11/03/2014 FIRST QUINCE
fragrance of quince is intoxicating. In this first year that our young tree
has borne fruit, I understand why the Romans used quince to create perfume.
No wonder Plutarch recommended brides eat quince before entering the
marriage bed, where “the delight of lips and speech should be
harmonious and pleasurable from the beginning.” (Personally, I think
the grooms should have given it a go as well).
The fragrance, the flowers, the
rounded-out pear shape—perhaps for all these reasons, quince were associated with fertility and the erotic in
antiquity. The Greeks believed that where Aphrodite stepped, quince trees
sprang up, and some Jewish traditions teach that the fruit of Genesis was
actually a quince.
Raw quince is quite astringent unless a
special ripening process (unfortunately called “bletting”)
is carried out. But cooked, the flesh turns delicate pink, then a gorgeous
color somewhere between papaya and magenta. The flavor is unique, reminding
me of rose and pear and paradise. In my kitchen, the quince are destined
for crisps, jelly, and, if time allows, pâte
de coing (dulce de membrillo in Spanish)—a translucent quince
preserve that’s delicious and usually eaten with a hard, strong
cheese such as Manchego, though it’s also
lovely with a soft goat cheese like crottin.
9/20/2014 LAGNIAPPE #5: ELYMUS HYSTRIX (BOTTLEBRUSH
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.
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
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
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
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 the long, solid days of
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 ephemeral 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
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).
– Kim Addonizio’s Lucifer at the Starlite
P. – Cecilia
M. – Natasha Trethewey’s
Native Guard with a CD of Trethewey reading the poems
Cyrus Cassells’ The Crossed-Out Swastika
W. – D. Nurkse’s Night in Brooklyn
R. – Please
contact me ( firstname.lastname@example.org ) 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
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 different. This time, the stands of grasses
were thicker than previously, and a slow steady wind blew from the
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.
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 ears, 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
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 working
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
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
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
Organic 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.
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.
May 6th, the Michigan Department of Agriculture published FAQs about the Right to Farm changes. The MDARD document is very misleading and—in
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
Four 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. And 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
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.
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.
Next week: Burning the Kettlepond Prairie
4/3/2014 THE BIG POETRY GIVEAWAY
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.
this wonderful confection of birds, spring and poetry, I'm participating in
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 email@example.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.
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.
Cecilia Woloch's Narcissus
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).
Thundersnow today: a rare thunderstorm letting fall not
but luminous, large wet snowflakes that velvet the dirt road
leading to our home.
2/12/2014 OF MILKWEED AND TEAZEL
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
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
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
Landing and Flying") and James Wright ("Milkweed")
also wrote poems that take milkweed
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
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:
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: firstname.lastname@example.org .
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Berry, Poet and Farmer, The
Unsettling of America
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 house 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, sacred cycles of soil
and sun and sky and season, to other living beings from microbes to
LAGNIAPPE #4: Three Weeks
Writing at the Ragdale Foundation
In a Room Overlooking a Virgin Native Prairie
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.
week, I’m writing about a lagniappe related to a prairie in Illinois
rather than Michigan: 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.
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.
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.
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: over 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
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
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
9/19/2013 LAGNIAPPE #3: VENUS’ LOOKING GLASS
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
Nearly all of the lovely flowers
newly growing in our native prairie and field edges have turned out to be
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.
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
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.
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 the
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
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.”
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
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
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
In 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.
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.
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 ).
Milkweed 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.
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, so the time to plant is fall or early
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,
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
5/31/2013 POEM OF THE WEEK AT SPLIT THIS ROCK
Split 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).
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
Flashes 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.
Spring: 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
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.
I 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
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
In 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.
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.
Last 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.
The desire embodied more or less
explicitly in lyric poetry to halt time is at tension with the very
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.
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.
This 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
As 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.
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
Spring’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.
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
2/28/2013 BOLES AND BRANCHES, PART 1
Three 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
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.
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
The 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.
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.
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:
Plows 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.
Our 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.
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.
Here to Read Michelle’s 2011 and 2012 Blog Posts
Click Here To Go To Michelle's Website
Farm Rights Page
The Michigan Small Farmer
into your RSS reader
May 19, 2014
May 13, 2014
May 5, 2014
May 31, 2013
May 6, 2013
of 2011 and 2012
Sites for Poetry
Writers and Readers
book of kells
A lively, engaging blog about "writing and living creatively" by
poet Kelli Russell Agodon, Co-Editor of Crab
Creek Review and Two Sylvias Press.
Online anthology of poems with interesting structure/turns, paired with
thoughtful analyses. Edited by poets Kim Addonizio
and Michael Theune.
Structure and Surprise
Poet and essayist Michael Theune's blog about