A Mighty Oak Meets the Earth

Imagine being a very big tree, a mighty red oak. You have been standing in your same spot on a Virginia hillside for a very long time, say, at least a hundred years. You are part of a forest, not a national park or anything so grand, just a peaceful forest not terribly far from the Blue Ridge Mountains. You grew strong over the years, pushed your way ever higher toward the sun.

Ah, the sun, the seasons. Bask. Bask.

When you were about 50, some humans came to the site to build a house, but you survived this possible demise because of being just far enough away from the spot they decided was best. They put a utility pole fairly near you, but its inanimate state was uninteresting, and you said Paugh, who cares about that?

When you were about 90 and towering proudly among your adjacent tree-fellows, another risk came along, another building project, a cottage this time, but your majestic canopy and the glorious shade it provided these new humans saved you. You said to the young beech trying to grow right next to you, I’m feeling a mite weak in the joints, little fella, but don’t get any ideas about taking this spot. I’ve been here a long time. No offense, but it’s mine.

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Wind. It comes, it blows.

The sound of a tree-fellow nearby crashing to the ground during a storm always adds to the drama of the day, always causes you to ponder your own strength and good fortune. You tell yourself that if you were not meant to become the mightiest grandfather in this neck of the woods, you would have fallen already. Some tree has to become the giant among giants – it might as well be you. Then one spring day that blasting wind comes again, and in one super painful stroke, your hugest north-pointing limb lets go at the joint, its weight bringing it instantly to the forest floor below and leaving a massive, open, splintery wound on your side.

Crap.

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The humans come and inspect. They bring other humans to come and inspect. They all shake their heads and use words like risky, problem and electrocution. Electrocution? They point to that inanimate pole that’s closer than it used to be… or, oh, maybe you’re just bigger than you used to be. No! you want to say to them. Don’t worry! I am still strong! I can stand another fifty years! You are a little like Mike Mulligan, who used to say about Mary Anne (his steam shovel) that “she could dig as much in a day as a hundred men could dig in a week.” In this classic children’s book, Mike’s assertion is always followed by “but he had never been quite sure that this was true.”

You are not quite sure that you will not fall one day and hit the cable coming off that pole. You cannot be sure. The humans cannot be sure. As they walk away, you want to believe it will all be okay. You settle into your new life, feeling somewhat off balance, slightly less steady, especially when the wind kicks up, now that you have no huge branch on the north side counterweighting all the other branches. Weeks go by. The humans seem to have lost interest. What a relief.

Then one day some big vehicles arrive. They stare and say, “See how it leans?” They curiously turn their attention to a perfectly nice (younger, smaller) oak that stands between you and the biggest vehicle.

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Odd.

You watch. A man sits in the bucket attached to the vehicle, starts at the top, lops off branch after branch, then sections off the main part of the trunk one piece at a time, letting each one crash. Huh. They cut that poor little fellow down to earth-level for no seemingly good reason. Then they move the truck in closer.

Oh.

It’s your turn. They start on the side closest to that damn pole. They work carefully to make sure nothing falls near the cable. The 75’ reach of the bucket is barely high enough to get them to the best position. But they manage. Bit by bit, they buzz their tool and drop your limbs. Parts of you that only ever knew sky meet the earth.

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Then they move on to the side that hangs over the little cottage. Yeah, you knew that lowest one was perhaps your weakest limb. Maybe they had reason to worry about that one. It didn’t take much for it to break. They were careful on that side, using a rope around it to make sure that when it swung down, it would avoid the cottage roof and land where they wanted.

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This is it, you realize. You reached, you grew, you survived. You gave beauty to the forest, shade to the humans, home sites and abundant food to forest creatures for many years. Now you will give warmth by way of firewood. Lots of yourself is already on the ground, the danger of hitting the pole now a thing of the past, but they left some for the next guy to come and fell.

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“Sad,” you hear the lady of the house saying. “Reminds me of The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein,” she says, “a book that’s been called ‘a touching interpretation of the gift of giving.’ Maybe that’s what this tree did. It gave. For many years it gave. As with all of us, its days were numbered – even if none of us ever know the number! But chapters do close….”

Since Micah’s death, there have been two more people that I knew for years, two more I talked with, played with, greatly admired, two more who gave to those around them, who added depth, joy, love, fun and substantial contributions to the circle they walked in, two more whose chapters have closed. To the families of C. Wayne Callaway and Ken Brown, I offer my deepest condolences.

Shakespeare’s Pick Up Lines

It’s funny to me that when we go to a Shakespeare play, we understand at the outset that we will miss a lot of the dialog, we will miss some of the meaning and some innuendos, therefore possibly even some basic elements or twists of the plot. The language is challenging to say the least. Yet we continue to go at least two or three times a year. Last week we saw The Comedy of Errors. Even if some of us didn’t understand about how the gold watch and the money for it fit in till the end, we were still rolling in laughter almost the entire time.

These two “servants” in their matching plaid shirts (shown here during the pre-show, take-photos-now-or-never, come-get-a-drink-on-stage time) and all their compatriots performed hilarious slapstick that needs no words.

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The basic premise of the story involves, according to the American Shakespeare Center’s website, “two long-separated twins, their two tricky servants (also twins), a jealous wife and her lovelorn sister….” You can’t help but enjoy how they find each other, fool each other and ultimately feel great joy together in this all’s-well-in-the-end family drama.

The costuming is from the 1940s. Why not? One actor embellished her role with a heavy Brooklyn accent. Shiny-red-with-big-white-hearts undershorts made a brief appearance, as did fluttering eyelashes, hops onto the laps of those patrons watching from the primo on-stage seats and ouch-didn’t-that-hurt(?!) dives onto the wooden stage.

This troupe of professional actors, performing three or four plays a season, eight or ten shows a week in Staunton, Virginia, has never failed to make me glad we drove the 45 minutes up and over Afton Mountain to get there. They don’t do only Shakespeare. Every year we attend their version of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, which they keep as fresh and enlightening as traditional and heartwarming. Scrooge generally works his way roughly through the audience as, in the script, he is fighting the crowd on the street on Christmas Eve. One year on his trek between rows, he took a cup an audience member was holding, tasted it, made a face and gave it back. We roared.

You can’t get away from funny at this theater. We all know Shakespeare’s material runs from comedy to tragedy, and there is generally some love interest (because in life, there is generally some love interest). This is the theater that boldly boasts (after they explain that the play will be performed in full lighting as it was in Shakespeare’s day), “We do it with the lights on.”

Bravo to the person who decided to put Shakespeare’s top ten pick up lines on a t-shirt. I expect this is a perennial bestseller in their gift shop.

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In case you find them hard to read on the shirt, allow me to make it easier (minus the references). I cannot speak to the order they are in: chronological according to when the play was written? favorites of the t-shirt creator in reverse order? most or least likely to achieve desired outcome?

You can decide which is your favorite, which you wish someone would use on you, which is most romantic, which you would soooo enjoy using one of these days just to see the reaction you’d get, which would warm your heart, which would bring images of intimacy most effectively to mind…

10. If thou hast sinned, teach me.

9. I come to answer thy best pleasure.

8. I thy parts admire.

7. Come sit on me.

6. Madam, my instrument’s in tune.

5. I entreat thee home with me.

4. I’ll do it in my shirt.

3. Make some sign how I may do thee ease.

2. Let me take you a buttonhole lower.

1. With thy lips keep in my soul a while.

There is no way to top the top ten. I leave it right there for you to do with as you please 😊

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?

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.

 

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?…

 

___________________________

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

Oh, Glorious Redbud

I might be able to convince myself that I can make food or do jigsaw puzzles or dig in the yard, but I draw the line at technology. Last week I was out of my mind trying to get the pictures in this post to upload, tried this, gave up, tried that, gave up, chatted with the person you can chat with who might be able to solve the problem (that didn’t help either), got distracted making Easter dinner for eleven people and a very cool Easter carrot cake / cheesecake with my sister — wanna see?…

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…and the only way I am uploading photos now is through my phone’s hotspot (which I have never used in my life anywhere) but hey, it’s working.

This tree, the one I tried to write about in the first place, looked this pretty a week ago. Its leaves are coming out now but just pretend it still looks like this.

It had to have been standing there in that same spot at the one end of my driveway when I moved here eight years ago. You can’t miss it, right? I’m talking about the pink one. Please note: I am not responsible for the pink tree bearing the name “redbud.” Do you see red? I don’t see red.

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But I hardly remember seeing this tree the first few years, which tells you something about how busy I was with other things, how un-focused. Shall we say blind?

Maybe I just didn’t know what I was looking at. I did not grow up with redbuds. Maybe the climate in New Jersey is too cold for them? Certainly they don’t grow in Vermont, where I spent twenty-some years. But in Virginia and south of here (maybe north of here? maybe Maryland or Pennsylvania? I have no idea), you find them randomly all over the place. I especially like their splash of color along the highway here and there.

Two years ago my son Bradley transplanted a smaller one to the front of the cottage. It was small in comparison with the one at the end of the driveway, but big enough, i.e. the roots were already deep enough, that he did not have much hope for its survival.

We chose the wrong time of year to transplant – May (!) of all times. It had fully leafed out by then. To be honest, I didn’t even know what kind of tree it was. I just knew it was getting too big to stay in the back corner of the garden (as were some others, but this one was in front of them and had to come first). Look how big it is! This is a tree that started as a stick with wet, icky, short white tentacles at one end that you take for roots, the kind of stick you get in the mail when you send the arbor foundation a donation. I’d say it did pretty well.

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But getting it out was not fun at all for Bradley.

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Poor tree. If it had a way to protest, I’m sure it would have. Wintertime, folks! Wintertime or fall or springtime is best for transplanting! At least wait until after my leaves have fallen and I’ve gone dormant!

Oh, well, what did we know? I was just glad for Bradley’s muscles! He even smoothed out the dirt after moving the tree. Piper was so small two years ago!

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It makes me think about how many things I have done or continue to do with so very little understanding. These are a few items on my very long list, which does not include the aforementioned tech stuff.

  • Something is wrong with my rhubarb. It’s not growing as well as it did for a few years. There’s a reason for that, but I have no idea what it is. Maybe it needs food? Maybe it gets too much sun? Maybe I should look it up?
  • Some of the plants I put in the large planter boxes last year have returned. I think. I mean, I think they are the same. Maybe they are weeds. Maybe they are a perennial, which would be nice! I’ll wait a bit and see.
  • Weeds have definitely barged into the strawberry bed. They are purple flowers, quite pretty actually. But maybe I am beginning a losing battle?

 

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Sandy and I moved many clumps of these purple weeds, and they look nice (for now) next to the arbor that leads into the garden, though I suspect we will be moving them out of the strawberry bed on a regular basis.

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Back to that redbud Bradley transplanted two years ago – I did know to keep it well-watered, especially in the heat of summer. Every evening I watered that poor tree, knowing full well it was complaining about being jerked around and relocated. I had hope! This is what it looked like initially. Pretty good, huh? Looks healthy!

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Bradley was doubtful, un-encouraging, disbelieving. Brace yourself, Mom, It’ll probably die. Every time I gave him a report about it (The tree’s doing well, Brad! It hasn’t died yet!), he’d say Don’t get your hopes up. I kept watering and watering.

Look at it this spring! Two years later and it has flowers. I think it survived!

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The redbuds bloom just before the dogwoods. Here’s a close-up of the buds I saw last week in one of the trees we transplanted this winter. I think it too is going to survive.

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Pretty soon they will be gorgeous white flowers. Oh, right, that was last week. By the time I got the pictures to attach, those buds bloomed. Now it looks like this.

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Soon something else will bloom. Don’t ask me what – I have no idea! I might know a little more about gardening than about technology, but not much. Right now I’m just glad to be able to post something again.

 

A Skink in a Log

When your alarm goes off at 435am so you can leave for the airport by 515, it’s very dark outside. It’s hard to get up. Your eyes resist opening. They slit open only enough to deactivate the alarm. You roll over and tuck in again. Just a few more minutes, you think, just a few.

No. Today is Travel Day. Time to get up. Now.

That’s just how the skink must have felt, the one we found inside a cut log this weekend. The one we woke up.

If you have ever wondered what the inside of a tree looks like, look on the outside for clues. If you see a lot of holes, especially large ones – fist-size or bigger – worry. If you see squirrels and birds disappearing inside those holes – worry more. You might have a tower filled with condominiums for your local wildlife. If that tree is anywhere near your house, call someone to come take it down.

The 80-foot (or so) tree that stood about an arm-spread from the back corner of my house, right next to my bedroom, was one such tower. Last winter a professional climber lopped off numerous branches while hanging from a rope tied to the jib of a 40-ton crane. Do you see him up there? He’s just under that heavy ball attached to the rope that’s attached to the jib.

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Then they felled the tree. Afterwards he said to me no fewer than four times, “You are so lucky that tree didn’t fall on your house. You are so lucky.”

The cut branches revealed all stages of disintegration: some entirely without a core, some with wood fluff that fell out like finely shredded Styrofoam, some with spongy innards, not yet dry enough to slough off and out. I was so lucky.

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Some of this wood we cut up right away for firewood. Some of it sat in a jumble near the garden, waiting, aging, drying some more. Fourteen months later it was time to split and stack the rest. I’m good for rolling cut sections toward the cutting area and for picking up and stacking the cut pieces. Samuel swings the ax.

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“Hey, look. Is it dead?” He brought over a split piece to where I was wrestling with nasty, thorny Virginia creeper. Do you see the little fella with the unmistakable blue tail ?

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The aptly named blue-tailed skink seemed to be sleeping. Do skinks hibernate? The impact of the ax, the sound and disturbance of the cracking, the force of the split log falling to the ground – none of this disturbed him. He snoozed soundly in his little crack, hoping perhaps that it isn’t spring just yet.

Awwwww – just a few more minutes??

No. Sorry. Today is Wood Splitting Day. Time to get up. Now.

The fresh air must have roused him. Off he scampered, easily disappearing among some dead leaves. Within minutes Samuel spotted his compatriot, a little brown lizard way better camouflaged and surely able to claim a better name than “little brown lizard” but sadly I don’t know my woodland wildlife well enough. See him just below the toe of Samuel’s left boot?

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Two lizardy creatures awakened to Spring 2019 before our eyes! That’s not a thing you can say every day.

Sliding Snow

As we left to go see Aquaman on Saturday, it was beginning to snow lightly. When we came out of the theater, there was a dusting on the ground and we were glad we had chosen the 3:45 p.m. showing instead of the 7:10. Sunday morning at not quite dawn (you can see the dusk-to-dawn, timed heat lamps still glowing red inside the coops), this scene greeted me.

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I didn’t think the chickens would be eager to put their feet in the cold, white stuff, so I took my time getting out there to open the door for the hens in the new coop. They did not rush out when I raised the door, practically tumbling over one another as usual. They didn’t even peek out. I opened the brooding box doors and found Whitey in her usual spot and Spot still in lala land. Hey, that’s cold air – d’ya mind?!

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I noticed the icicles forming and threw some feed inside for these Unwilling Chickens. If they chose to stay inside for a while, scratching around in the straw to find the grain would give them something to do.

The other group had come through the opening at the top of their little ramp and down into the covered area, but that’s as far as these Reluctant Chickens went. For once they were not clamoring at the door where I stood taking their photo. In order to do that, they would have to step into the cold fluff. For once they did not seem to be begging for food so much as Could you get rid of that foreign material??

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An hour or so later I found these Underneath Chickens that had managed to get as far as the area under their coop. This is not better! How do we get back up and inside??

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Not a fun day for any of them, but I was oddly unsympathetic. They have a heat lamp inside at night! (Not every chicken can boast the same.) They’ll live. Chickens have survived cold before.

What got my attention a little later in the day was the snow sliding off the metal porch roof of the cottage. Look how it’s heavier in the middle and drooping into a fan shape. How cool is that?!

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What I found Monday, after the temperature had risen slightly above freezing and the snow had melted some, was just as interesting. The weight of the snow had come slowly down the two front valleys of the cottage roof, buckling into waves.

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(left)

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But the best part was the icicles tilting toward the front door.

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(left)

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It hadn’t been all that windy, so I guessed that the weight of the descending snow had caused this effect. At first I wished I’d had a slow-motion camera going on it all day because surely those icicles were hanging straight down before they veered sideways. Then I thought I should have not only individual shots of the icicles on either side, but the same shot as above with the fan-shaped swath in the middle, only without the fan-shaped swath in the middle because it had already fallen to the porch by the time I took the icicle photos. I went back out not twenty minutes later to try to get this shot – boots, coat, scarf, the whole business – and the icicles on the right had already crashed down to their natural end. So much for that. Only the icicles on the left remained. How quickly things can change!

This made me think about two things:

The moments we capture and the moments we don’t. Our phones make incessant photography and videography possible but let us not get too lazy and make the camera do all the work. Some things we should capture, yes, especially for those who cannot be there. I love seeing a video of my two-year-old granddaughter Piper (in Seattle) telling her very obedient dog to roll over (and Zadie does it!). But no matter what we capture, no matter what we have a glimpse of – there’s always more to the scene, always more that we should/could imagine. Let’s not forget 1. There’s a fuller picture than the glimpses we get, and 2. The best images, the most powerful images – our memories — live almost exclusively in our minds and our hearts, and that’s where they belong. Some of them, to be sure, live only in our imaginations. Let us continually build up that bank, filling it with sweet and wonderful images that sustain us when it’s dark outside, when certain days of wonder are behind us, when the screen is blank.

The expected way and the sideway. Ordinary icicles go straight down on account of this thing called gravity. Not many seemingly have a mind of their own and veer in any non-downward direction — Nah, who wants to go straight down?! Let’s give ‘em something to marvel at! I keep thinking about the extraordinary things people do that they don’t have to, such as Lincoln and Julia building their pentagonal, straw bale insulated house in Vermont. Various well-meaning people said to them, essentially: You have two small children. You live in a cold place. Build something simple – four straight walls, four straight corners, roof, windows, door, water, power, heat – that you can live in temporarily while you then play with funky designs and materials. But Lincoln and Julia chose the unexpected way, the sideway, the harder way. They chose to make their own unique house from the get-go (unconventional yurt in the meantime notwithstanding!), thereby writing their own unique story. The sideway is not always the best option, granted, and we have to think it through and sometimes take our chances, but oh the dividends! Lincoln and Julia not only give us something to marvel at, they also are making lots of deposits in their memory bank!

Tuesday morning the mango peels I threw on the ground inside the chickens’ run on Monday are still there. None ventured into the snow to get them. I opened the door, out they came, still unsure … and they all stood on the platform. Now what? Huh? Now what are we supposed to do?

The others had made their way to the door and begged as usual. Food, remember?? Starving here! (As if!)

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But the icicles! Those on the left had not yet fallen off, but had inched ever slightly downward. Against the backdrop of dawn over the mountains, I felt like I was in a fairy land.

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And the blanket of snow that had formed on the side roof of the cottage, the blanket that yesterday looked like this…

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…now had shifted down and curved inward.

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Nature made a show for me. I’m so glad I was here to see it!

The Light of 2019

Last year during the week between Christmas and New Year, it was very, very cold here in Virginia, inordinately cold, exceptionally cold. We seldom get to single digits, let alone for a week straight. We took Katja, a visitor from Germany, to Washington, D.C. and walked from one end of the National Mall to the other. It was 4 degrees F (-15C) that day.

Just before Christmas we were in Vermont. I did not pay as much attention to the temperature because we were busy insulating Lincoln’s house and hauling household items up the snowy hill, but I do remember hearing it was 11F. That’s not as cold as 4F but it’s still mighty cold. Coco doesn’t like it. Poor baby. There’s not a lot of fur on her belly, and it’s very tough on her. She would much rather be tucked in.

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When we got home it was much warmer. It makes me smile to see her finding her spot outside on the front porch (that’s no closer to being finished than six weeks ago)…

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…or inside where the sun comes through my south-facing bedroom window.

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She finds and occupies the only bit of rug that also has sun in that room and has her trusty fox toy behind her. Now we’re talking! New Year’s Day in my neck of the woods is predicted to be sunny and 64F (17C). Ah, glorious sun!

If a patch of sun can make Coco so happy, imagine what it can do for you, what it does do for you without you hardly noticing it most of the time. Think about how you feel on a drab day vs. a sunny day. If you live in a place that’s sunny all the time, you may not be as aware of the effect that cloudy days have on your emotional well being. But winter is harder in places that get snow not only because it’s colder but also because there is less sun.

Imagine if we arranged our built spaces to take advantage of the sun whenever possible. One of my favorite books about the design of living spaces is A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander. In it he suggests some examples to encourage indoor sunlight: “(1) a porch that gets the evening sun late in the day; (2) a breakfast nook that looks directly into a garden which is sunny in the morning; (3) a bathing room arranged to get full morning sun; (4) a workshop that gets full southern exposure during the middle of the day; (5) an edge of a living room where the sun falls on an outside wall and warms a flowering plant.”

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In Lincoln’s pentagonal house, he has chosen to put an oculus (which will become a cupola with functioning windows) in the center of the second-floor ceiling. Light will stream into almost every room of the house through this amazing component of his design.

This (in my woobly red line) is the oculus I’m talking about. Only some of that flooring will remain.

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Most of us are stuck with the house we have, the orientation it came with, the sun we get. But on this first day of 2019, I am thinking about what the sun does for us and how we can and should take advantage of it. Find a sunny spot to sit in if you can, even for a little while. Let the sun do its work on you. See what happens.

Beyond that, I think about what we can do for others by being “sunny” in our interactions. The expressions that come to mind and go hand in hand with this concept include:

You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar – a favorite of mine because it’s true not only figuratively, it’s true literally. The image of a flypaper hanging from a ceiling in a cabin somehow resides in my mind. If the strip of paper were coated with honey, no way could a fly’s wings detach once they landed on it. What (very dumb) fly would land on a paper coated with vinegar? I translate as: You accomplish more by using grace and kindness than by being sour/vindictive/mean/angry/etc.

In honor of Mary Poppins, all the rage with Mary Poppins Returns being in theaters right now: A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down. In the Julie Andrews original, she applies this literally, though why the children need medicine when they are not sick is beyond me. Nevertheless, my translation: The world can be a tough place; anything we do to make it better makes it better! Add an element of good to something that is unpleasant or difficult and you will find everything easier.

Lastly: This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine! I was thinking today about how limited we are, how our sphere of influence is small, how many people there are in the world and how few of them we can in any way affect. So what? We don’t have to save the world (this has already been done), but we sure can make our own corners — and the corners of those we love and care about — less dark by our chosen actions.

Several years ago, I found the essay We Were Made For These Times by Clarissa Pinkola Estes (American poet, post-trauma specialist and Jungian psychoanalyst, author of Women Who Run With the Wolves). It made me think about why I do what I do, what I think is important, what the future might hold. Maybe it speaks to you and helps you make 2019 a wonderful year in new and important ways.

My friends, do not lose heart. We were made for these times. I have heard from so many recently who are deeply and properly bewildered. They are concerned about the state of affairs in our world now. Ours is a time of almost daily astonishment and often righteous rage over the latest degradations of what matters most to civilized, visionary people.

You are right in your assessments. The lustre and hubris some have aspired to while endorsing acts so heinous against children, elders, everyday people, the poor, the unguarded, the helpless, is breathtaking. Yet, I urge you, ask you, gentle you, to please not spend your spirit dry by bewailing these difficult times. Especially do not lose hope. Most particularly because, the fact is that we were made for these times. Yes. For years, we have been learning, practicing, been in training for and just waiting to meet on this exact plain of engagement.

I grew up on the Great Lakes and recognize a seaworthy vessel when I see one. Regarding awakened souls, there have never been more able vessels in the waters than there are right now across the world. And they are fully provisioned and able to signal one another as never before in the history of humankind.

Look out over the prow; there are millions of boats of righteous souls on the waters with you. Even though your veneers may shiver from every wave in this stormy roil, I assure you that the long timbers composing your prow and rudder come from a greater forest. That long-grained lumber is known to withstand storms, to hold together, to hold its own, and to advance, regardless.

In any dark time, there is a tendency to veer toward fainting over how much is wrong or unmended in the world. Do not focus on that. There is a tendency, too, to fall into being weakened by dwelling on what is outside your reach, by what cannot yet be. Do not focus there. That is spending the wind without raising the sails.

We are needed, that is all we can know. And though we meet resistance, we more so will meet great souls who will hail us, love us and guide us, and we will know them when they appear. Didn’t you say you were a believer? Didn’t you say you pledged to listen to a voice greater? Didn’t you ask for grace? Don’t you remember that to be in grace means to submit to the voice greater?

Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach. Any small, calm thing that one soul can do to help another soul, to assist some portion of this poor suffering world, will help immensely. It is not given to us to know which acts or by whom, will cause the critical mass to tip toward an enduring good.

What is needed for dramatic change is an accumulation of acts, adding, adding to, adding more, continuing. We know that it does not take everyone on Earth to bring justice and peace, but only a small, determined group who will not give up during the first, second, or hundredth gale.

One of the most calming and powerful actions you can do to intervene in a stormy world is to stand up and show your soul. Soul on deck shines like gold in dark times. The light of the soul throws sparks, can send up flares, builds signal fires, causes proper matters to catch fire. To display the lantern of soul in shadowy times like these – to be fierce and to show mercy toward others; both are acts of immense bravery and greatest necessity.

Struggling souls catch light from other souls who are fully lit and willing to show it. If you would help to calm the tumult, this is one of the strongest things you can do.

There will always be times when you feel discouraged. I too have felt despair many times in my life, but I do not keep a chair for it. I will not entertain it. It is not allowed to eat from my plate.

The reason is this: In my uttermost bones I know something, as do you. It is that there can be no despair when you remember why you came to Earth, who you serve, and who sent you here. The good words we say and the good deeds we do are not ours. They are the words and deeds of the One who brought us here. In that spirit, I hope you will write this on your wall: When a great ship is in harbor and moored, it is safe, there can be no doubt. But that is not what great ships are built for.

Christmas Trees Among Friends and Family

Sometimes I forget things. My first waking thought today, Christmas morning, was not (I am sorry to say) about the real meaning of Christmas, but instead Oh, right, I told Mom I would make scalloped potatoes to go with the dinner today – better get to that! Yesterday was pure relaxation after Samuel helped me finish up the chocolate lime pie, our traditional Christmas dessert. I got out a new (very hard!) jigsaw puzzle and got completely absorbed with that until we turned on It’s A Wonderful Life while enjoying Samuel’s excellent pizza.

Now I realize I also forgot all about the popcorn garland I was going to add to the Christmas tree. Could have done that yesterday too. Do you think it needs it?

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Speaking of trees, I almost didn’t put one up. I was so enchanted with the way my outdoor tree looked this year, especially when we got snow, I said to myself, It’s enough. I wished it had snowed before I made up my Christmas cards this year!

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But snow (in Virginia) melts and various people I know sent me photos of their Christmas trees. How could this not nudge me??

Louisa in North Carolina was the first. How amazing that her tree is not only so incredibly beautiful but that she got her precious pups to pose in front!

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My sister Lynn in Massachusetts was next. I love the way her star on top shines on the ceiling, so soft, and I bet it looks different from different angles and at different times of day.

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Fred in Kentucky, I venture to say, could tell you where every ornament came from. How precious a walk through memories…

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Marie’s (in Idaho) made me smile big. They went out with neighbors and cut one from the woods. I love it!

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Even more precious was the photo of Ellie, who is three, holding an ornament. Marie said, “Grandma gave me this one when I was three.” I hope Ellie’s child (someday) is smiling as she holds the ornament I sent Ellie this year…

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Claudia’s tree in Germany is full and jolly!

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I also loved her table decoration prepared in time for the first Sunday of Advent. How we take such simple elements and put them together to make something so pretty and meaningful!

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Kim’s in Vermont is not exactly a tree, but it is made from branches of trees! At their family camp where they traditionally get their trees there just … weren’t any. She said it’s growing on her and is much more manageable than a real tree! I love it!

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We make do and we make it wonderful! Lincoln and Julia in Vermont, in their straw bale house, decided to be even more unconventional. I love theirs too!

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Lincoln’s, Kim’s and Marie’s made me think – here I am with the unboring path and yet I have a rather conventional tree. They get the prize for Unconventional! How fun and wonderful to see such a lovely variety, to bear witness to the creativity of those I know, to see and hear about the joy and fun that surrounds this custom.  They all made me smile! What a funny custom it is – we buy a tree or go to the woods to cut one down (or cut some branches, if you are Kim and Dave), then install (assemble?) it indoors in a prominent place and decorate it with our favorite ornaments. Or if you are Lincoln and Julia, you put up some lights and hang ornaments and use your imagination! What a special way once a year to slow down, do something unnecessary but just fun,  share a tradition with countless others and revisit our Christmas memories as we make new ones.

Merry Christmas! God bless us every one!