is no fail. But there are successes, if you place a smidgen of hope in a tiny seed.

Now, my friends, I'm sure you are expecting me to draw the circle closed and suggest that writing, if not LIFE, may be a little (or a lot) like the story of the turnips. Some things grow, some things don't. Some of it is down to us but much of it is just the breaks. A open packet of seeds is an invitation to hope that if we try again, this time it just might work. 

If I were to draw that comparison, it might be trite. It also might be true. 

Garden Brag, I mean, Update

It's been a bit hectic around here, what with one daughter turning 21 and the other packing up and heading off to Europe for six months. Oh, and I had to review the copy edits on HOUSE BROKEN. Terrified of sending it to press with a booboo, I had a hard time letting it out of my hands! 

Which is all to say that I will write a proper post later this week. For now, I thought we could monitor my Mothers' Day garden. 

Here it is on the day it was born. On three say, "Awwww!"

A month later, everything had gotten a grip.

We had radishes, lettuce, Swiss chard, arugula and basil. June was sweltering, so the lettuce didn't last long and the arugula got so strong we could've used it as paint remover.


Today we had our first tomato for lunch. There's no photo of it because we ate it. Here's what the garden looks like now. 

We're harvesting peppers, chard, beets, cilantro and, of course, zucchini. I'm doing battle with the Japanese beetles that are threatening the beans. So far, I'm winning. I've had to cut back the tomatillos because they were crowding out the onions, but other than that, everyone is playing nicely. And, as you can see, it's a no-bunny zone. They are EVERYWHERE. 

Hope you had a fantastic Fourth!

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.