Letting the Garden Go

I gave up fighting the weeds. I let them go to my neighbor’s chagrin. The comphry already wags its many-whiskered faces over the border. “The leaves can be taken internally for stomach and duodenal ulcers, where the tannins and mucilage help calm any inflammation; the allantoin will heal the eroded area. This remedy is also appropriate for chest problems such as bronchitis where it has a soothing and healing action.” taken from Herbs and Health by Nicola Peterson. What gardeners call weeds are really plants that have evolved to suit the prairie and its inhabitants. Herbalists have long understood the benefits of nature’s bounty by gathering leaves, roots or bark to make teas and tinctures.

Coneflowers or echinacea, “This is one of the main anti-infective remedies and is effective against viral, fungal and bacterial infections (Peterson).” Red clover, much loved by the bees is a safe remedy for children’s eczema, and it helps in cleansing the kidneys (Peterson). Of course, dandelion rich in vitamin c, and plantain in abundance provide all the greens we need without spending a dime. Milkweed, vital for butterflies and other pollinators sways in the breeze, a sentinel plant. In time, these plants will be replaced by big blue stem, little blue stem and the prickly pear cactus, whose fruits make a fine, delicately sweet jam for breakfast or teatime.

Nesting Eagles

The big attraction is the bald eagles who have returned to their nest in the gigantic pine tree near the river. People come from all over to peek at the couple as they take turns sitting on the nest. While one sits, the other roosts on the branch nearby or fishes from the Mississippi River. Perhaps we see ourselves in the nesting habits of the birds. We look for affirmation of home-making and relationship building in the behavior of other species.

The koi swim as a couple, touching fins and keeping within each other’s current. When I move them from their winter aquarium in the basement to their summer pond, they frantically swim and sway to touch and find the other in the new environ. Each morning, when I go to feed them, one follows the other within a fin’s distance to ascend and pull a pellet from the surface of the water.

When one cat comes in the door, the other is there to greet her nose to nose and give a few short licks on her furry face. The cats must reacquaint with each other again before they can peacefully share the space of our home. These are all examples of how couples keep track of each other in the animal world. Similarly, we humans also need to touch, first with eye contact and then a handshake or kiss of familiarity and endearment. This first when we come in the door after a long day of work or childcare, before the problems of the day are laid out for solving. The need to touch is what makes us human and what defines us as animals.

Garden Jewels

even though it was the worst winter in years, green leaves prevail
in the slanted spring sun

all morning, I look for you in the tulip bulbs
I planted years ago

crow, pigeon, sharp shinned hawk, eagle nests
chickadee, cedar waxwing, robins
in this dull dirt yard I watch them all

Spring Snow

I am all bundled up, walking gingerly on snow-covered ice. Flocks of robins find exposed crab apples from last August. The urban look of spring is black snow, oily streets. I am learning to give in to the cold; the weather offers no choice. This is how we are ground down, made bare.

Sometimes, I think it would almost be easier to choose death. With the recent news of my brother, 4 years my younger, dying of cancer and a little too much fun, this is where my mind goes. He aways lived a life of party, stories and adventure. He was the one scuba diving in Lake Michigan alone at the age of 16. My father dropped him off at the top of the beach with a warning to be careful. Then off to work at American Motors on Capital Drive. He couldn’t be late. It was a time clock he punched. My brother alone with all his gear, could only watch the car disappear. Only later, when he was a grown man could he wonder how Dad could have so easily dropped him off. But that was how dad handled a son who always had a mind of his own. No doubt Dad’s work day was filled with worry for his son alone in the hugeness of Lake Michigan.

Today, I walk along the ice floes of Lake Michigan. I see the red pier we kids jumped from. We hurled ourselves into the waves with crazy abandon, and resurfaced to laugh and cheer each other on. It was August, and the lake had finally warmed up. We had been monitoring its temperature since June. I see the sea wall now cracked and half taken over by the land. That’s where I first kissed my boyfriend. We huddled against the wind, a day of skipped school. I loved the cold and wildness of the place. The experience defined me as a naturalist and fed my desire to learn more and advocate for the wild places.

For The Bees

In the throes of the next polar vortex, I think about honeybees and their rapid decline due to habitat loss and pesticide use in the United States. I think about how Europe and South America and Asian countries have already responded to the die off. In China, workers use feather dusters to pollinate. While the government response here is slow,and big chemical companies greedy to make more money on sales of Round Up and other toxics that harm the land, let’s respond this spring by not applying chemicals to lawns and gardens. In fact, lets not try to maintain the manicured lawn that discourages wild bees and birds from nesting in our yards. In particular, gardeners can protest and demand the removal of harmful products from the shelves of major chains like Menards, Wal-Mart, Home Depot and other popular stores. Let’s stop selling Round-up as if it were candy. Let’s educate ourselves and take responsibility for our own gardens and the land where we live, eat and raise our families.

A yard completely manicured and cultivated does not attract wild bees. It is more important and beneficial to provide a small brush pile and a place for native plantings. In addition, plant these flowers to attract bees: bee balm, clover, butterfly weed, alyssum, rudebeckia, asters, coneflowers, black-eyed Susans. Remember, blue, purple and yellow are the most attractive colors to bees, and single petal flowers are the best for attracting bees. Most double petaled flowers offer less pollen than single petal flowers. Vary the plantings, try different plants that bloom in spring, summer and late summer and fall so that there are some varieties in bloom all the growing season.

If you are very ambitious, and you have the space and permission of your neighbors, set up a couple of bee hives at the edge of the yard. Allow them easy access to fly in and out and not be disturbed by people walking by or by vehicular traffic. Take a class in how to care for bees and help restore the neighborhood’s balance of bees. Contribute to the greater good by bringing more bees.

Help on this article came from Gardener’s Supply Company, “Attracting Beneficial Bees,” by Kathy LaLiberte

Winter Story

Approaching the tunnel, I call my husband who works just above the freeway at the Walker Art Institute. If he looks out the window at the right time, he could catch my car emerging from the other side of the Lowry Hill Tunnel, but the cars are barely moving. The exhaust fumes nearly suffocate me. The tunnel takes a turn, and I see the wall of snow that curves with the road and the gray winter sky. Relieved, I know I will not expire in this deadly urban soup.

I open my car windows as I exit the tunnel. The cool, crisp air and wet snow fill the car and revive me. This daily commute through downtown to the outer western suburbs has spawned a new resiliency in me, and I realize that all the drivers act as a audience for each other. In our frenzy to escape our homes and drive to the end of the road to a place called work, we forge a new identity. Hunters and gatherers equalized by a common struggle.

Winter highlights the human struggle by its weight and uncontrollable force. It pulls humans into the deepest place of self. Like circles of a tree’s growth, each winter another layer of self is exposed, past decisions and current hopes, fulfilled and unfulfilled dreams. The return of spring with its warmth and new life brings a change in perspective from an inner view to an outward view. There is a sense of completion and order. With that comes hope.

Birds at the Feeder

The cardinal waits at the fence, his red plumage a sentinel in the frozen landscape. The sharp-shinned hawk towers over the feeder from the oak tree, waiting to swoop up its own dinner from the feeding songbirds. A murder of crows already sounds the alarm. They circle, caw and harass the hawk. Finally the hawk flies away, a trail of crows in tow. Each day past the solstice is another day closer to spring. In these gray days of snow and ice, it would be easy to give in to the darkness and stay there, a human reaction to overwhelming elements. The other response requires the vigilance of a bird whose body fat is nil and still it survives these days of barren trees and frozen water.

If the birds can endure another night, then so can I is the philosophy. How many people this evening are questioning their survival while they sleep under the highway bridges? The numbers of homeless families rise. Shelters are full each night. Single men often have the hardest time finding a place unless they arrive by a certain cut off time. I know a man who spent 2 years living along the river, packing up his tent and carrying everything up the park trail to the nearby gas station where he ate breakfast and washed in the mens room. At the end of the day, he headed back to the river to set up his campsite. “Not so cold.” He once told me when I asked him how he survived the below zero night. What is lost in this survival story is the beauty and possibilities of this man’s mind, the urge to create and leave a message for others to read.

The sacred paintings of the Lascaux caves in France are a reminder of the human need to create art. It is believed that the 600 animals painted on these caves were painted by artists of the Magdalenian people from the Upper Palaolithic culture. These hunter-gatherers were well-off. They had plenty of food and thus could afford to have artists spend years on developing these sophisticated paintings. The largest animal, a bull, is 16 feet long. In addition, they explored astronomy through their cave art. These drawings are a reminder that humans have a need to produce art for the sake of beauty and self-expression. In addition, art is an expression of an individual’s awareness of his/her place in the world as well as an awareness of collective identity. With an understanding of collective identity, people nurture trust in each other. With trust comes an emphasis on cooperation rather than competition and domination. The anecdote to violence and war. How much human potential is lost due to economic poverty? How many creative visions will be lost, visions that inspire and urge us to trust our innate abilities as well as look beyond ourselves? The whole world suffers when people live in poverty.

November Wine

This fall Wade harvested the Marquette grapes from our yard. After sorting, cleaning and storing them in the freezer, he rented a crush and crushed them. The next part of the process involved the ferment. When the yeast had done its job, the wine was separated out, and he composted the yeast and silt. The wine was bottled and put in storage. On next Thanksgiving, we will drink wine from our urban vineyard.

Thoughts of next year’s Thanksgiving causes me to wonder what will the future bring? Where will we all be in a year from now? What will the kids look like? Can we count on their return the way we count on the return of the geese in spring or the opening of the creek? What image do we carry with us on our individual adventures? Is it an image of home that includes warmth, acceptance and comfort as well as good food and clean water?

At this time of the year, the cold exposes my emotions, and I am acutely aware of how everything I say or do has a ramification. I give the man on the interstate turn off an orange, and he thanks me. The following morning at the same turn-off, he waves his sign and asks for money for diapers for his baby. I have nothing to give this morning and like the other drivers idling and waiting for the green arrow, I are suspended in his need and trapped in his gaze. I feel guilty for a moment, but drive off. I know I return to my warm home at the end of the day. I want the same thing for him. How can I help? On the next icy morning, he is not on the corner as usual. Did he find a shelter? Did his family take him in? His absence creates its own anxiety in me.

Harbingers of Spring: The Wintering Robins of the River Gorge

I am always amazed by the flocks of robins that remain into the frosty midwestern fall, and winter over in the river gorge. Their plumage is less vibrant than in summer, a dull orange brown rather than red, and their song is not the usual “cheerily, cheerio.” Rather they emit twitters as they burst in flight from the path strewn with red and gold maple and oak leaves. The bird known as the harbinger of spring plays a trick on us.

Most songbirds migrate south at the end of the midwestern summer. They navigate using stars and landmarks and by sensing the earth’s magnetic field and patterns of polarized light humans are unable to see. ( Chu, Songbird Journeys) While migrating across vast distances of ocean and land, birds that don’t migrate face greater challenges. According to Miyoko Chu “The birds that reside in cold wintery places are likely to have even shorter lives than the migrants that travel thousands of miles back and forth each year. To beat the odds, they rely on their innovations–their snowy excavations, their hypothermic slumbers, their deft harvest of seeds from pinecones, their astute memories for recovering stored food, their tricks for digesting waxy sustances useless to other birds. They take the gamble that they will survive, that they will be able to choose a place to breed perhaps even before the first Neotropical migrant crosses the Gulf of Mexico, and that they will soon harvest the gifts of summer for their young” (214).

In our busy lives we don’t think about the decisions birds are making as the cold sets in. Do I stay or do I go? It seems that birds do things out of habit. Migrating birds prefer to migrate to the same place each winter and return to nest in the same place in the spring. I suspect the wintering robins in the gorge are the same flocks from last year, perhaps with the new additions. Most songbirds only live about 2 years. As long as there is food and water and shelter in the trees, the flock has a chance to survive. After enduring the Minnesota winter, their red breasts and cheerily, cheerio mating calls truly earn them the title of “harbingers of spring.”

Source Cited:
Chu, Miyoko.Songbird Journeys. Walker Publishing Co., 2006.

Tiny Corn

The tiny corn stirs in me an ancient appreciation for its form. It is only 2 inches long but has pulled away from the stalk. The silk 4 feet above it no longer catches the wind. I had cut it all down. I had given up on ever getting corn from this city garden. Despite my inability to nurture it, corn grew. I picked a tiny ear and held it. As if peering at a newborn baby’s diminutive hands and feet, I admired the full and succulent seeds. I salvaged two more ears from the shredded stalks.

It appeals to my neanderthal origins to pluck and eat something while it still lives. Though precious rains carry toxins from factory stacks and pollute my garden, this corn is mine. I need this nourishment. Tired of putting off what I love, what I yearn for, I eat it raw. I have no regrets that I didn’t toss it into boiling water first. It’s as if I am taking a bite out of the garden, the smells, the bees, the singing birds and digesting them all. I am the bear in the blueberries of spring with stained muddy paws and a snout dripping with juice.