Word Garden

The Blog of Writer and Poet Michelle Regalado Deatrick

 

...How a writer and her family fell in love with 80 acres,

and what the land gives back.

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Sometimes we can’t quite believe how lucky we are to be the owners and caretakers of this beautiful place, with its sloping land, small wooded areas, wildflower-rimmed fields, wetlands, and hedgerows sheltering wildlife.  On it, we’re developing a native prairie…stands of native trees…an orchard…a large organic garden…And we have plans for livestock, timber stands and more—these are the beloved, frustrating, time-consuming eighty acres we call Walnut Ridge Farm.  

 

 


 

 

9/20/2014 LAGNIAPPE #5: ELYMUS HYSTRIX (BOTTLEBRUSH GRASS)

Lagniappe—something extra, something beyond what was labored for, or paid for.  The thirteenth pastry in a Baker’s Dozen. An unlooked-for turtle in a vernal pool. A gift. A blessing. This harvest season, I’m continuing last fall’s series of posts about the lagniappes of the land.

DSC_0012_Bottlebrush_cropped_200x383@96dpi_wC2014.jpgThat morning in early July, I wasn’t looking for native grasses. Bending a little as I made my way, step by slow step, through the woods, I was intent on finding summer-blooming native wildflowers. In fact, I only noticed the Bottlebrush Grass because the cloud cover broke open, and sun poured through a break in the tree canopy, illuminating the little stand of grass brushing my knees—its charming, starry inflorescences, its delicate leaning stalks.

To notice something is the first step toward learning to be with it—and, I think, toward loving it. In 1786, Goethe—already celebrated as the author of The Sorrows of Young Werther—suddenly left the comforts of Germany and a duke’s patronage to embark on a long yearned-for trip to Italy, where he encountered the unfamiliar work of unfamiliar artists. Some of the paintings puzzled him—others he outright disliked. Nevertheless, he kept going to art galleries, to churches: he kept looking, at paintings by artists whose work he already admired (Raphael, especially), but at those he didn’t like or understand, too. 

Circumcision_210x359@96dpi_wCaption_Aqua92CDDC.jpgAnd because he kept looking, Goethe’s puzzlement and dislike gave way at least once to something else altogether. Two months into his journey, he writes: “I was much impressed by a Circumcision of Guercino’s, because I now know his work fairly well and love it....And so it is with me, as it was with Balaam, the confused prophet who blessed when he had come to curse. If I were to stay longer, this would happen more.” 

To stay longer. To look again. To journey to the woods at the edge of your farm or yard or street, along the walking path in the park, or Italy. And once there, to learn to look and to love.

How is it I never noticed Bottlebrush Grass before that morning in July? I’ve learned that it’s one of several native wild rye grasses common in Michigan, and that it thrives in damp, shady spots— like the little woods where I found it. This week, I began harvesting its seeds to sow elsewhere on the farm.

 

7/19/2014  WRITING, WANDERING, THE PRAIRIE IN SUMMER

DSC_0045_cropped_200x266@96dpi_wC2014.jpgI love to write outside in deep summer. There’s a lush, meditative quality to the landscape, and I often become so wholly immersed in the writing experience that I’m nearly unaware of time’s passage. Other times, the writing goes slower because of minutes watching fledgling swallows scooping up mosquitoes from the air, or half-hours of wandering the paths through woods and field instead of sitting at my table—but I am the richer for that time—I store up riches of texture, color, sound and smell that I bring with me into DSC_0088_Wild_Garlic_cropped_171x266@96dpi_wC2014_wCaption_Aqua92CDDC.jpgthe long, solid days of winter writing. 

What seduces me from writing? The fragrant pool of native rose milkweed and blue vervain, buzzing and fluttering with insect life, which fills the bottom of our DSC_0076_Prairie_Dogbane_171x266@96dpi_wC2014_wcaption_Aqua92CDDC.jpgephemeral kettlepond; it more than doubled in size this year, to well over an eighth of an acre. These are plants that return, and spread: they have become good old friends, along with the thimble flowers and the sand coreopsis, bergamot, blanketflower and butterflyweed, and the enormous, expanding splashes of gold-orange that are thousands of Black-eyed Susans.

Wild garlic, with its gorgeous little top-setting bulbils, is growing on the prairie for the first time, as is Prairie Dogbane, with its coral red stem and bell-shaped flowers. (Prairie Dogbane is a milkweed relative also called Indian Hemp, as some First Nations tribes made twine from the fibers in its stem).

And during a long, dallying walk along the prairie’s eastern edge, among the hundred or so young native trees and shrubs we’ve placed there, I came upon an elderberry bush we planted four years ago and had nearly forgotten. It was blooming for the first time.

 

6/15/2014  THE BIG POETRY BOOK GIVEAWAY 2014

DSC_0364_bowl_300x200@96dpi_wC2014.jpgOver forty people entered my random drawing for the Fifth Annual Big Poetry Giveaway. To celebrate the unexpectedly large number of participants, I’m giving away some extra books! (And please accept my apologies for the lateness of this announcement—I’ve had trouble getting in touch with one of the winners and have been out of town a great deal).

 

The Winners:

Lissa C. – Kim Addonizio’s Lucifer at the Starlite

Lynn P. –  Cecilia Woloch’s Narcissus

Marianne M. – Natasha Trethewey’s Native Guard with a CD of Trethewey reading the poems

Michael W.  Cyrus Cassells’ The Crossed-Out Swastika

Suzanne W. – D. Nurkse’s Night in Brooklyn

Rachelle R.  Please contact me ( mrd@michelleregaladodeatrick.com ) with your mailing address: my emails to you are bouncing, and I’d love to send along your book (Trethewey’s Native Guard).

 

5/19/2014  BURNING THE KETTLEPOND NATIVE PRAIRIE

The burn crew arrived in late afternoon, already dressed in yellow hazmat suits, and surveyed the site. This was the third burn of our prairie, but each burn is a little DSC_0403_dave_cropped_386x276@96dpi_wC2014.jpgdifferent. This time, the stands of grasses were thicker than previously, and a slow steady wind blew from the southeast.

Even before we planted the prairie, we planned for the burns.  A four-foot wide grass path circles the prairie on three sides, and doubles as a firebreak. On the fourth side, to the north, we till a six-foot wide firebreak before each burn.

The burn crew lit small backfires on the inside of the firebreaks, spraying diesel mixed with gasoline along the west and north edges of the prairie, and igniting the area. Then we lit the prairie's east edge.

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A translucent wave of orange, gold and scarlet moved west, gathering height as it swept down the slope, around the pond at the bottom, and up the northwest rise. An ocean sound filled our DSC_0447_bigflames_cropped_400x286@96dpi_wC2014.jpgears, generated by the transformation of dry grasses and wildflowers into heat, vapor, and soot. And the smell of smoke, tinged with the aroma of baking bread—native rye seeds, I think, roasting and burning. The air above the flames shimmered and shook like thin foil. Flames fell, rose, reached protean arms through the smoke. And fell again.

A native prairie burn is a beautiful thing, a necessary thing, and—many worry—a dangerous thing. We're very fortunate in the man who manages our prairie burns. Dave Borneman is careful and smart, and he not only manages burns for cities and townships across Michigan, but also founded and serves on the board of The Stewardship Network, a  conservation organization DSC_0455_burned_cropped_400x250@96dpi_wC2014.jpgworking to protect and restore natural lands. He understands the prairie's flora and fauna, and plans the burn so the little creatures can scamper from holes and hiding places to out of harm's way. And Dave has never had a fire jump out of control. 

 

The fire was over. We walked around, looking for smoldering embers, spraying them with water. And the crew went on to the next burn.

 

Coming up soon:  The Kettlepond Prairie in Spring

5/13/2014  POLITICS, POETRY AND PROTEST

Politics. Poetry. Protest. I’ve tended to keep the overtly political out of my blog, and at this time of year, when ephemeral spring wildlflowers are blooming in the hedgerows, I’d love to continue to do so. But poetry and politics are integrally woven together in the life of a farmer-poet. And never have I been so strongly reminded of that as right now, when the government of Michigan has chosen to implement policies that threaten the rights of thousands of small farms in urban, suburban and rural areas to raise livestock, while relaxing regulations on large factory livestock farms.

DSC_0577_cropped_410x246@96dpi_wC2014_WCaption_aqua92cddc.jpgOrganic heritage apples on a small rural farm. Rare flowers on a native prairie. Hens in a backyard coop in Detroit. All ways of reclaiming the power to nourish ourselves, heart and soul and mind.

I protest government policies, lobbied for by agribusiness through their allies such as the Farm Bureau, that stand for the destruction of essential liberties to raise one’s own food, on one’s own land, and to start small-scale farms that feed local communities.

On May 6th, the Michigan Department of Agriculture published FAQs about the Right to Farm changes. The MDARD document is very misleading and—in parts—so  inaccurate it seems purposeful. I have written both a short and a long response/rebuttal to the MDARD FAQs. A concise rebuttal of MDARD’s FAQ is here, while a more detailed Rebuttal of MDARD’s FAQ is here as a pdf. Both are available from the Michigan Small Farm Rights Information page at my website.

5/5/2014 THE MICHIGAN AGRICULTURE COMMISSION
AND SMALL FARM RIGHTS

The Michigan Agriculture Commissions' 4:1 vote on April 28th enacted regulations that strip thousands of small Michigan farms of Right to Farm protection for raising livestock, while simultaneously relaxing government oversight over some of the largest livestock factories.

Small, local farms--from backyard beehives to 100-acre organic dairy farms--are about as American as it gets. They allow all of us to grow our own food healthfully and inexpensively, while our backs and our minds grow strong on exercise and clean water and sunlight. They give all of us--farmers and neighbors of farmers--access to fresher, more nutritious food, and allow transparency into how that food is created. I believe they hold out actual hope for the environment and for our souls.

For nearly two years, many of us have worked against the changes just enacted in Michigan. That work is even more important now.  If you'd like to learn more, or would like to help, please click here.

4/24/2014  BEFORE BURNING: THE KETTLEPOND PRAIRIE IN EARLY SPRING

DSC_0355_Cattails_200x301@96dpi_wC2014_wCaption_aqua92CDDC.jpgFour years ago, our native prairie experiment began in earnest when, after years of planning and site prep, we planted our five acres of ephemeral kettlepond and the surrounding slopes with seeds of native grasses and wildflowers. 

Since then, we've controlled non-native plants (and one invasive native, the dreaded Giant Ragweed) through weeding, mowing, deadheading, and spraying with strong vinegar. Some non-natives, though, are best controlled by burning. DSC_0375_Poplars_210x325@96dpi_wC2014_wCaption_aqua92CDDC.jpgAnd many native plants—cattails, sedges and grasses in particular—are invigorated by occasional burns, having evolved to thrive on fire because for several thousand years, the First Nations peoples purposefully burned the land.

Burns are usually done three years after the initial planting; we'd waited four. Still, something in me ached at the idea. In early spring, the landscape seems fragile, the colors muted (softening snow and bleached grasses), the reflections of things more vivid than the things themselves, the pond's surface a darker blue than the watery sky it mirrors.

Many of the birds are transitory, on their way to prairies and lakes further north, like the redheads that settled briefly on our pond. Sifts of snow lie in shaded hollows. Winter and the underworld still touch the landscape and the imagination.

DSC_0329_ducks_cropped_600x278@96dpi_wC2014_wCaption_aqua92CDDC.jpg

Knowing what was to come, I felt more than my usual tenderness toward the wakening earth.  A burn is beautiful and beneficial in its own ways, but it is, nevertheless, a destructive act.  

DSC_0337_ducks_flying_cropped_600x241@96dpi_wC2014.jpg

 

Next week:  Burning the Kettlepond Prairie

 

4/3/2014 THE BIG POETRY GIVEAWAY 2014

Stack_of_Books_300x244@96dpi.jpgBright flashes of blue are winging back and forth to our nesting boxes: bluebirds, which arrived simultaneously with the beginning of April and the beginning of National Poetry Month. 

To celebrate this wonderful confection of birds, spring and poetry, I'm participating in the Fifth Annual Big Poetry Giveaway, hosted by poet Kelli Russell Agodon. I'll be giving away two books of poetry that I've fallen in love with recently. Email  mrd@michelleregaladodeatrick.com (put your name and email address in the email so I can contact you if you win) by April 30th to enter. Winners will be notified by email, by May 7th.

 

Native_Gaurd.jpgNatasha Trethewey's Native Guard

This book includes a CD of Trethewey reading the poems—poems such as "Myth," with its amazing structure that enacts the poem's exploration of the aching, sometimes tortuous, relationship and bonding between the living and the dead.

 

 

narcissus.jpg 

 

 

 

 

Cecilia Woloch's Narcissus

Chosen by Marie Howe as winner of the Tupelo Press Snowbound Chapbook Award, this book offers gorgeous poems with a concision and beauty of language and image that sings. Every single one of these poems is stunning (in a good way!), with the ancient Greek story of Narcissus and Echo playing through the book in subtle, revelatory ways.

 

If there are more than twenty entrants, I'll also give away a copy of Copper Nickel 17, which has terrific poetry by writers like Jazzy Danziger and CJ Evans (and also my story, “The Second Coming of the STASSIS Goat,” an apocalyptic vision of humanity’s future set in an East African country devastated by plagues and climate change).

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2/20/2014  THUNDERSNOW

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Thundersnow today:  a rare thunderstorm letting fall not rain
but luminous, large wet snowflakes that velvet the dirt road
leading to our home.

 

2/12/2014  OF MILKWEED AND TEAZEL

DSC_0131_Wilkweed_Pod_cropped_266x313@96dpi_wC2014_wCaption_aqua92CDDC.jpgTramping through the cold fields recently, I came on a stand of young milkweed. Hidden by rye, aster and goldenrod during summer and fall, the milkweed now stands above the taller but more fragile plants' snow-bent and broken stems. I'd have jumped for happiness if I weren't over my knees in snowdrift and weighed down by several layers of long underwear, flannel and wool.

Robert Frost writes of milkweed, "For drab it is its fondest must admit." But I don't admit it at all. (See my July, 2013 post). And if Frost found milkweed so "drab," why did he write "From a Milkweed Pod," print the poem in a small chapbook with a gorgeous and specially commissioned Thomas Nason chiaroscuro engraving of an opened milkweed pod on the cover, and send it to his friends for Christmas in 1954?

It's not just Frost who's fascinated by milkweed.  Philip Levine ("Milkweed"), David Baker ("Monarchs Landing and Flying") and James Wright ("Milkweed") also wrote poems that take DSC_0690_Milkweed_seeds_cropped_400x200@96dpi_wC2014_wCaption_aqua92CDDC.jpgmilkweed as their central image. The plant is intriguing—its milky, latex-like sap, its status as sole food of monarch butterfly caterpillars. But the fascination is mostly, I think, with the milkweed pod, which indeed has the look and feel of something elegantly and thoughtfully ( if improbably) designed:  a miniature Neimeyer, perhaps. In fall and winter, the harp-shaped pods split open, revealing the carefully, efficiently stowed seeds, little voyagers tethered to delicate flossy parachutes;  it's lovely to hold a pod up to gusts that take seed after seed, winging them on their way.

DSC_0134_Teazel_cropped_166x290@96dpi_wC2014_wCaption_aqua92CDDC.jpgNear the milkweed, in a small depression, I found fifty-some heads of teazel rocketing toward the sky.  Teazel (also teasel and teazle) is a handsome plant even in winter—the honeycombed ovoid head cupped by scimitar-shaped sepals—so handsome it's used in dried floral arrangements. Goldfinches love the seeds, and in summer, rings of tiny blossoms (lavender on our farm; other cultivars are white or dark purple) open sequentially from the bottom to the top of the inflorescence.

If teazel is beautiful (in my eyes, at least), it is also beastly.  An Old World native brought over the Atlantic—probably for both its decorative features and its use, dried, as a brush to raise the nap on felt and wool—teazel quickly takes over roadsides and field. Along with the non-native rush phragmites, teazel dominates many roadsides and wetlands here in Michigan, and it's a beast to get rid of, with barbs that penetrate leather work gloves and roots that even fire fails to destroy. 

The only poem I've found that centers on teazel is by a fairly obscure Victorian-era Irish poet, Owen Blayney Cole, who in "Teasel Tall," rather endearingly exoticizes teazel by comparing it to a pineapple and then declares it useful enough to redeem it from its supposed ugliness:

"Rough from the loom, the Teasel smooths the fleece...
So many virtues if this plant possess,
To beauty be preferr'd its ugliness!"

 

If you know of any other good poems about either milkweed or teazel, please email me a link and I'll post them: mrd@michelleregaladodeatrick.com .

 

12/29/2013  INTERVALS

Yesterday, a grazing deer stepped closer and closer to my office window. A button buck, he was no longer spotted but still antlerless, with small, ruffled swellings signifying the pedicels (“buttons”) where his first antlers will grow in spring.  

DSC_0651_Button_Buck_cropped_266x219@96dpi_wC2013_aqua92cddc_wCaption.jpgFrustrated with the scanty, awful lines I’d been writing, and feeling unwell, I willingly turned away from the computer and sat on the floor by the window.  I moved slowly, even though button bucks are famously unskittish: like some human teens I know, they often seem unaware or unafraid of potential threats to their mortality, immersed in each moment as it comes. Even when I accidentally set off the flash on the camera, the deer didn’t so much as look up.

“There are in our existence spots of time,” Wordsworth writes, “That with distinct pre-eminence retain /A renovating virtue, whence…our minds /Are nourished and invisibly repaired….Such moments /Are scattered everywhere…”  (“The Prelude”).

Moments of deep engagement with nature and landscape indeed invigorate and strengthen emotion and imagination when recalled at some future time. This is an idea—an experience—associated with Romanticism but it’s also become so deeply infused in our thinking that sometimes, paradoxically, we’re actually distanced from that moment of engagement by the desire to record it, to remember and preserve it—as when I reached for the camera, thinking of how the photos might be perfect for this blog. 

DSC_0073_Summer_Deer_Eating_Apples_cropped_eyefixed_410x315@96dpi_wC2013_aqua92cddc_wCaption.jpgThinkers of the Romantic period also knew how important the living moment itself is—those moments that nineteenth century literary and art critic Walter Pater termed “musical intervals in our existence”  Pater wasn’t referring to a technical musical interval, but to spaces, gaps, moments of eternity embedded in, and opening out from, the flow of life which is music. I like to think that art can approximate or allude to this—perhaps through white space on a page of poetry, a rest in a musical piece.

I took a photo. And then I set the camera down.

The moment widening around me, I watched the steady, rhythmic expansion and contraction of flank, the churn of chewing jaw, little puffs of white breath exhaled from gleaming nostrils.  He was square-headed as young deer are, short-muzzled, sturdy of body above the magic of slender, strong legs.  He moved to the next patch of sweet green grass uncovered by the melt of snow and went on eating, and I went on breathing—silent, watching, the sense of my own unwell body dropping away in the deep well of the moment.

Here’s my hope:  that 2014 will grant us all the will and sensibility to turn away, sometimes, from our seductive screens and keyboards, from the whispers and clamors of our bodies, to notice and enter the extraordinary moments of grace and beauty, the intervals “scattered everywhere” through our days.

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12/05/2013  ABUNDANCE AND THANKFULNESS

 “Growing one’s own food...is a sacrament, as eating is also, by which we enact and understand our oneness with the Creation, the conviviality of one body with all bodies.”
                        Wendell Berry, Poet and Farmer, The Unsettling of America 

DSC_0379_Wagon_of_Apples_cropped_400x262@96dpi_wC2013.jpgFrom mid-summer through late fall, we picked fruit on the farm by the bucket and by the wagonload. It began with July’s wild raspberries and progressed through August’s blackberries, plums and Gravenstein apples to September’s six different kinds of apple, two of pear, two of grape.

When we weren’t picking fruit or eating it, it seemed that we were preserving it:  pear sauce and applesauce, grape jelly and plum butter. The dehydrator scented the DSC_0224_cider_cropped_210x333@96dpi_wC2013_wAqua146205220_wCaption.jpghouse with perfume of cinnamon apple chips and fruit leather. The freezer filled with bags of fruit, peeled and sliced and ready for winter’s crisps and pies.  All the while, we were picking and preserving vegetables, too.  And then came the mashing of apples, the pressing of the mash into cider.

It’s a lot of work, managing an abundant harvest:  tempting, standing over a steaming pot full of canning jars in late August, to think of it as drudgery. But a few days ago, sitting at our Thanksgiving table, I realized with delight and satisfaction that our family’s hands grew much of the food—food that we know was grown and preserved without harmful chemicals, with mindfulness for nurturing and supporting not just our own health for the short time we’re graced to live on Earth, but for the health of the land for which we bear responsibility.  We’re grateful for the delicious food and for this work—this connection to the ancient, DSC_0149_sauce_cropped_276x187@96dpi_wC2013_Aqua146205220_wCaption.jpgsacred cycles of soil and sun and sky and season, to other living beings from microbes to mammals.

 

10/19/2013 LAGNIAPPE #4:  Three Weeks Writing at the Ragdale Foundation
In a Room Overlooking a Virgin Native Prairie

Lagniappe—a lovely word, an underused word, meaning something extra, something beyond what was paid for.  Something not of the marketplace. A gift. A blessing. It’s been a long season of lagniappes on the farm—and elsewhere.

This week, I’m writing about a lagniappe related to a prairie in Illinois rather than photo_1_Ragdale_desk_266x355@96dpi_wC2013.jpgMichigan:  three uninterrupted weeks to write and read in a beautiful room overlooking the forty-acre Shaw Prairie—a gift from the Ragdale Foundation for which I’m extremely grateful. 

Shaw Prairie is one of the very rare never-cultivated prairies remaining in America :  in Illinois, for example, only six acres in a million are virgin prairie. I’ve gone for long walks on the prairie’s winding grass paths and on the leaf-strewn paths of the surrounding woodlands every day I’ve been here.

Most of the grasses, sedges and wildflowers have already gone to seed, from the towering branched prairie dock and feathery big bluestem to the thigh-high button-heads of bergamot and coneflowers. 

All the more vivid against this backdrop of sere duns and sodden blacks, then, are the few hardy, still-blooming plants—particularly deep purple New England Asters and the aptly named Sky Blue Asters.  The incredible diversity of species is striking:  photo_3_dried_flower_cropped_266x419@96dpi_wC2013.jpgover one hundred different native plants flourish here. The result is a lush, textured landscape with much variation in the heights and looks of plants; I certainly feel inspired to work harder to increase plant diversity on our farm’s prairie. 

As I begin my final week here, I’m realizing just how fruitful my residency has been. I’ve also gotten to know—and had some fascinating conversations with—truly talented writers, visual artists and composers. 

There’s an intriguing history behind the historic house and lands at Ragdale. If you’re interested and in the area, come to Ragdale’s Fall Art Walk and Open Studios this Sunday, October 20th.  Or read the section on heritage gardens, including Ragdale, from Cathy Maloney’s fascinating book, Chicago Gardens.

 

9/19/2013  LAGNIAPPE  #3:  VENUS’ LOOKING GLASS

Lagniappe—a lovely word, an underused word, meaning something extra, something beyond what was paid for.  Something not of the marketplace. A gift. A blessing. It’s been a long season of lagniappes on the farm. For a few weeks, I’m writing short posts about some of them. Today’s Lagniappe, the third: Venus’ Looking Glass, a native wildflower.

DSC_0249_cropped_266x303@96dpi_wC2013Nearly all of the lovely flowers newly growing in our native prairie and field edges have turned out to be non-native—and invasive:  Dame’s Rocket and Purple Loosestrife, for example, which unchecked can take over whole fields, crowding out natives and the wildlife they support in just a few years. 

But a late June walk, on which I noticed--along the north edge of a hedgerow--a little purple-starred beauty with a pearly, three-lobed stigma at its heart, brought only happiness instead of the need to dig up, mow, or burn the newcomer.  Triodanis perfoliata. Venus’ Looking Glass. A member of the bellflower family, it’s native to Michigan.

Some research that evening brought another lagniappe:  Triodanis perfoliata’s Michigan Coefficient of Conservatism is relatively high, 6 on a 0-10 point scale.  In other words, this is a native plant that has not thrived on lands touched by agriculture and development (unlike box elder and many native goldenrods, which score 0s and 1s). 

We’ve long thought that the wooded fringes of our land and some of the wider hedgerows might never have been cultivated. Finding this flower is exciting as it gives a little more credence to that thought.   

 

9/6/2013 LAGNIAPPE #2: CHELYDRA SERPENTINA (Snapping Turtle)

Lagniappe—a lovely word, an underused word, meaning something extra, something beyond what was paid for.  That is, something outside—or above—the marketplace. A gift. A blessing. It’s been a long season of lagniappes on the farm and during these first weeks of fall, I’ll be writing short posts about some of those lagniappes.

One morning in late June, a pair of dark spheres—eggs, my husband thought at first—appeared in one of the shallow ponds that formed on the farm during a bout of storms.

That afternoon, we realized the “eggs” weren’t eggs at all when an enormous—nearly two foot long—turtle emerged from where she’d lain submerged, near-hidden in the muck, to the edge of the pond.  A flat carapace, crenellated toward the tail end.  Slightly iridescent beneath a cloak of mud.  A Snapping Turtle. And almost certainly a female, because it’s DSC_0236_cropped_wC2013_400x224@96dpi_sharpenedthe females that hit the road in June and July, traveling up to 12 miles in search of a sandy nesting site.

As a West Coast transplant to Michigan, I’d never seen a Snapping Turtle before, and knew nothing about them—ominorous, generally gentle in water (unless you look like too much like lunch—they drag small waterbirds down from the surface to eat) and fierce on land, they’ve been around North America some 80 million years.

I prefer the turtles’ Latin name, Chelydra serpentina, which refers to their long, flexible snaky necks and reminds me of their agility and quickness.  Constance Casey has a terrific article about them, at Slate, in which she asks naturalists if they’d rather have a pond with or without snapping turtles: I’m with the naturalists—I’d love it if Chelydra serpentina made our wetlands her permanent home. 

 

9/3/2013  LAGNIAPPE #1: GRAVENSTEIN IN BLOOM

Lagniappe—a lovely word, an underused word, meaning something extra, something beyond what was paid for.  That is, something outside—or above—the marketplace. A gift. A blessing.

The word itself is a gift to us from Louisiana Creole, as Mark Twain describes in his pre–Civil War memoir about his time as a riverboat pilot, Life on the Mississippi: “—a word worth travelling to New Orleans to get; a nice, limber, expressive, handy word—'lagniappe.' They pronounce it lanny-yap.”

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It’s been a long season of lagniappes on the farm. For the next few weeks, I’ll be writing short posts about some of those lagniappes, from our unexpected turtle visitor to native wildflowers to strange fungi. Today’s Lagniappe, the first:  the spring bloom of our hundred-year-old  Gravenstein apple tree, which was so exorbitantly covered in pink-white petals that from a distance it looked rather like a tissue-paper piñata of an apple tree. Up close, though, native bees hummed from blossom to blossom, and the sweet, ethery scent of the fruit-to-come filled the air. 

 

7/31/2013   MONARCHS, PART I: THE MISSING BUTTERFLIES

Before moving to Michigan, I lived near the southern end of a monarch butterfly migration path, in the California Bay Area.  Every November, I made a pilgrimage to the coastal eucalyptus groves that host the overwintering.  Standing in those vaulting groves of tall, fragile trees, witnessing the rippling fabric of monarch butterflies—a living vestment—I knew I was on sacred ground. 

DSC_0760_Monarch_cropped_410x316@96dpi_wC2013_wCaption_aqua.jpgIn Michigan, I live on the other end of a migration path. So it’s not surprising that the monarchs—black-veined swoops and scallops of orange and white, like small gliding panes of stained glass—grace our farm fields from May to mid-September. This year, however, the number of monarchs on our land increased a hundredfold or more—in a year when the monarch population of North America dropped precipitously, to historically low levels. That grove I used to visit in California used to host 120,000 monarchs each winter; this year, there were 1,000. 

In June, the milkweed seeds we’ve been planting over the last four years finally sprouted all at once, or so it seems.  In the basin of our ephemeral kettlepond, hundreds—maybe thousands—of Rose Milkweed plants (also called Swamp Milkweed and Pink Milkweed) are growing and blooming.  The umbels, of forty or fifty unusual, deeply colored flowers, are magnificent splatters of rose pigment from a distance and fascinating up close, the five deep pink petals bent back from the pale corolla as if blown by a great wind.  Because of this magnificence of milkweed, we’ve been visited by a hundredfold more monarchs than ever before. 

But the sole food of monarch caterpillars, the milkweed plant, is disappearing elsewhere.  The female monarch actually tastes plants with her feet to be sure they are milkweed before laying her eggs—and as milkweed disappears from the landscape, so do the monarchs.  According to the New York Times, Mexico has seen a nearly 60% decline in the last two years alone ( http://www.nytimes.com ).

DSC_0766_Blue_Vervain_410x290@96dpi_wC2013_wCaption_aqua.jpgMilkweed had many uses in folk medicine:  the Latin name of Rose Milkweed is Asclepias Incarnata (Healer Incarnate), after Asklepios, the Greek god of healing. And healing, today, in the form of more milkweed, is exactly what the butterflies need.   

I’ll write more soon about why there’s been a 90-95% decline in the North American monarch population. But there’s something nearly anyone can do, right now.  Bring back the butterflies—and the many other species that depend on milkweed—by planting milkweed (available from Monarch Watch:  http://www.monarchwatch.org).  Native milkweeds grow in nearly every part of North America.  They’re lovely, easy to grow, and perennial. Order soon—milkweed seeds need a period of cold in order to germinate, DSC_0698_Bergamot_cropped_276x335@96dpi_wC2013_wCaption_Aqua.jpgso the time to plant is fall or early winter.

Yesterday, I made my way through chest-high stands of milkweed, vervain and asters to the very bottom of our kettlepond. A monarch landed on a deep pink umbel of milkweed, uncoiled its proboscis, wicked up nectar—and then another butterfly landed, fanned its wings, nectared.  And another.  Round, velvet native bees moved among the bedhead petals of aging bergamot.  The air was still.  A hawk keened overhead.  Suddenly, my cheeks were wet.

 

 

 

 

5/31/2013   POEM OF THE WEEK  AT  SPLIT THIS ROCK

SplitRock_red_logo.pngSplit This Rock is featuring my poem, "For My Daughter," as Poem of the Week.  I'm absolutely delighted and honored--and humbled--to have my writing join that of poets I admire so much.  You can find the poem on Split This Rock's blog (here) or an excerpt on their Facebook page (here).

Split This Rock is a terrific organization which supports the work of socially engaged poets. Building the audience for poetry of provocation and witness and based in Washington, D.C., Split This Rock is dedicated to revitalizing poetry as a living, breathing art form with profound relevance for our daily lives and struggles. You can subscribe to their Poem of the Week series (Follow the link here):  I've loved reading the poems (not just this week, either!)

 

5/6/2013   THE FAMILIAR AND THE STRANGE

DSC_0368_apple_bloom_cropped_210x276@96dpi_wC2013_aqua_wCaption.jpgFlashes and swoops of cobalt blue move through the air—barn swallows, which build their mud nests on the back of our house and farm shed.  A male redtail hawk ferries meals back and forth over the farm to a nest in the pines—a beautiful trout from the nearby quarry lake, fins backlit to coral pink by sun one afternoon, a vole next morning at dawn.  The pear trees are dropping  platinum petals and apple buds are opening—first the central king bud blossoms, then the court blossoms spread around the king like pink and white silk hoopskirts.

DSC_0251_aspargus_cropped_210x327@96dpi_wC2013_aqua_wCaption.jpgSpring: beautiful, familiar—and strange and unsettling, too, when you look—really pay attention—to what’s going on.  The asparagus spears thrust up magically from the unseen crowns below, and grow inches every day.  Rhubarb, too, rises from the dark with a quickness that’s unsettling or miraculously affirming, or both, as its rhizomes push up stalks of green and crimson and unfurl the gorgeous dark-green toxic leaves.  And the bare, fuchsia-colored stems of peonies as if they belong in some Jurassic marsh—though they, too, are thriving, and soon will open up lush, plumy, pale pink blooms

The vole carried by that hawk?  Through binoculars, I saw the vole still struggling, slightly, as it was flown to the hawk’s mate in their nest. 

DSC_0247_peony_stacks_cropped_200x289@96dpi_wC2013_aqua_wCaption.jpgI wonder, often, at what unknown, unknowable strangeness lies ahead of us and the generations to come.  At the base of the pear trees in our hedgerow, beneath the spatter of fallen petals, we search for the honeycombed heads of morel mushrooms, which stand among the ruddy first leaves of poison ivy more plentiful this year than last, last year than the year before.  Poison ivy, it turns out, flourishes more than most plants on the increasing proportion of carbon dioxide in our air—a proportion which, is higher, this year, than in any of the three million years that came before.  The May 10th issue of The New York Times discusses this invisible but terrible strangeness that we encounter, with every breath we take:  Heat-Trapped Gas Passes Milestone.

 

 

4/8/2013   PICKLED PEPPERS, DRIED TOMATOES, AND LYRIC POETRY

Open a glass jar of zucchini marmalade made in August, or breathe in the scent of tomatoes dried in September—if all went well with the process of canning and drying, the zucchini is still green-gold and crisp; the tomatoes, acid-sweet and crimson, have not succumbed to decay.  When the sky goes soft and swollen with snow, or dense and grey with rain, preserved food offers summer to us again. 

DSC_0608_Zucchini_Marmalade_Cropped_266x195@96dpi_wC2013_wCpation.jpgIn our time of berries flown from Chile to Chicago, of greenhouse lettuce in a Canadian winter, it’s possible to forget the marvel of eating food from a harvest that happened months before.  Close your eyes as you eat, and it’s possible to imagine fireflies and the call of chorus frogs, a garden still full of bloom, leaf and fruit—and that time itself has been kept at bay.

Halting time “…is the dream of the lyric poem,” writes poet and editor David Baker. “This wish has enchanted poets from the beginning.”  And not only poets:  the secret of life may be enjoying the passage of time—James Taylor has got that partly right—but who among us hasn’t longed to slow or stop it—or, magically, reverse its passage?  Perhaps it’s the primal longing to control time and the disorder ensuing from its inescapable presence that explains, in some measure, the deep frisson of pleasure I take in winter, opening the pantry cupboard that holds the neatly labeled glossy jars of preserves and pickles, or the slatted pine drawers that hold July’s garlic and October’s potatoes. 

DSC_0718_Clam_Chowder_410x290@96dpi_wC2013_wCaption.jpgLast week, we ate pickled wax and green beans, breathing in the sharp bite of dill, vinegar and pepper.  Yesterday, dinner was steaming bowls of clam chowder thick with cubes of potato—pale yellow Prairie Blush and lavender-fleshed All Blue.  Instead of oyster crackers, gold-orange wafers floated among the potatoes—dried Sungold tomatoes so sugary that our daughter occasionally eats them as candy. 

DSC_0601_Grape_Jelly_Cropped_266x371@96dpi_wC2013_wCaption.jpgThe desire embodied more or less explicitly in lyric poetry to halt time is at tension with the very linearity of  words on the page and with the physical fact of books (even virtual ones), in which a page is turned, and the page before it left behind:  the poem itself, and the reading of the poem and of the page and the book, progress from right to left, from top to bottom, from front to back, and so there must always be an end.  

The feasting on last year’s harvests is also ending.  We spooned out the last glowing garnet grape jelly this morning.  The pantry cupboard is nearly empty, and the potatoes in the clam chowder were our last.  We look all the more eagerly, then, for the first stalks to push up from the buried asparagus crowns, for the rise of the pink-flushed rhubarb stalks and the unfurl of their great glossy leaves.

 

 

3/21/2013   FROST AND FLOWER

DSC_0265_Early _Flowering_Apple_Cropped_210x292@96dpi_wC2013_wCaption.jpgThis March contrasts sharply with last spring’s early warmth.  The cold is extreme enough to concern me, as symptomatic of radical weather shifts resulting from global climate changes.  Nevertheless, as a farmer, I’m grateful.  Insect populations are smaller after cold, late springs.  Steady cold, rising gradually into warmth, favors a good orchard crop, and this spring promises to be nothing like 2012, when March warmth followed by a return to normal, seasonable cold in April blighted the fruiting buds and tender new growth.  (Although I wrapped our younger, smaller fruit trees in frost-protection fabric, we lost all our fruit, like most growers in Michigan).

 

DSC_0267_plums_under_plastic_310x283@96dpi_wC2013_wCaption.jpgAs a lover of the natural world, I’m enjoying these final days to savor winter, its sights and especially its sounds—the train horn, which is muffled to silence in summer by thick stands of leaved trees, travels in winter all the way from the Chicago night train as it traverses the railway bed paralleling the Huron River, up the steep walls of the river valley over road and field and into my bedroom, a mile away, and sings me to sleep.  And there are the storm-swayed hickories and wild pears in the hedgerow behind our home, the clear, percussive clamor and clash of their ice-glazed boughs—a fairy tale sound, as of a thousand silver spoons simultaneously tapped on the rims of a thousand crystal bowls.  And the subtler sound of the delicate-limbed birches beneath ice—which Robert Frost describes beautifully in “Birches”:

Often you must have seen them
Loaded with ice a sunny winter morning
After a rain. They click upon themselves
As the breeze rises, and turn many-colored
As the stir cracks and crazes their enamel.

And yet—and yet:  spring is coming—not just official, calendar-spring, but real, yellow and gold-light-on-the-skin spring, weather that makes me want to re-read The Wind in the Willows  and lapse, luxuriously and lazily and happily into the purplest of purple, Anne of Green Gables style prose.  Yesterday began spring not only officially but actually, I think:  a day on which, in a kind of celestial strip tease, the thick mantle of grey cloud, wind-whipped, blew apart several times, revealing the seductive blue behind.

DSC_0325_Downy_Woodpecker_300x259@96dpi_wC2013_146205220aqua_wCaption.jpgSpring’s sounds, too, are arriving.  From the stand of black walnuts to the north comes the tap-tap, tap-tap of a woodpecker—most likely, the same downy woodpecker who’s been visiting our deck off and on for the last month, hammering hopefully (and, I fear, in vain) in search of insects.

As I write this, a trio of sandhill cranes are picking their way across the far, storm-flailed slopes of our wheat field, and the pair of red-tailed hawks who’ve been living here the last month are hovering, watching for the little furred creatures to emerge from their winter holes and hides.  And though snow is in the air, the flakes are wandering about—rising, falling, drifting before making their slow, uncertain way to the ground, as if unsure they still belong here. 

 

2/28/2013   BOLES AND BRANCHES, PART 1

DSC_0519_Spruce_with_snow_cropped-266x350@96dpi_146205220aqua_wCaption.jpgThree days ago, a good old-fashioned Midwestern snowstorm—all too rare in recent years—dropped a glazing of ice over the landscape and followed it up with more than six inches of such heavy, wet snow that even the evergreens bowed beneath the weight. 

The snow buried grasses, filled ditches, concealed walkways and roads—but illuminated and accentuated the shapes of trees in all sorts of wonderful ways.  The snow silhouetted the leafless branches of the native redbud in front of our home,    and when the sun shone, briefly, a maple’s shadow sprang up, an intricate dark turquoise weave of branches on the pale grey.

 

DSC_0494_maple_branch_wSnow_379x252@96dpi_146205220aqua_wCaption.jpgDSC_0405_shadow_of_red_maple_221x274@96dpi_146205220aqua_wCaption.jpg

Four years ago, we planted a little stand of river birches in a spot that’s wet in winter, dry in summer--conditions this birch type likes best.  River birches (also, confusingly, called water birches, black birches, and red birches) grow swiftly and are native to Michigan as well as to most of the eastern United States—two good reasons to welcome them into the landscape.  They also attract, in spring and summer, the resplendent yellow-and-black Canadian swallowtail butterfly. 

DSC_0322_River_Birch_Trunks_390x376@96dpi_146205220aqua_wCaption.jpgThe work birch has its origins in a proto-Indo-European word meaning to gleam.  And river birches, like other birch trees, are indeed gleaming—beautiful in all seasons, but especially so in winter, when the individuality of each tree is clearest:  its unique shape revealed; the varied shades of the peeling, curling bark exposed--shades which range from vermillion through cinnabar, to rust and pale apricot.

Inspired by the pleasure of looking at those bark colors, I tramped all over the farm, just looking at the trees—the strength of their boles, the bark scarred by insects and deer rubbing velvet off antlers, the intricate lacework of their branches.  Come spring,  I’ll remember with gratitude the frameworks that support and nourish the glad green canopies of leaves and blooms.

 

1/23/2013   A HARVEST OF STONES

More than 13,000 years ago, the glaciers that spread over southeast Michigan during the Ice Age began retreating to the north, leaving our land richly endowed with something farmers aren’t usually too happy about:  stones. 

DSC_0233A_stones_400x312_96dpi_146205220aqua_wCaption.jpgPlows and stones don’t get on well together.  Every year, the freeze-thaw cycles churn up more rocks from the soil.  So after harvest and again before spring planting, my husband and I gather stones and pile them into the hedgerows, deepening the drifts of rock left there by those who farmed and cleared these fields for 150 years before us.

Ranging in color from the palest of turquoise to purple to carnelian, these stones are of quartz and granite, feldspar and sandstone—and more.  A few contain fossils. There are round rocks striped like Easter Eggs with bands of pink, rust and white; there are angular rocks with facets that shine as if oiled.

DSC_0156_BobcatwRocks_300x451_96dpi_146205220aqua_wCaption.jpgOur tools for moving the rocks usually include two shovels and a wheelbarrow.  This year, ambitious to remove some large ones that defeated us last year, we rented a skid steer. But even the skid steer was bested by a massive white rock near the farm’s eastern edge.  We named it Moby and left it in the field, where it must be plowed around.

With the skid steer, we were able to move several piles of rock to our rose beds, where we’ve long hoped to build a small retaining wall.  At the local landscape store, we’d seen depressing displays of monotone manufactured stones, of shaped, matched stones quarried and transported here from Arizona, New England, the Sierras—and none of them felt right.  Back home, walking the farm, we realized that we had beautiful material already, stones piled in the hedgerows where they’d been placed after being cleared from the fields.

DSC_0155A_Wall_Under_Construction_600x399_96dpi_146205220aqua_wCaption.jpg 

The retaining wall is shaped to echo the gentle undulations that characterize the slopes and rises of our farm.  We set a large, flat boulder—cleared from the fields long ago by some previous steward of the land—into the wall, as a bench.  The wall is a wealth of colors and shapes: streaked and splotched and miscellaneous as the very soil and substance of our farm.

DSC_0235f_Stone_Wall_600x273_96dpi_146205220aqua_wCaption.jpg

 

 

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