Green Turtles, Pink Boots and Blue Ears

Turtles don’t wear boots, definitely not pink ones, definitely not shiny plastic pink ones that are attached with velcro. No matter. This turtle has boots.

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Whether a fluffy green turtle named Flllfffl dons pink shiny boots, or a moth named Betty is scouting out home zone possibilities on your property, or a superhero named Iron Man is heroically facing the Big Bad named Thanos, the world is a better place because of it. (“Flllfffl” is the best I can spell it, btw – that’s what she said his name is!)

I’ve been thinking about how we suspend belief so selectively. I was all into the Marvel movies (and would watch them all again!) but Star Trek doesn’t do anything for me. Mom can enjoy Mary Poppins float in on a magic umbrella but has no interest in a superhero that can stop a speeding ballistic missile (that scene from Captain Marvel is etched in my head!). And little Piper, my granddaughter from Seattle, sees nothing irregular in a turtle wearing pink boots!

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But it works in reverse, I come to see. For reasons having to do with this little darling living in Seattle and me living in Virginia, Piper and I communicate via video more than in person. She calls me Oma but I think she sees me as the Chicken Lady. She LOVES my chickens. I have walked to the coop, phone in hand (pointing away from me and at my feathery friends of course) more times than I can remember because as soon as we get on a video chat, she says Chickens! If it’s already too late here and too dark outside, I’m sure the call is over in her mind. Check out. Done. If there’s no chickens, why bother?

Coming to see Oma included the natural excitement of seeing the chickens for real. The ride from the airport was too long, but finally we arrived at Golden Hill. No point even going into the house on a beautiful day – let’s go see the chickens!

My first clue should have been when this untimid child timidly hid behind both of her parents. Brad was amused but Beth said Oh, yeah, she has a problem when it’s a real animal. I went in and picked up Whitey anyway and brought her out to show her to Piper. See? Fluffy head, blue ears… Yes, this is a real chicken…

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and this is her real blue ear.

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The photo doesn’t capture how the blue is almost shimmery.

No can do.

Turns out there is a big difference between a real chicken and a chicken on a screen. Small shrieks of terror told this astute Oma that maybe awkward, weird, ungainly chicken movements and throaty, cacophonic, random chicken noises on a screen are one thing, and an omg-it’s-getting-too-close-to-me chicken in the hands – jerking its head randomly and slightly the way chickens do (oh, look, a little human!), a little dirty on its feet from the scratching around in search of delectable bugs (hey, it’s spring and bugs are everywhere!) – is quite another. Whoa, all too real, no thanks, can we go look at the garden now?

Ah, the garden. Oma loves her roses right now!

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I guess we all have our ways of filtering out, shutting down, blocking, or otherwise not having to deal with what’s too scarily real or too stupidly unreal. Likewise we open our arms, hearts and waking hours to what’s appealingly real or fascinatingly unreal. I think we are allowed. It’s a big, full, amazing world, but we would overload our circuits if we took it all in. We draw the lines around ourselves, redrawing them depending on where we are, who we are with, what they day feels like, what our present self can handle.  The lines are wiggly and wavering. They have gaps big and small, with ways to expand when curiosity or security define the moment and ways to tighten up when fatigue, fear and sorrow don’t let us be so open.

Piper is doing just the right thing, drawing the lines where they feel somehow, mysteriously where they should be. Those weird chickens are outside her feel-good zone right now, so, yeah, hiding behind the big people she knows she can depend on makes sense. That turtle with the pink boots – watch him prance around awhile and then rip open that Velcro and pull his boots off when you’ve had enough of that. Why does a turtle need pink boots anyway!?

Oh, but am I still the Chicken Lady? If I’m not, that’s okay. We can redraw the lines.

Welcome/Unwelcome

Now here is a conundrum. What do you do when a thing that creeps you out, makes your flesh woobly and jiggles your insides is actually good? When, as much as you want to destroy it with one fell chop on the neck or well-aimed whack of a shovel, you are indeed asking for more trouble?

Not everything that looks bad is bad. Not everything you want to obliterate ought to be obliterated. But put yourself in my shoes. Okay, my sandals.

You are walking toward your house, hands full. Mine were full of cleaning supplies, yours might have groceries or sporting equipment. You decide to go into the house by way of the back door – easier to drop off your stuff – and you head along the side of the house to where the staircase leads up onto the back deck. About ten paces away from the bottom step you look up and you do not like what you see.

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Yup, a black snake. The question then is this: Is it a snake that’s black, or a black snake?

Snakes in general make me nervous, and someone told me a long time ago that juvenile copperheads look a lot like black snakes. Copperheads are bad, very bad, and they certainly live in my area.  You will spend $500 for a vet visit if your dog tussles with one. Copperhead bites (to pets or humans) are serious, though fatalities are rare and they will bite you only if you try to handle them or if you step on them. I got close enough to take a picture, but that’s it.

It turns out that juvenile copperheads don’t look a lot like black snakes (having one in what I consider my territory encourages googling them!), therefore this is not one of those I should worry about. Therefore I return to the conundrum. Black snakes are the kind of snakes you want in your vicinity. They eat unwanted rodents and other pests. They can even kill the copperheads! Still, they are snakes. Are they welcome or unwelcome? What is it about them that is sooooo unnerving?

Is it the no-legs thing? Is that just too weird? It is the slithering thing? Is it their ability to move vertically without seeming effort or grip? Is it the tongue that flicks in and out? Why do our fear and disgust sensors kick into high gear?

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This photo gives you an idea of its size. Small, as snakes go. Harmless, as snakes go. But I don’t like it! I want it to go away!

Let’s get a little closer (and thank God for cropping tools!). Is it the eyes that chill my spine?

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Makes me think about other things we like as much as we dislike.

French fries come to mind. I love them, but if they are not in front of me I will not eat them, and that is infinitely better for my body.

What about our cell phones? How amazing is it that we can call people, message people, take/send photos/videos, do research, make reservations, calculate numbers, play games, etc, etc, etc. on one device, but go crazy when we can’t get a signal or when we are bombarded by robo-calls or when the battery dies at a very inconvenient time? We never used to have a way to tell someone we were five minutes away – we just gave our best estimate and got there when we got there. We never chatted with friends unless we were in the same room – but those in-person conversations were so much richer.

Thunderstorms? Loud and violent but bring much needed rain (usually) and have a wonderful majestic quality.

Airplanes? So unnatural being 30,000 feet up in the sky, but they do get us to faraway places quickly.

All right, I admit I don’t want French fries or cell phones or thunderstorms or airplanes to go away altogether (maybe just sometimes), and I don’t dislike them anywhere close to how much I dislike snakes. I admit there’s not much I dislike more than a snake. You have your own list of what rattles you to the core.

But black snakes serve a useful purpose despite their inherent eeriness.  I just don’t know what to do with myself when one shows up. Should I be grateful? Thank you for eating all the nasty little mice we don’t want getting into the attic or the basement. But what’s to stop the snake from getting into the chicken coop and feasting on eggs? Nothing. What’s to stop one from showing up on the deck of the cottage and terrifying my Airbnb guests? Nothing. It’s one thing to see wildlife like owls perched in nearby trees or eagles soaring overhead or foxes scampering through the woods. But snakes? No one wants a snake to appear uninvited — especially while enjoying a cup of morning coffee in a lounge chair under the canopy of trees. Okay, a few people might think it’s cool. But most won’t.

To be fair, they are not a common sight. I see a snake about every other year (which is plenty for me!). Perhaps being deep in the woods has an advantage. There’s enough forest all around me, enough natural wooded environment, that they don’t have to come up to the house. Usually they don’t. I wish they wouldn’t. Why can’t they just not come so close?

Avengers: Endgame Prep

I am new to the Superhero scene. On a whim Samuel and I went to see Aquaman in December and I was thoroughly entertained. Is there more like this? I asked him. Uh, yeah, there’s more. Marvel Cinematic Universe films number 22 (and supposedly there are nine more in the works) and have grossed over 20 billion in box office sales since the first one came out in 2008. I guess that’s more.

On Friday we watched Avengers: Endgame, a fantastic three-hour culmination of all the previous MCU films in the “Infinity Saga,” which we watched one by one since December.

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We did not set out to watch them all. For me it was a little like homeschooling: Sure, I can do kindergarten. How can you mess up kindergarten? We started with Captain America: The First Avenger (2011). Sure, I’ll like it. How can I not like a good clean super hero who fights evil? It was a baby step, and Samuel had to be thinking yeah, we’ll see how she does. I’m here to say I not only stomached this movie – even with its dramatic fighting, huge explosions, edge-of-your-seat exploits and world-annihilating evil – I asked What’s next?

There’s a lot of hype about Endgame, which since its release on April 26 (that’s eleven days ago) is the #2 highest-grossing movie ever. The question is this: If you are going to go see it, do you have to watch all the previous movies first? Does it stand alone? Does it make sense if you don’t have the back story?

Samuel and I talked about it at length. I vote for watching them all, but of course that might not be practical, especially if you want to see Endgame while it’s hot so you can join the conversations about it and not worry that someone will spoil it. We decided there are three tiers of prep.

Assuming you have not watched anything up till now,

  1. If you want Endgame to make any sense at all, at least watch Avengers: Infinity War (2018) first.
  2. If you don’t want to get carried away, or don’t have time for 22 films, at least watch The Avengers (2012), Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), Avengers – Age of Ultron (2015), Captain America: Civil War (2016) and Avengers: Infinity War (2018) before watching Endgame. This will give you some of the essential back story, some understanding of the main characters, some ability to understand the call-backs, references and story arcs in the finale.
  3. If you are into it enough to watch six movies, why not watch them all? I am excluding The Incredible Hulk (2008) because neither Samuel nor I see any essential tie-ins to Endgame.

You don’t have to watch the lead-up movies in order, but it makes sense to. A case could be made that seeing them all (in whatever order) obviously just helps Endgame make more sense, and that there’s something in every movie that contributes to fuller understanding the whole massive and complex story. But you decide what’s reasonable.

We watched The Avengers (2012) after the first Captain America, then Iron Man, with me not totally yet realizing that they all do tie together (quite an incredible feat when you think about it). We watched in mostly story-order, getting some help on that point  from one or two of countless internet sites designed to guide you through the saga in a reasonable way. After the third movie we watched (the first Iron Man) I was totally hooked.

Some are, for me, simply better films or more essential to the big picture. I am putting ** next to the ones noted above as being more important to watch if you don’t want to watch them all, and ++ next to ones I particularly liked (guess what +++ means).

In order of the year they were released, these are the movies.

++Iron Man (2008) – This is Tony Stark’s (Iron Man’s) origin story. I would like to put it in the list of ones to see even if you are not going to watch them all but Samuel keeps saying Then you might as well watch them all. Tony’s brilliant, arrogant and perfectly heroic. Okay, say there’s a mid-list with a few more than the short list. Add this to the mid-list.

Iron Man 2 (2010) – As Samuel puts it, “more stuff happens” in this movie, mostly to develop Iron Man’s character.

++Thor (2011) – Brave and muscular, the crown prince of the planet Asgard finds himself in banishment on Earth and has to prove himself worthy in order to reclaim his power which, besides his strength, is his hammer. You’ll know the hammer when you see it. Thor wants to believe the best in people even when he shouldn’t. I’d add this to the mid list too.

++Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) – I love this movie, Cap’s origin story. I know I’m old-fashioned, but besides everything else good that he does, I love that he shaves! Mid-list.

**Avengers (2012) – This movie introduces S.H.I.E.L.D., the organization that from the get-go you want to hate. But the Avengers work for S.H.I.E.L.D., which is only a little confusing.

++Iron Man 3 (2013) – Again, “more stuff happens,” more character development, which in this movie is more consequential to Endgame.

++Thor: The Dark World (2013) – In this movie you get more of Thor’s back story, part of which is important for one callback scene in Endgame.

++Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) – What happens to S.H.I.E.L.D. plays into larger story arc and for that reason you might consider adding it to the mid list. I also love that regardless of Bucky’s actions, Cap doesn’t give up on him.

+++**Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) This one is the funniest one to me – I love Chris Pratt and how he plays Quill, I love how he dances, I love the music they chose and how it ties into his origin story, I love the raccoon, I love Groot. Also this movie sets up the big bad, a.k.a. Thanos, who comes into play in Infinity Wars and Endgame, so yeah, watch this one.

**Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) I don’t remember Ultron at all but Samuel says some really important things happened, such as the creation of Vision and other characters who come into play importantly later. It also sets the stage for Civil War and is pivotal in Iron Man’s arc. You get more bang for your buck in terms of backstory as compared to some other ones.

++Ant Man (2015) – I didn’t like this one as much as Guardians, but close. Ant Man’s origin story is not essential to Endgame, but if you want to know who he is when you see him in it, if you want to understand the references to quantum realms and such things, see this. Plus he has a lovely connection with his daughter. Mid-list.

**Captain America: Civil War (2016) Internal fighting – oh, can’t we all identify with this? Strong characters choose opposing sides and cannot find middle ground so a lot of fighting happens.

++Doctor Strange (2016) – First of all, Benedict Cumberbatch. Need I say more? Okay, I’ll say more. If you watch this movie you understand the stones better and you will recognize the bald woman in Endgame. Mid-list.

++Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017) – This is a bit more hokey than the first Guardians, but Quill still dances sometimes and you see his character develop, and you see baby Groot, which is so totally worth it all by itself.

+++Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) Love, love this one too. We are introduced to the character but more importantly to his relationship with Tony Stark. Well done. Mid-list.

Thor: Ragnarok (2017) A continuation of Thor’s character arc, highly entertaining. Big (I mean really big), nasty dog on bridge made me nervous and worried.

++Black Panther (2018) There’s no way to not love this movie. Courage, integrity, desperation, and a bad guy who elicits sympathy because you get how he got bad. Also you understand Wakanda and some of Endgame will make more sense, like Where did those warriors come from? Mid-list.

++Ant Man and the Wasp (2018) – The element of sweet in this movie is nicely done, but there is speed-of-light action aplenty, trust me.

**Avengers: Infinity War (2018) Don’t stop here, is all I can say. You don’t want to end on this note.

++Captain Marvel (2019) – I like Carol, her friend Maria, their friendship story and how Carol ultimately has powers beyond almost anyone’s. Some scenes in this movie look just like a comic book!

+++Avengers: Endgame (2019) When you go to a movie and people in the theater are clapping at various parts, you know it’s speaking to them where it matters. Bravo to all the filmmakers, actors and everyone who contributed to this whole thing.

Can we watch them all again?

Betty Alights on Golden Hill

Right now in my corner of the world, temps are in the mid-60s, low breeze, clear skies, super air quality, perfect sleeping weather, perfect waking up weather. I wonder if that’s why a winged marvel decided to stop by.

Betty, her code name in Virginia, was surely on a scouting mission. She and umpteen others like her have been sent far and wide to check out and report on landing sites that could potentially turn into what her kind calls “home zones.” Points to consider include number, health and variability of maple and oak trees, hiding and nesting options, and the HIF (Human Interference Factor).

Daredevil Betty chose her alightment spot without hesitation, determining it to be both shady (she was hot and tired from the journey) and central (for gaining a full assessment of the surroundings). She touched down, initially unseen, and kept still as a stone, but was less than successful at the stealth part of her job description for two reasons.

  1. Boldly contrasting colors are not as inconspicuous as she thinks. She saw the soft gray-green of the siding, thought of her own soft yellow coloring and decided Yeah, that’ll work. But she momentarily forgot about her baby-girl-pink stripes. Color valuation was never her strong suit.
  2. Vanity got in the way. No one can blame her for thinking that her yellow hair, fine and fluffy, is her crowning glory, and no one can deny that the way it coordinates with the rest of her cape and sleeves is primo. No one can fault her for having an iota of hope that even while gathering intel for her superiors, she might be noticed and admired (and left alone).

Betty showed up quite nicely against the siding of the cottage.

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Is this for real?! Do we really live in a world where moths are the crayon colors a child would choose? The delicate wisps of fluff on the heads of these yellow-topped fuzzies, the tiny pincers that I assume work to gain it food or whatever else moths want, the near-perfect (but not quite because then it might as well be manufactured) symmetry of the coloration – you can’t make this stuff up! Betty caught my eye as I came up to the door. She is a Rosy Maple, apparently not altogether uncommon all the way up and down the East coast.

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Her report is as follows:

Location (1-10 scale):
Hidden – 9
Quiet – 10 (excepting resident and migratory wildlife and HIF)
Safe – 10 (excepting unanticipated newcomers)

Oak/Maple Ratio: 20:1

Aerial View of Alightment Spot:

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Anomalies:

1. Gawky, squawky birds in secure enclosure, some attempting (though failing utterly) to mimic/compete with Rosy Maple hair style.

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2. Unintelligent hard-shelled reptile stuck until rescued.

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3. Broken Oak (sheltering possibilities).

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Human Interference Factor:

Insignificant. Humans emerge from a domestic enclosure or arrive in loud vehicles; putz around briefly; make noise; move objects; tend to above-noted, enclosed, gawky, squawky birds; speak with each other as well as the assortment of clueless, funny-looking canines (see photos below) as if they can understand; and drive away or disappear back into domestic enclosure.

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Additional Observations:

Roses in bloom.

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Strawberries coming.

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Directional Assistance.

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Summary

Observations and Assumptions: Optimal mix of open and wooded spaces. Oaks predominate dense treescape; far fewer maples than desired. Clear signs of benign activity (human and canine), restricted by their inability to fly, all notably innocuous excepting one human (sensed from behind while I was in stealth mode) with flat shiny black object that clicks; no harm occurred. Typical native wildlife unobserved on this visit includes hawks, eagles, owls and other snatchers; skinks and lizards and other quick-tongued crawlies; coyotes, foxes, wild turkeys and other larger predators undoubtedly intent on larger prey and therefore unimportant. Directional assistance could be handy.

Recommendation: Excellent home zone potential. For purposes of resting and nesting, this safe, viable location is well suited. 

Respectfully submitted,
Betty, R.M.

 

Best Beet Salad

In our family you get to say what you want for your birthday dinner. The process starts about a week before the birthday with me saying, “So, what do you want for your birthday dinner?” A few days later, when I ask again, I get an answer and proceed. This year, along with herbed salmon (a recipe I got twenty years ago and have made countless times since) and mushroom risotto (which I have never made because I am not fond of mushrooms), he asked for beet salad.

My mom made beet salad when I was a kid. In retrospect I see it was one of those salads you can make without having anything fresh in the fridge. If you want, you can open a can of whole beets, drain and grate them, add the dressing (oil, vinegar, salt, pepper and dried oregano, see below) and serve. But if you want it best, use fresh beets and fresh oregano.

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The ones I got were about as big as baseballs. I have not found a difference in flavor – big beets vs. small beets – so get what looks fresh. Look at the greens. If the greens look fresh, as in not wilting, the beets (which look the same regardless) are fresh. I cut the greens off (for chickens in my case, though some people would cook them separately) and put them in a pot.

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Notice how clear the water is. This does not last long. As soon as they start cooking, the water will get pink/red. Turn on the flame, bring to a boil, then turn down and let simmer. Cook the beets until you can put a knife into them easily, which could be 20 minutes and could be 40, depending on the size of the beets. Mine took 40. I was doing other things so just turned the flame off when they were done and walked away. An hour or so later, Samuel said Hey, look at the rings in the water.

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If anyone knows what that is, I’d be curious. I don’t think it’s bad. We all ate the salad yesterday and live to tell about it.

When you are ready, drain the beets and fill your pot again with cold water. If you have let some time go by, all the better because you handle these with your hands and if they are cooler, you will have an easier time of it. (If you are pressed for time and the beets are hot, you can do the job of getting the skins off while holding the beet under cold running water.)

Your thumbs are the best tool in the kitchen for this job. You can use a knife, but you will forfeit part of the beet. With your thumbs, exert pressure and push, slightly to the side. The skin should pop off. If you dunk the beet in the water now and then to give the sloughed-off skin a place to go (it likes to swim in the red water of the pot), you can see your progress more easily. You will need a knife for stubborn parts and for the end that the greens had been attached to. Beets are generally loath to give up all their skin without some resistance, a good reminder to us all, right? Don’t be a total pushover.

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Now notice that my hand is clean in the photo above. Duh, you say, of course you would work with clean hands. Yes, I work with clean hands. But this was the first beet. Remember how the water in the pot became red? So will your hands become red, which is actually kind of cool if it doesn’t gross you out.

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Which is to say – and this is a warning – do not wear that new white shirt you have, nor anything you might be sorry you splashed beet juice on. Wearing an apron when working with beets is a good idea. You could stain wood with beet juice.

Now don’t worry. Your hands will wash clean soon afterwards. The white shirt I can’t promise anything about.

When all the beets are skinless, rinse your hands and get out your grater. Here’s mine that I love (and my mother hates for reasons I will never understand). It’s a perfectly fine grater and whatever you grate ends up in the container below.

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Next, if you are fortunate to have fresh oregano in your garden…

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… go get eight to ten stems, take the leaves off and chop it up fine. That’s what I needed for the about 8 cups of beets I had for my salad. Remember it was Samuel’s birthday, meaning there would be extra people for dinner, and beet salad keeps very well in the fridge (wide-mouth mason jars are perfect for storage), so I like making a big bowlful. I had a full quart leftover.

Add the chopped up, fresh oregano to your grated beets as well as a small onion, chopped fine. It doesn’t matter if you use red onion or white onion. You will not be able to find the onion in the salad once the beet juice stains it red anyway. If you are partial to the flavor of onion, you can add more onion. No one will get in your way. In the rare, practically unthinkable instance that you don’t have any onion in the house, carry on without it. The oregano is what makes the difference in this dressing. If you don’t have fresh oregano, use dried. I would use one full teaspoon per four cups of grated beets.

The rest is simple: olive oil (extra virgin is best), apple cider vinegar, salt and pepper.

The basic proportion of oil to vinegar in this salad is almost 1:1 but not quite. Use somewhat more oil than vinegar. Per four cups of grated beets, use 1/3 cup oil and ¼ cup vinegar. Salt and pepper to taste. It’s yummy at room temperature or chilled. It’s yummy as a side dish or a snack. It’s yummy!

Roadside Delicacy

Sorry to say, this post is not about a new little bakery located conveniently along the side of the road, making delectable eclairs or macaroons, luring me in, tempting me. It’s about flowers. And Avengers. And coffee and bourbon. Hey, does anyone have any chocolate?

You know how dialog works. Two or more people on the same topic. All pretty focused. All engaged, curious, polite. The subject can be interesting even – maybe about the Avengers, or someone’s great uncle who left an inheritance no one saw coming, or what about this new pasta you don’t have to drain, or the accident that caused a four-mile back-up on the highway this morning.

Then suddenly something catches your eye and you get distracted. Anyone forgives you for interrupting a conversation to call attention to a burning building in the distance, or a collision about to happen, or a large insect entering your zone, or anything in your field of vision resembling a superhero or (oh, dear) Thanos. Have I been watching too many Marvel movies lately?

Something as ordinary and unimportant as roadside wildflowers should definitely not qualify as conversation-stoppers. I confess! I did it! Look at the face I got for asking him to hold both leashes so I could take a photo…roadside3.jpg

…of flowers! Yes, look – those sweet yellow flowers to the left. No one asks them to grow there. No one plants them, tends them, nurtures them. They just come. They just brighten the roadside with their sunny color and delicate form. They brighten our world unasked (oh, that we would take their example!).

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Those of you who are looking beyond Samuel’s mildly annoyed expression may notice that he is not wearing shoes. Please know that this is not because he doesn’t own shoes. He does. He just chooses to walk barefoot on the gravel of our road because… because… “Samuel, why do you still walk barefoot sometimes?”

“Why would I not?”

Need a person know more?

“I hadn’t been doing it so much recently because it was winter,” he added.

Okay.

Exploring this further, he says walking on the stones is a lot like drinking black coffee or strong bourbon, or exercising regularly and vigorously, or eating very spicy foods. All of these things are inherently unpleasant – the strong flavor or pushing yourself physically is a kind of barrier to get over or through.

The beauty and the enjoyment are in the complexity of the flavor or the exercise (or even the stones, sharp and uncomfortable as they are). Give a child a choice between sugar and black coffee, he suggests, and the child will choose sugar hands-down every time. But as you mature and can learn to appreciate the nuances, the layers, the waves of an experience like drinking black coffee or a new bourbon (which he says is really good — can’t touch the stuff myself).…

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… you partake of something much more interesting. As for myself, I choose shoes when walking on gravel roads and am happy-happy with a good piece of chocolate, which does not require any flavor, strength or conditioning barriers. You just eat it and soar.

Speaking of complex and interesting, we are heading to see the Avengers End Game tonight as part of Samuel’s birthday celebration, having just seen Captain Marvel at the Violet Crown last week. We’ve been working up to this since Christmastime, when our trip to the movies to see The Return of Mary Poppins sparked a trip to see Aquaman, which got the whole superhero thing going. We chose the Marvel series and have wrapped up all of the necessary pre-reqs for End Game and hope it is as good as people are saying. A lady in my CASA training course the other day said a big guy in a seat in front of her at the movie was blubbering at one point – blubbering as in something being tearjerkingly sad. We shall see if it is also complex and interesting…

…Oh! Look at these lovely lavender blooms, again there along the roadside with no planning or effort on anyone’s part.

Hey, can you hold this leash while I take a photo?

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I did it again. Right in the middle of Avengers talk, I had to take a picture. I don’t think I do this often (oh, no! maybe I do!), but I am quite sure it happened when it did because just the very day before, Samuel and Mom and I were talking about the verbal and nonverbal habits we all have, how we interject a certain word or phrase far more than is necessary as a kind of filler or finish people’s sentences for them or play with our hair (I don’t know anyone who does that!). Another habit is interrupting the flow of conversation with a random, non-following comment such as: you are talking about how you made your pizza and the other person looks out the window and says, “Oh, I need to remember to get Q-tips.”

Point being, I was totally guilty of the same thing that I have repeatedly observed in others and even annoys me! Am I modeling their behavior, monkey-see-monkey-do, or simply prone to the same? I catch myself, chide myself, apologize and again try to focus – but you know this world is just so complex and so interesting!! Take the lavender flowers for instance… 😊

You Never Know What You Might Find

I am not a fan of frogs particularly. Nor do they give me the woobies. Let’s just admit it: This little fellow is quite adorable.

You never know what you are going to find around here. Could be a tiny frog like this, no wider than a finger, no bigger than a grape. (I am assuming frog, though it could be a toad – we are a ways from the creek.)

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Could be a different (I think) tiny frog that somehow got itself up onto the front door handle(!), which is at, well, front-door-handle-height (!). How did it do that!!??

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Could be (occasionally is) a very large (I say monstrous) spider – which I do not take pictures of because they DO give me the woobies. (I’m sure I couldn’t stand to even have a photo of one in my media library!) The most recent near-death experience came last week when I took the broom from its home next to the tall freestanding cabinet in the back corner of my house (where brooms live when you don’t have a broom closet).

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All I wanted to do was sweep the porch! Not have my blood pressure skyrocket! Thank God it didn’t jump off before I got it outside. In fact, that spider was so comfortable on the broom, it didn’t move a muscle (and trust me I was watching it carefully) until I smacked the broom against the deck. I watched it could scurry away so I know it’s not inside any more….

Yeah, let’s find something less cringy!!

Could be you find a massive broken branch and take some time to look at the remaining tree, seen here as best as I can photograph it from below. The red arrow shows where the massive branch broke from, which is my way of demonstrating that it was indeed a branch, a mighty big branch. The rest of the tree is leaning toward the driveway – not badly, and it does not appear diseased or weak – still I am undecided how to proceed. Y’all know how much a crane costs. Right?

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Yeah, let’s find something less expensive!!

Could be you find Coco chewing a stick in the garden. Nobody gave her the stick. Recently she seems to have decided she’s a real dog. Or that she wants to prove her doghood somehow. Or that Oh! Hey! It feels really good when I chew on this hard thing that tastes like nothing! I’m sure you can imagine how ferociously she went at this doggie pleasure. She put all of her sixteen pounds into it!

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More commonly you find her enjoying sun or shade, also known as lazing around with nothing better to do. Somehow the red shirt she is laying on got from the sunny spot to the shady spot. I suppose that means someone moved it to accommodate the dog who, I tell you truly, does not rule the roost, but we would not want her to be too hot or too cold, right? I don’t know who could have moved that shirt…

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Could be you find a metal bowl in the microwave. What!? No one in their right mind puts a metal bowl in the microwave! Yeah, that’s what happens when you are trying to do too many things at once and perhaps are too tired. Yes, I even turned it on and let the butter soften for 30 seconds – on low power, okay, which is probably the only reason I didn’t have an explosion. It was when I opened the microwave to get the butter out and continue making the cake that I discovered the bowl in there.

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Could be you find no silkie eggs! A few days before discovering the reason for this I had wondered why the silkies weren’t laying. It’s warm, they have lots of daylight, lots of food – including lots of leftovers – and water. There was no good reason for the lack of eggs in the normal place where they lay. But it was the weekend and a gigantic branch was down and there were beets and squash to plant. I’ll figure that out another day.

Yeah, another day. Monday I looked through the side door of the coop to the left hand corner where the silkies usually lay and there were two eggs. Good!!

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My eye caught the brooder, also lazing around with nothing better to do, who hogs the space where laying was intended to take place. Oh, and the other chicken, the perky one to the right…

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… just getting up from her turn adding to the pile of fourteen stashed eggs off in the right-hand corner of the coop. I realize there are only two corners, a right-hand and a left-hand. But they have not laid in the right-hand before so why would I look there? Okay, so silkies are laying after all.

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It’s just a little house I have in the woods. Some chickens. A garden. A cottage. Who would imagine what might be here to find…

I continue to read to Evelyn, who is 101. I bring Coco every time because Evelyn loves her; she introduces her to anyone who comes in while we are reading. “See my pet?!” Coco lounges between us on the little couch while we read, and Evelyn strokes that soft black fur almost continually. I expect she finds it comforting and luxurious. Evelyn cannot see; she has been blind for the past nine years. I don’t know what I would find if I could not see. Today I thank God for the gift of sight.

 

A Piece of My World Falling Apart

Just when you think you’ve made order and progress in one area, something, somewhere, is falling apart. That’s what I was thinking the other day in the garden.

The spinach is looking fine. I can’t find fault with the onions. The azalea we transplanted last year has flowers!

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But look what a mess the daffodil bed is. You can hardly see the poor lilies over to the right.

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Choke, choke, choke. That nasty, thick, light green stuff under and around the daffodils covered nearly all the surface area of that garden bed. As you pull it up, it sounds like it’s shaking off wicked little seeds so that next year it can begin its insidious choking all over again. Don’t even think you’ve seen the last of me!

But I will do what I can toward the goal of order and eye appeal. Unfortunately I am not obsessive about every last root and will probably pay for that (to say nothing of the seeds spewing all over with every handful), but I clawed out and removed what I could, covered the area between the bulbs with layers of newspaper…

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…and covered the newspaper with a thick layer of mulch.

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Phew. Order. (Here anyway.) That’ll keep those weeds at bay for a while. Notice I did not crop out of the photo some other as-yet-untouched areas of the garden. You see mint going like gangbusters in the small bed behind the daffodils and two adjacent beds with landscape fabric doing its job of keeping weeds down nicely. Way in the back is the real problem, or so I thought.

Oh boy. That’s a bigger mess. That’s the berry patch I gave to Tracy back in January. She wanted them, I didn’t, so we dug them out (no small job) and she took them away. As if it could be that easy.

So pleased was I. So happy to have checked that little task off the list. Four months ago we went from this (blue lines dramatizing the thorny mess)…

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…to this. A shaft of afternoon sun highlighting (shall we venture to say celebrating?) a job well done.

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See what a clean slate followed our digging and yanking effort? Oh yay. I had about three months of rest on that point.

Nine days ago, uh-oh, it looked like this.

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Four days ago, it looked like this. I think we have a problem.

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So much for getting the berries out of the garden. Not only do these have prickly thorns (Leave us alone! We will propagate!) they have a seriously determined rooting system. They grow up, they fall over and then the branch that fell over takes root wherever it lands! They become a jungle very quickly and the roots seem to travel like wildfire.

God bless Sandy, the most meticulous gardener who ever lived. Out those berries will come, never to return (!) if he has anything to do with it.

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Yeah, so, all well and good, right? We see a mess, we frown, we take care of it, we smile. Ha!

I am not the first to see order and chaos in the world around me, not the first to deal with the continual cycle that includes both. You’ve seen the ancient Chinese symbol.

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The basic idea is that every arena of life naturally includes the contrary as well as interdependent forces of good/evil, light/darkness, order/chaos. The dots keep you in check, boldly reminding you not to get too smug. They reflect the tendency, indeed the predictability, that one can emerge from the other quite unexpectedly. You can think everything is a mess and suddenly there is peace or beauty. Likewise you can think you’ve mopped up a situation effectively and then all hell breaks loose.

Or something like that. We had a bit of a windstorm about midday on Friday. Guests were arriving around 4pm, so I was walking around picking up branches that had fallen. There were a lot, but branches fall because they are dead or have weak connections to the tree and they make good kindling. I stack them near the new firepit (blue arrow) so anyone staying at the cottage will have something to start campfires with.

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Guests came, lovely people, and onward we go. Saturday was a good day to plant the beets and squash. Oh, right, and some of those branches that had fallen in the windstorm were too big for me to carry by myself so when Sandy came over I asked him to help me move them.

Suddenly he was looking past me toward the woods, toward that tree next to the bit of kindling, and just said, “Uhhhhh….”

Remember that philosophical question: “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” Well, I’m here to say No one heard it. The wind was high that day. I was busy inside my house with windows closed.

What Sandy saw was not a tree, but a mighty big branch. It’s kinda hard to see how big in this picture, what with the leaves of the branch mixing all up with the leaves in the forest.

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Maybe the photo below gives you a better idea as to the size of this particular branch. So let’s start with a comparison to me. I walked around to the part in shadow where the split part meets the unsplit part (red arrow). I can get my two arms, hugging the branch, a little more than halfway it.

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Then I got a coffee cup from the cottage, placed it on top of the branch for perspective and took a picture from below.

Do you see the cup? Welcome to my world.

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We looked at the tree (at the remainder of the tree) and wonder what to do next. It would take a crane to get the rest of it down; maybe that’s next. And here I thought I was just mulching the daffodil bed, planting beets and squash, being grateful for Sandy’s willingness to dig out berry roots, gathering up fallen branches…

When I said to myself the other day “Just when you think you’ve made order and progress in one area, another is falling apart,” I didn’t think the tree would be literally falling apart!

Unboring, remember? It may be challenging, but it sure is unboring!

My First Use of “an Un-boring Path”

I realize “anunboringpath” doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. Let me explain.

Boring = uninteresting. Therefore unboring = interesting. Right?

My life’s path has been figuratively all over the map: this, that, up, down, conventional, unconventional, never a dull moment. Throw in some great trips, some outstanding people, some unexpected challenges. Definitely unboring. Therefore an – un – boring – path.

One unconventional thing we did was homeschool. Yesterday Samuel was telling me about an article he read; apparently the number of people using the educational approach that for us was also a lifestyle has been rising steadily. It got me thinking about those years. We started before home computers were a thing, before cell phones were a thing, before house phones (at least ours) were even “cordless.” We were not pioneers in the movement, but certainly we rode the earlier wave.

Drew, Marie, Bradley, Lincoln and Samuel rode it with me and a cream-of-the-crop co-op group for fifteen wonderful years. Here is one photo from when our group performed Charlotte’s Web with an open barn door as the stage and homemade paper mache marionette puppets as some of the animals (thank you, Beth Masters, for the photo!).

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If ever a path was unboring, ours surely was. In 2005, when the three oldest were in college, I decided to write a bit about our experience, using “Un-boring” in my title (I had never seen it in use and assumed the hyphen). I sent my article to Maurice Gibbons, an eminent Canadian educator whose website is all about self-directed learning. He not only posted it, he also encouraged me in my writing more than he will ever know. (Thank you again, Maurice.) Below is the article, slightly edited from the original, and now you’ll know where my blog name comes from.

Unexpected Consequences of an Un-boring Path

The adventure we called homeschool began with the element of intrigue. What’s it about? Why would you choose it? Could it be better? Could it be fun? How do you know what to do? Who can you ask? And hmmm, did I have the guts?  Back then, I decided that if I didn’t at least open the door to an unconventional education for my children, I would regret it, so I had to try. “It’s only kindergarten,” I said to myself that first year. “How can you mess up kindergarten?” One day at a time, and one year at a time, I did the best I could for my children. Funny thing happened through the years though: they aren’t the only ones who learned a lot.

I didn’t set out to review the scope of world history (several times), skin a raccoon, study soil types, write a play, walk battlefields, debate whole language vs. phonics, start a hydro farm, or read some of the best literature in the world – let alone reshape my own views on the process of personal and intellectual growth. All I wanted was for my kids to have an education that was well above mediocre, and for them to have fun in the process. I wanted them to know what they needed to know, to be able to think, and to love learning, to hunger for it, to be forever un-bored. How hard could that be?

Very early on, one of the first pieces of advice I got was an old, familiar proverb: Give a man a fish and he eats for a day. Teach him how to fish and he eats for a lifetime.  A well-prepared piece of fish satisfies hunger much the same way as interesting content satisfies curiosity, and it’s important to know about the world. Did you know that the son of President Calvin Coolidge died from a simple infection because they didn’t have penicillin in the 1920s, that March winds stir up lake waters to bring needed oxygen to drowsy underwater creatures, that dungeon walls were three feet thick so as to block the screams of the prisoners, and that staring at constellations has had a highly useful purpose?

But what if we got so engrossed in studying the Cherokee that we never got to the Sioux?  How much should we work at learning about the various -stans of eastern Europe and Asia (Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan…) when we actually find the mountainous regions of South America endlessly fascinating? What if we really (no matter how hard we try) do not see the purpose of diagramming sentences? Here’s a thought: Why not just focus on the fun stuff and ignore the rest? Who cares if they have their times tables down pat or can write a cohesive paragraph?

Ultimately, they care. Ultimately, little by little, each of them, individually, came to “own” their education, to fit most of the pieces together, to juggle the goals and the time constraints, to truly self-direct – and that’s when the real fun begins. The research, the questions, the people we meet, the places we explore, the discoveries we make – all these things work together and become transformative. Isolated bits of information find connections to other bits. Process kicks in and finds rhythm. Questions beget questions, learning begets more learning, the tools get sharper, and real thinking ensues. We don’t just enjoy the story – we understand the reason some books never go out of print. We don’t just know the times tables – we see them as a witness to structure and order in the natural world, indeed, as a thing of beauty.

How to fish envelops the notion of how to think, how to figure out important things like Does it matter if we spent more time on the civil war than on the revolutionary war? What is the bigger picture here? Above and beyond all the exceedingly interesting facts, what did we learn about the way things work, the trends and behaviors that define us, the hooks to watch out for? What did I learn? Bottom line is, all this time, when I thought I was helping my children to ultimately own and direct their own learning, I was in fact figuring out some important things myself.

I learned that success comes in increments, that overall progress is far more important than the minutiae of content. Are we going from simple division to long division within a reasonable period of time? Do we wake up one day and find that the child who liked to stir the pudding is now seasoning the soup? Is the one who had to be coaxed into saying hello now volunteering to shovel snow off the neighbor’s walkway?

I learned that some people learn better by seeing, some by hearing, some by being actively engaged with said subject. If digging parallel trenches in the deep snow and simulating (with snowballs) the no-man’s-land of World War I impresses on a child even one detail of the reality of that conflict, I’m all for snow trenches. If drawing birds outside on beautiful spring days leads to a career in wildlife management, I say: Draw birds.

I learned that the people who are asking questions are the ones doing more of the thinking and the learning, and that children ask fabulous questions. I’ll never forget when Samuel asked, “Mom, why can’t the strings of your tennis racket just stay in whack?”

I learned that those who worry about the social competencies of people who are not in conventional school settings are worrying about the wrong thing. When you work closely with people on projects that are important to you, when you are with them all the time, you can’t wear masks. They see your points of enthusiasm and frustration, your organization and your chaos, your good and your not-so-good, and you see theirs, and everybody had better figure out how to get along.

I learned that people progress at their own rates. I have no idea how Lincoln learned to read; one day Marie was making a paper crown for him with the letter A on it, and the next thing I knew he was reading. He was four or five at the time. Bradley didn’t read until he was nine, try as I did (and by golly, I tried!) to help him see patterns in language. But in high school he aced honors English and has since earned a master’s degree.

I learned that some people have no idea how to direct their own learning. Years ago, we had a visiting foreign exchange student who came upon Drew at age 12 reading a hefty volume about World War II. She came to me utterly perplexed, almost speechless: Why was he doing this, she asked. Because he wants to, I said. She said she never read a book in her life unless somebody told her she had to. I thought: How much you miss!

I learned that Plato was right, at least on his point about dialogue. People more likely arrive at truth and meaning, and more likely cultivate wisdom, if they talk out an issue with open minds, if they challenge each other to think past what is already understood, if active discourse is esteemed and practiced. How much better it is when the format allows for various views on the bigger questions like:  What are some concrete ways that world poverty can be addressed? Why is it a violation to read someone else’s mail? Who should be allowed to own a high-powered rifle? When does life begin?

I learned for myself, the real (sometimes hard) way, that life includes surprises, that people both delight and disappoint you, and that you usually can do things you never would have thought you could. My own path has been circuitous and downright puzzling at times, but when you give, you get something back. Likewise, you think you are teaching, but it turns out you are learning.  As time went on and my own learning took root, I “owned” the whole enterprise more and more, directed with confidence (acquired over time) and embraced our unconventionality. The spine of John Holt’s Learning All the Time stared at me through the years and boldly reminded me what learning how to fish came to mean for us: pacing ourselves individually, engaging actively, pursuing excellence, valuing process, questing for meaning, wearing no masks, keeping the fun (so much fun!), and seizing the day.

I continue to learn that good comes where good has gone before, and that being in charge of your own learning rewards you monumentally. Bradley called me from college once to ask for a recipe and related his discovery about how much soup 2 ½ pounds of beef and a full pound of barley will make. “But I only used seven carrots!” he said.  If you think I was smiling at that, just imagine how I felt when I asked him how things were going, and he said, “I’m totally unprepared for this course I’m taking, but I know where to find what I need and how to figure out the parts I don’t know. I don’t think I’d know how to do that if we hadn’t learned how. Thanks, Mom.”  He really said that.

 

Making the World More Beautiful

We get our images from all over the place – from real life, from books, television, movies, YouTube, wherever. Images stick with you sometimes, like wallpaper inside your head, a permanent part of the structure. I read a lot of books to my kids when they were small. One image, from one of those books, was this.

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The character you see, Miss Alice Rumphius, had a grandfather who had traveled to faraway places and then become an artist and lived by the sea. She told him, “When I grow up, I too will go to faraway places, and when I grow old, I too will live by the sea.”  

“That is all very well, little Alice,” said her grandfather, “but there is a third thing you must do.”

“What is that?” asked Alice.

“You must do something to make the world more beautiful,” said her grandfather.

“All right,” said Alice. But she did not know what that could be.

Whenever I turned to this page, where Miss Rumphius, as a young woman now, goes into a conservatory and lets “the warm, moist air wrap itself around her and the sweet smell of jasmine fill her nose,” I was right there with her. I was in that big glass house where the beauty of gorgeous, growing things filled me too, enveloped me too, transported me too. Almost.

The way she puts it: “This is almost like a tropical isle…. But not quite.”

So she went to a real tropical isle (and I’ll tell you later how she made the world more beautiful.)

I’ll settle for a real conservatory.

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Monday was the perfect day to visit the Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens in Richmond, Virginia. There you get the real deal – the huge glass house, the pool with fountains, the pathways with multiple shades of green leafery hanging from stone archways…

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…the azaleas bursting with color…

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… even a turtle scurrying off under more incredible blooms.

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But in that conservatory, oh my, you are indeed transported. The wing of the building with the orchids left me speechless. This gives you some idea.

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I know you can buy orchids in the grocery store now. Yeah, yeah, flowers, you say. Look a little closer at these flowers! Their colors, delicacy, form, patterning, individuality, splendor! Let your eyes fill up with the beauty of these blooms and tell me if you are not, even in a small way, transported to a place of wonder…

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In this same conservatory is a special room for incredibly beautiful butterflies and moths. You enter through one door into an airlock space, then through another door into a larger space where flutterings happen all around you and even on you! This weary traveler used Mom’s leg as a pit stop for a few minutes. She, post-back-surgery, wisely limiting her walking, happily hosted him. Uhhhhhh…. Is it going to fly off soon?

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He was perfect and delicate up close.

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But not quite as pretty as his fellow flutterers. They were not so easy to photograph. Orchids just sit there of course. These fellows do land here and there, but often they close up their wings so you can’t see their glorious spreads. I caught a few – some on plants, some on metal grates, some on the rotting fruit put there for them to feed off. Again note their colors, delicacy, form, patterning, individuality, splendor!

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Whoever made this conservatory, whoever grows and maintains the orchids, whoever protects and oversees the butterfly/moth room – these people have surely done something to make the world more beautiful.

Miss Alice Rumphius, for her part, planted a few flower seeds – lupines, one of her favorites – at her house by the sea, and then fell ill for a long time. From her bed she saw out her window that the blue and purple and rose-colored flowers had come up the next year and she said, “I have always loved lupines the best. I wish I could plant more seeds this summer so that I could have still more flowers next year.”

But she was not able to.

The next spring, when she was finally able to get around a bit, she saw a large patch of lupines on the other side of the hill! The birds and the wind had dispersed the seeds and her one small act, her few planted seeds, had made the world just a little more beautiful.

Then Miss Rumphius had a wonderful idea!

She ordered five bushels of lupine seeds from the very best seed house and sowed them everywhere she went. The next spring, and every year after that, there were more and more lupines. Miss Rumphius had done the third, the most difficult thing of all!

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Now let me think… For my part, what am I doing to make the world more beautiful?…

 

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Miss Rumphius, Story and Pictures by Barbara Cooney, Viking Penguin Inc., 1982