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.
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 native wildflower.
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
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.
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 ground.
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
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
The Current Blog
Posts in this Archive
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