Solar Tracking

Solar Tracking
How low can you go? Snow and ice and cancelled school.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

An Open Letter to H.D. Thoreau


I am afraid that the world has become a much noisier place than when you were living on Walden Pond. We have not listened to your words. I visited your old stomping grounds yesterday. It was a cool muggy day, overcast and threatening rain.  I teach your work to my students. We plant beans in your memory.

I stopped at Emerson’s house first as you would as well, where they talked far more about the portraits on the walls than about Emerson’s ideas, which is a shame, because I don’t think anyone really reads the man any longer. No time.   As you know, one was of Sumner, the friend who was beaten on the Senate floor for his positions on slavery. “Beaten, like yelled at?” someone asked. “No,” the guide replied, “beaten like hit. I think with a bat.” It was a cane, but that’s a small detail.  APUSH students love the story—who doesn’t like the story of a good fight for what you believe?  APUSH is all about memorizing dates and facts for attest at the end of the year; Alcott would not approve.  There is no recess in APUSH, no experiential learning. They read, listen, take notes. In some ways, things have not changed much since you were in school, Henry.

After lunch, I went to your grave. There was Emerson’s huge rock, dominating the ridge as he dominated the transcendental scene. And Louisa May, tucked in with her family.  Yours was buried in flowers and blocked by three people arguing over the national political scene. It’s bad, Henry. No one was been caned on the Senate floor—yet—but it’s ugly. In some ways, I think you all would feel right at home reading the national news. But you would never argue over tactics in the cemetery! Between the discussion and the road repair that was happening down the hill, I fled.

There’s now a trail over to your cabin. I know you came in and out of town via the railroad, but walking on or near the tracks isn’t legal any longer—someone might be hit and sue the railroad. We have become even more litigious than we were in early New England! So they put in a trail that wanders through the local wetland and by a bean field. The bean rows were straight and free of weeds. Someone had gone in with a tractor to cultivate that field, rather than using a hand hoe. Why? Time spent cultivating beans, knowing beans, is time well spent in philosophical thought.  But there it is, a perfect bean field. Well, almost. It had been flooded by rain last week. Your personal field has been taken over by third growth and returned to the woodlot.

Dog walkers like your trail, Henry. And women with phones do, too. This is the strangest thing. People now walk down a trail talking to someone miles away—this woman was talking to someone on another continent!—rather than watching for the wintergreen blossoms by the side of the path. You may even see two friends together, both looking at their phones, not at each other. We are a distracted society. We need your simplicity more now than ever.

People love your cabin. There is a broad path to the door—or the eight posts that mark the location in the woods. They write comments in the guest book like “the perfect house” and then head for the gift shop.  A ranger was lecturing a bunch of pre-college kids about your relationship with Louis Agassiz when I was there. Loudly. They wanted to add rocks to the pile by your door. That pile has grown since E B White was there; it is no longer a small ugly pile, but a large ugly pile.

But then they all left and I was able, for the first time all day, to hear the forest around you. There are still mid-summer birds and insects, the rustle of the leaves in the trees, the sound of pencil on paper in your little clearing, Henry. The pond is still there—no loons today—with a path down to where you gathered your water. In the near distance, the train still calls as it leaves town, but I think it is going faster now. And it is, still, just far enough away to block the sounds of humanity rushing about their lives, but close enough to walk into town to talk with a friend, one on one and face to face.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

What I love about the South.

What I love about The South—the northern South, to be clear.

1.       Sides. Sides are the best dining idea ever! In Pacific Northwest parlance, you choose your protein—fried catfish, meatloaf, pork chops—and then two or three sides, which range from reasonably healthy, like collard greens or pickled beets, to deep fried okra or sweet potato French fries. Mac and cheese is a side. You can also just order sides if you are not too hungry.   Sides allow you to customize your dinner perfectly. And southerners have way more choice than other parts of the country. If the Lusty  Bun diner ever existed, it would have southern sides.

2.       Iced tea. It comes in big red plastic glasses, semi-transparent.  You can get it sweet or un, or, the best, half and half. With lemon. And the waitress calls you honey when she serves it.  It’s not strongly caffeinated, so it is safe to drink until afternoon.

3.       Night. Summer nights wrap around you, warm and humid. Moths fly into your tea if you leave it untended. Insects call. Fireflies float through the air. If it’s been hot, it cools down a bit. The air smells, too. Of river, or trees, or skunks or rain… Night makes up for the bake-y heat of the car when it has been sitting in the parking lot too long.

4.       Voices. Southern voices are slower, more calm, than northern voices.

5.       Time. Maybe it’s just Kingsport, where Mark is from, but Eastern Tennessee seems like a step back in time. I’m not sure exactly when, but at least to 1975. Sometimes earlier.  The buildings, the signs, the interiors, even some of the smells…they all remind me of my childhood. Objects that would have been replaced ten or more years ago in Oregon are still around, still being used.  It is haunting. 

Tuesday, July 4, 2017


Kansas is an amazing place! Everything in American history washed through the state at some point and there is probably a small town museum that mentions it. And it is beautiful. Just beautiful. 

“Kansas was once part of the great inland sea, “a woman with a Mennonite cap informed us in the Oakley Museum. There was a local ranch where thousands of fossils were discovered in excellent shape, so many that the woman of the place, who was an artist, incorporated the bits and pieces into her paintings. “You can see them, with vertebra for the tree trunks and small shells for petals on the flowers.” She pointed the way. “And the big fossils are around the corner.“ We examined the paintings, then headed around the corner. And there was an eight foot long complete amphibian fossil, bigger than any we had ever seen-- and we just came from Dinosaur National Monument. Amazing!

At the next museum, we found the iconic photographs of the Dust Bowl rolling into Scott City, the ones that are in the Timothy Egan’s book that I assigned a few years ago. We saw the buildings that the dust covered-- ate lunch in one. We examined photographs of the Jack Rabbit Round-ups, when they caught 10,000 rabbits in one day, because they were eating any green plant that survived the drought. Ten thousand in one day and they held regular ups. Another display described the life of Zora Hurst, one of the plaintiffs in Brown vs. the Board of Education. She went to school in Oakley, which was integrated because the population was so small. As we headed down the road, I began to remember all of the history that happened in this state: the westward movement that started out in Kansas City, the debates over free and slave states that circled around the borders, the beginnings of the grange and populist movements of the nineteenth century. All of it happened right here, in the middle of the country.

The next day, we wandered over the Tall Grass prairies. The Nature Conservancy, working with the National Parks, purchased an old ranch and began to preserve some of the land as prairie. It had not been plowed, but grazed by cattle. First we explored the buildings, the fancy, modern for the time barns and the house, then we headed out to the grasslands. Bison grazed on the far hilltops. Flowers bloomed-- some that we knew, some that we did not. We examined the bloom patterns, commenting on how the tiny flowers began at the bottom of the stalk and opened upward. “There’s a name for that,” Mark muttered. Birds flew around our heads. Clouds covered the sky and a breeze dried the sweat on our backs. Some lovely. So quiet. 

And then, both nights, we had HUGE thunderstorms. They began with heat lightning at dusk and slowly built to full on, hour long storms, constantly flashing and rumbling. We laid snug in the Ark, listening to the rains pound on the roof. It was impossible to sleep. I understood, perhaps,why Kansas has always been so strong minded and contrary-- they may just be short on sleep from the summer storms. They were incredible. 

We left the state reluctantly, wishing we had planned several more days to explore the border towns, like Fort Scott, where we found a preserved downtown and the old fort when we stopped to hunt for a bathroom one evening. But we had miles to go, literally, before we slept and we pushed on. We may need to go back.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

This Land is Your Land

When I was in fourth grade, our teachers allowed us to choose the patriotic song for the class to sing after the pledge of allegiance. It must have been in the fourth grade playbook—all three of my teachers, in two radically different states, did the same thing.  Few kids chose the “Star Spangled Banner”—too difficult to sing—and most chose “America the Beautiful”, favoring amber waves of grain over exploding gunfire. I, however, always wanted “This land is Your Land”, an early sign of working class radicalism.

It was, really, the lyrics. My family had just driven from New Hampshire to California, to Florida, then home again. I had seen the Gulf Stream waters and the Pacific Redwoods, the ribbon of highway stretching out in front of me. I felt, on a deep level, connected to the landscape Guthrie was describing. It WAS my land, all of it. I had roamed and rambled over it all, talked to people in campgrounds and rest areas, explored the woods and rivers. I could name all fifty states on the truckstop placemats without help. We did it for fun in the camper at night. Of course, in elementary school, they only sang the first two verses, on a good day, preferring to focus on landscape and not politics.

Years later, I heard Pete Seager sing the “lost” verses and was astounded by the new depth they brought to the cheery fourth grade song. First, Guthrie saw his people in relief offices and waiting in soup lines, the poverty that was—and is—endemic to our country. Times were tough in the 1930s when he was traveling the country, picking up money by rewriting songs about the Columbia River for the electric company. Grapes of Wrath tough. But, are they better now? I don’t think so.
And then, the laugh out loud last verse, where he talks about seeing the “no trespassing” sign, walks around it, and decided that “that side was made for you and me.” As someone who has always wandered into areas where I am not “supposed” to be, that line resonated.  I can see why it was left out of the songbooks. Finally, the song swings into one more grand chorus, celebrating the landscape one more time. This land belongs to you and me.

I think about this song once more as we drive across the country, hoping to find that we all have more in common that in opposition. This is an amazing land, from the gulf coast waters to the redwood forests; we need to celebrate it, not tear it apart. 

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Kindness of strangers, part two

It was a hot afternoon.  Highway 84. Sagebrush, potatoes, long distance trucks, mountains in the distance.

We filled the Ark, pulled over to add ice to the cooler, and watched in horror as gas leaked out. It is always something. Always. We had a ton of work done before we left and still….We drove over to the shop next to the truck stop. They looked at it. At first, the mechanic was dismissive. “It’s your windshield wiper fluid.” “But it smells like gas.” “Yeah, it does.” He bent over. Mechanics are engineers after all. Once hooked on a problem, they are ready to ponder it.  Professional pride.  “I think you should have the VW place look at it,” he said. “We do fords and such. This is different. We’d hve to get out books and such. ” He gave us directions. “I’d drive it,” he smiled.

We headed into Twin Cities, seven miles back down  the interstate. Deep sigh. Saturday evening is not a good time to need a repair on a car older than many mechanics.  The VW shop was still open, but barely. The mechanic came out. “I think it’s something to do with the emissions on a hot day,” he said. He was a young guy, helpful. “We could replace that hose, but I think it will be fine. It was just hot. Keep an eye on it.” I looked at Mark. “It’s your car,” he shrugged. “But you are the worrier. Are you ok?” He nodded.  “We can get it fixed at your parents if it does not get any worse.”

Back onto the highway.  Sagebrush. Potatoes. Big mountains in the distance. 

Monday, June 12, 2017

Almost Summer

The world is cool and cloudy, balancing on the edge of summer. We dream of hot sun, mountain lakes, corn growing several inches in a day, but we are not there yet. At school, there is still a pile of papers to grade, a room to clean, final projects to complete. The seniors are gone; the school feels smaller without them, but we are not done yet. We love the cool clouds because they keep us all in the mind of Spring, not Summer, focused, still working, not quite done for the year. In the garden, the same waiting takes place, Everything is planted, sprouted, slowly growing, drinking in the moisture of the frequent showers. The woods  are  lush and green and leafy, tunnels of new growth over the back roads. When the sun comes out, it will explode. But not yet. We wait for the sun, the longest day of the year. We wait for summer.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Immigration and Education

Last Saturday morning, I was walking downtown around nine thirty in the morning, heading for the library and Government Corner, one of my favorite council duties. It was cool and cloudy, very still, and voices carried. I could hear Dave expounding on the uses of a native plant while riding his bike downtown at least a block away. We waved as he passed. I love where I live, I thought. I am so rooted to this spot.

I passed the Mexican chain restaurant and wondered if one of my students was working there that morning. He’s a cook, moving up from prep a few months ago. When we read together, we talk about the tricks that cooks play on each other and the front end people, like turning off the walk-in lights when a friend goes in or hiding the knives. He’s practicing his English. We make jokes, too, about how lettuce and letters can sound alike, but you would not want to mix them up in conversation. Its’ a good sign, making little jokes in a new language. We enjoy our chats before we start reading.

My student came to the United States a few years ago. He was not safe in his village and his brother was  already here. He has told me about crossing the border in Texas; his sister was caught and he had to make many phone calls to have her released and allowed into the country. He told me, too, about how his mother remembers the soldiers coming to their mountain village in the 1980’s looking for young men for the army and how they hid people.  He came, too, because he wants to learn and he knew that, if he stayed in his country, he would have to work in the fields all of his life.  His father did not like it when he went to school.  He is here, now, in school, but he will not graduate. He came just at the worst time for an education—the beginning of high school. He had to learn a new language—his third—before he could learn the subjects, because, even if the numbers are the same in English and Spanish, the language of mathematics is not. He could not pass an English class, or Global Studies, or even Foods. He had PE and ELD classes.  Now he is 18.  He needs to work to support his mom and sisters; he wants to leave the restaurant and work during the day so that he can see his family and friends. He only speaks English in school.

It is hard living in a college town some days, like last Saturday. I’d been kept up by bellowing yahoos who were drunk and walking in herds down our street at midnight.  So many of the herd seem to take an education for granted—there was never any doubt that they were heading for college and that they were not paying for it by working the Midnight to Eight shift for minimum wage on Friday night.  It seems wrong  that one young man, who crossed the border, risked his life, and works hard will not be in college next year—even if he could pass the math portion of the GED in Spanish—because he needs to  take care of his family, while others appear to squander their chances on parties and beer pong. It is even harder to hear people complaining about immigrants and refugees coming to the United  States, because they don’t know my student. If they did, they just might change their minds.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Memorial Day

                When I was little, Memorial Day was still celebrated on May 31st, not as a long weekend. The best parade in the area was in Newton Junction, which consisted of a school, a few houses, a railroad line, and a small general store. My grandparents lived across from the school.  The parade started at four in the afternoon. After school, my aunt piled her three kids into the back of the station wagon, picked up my mom and me, and drove the windy, bumpy, tree lined roads to my grandmother’s house for the parade.

                It was a traditional parade.  School bands, veterans from several wars, a few floats pulled by old trucks, some dogs and kids on bikes. It marched down the main “street” and the watchers curved into the parade as it passed, so it grew longer every few feet. My cousins and I fell cheerfully into line behind the bands—a stairstep family of four, if anyone was looking. I blended in perfectly; my cousin Steven and I had the same hair, smile, freckles. Twins.  The marching band led the way to the cemetery, where things grew more serious.

                The cemetery was small, green, a bit overgrown, but spruced up for the ceremony. There must have been a monument or two for World War Two, World War One, and Korea. There must have been flags.  The Vietnam War was just about to escalate. Everyone there had sons who had served—my family enlisted in the air force. My uncle was stationed in Japan. The adults all remembered wars.  What struck me, then, though, was the silence. The entire town gathered in this small, still, green space, and stood in silence.

                Someone spoke a few words. Someone else laid a wreath on the graves, maybe a flag. There was a six gun salute, which scared all of us every year. The sound hurt our ears, reminded us of the violence of war. Then someone played Taps, the clear notes rising through the evening air. Day is Done. This day was done for us, four small kids. The larger day was done for all of the men who had served our country. We knew this.

                When the ceremony was over, we all wandered back home for dinner. I suspect we stayed at my grandparent’s house and they chased us outside while they cooked hamburgers and set the table. We ran around, shouting, arguing, slipping across the street to climb on the monkey bars. Life went on—but we remembered, deep down, the silence of the cemetery.


Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Planting Plans

      These last few days of really warm weather have been great for the garden. Everything is panted and much of it is up and growing, finally! It’s been a long cold spring.

                Last year, I planted a Three Sisters bed of Cranberry beans, Painted Mountain corn, and Winter Luxury pumpkins. I’ve hesitated to grow corn because of our short season but I had traded a wool hat for some metal  hoops for a cold frame. Five hoops on a ten foot bed created a solid little greenhouse, which I arranged over the just planted corn and bean seed. It was up in a week, but I left it covered to discourage birds and increase growth.  By late June, the corn and pumpkins were growing several inches a day (I measured) and tossing leaves in the breeze. We harvested three large pumpkins, a quart and a half of beans, and three quarts of corn, which I ground in the wheat mill for cornbread and polenta. And it was a beautiful bed.  This year, I have planted the same combination in the last bed, so that the corn will provide a screen from the alley. We shall see. The seeds are up.

                The two potato beds are all bushy and green. I planted them out several weeks ago when we had a break in the rains for several days. Because the organic matter is so high in the old beds, they had drained and warmed faster than I expected. Planting went quickly. They were up in a week and I laid the hoses down and mulched the plants with straw this weekend. They should be set for the summer—if the hoses don’t explode or develop leaks. Blue, Butte, Desiree, and Yukon Gold.

                The tomatoes went out a week or so ago as well. They were growing in the greenhouse in gallon pots. Usually, I bump all of my tomatoes up into the four inch pots, but, this year, I put ours into gallons. This made it clear which plants were ours as I gave away the others. It also gave us more flexibility  for planting, which we needed. Because they had plenty of room to grow, the starts were not at all stunted by being held inside for several weeks longer than usual.  They were sun scalded for the first few days of being outside, partly because the south wall reflects light back onto the plants, but quickly adjusted to being outside and put on rich new growth.


The polenta ratio is one third grain to two thirds liquid. Therefore, half a cup of ground cornmeal can be poured slowly into a cup of water or milk (or combo, depending on what is in your fridge) and cooked slowly until thick. I like to add some salt, butter, and a wee bit of sugar to the mix. Basil and cheese can be nice. Tomatoes, olives....


Friday, May 5, 2017

May Dinner

    Eating locally in early May has its challenges, especially when you are also functioning on a pretty tight schedule.  There are lots of greens right now, but substantive veg is hard to come by.  Onions and potatoes are growing soft; the last squash is waiting to be chopped this weekend; carrots and zucchini are a month or so away.

                A few days ago, I was wandering home from a meeting, dreaming about flatbread cooked in the cast iron skillet. So easy. So yummy. And we could have it with that jar of dal that I had seen this morning… and maybe the salad greens from Sunbow….I had a plan. I made the flatbread dough, went outside to trim out a garden bed, came in to heat up the dal only to  discover that we had eaten it already. The jar was some rhubarb compote I had made a few days ago. Tasty, but not dinner.  I headed to the basement to recover a jar of Sweetcreek tuna, which we added to the plate of salad greens.  Fresh salad, tuna, flatbread, with rhubarb cake for desert—a save, Mark observed.  A spring feast.

                This evening, I made a pan of cornbread using the corn we had grown in the backyard last summer. It was red and gold, so the cornbread is rather pink, but so lovely and fresh corn tasting. I had dumped a couple of cups of Hutterite soup beans from Sunbow into the crockpot with three bay leaves and a local onion right after lunch, and they were soft and rich.  I Filled a bowl  with salad   from the backyard—kale, mustard, lettuce, sorrel, arugula, peppermint, garlic chives—and placed it in the middle of the table. We spread home made apple butter on the second chunks of cornbread and sighed.  We are so spoiled, I observed.

                And it is true. We eat what is in season in abundance for a few weeks or months and, just when we grow tired of it, it fades out of the rotation and something else takes its place. Right now it is tender salad greens. Soon, it will be zucchini and tomatoes right off the vine.

1 cup of water
1 t of yeast
1 t sugar
1T olive oil
¾ t salt
2 ¼ cups flour (1 ww)

Proof the yeast in water with the sugar. Add the flour, salt, and oil, and stir. Knead a few times on the counter if needed. Let rest for an hour or so in the bowl, then divide into 8 pieces, roll out in circles, and cook, quickly, on a cast iron skillet. I use high heat and watch them closely. The dough can sit in the fridge for a few days if you only use half of it. Serve warm with olive oil, zatar, and salt. 

Sunday, April 23, 2017

No meat?

                Earth Day presentations at high school are fraught with issues; the usual recommendations are to change your lightbulbs and buy solar panels, with not much in between. This year, they added “Don’t eat meat.”  “Will you tell the whole school why you don’t eat meat?” they asked. “I don’t think so,” I replied. “It’s not a simple answer.” After all, it goes back to a rainy college summer….

                It was my last summer at home. I was to be a senior, graduating in June, and no longer able—or willing—to move back home after graduation. It was not the best summer. First, everyone else was doing something cool, an internship, traveling, anything but living with their moms in Hampstead, New Hampshire. I was lonely. Second, my boyfriend broke up with me via letter as soon as I unpacked my stuff.  Then, it rained every Monday all summer long; I know, I checked the records. It was damp and cool and nothing grew. And, I was a meat wrapper.

                Meat wrapping is a job that has gone out of fashion, but, at one time, all beef and pork arrived in slabs, like a quarter of a cow, to be cut to specifications in the grocery store. It was the half way point between a real butcher and pre-packaged meat. If you wanted, say, a thick London Broil, you could ask for it and the butcher would carve you off a section. They also de-boned chicken and thin sliced other cuts of meat. It was a good, blue-collar job. Men were butchers, women meat wrappers. My job was to take the Styrofoam trays of beef, pork, and chicken, toss a plastic wrap over them, and then price and display the food.  I worked with two men—one older, one my age—and an older woman. The younger guy was prone to flirting with young women at the deli counter and saying things like “I have Male Intermission. I know when it’s time for lunch.” It was a trial. On Monday mornings, I arrived an hour early, (walking down the road in the rain at six thirty am), wash out the meat case, and set it up for the week.  Honestly, it was a good job. It was within walking distance of home, paid a little over minimum wage, forty hours a week, and good working conditions (if you don’t mind being in a 45 degree room all day) and generous co-workers. However, by the time the summer was over, I was sick of the sight of meat.

                That fall, I lived by myself in a tiny two room apartment with the bathroom down the hall. It was cheap. It was cozy. It was on the bus line. My food budget was fifteen dollars a week. I made my own bread, muffins, and soup, baked beans, experimented with crepes—and realized that meat was taking a huge chunk out of my food budget every week. This is crazy, I thought. I don’t even really like pork chops! Slowly, I cut them out of my diet. Chops, bacon, sausage—no sacrifice. They went in September. By October, I was no longer buying beef or chicken. I felt great! And my food money went a lot further, even with an occasional Dunkin Donuts from the shop down the street.

                Worried about protein, I bought a copy of Diet for a Small Planet and read about combining beans and grains, dairy and nuts. I grew more intentional about my meals. I read about the efficiency of a plant based diet, how it used far fewer resources to eat beans rather than meat, wheat rather than dairy. I was convinced.  Meat was bad for the planet. I would no longer eat it. My mother was horrified.

                Even in my most extreme vegetarian days, I was never perfect. I have always eaten pepperoni pizza—pepperoni is not meat. If I was served meat, I ate it.  Now, I feel less determined to be pure. I no longer like the taste of beef or pork, so they are easy to not consume. I will eat an occasional piece of chicken or fish, usually when I am very tired and stressed. I am no longer convinced that grass fed beef, raised humanely and eaten in small quantities, is a bad thing for the planet. In fact, it might be good.  My partner eats meat—it makes him feel better. We have, after all, become adults. All things in moderation.


Sunday, April 16, 2017

If not me?

                A friend lost a dear friend this week to cancer—I knew her, too, years ago, and she glowed with life and love. Even 3000 miles away, I have thought of Donne’s words that “no man is an island” and one death can diminish us all. After she died, there was a whole series of photos of their friendship, starting twenty five years ago. It was beautiful. And I realized—I don’t take pictures of my people. Plants, dinner, trails, my van… but not my friends. So, today, at the Hot Cross Buns celebrate, we gathered in front of the camellia tree for a group photo. The last one was when Isaac was two and a half feet tall. It was time.  Because if I do not, who will?


Sunday, April 9, 2017

The Season of Grass

            ‘Tis the season of grass…Mark mows on Saturday.  By Wednesday, and the grass is an inch and a half taller and sprouting grass tweakers.  It is green, it is lush, it is fast, it is lovely.  However, it is a lot of work.

                When we first moved in, the  grass plan went something like this: Mark was in charge of the lawn and I was in charge of everything else. We bought a lightly used push mower from a friend who was moving to the big city and Mark began chasing it around the yard in patterns, some circular, some straight. He developed techniques of yanking back the handles to cut off stubborn blades and spent several summers slowly pulling false dandelions from the back yard. (The rabbits finished them off a few years ago.)  He had grass pride.

                Meanwhile, I added raised beds in all of the sunny spaces, effectively increasing the ratio of mowed to trimmed work in the yard. “You’re taking over my grass!” Mark fussed whenever I suggested a new garden bed.  And it’s true. We now have one lovely area of lawn in the backyard between the greenhouse, outdoor table, and the garden beds. We can even water it a bit from the summer shower. The rest has been lost to paths, garden beds, and shade.

                Trimming has become a larger activity. Mark started out trimming, but he trims with all of the care that he uses to cut my hair, small areas at a time and lovely and level. He also trims around plants that he likes in the lawn, like lemon balm.  I, on the other hand, have a whack it off approach. Using my right fist to grasp a large clump, I point the shears downward to the base and hack, leaving a golden strip of exposed grass behind. During breaks, I snip exposed slugs. The chickens follow behind, looking for bugs and worms.  Done right, I can reduce the hand trimming by half! In the spring, this is a compelling argument.

Come summer, growth slows down. Mark mows occasionally to open up the view. I trim after tending to a garden bed—tying up plants, harvesting, weeding, and squashing the occasional bug. The trim indicated completion so I always know where I am. As I work, I tuck clumps of grass into the beds, giving some plants a little extra mulch and care.  We talk about taking the mower in for a tune up, so that we are ready for next year.

                It is spring. The yard needs a good mow. 

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Greenhouses in March

                The best thing about the greenhouse in March—work goes on even when it rains. For years, I had to either wait for a dry day (yeah, right) or spread dirt all through the house to transplant the tomatoes and cold weather crops in late March.  For the last two years, I have been able to look at the plants, decide it was time, and go to work. On Thursday, I spent several hours in the greenhouse, bumping up plants, painting signs, and generally cleaning up. Lucy watched from her high perch. Periodically, the rain poured down, pounding on the roof and filling the buckets outside. Inside, we were warm and dry, scooping earth into four inch pots, and settling the summer crops.  When I was done, the planting shelf was full of tiny tomatoes, buried up to their noses, and ready to grow. And toady, the space is warm and lush, perfect for reading and growing. 

Wednesday, March 22, 2017


              March weather…cold, windy, bright and dark. It has always been this way, on both sides of the country.

                When I was a senior in college, I had an internship with Strawberry Banke, the historic village in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. My task was to research the introduction dates for the various medicinal herbs that were planted in the doctor’s garden, to make sure the plantings were accurate. (They were not.) I was also researching how each plant was used in around 1790. I spent hours digging through old newspapers for ports up and down the coast, reading herbals that were common at the time, and charting it all on a huge piece of cardstock. I was fascinated.

                There were gaps in my knowledge, so, during Spring Break, I went to Boston for three days. I wandered between the Public Library, with its huge and old reading room, where you waited for your books to be brought out and the Massachusetts Horticultural Library, a nineteenth century double decker in South Boston, full of old gardening books. The streets between the two were lined with brick rowhouses close to the street. Each house had a ten by twelve garden in front, surrounded by an iron fence. The tiny spaces were all planted for Spring. One would hold a blooming cherry, the next a row of bright yellow daffodils tossing in the breeze. Others had early red tulips or late purple crocus. Spots of color between dark walls and fences. Blue sky high above. Cold wind. I carried my backpack full of notecards, lunch, and some Earl Grey tea, doing research. There was nothing else I wanted to be doing.

                It has been a very long time since I conducted original research on the plants, houses, and lives of New Englanders in either the 18th or early 20th century.  It was a good life, but I have moved on. I still have the chart. I still know how all of those plants were used in early New England. And I still watch for the spring blooms, the bright daffodils, that dance by the side of the road as I walk to and from work on these March days. 

Sunday, March 12, 2017

The Kimberly Stove, round two

            Five years ago, we purchased a Kimberly stove. My partner was intrigued  because it was very cool technically and, because it is highly efficient, it could be installed in our basement using the existing chimney without interfering with the fireplace upstairs. Mark wanted to heat the basement and his little office space with scrap wood; I was hoping to dry the laundry in less than a week in the winter.

                The first winter was a disaster. We purchased the stove in November, and what with one thing then another, it was not installed until late January.  Once installed, it did not work. Mark tried and failed. I read the directions, tried, and failed. We tried different wood—no luck. Finally, we gave up. Come June, and the Mother Earth News Fair, we found the manufacturer in his booth and complained. He came out the next day, pronounced the stove flawed, and replaced it.

                The next winter, we had no trouble with lighting the stove, but it did not heat the basement. It is a full basement, surrounded by wet fifty degree clay soil, with a serious seepage problem when the rains are heavy. Nothing will heat that basement! We tried for several Saturdays, even boiling water for tea on the top, but it raised the temperature about two degrees. Mark was disappointed; I knew that it was only a matter of time before it moved upstairs.

                The stove sat, unused, in the basement for two winters before I raised the issue. We have a garage converted into dining room that we have been heating with an electric space heater. All of the literature for the Kimberly stove suggests that it was designed to heat a small cabin, or tiny home, or RV…which is about the size and shape of the dining room. Why not move it up, where it will be VERY useful, rather than keeping it in the basement, unused? Mark saw the logic. We contacted the stove company.

             In January, we moved the Kimberly upstairs. It looks lovely tucked into a corner of the dining room, against the old wooden wall. The stove pipe climbs up, bends around the rafters, and shoots out of an old roof vent. It sits on a grey stone pad, which protects the floor from embers. We hang our clothes on the rafters above. On Saturday morning, Mark starts the stove while I make breakfast. It warms the room quickly. If we turn on the bathroom fan, warm air moves through the entire house. When people come over, they can take off their coats. When we sit down for dinner, the candles are not wavering in the breeze from the space heater. Our pile of junk lumber has gone way down.

                We are, finally, very happy with the purchase. It was more expensive than a traditional stove, so I cannot recommend it for everyone, but it does work as promised—when it is in the right space. 

Sunday, March 5, 2017

March-- the month, not the action

              March—the month when storms blow in, dump hail, sleet, rain, snow on our heads, and then blow out within the hour, leaving behind green grass and rainbows. The month when the light finally tips towards the sun again, so that, even on a cold and drizzly day, you can feel spring in the air. The month when that scruffy shrub by the back door blooms and sends out the sweetest perfume ever. Daphne.  March.

                In my classroom, the seeds I planted on Candlemas are sturdy little kales and mustards, lettuces and cabbages. So cute. In the greenhouse, the same starts are leggy and just putting out their first true leaves, victims of the cold, cloudy spring.  I rigged up the second grow light over them and set the timer, so that they will have a few extra hours of light in the morning.  That should help. The peas, planted on the same day, are thriving. This morning, between gusts of storms, I covered the first garden bed with plastic, so that it can dry out and warm for a few weeks before I plant out the starts. The cover will stay on for several weeks after the planting out, until the peas need a trellis to climb.  When the weather was bad, I went into the greenhouse and planted all of the tomato seeds, ready to come to school on Monday morning. 

               In the garden, the perennials are just coming up. The first crumpled leaves of rhubarb appeared this week, along with the small daffodils. Other herbs and bulbs are slowly emerging. The plum tree is thinking about blooming, but it has not committed to the process yet. Neither has the Camellia. The slow start is all right with me—I have only just begun the pruning because of a sore shoulder. We were going to prune the laurel hedge, but dark clouds came in and the rains began again.

It is time to move inside, start a fire, dry out the clothes, and attack some reading.  Maybe knit a bit. March.

And, the next day, they cancelled school because of snow. March.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Be In Love with Your Life

In the early 1950’s, the world was a grim place in many ways. We were just coming out from World War II and the destruction that created, both to property and human beings. We were just learning the details of the Holocaust and the impact of nuclear bombs on human populations. The Iron Curtain had come down, dividing families across Europe. China was closing in on communism, and, here at home, despite the  end of the war and the economic boom that followed, artists and writers were wrestling with some dark images and ideas. We could, after all, be taken out by an atomic bomb tomorrow. The Beat poets, in response to all of this, had a rule for living—Be in Love with Your Life. Embrace what you have, now, because who knows what will happen in the future.

In my ninth grade classroom, we study the Beat Poets while we read Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury’s novel  of burning books and ideas, brought on, not by the government, but by the people, who do not want to face difficult times and ideas. It resonated with students when I first began teaching it, but, every year, it feels more true. Despite deep struggles with drugs, sexuality, and life, the Beat poets strove to overcome the darkness of their time, to not be beat down. They suggest a way to embrace your creative energy and live. It is a useful lesson.

This feels, to me, like a dark time. We are not wanting to do the difficult work of talking through our country’s problems. Too many people are shouting past one another. Too many people are afraid and divided. We need to talk—because I know, at the heart, there is more holding us together than apart. So, this is what I love about my life this week—one photo a day, starting on Sunday morning.
Sunday morning tea in the chicken teapot.

Our old rescue couch has a new cover.

Tuesday-- the peas are up!

Wednesday: Tulips.

My backpack in the sun reminds me that summer is coming, with long hikes into the mountains.

Friday does not have a photo. It is the feeling we all have as e leave school for the week. Yeah, it's cold, and sleety, and February, BUT anything could happen.

Saturday reminded me, once again, that I live in community. I spent two  morning hours shifting books around for the Big Library Book Sale, the  afternoon in a large crowd listening to our Representative to congress speaking, and the evening watching the high school version of "Cats." In each crowd, I was surrounded by people I k now from all over town.

Sunday: the contrast between inside and outside.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

The Great Storm is Over

                It has been a rough winter in the Willamette Valley. We’ve had five days off from school because of ice and snow, spread over a month (havoc to education and planning!), weeks of cloud cover, heavy rain, and just plain dank cold. My students are staring blankly out the windows as another day of rain settles over the hills, blocking the view.  We are used to some dark days, but, the weather here is usually more of a soft drizzle, suitable for a hoodie, rather than hard rain. Add in a nasty flu bug, fears of climate change, and concern over the political situation, and there are a lot of anxious, depressed people wandering the halls these days.

                Friday, the sun came out. When I came home at four thirty, I wandered into the back yard to insect the flood damage. The back area, under the hazelnut trees was still under water and what ground there was exposed was covered in mud. The raised beds were somewhat dry, however, and I could let the ladies out for a run. They leapt from the edge of the coop, flapping their wings joyfully as they dashed for the Big Coop, also known as the house, to check out sweepings. They then settled on the bench and peered into the greenhouse.  Lucy wandered out the back door, sniffing the air as she went.

                I wandered the yard. Snowdrops were up everywhere. The rhubarb was just beginning to push its way through the soil, a tight red bump in the ground. The Artichoke had some new shoots; the herbs survived; there were even a few small cabbages still growing in one of the beds.  Other bulbs were slowly emerging from the wet ground.  Everywhere, jays and juncos dug in the loose mulch, looking for bugs.

                In the far back corner, under the hazelnut tree, the beehive was perched on its bench, rising above the flood waters. Hazelnut catkins swayed in the breeze as I watched the entrance to the hive.  Were the bees still alive after this winter? I watched. Sun poured onto the hive and…a few bees came back from a flight, wandered around the front door, and moved inside.  While I watched, a few more wandered out into the sunlight and took off. The bees survived.

                This weekend, the sun has been out. It is still cold at night, but we have seen the moon, the sun, and the far mountains on the horizon. There is hope that spring is coming. In my mind, I hear the old song about the great storm is over—lift up your heart and sing.”

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Early Spring Moments

Seeds have arrived!

First round of early spring crops planted in the greenhouse.

Getting some warm spring rainwater.

A little too much rain....

New stove installation. Warm dining room!
Drying rack
Bulbs planted on the Solstice bloom at Candlemas.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

This is What Democracy Looks Like

                Last Saturday, I, along with 100,000 other folks, put on rain gear and headed for downtown Portland for the 4th largest march in the country. Five of us started in Corvallis, parked in Milwaukee,  picked up another, and took the light rail into town.  It was packed, but peaceful. While we stood, pushed in like sardines, waiting for the march to start, an elderly woman, clearly stunned by the crowds, needed to leave. She was moved, hand to hand, arm to arm, through the crowd; people reached out for her as she swayed and guided her on, towards, I hope, the waiting EMTs. We moved, chanting “This is what democracy looks like,” through Portland, waving signs and smiling at the police who monitored the route. They smiled back.  After the march, we went out for dinner and rode home through the dark night, singing along to Carol King’s “You’ve got a Friend.”  

                Mass marches of like-minded folk are a part of democracy, it is true. But they are only the beginning. For the rest of the week, I wondered what democracy actually looks like on a daily basis.  Because, really, democracy is hard work. It involves a lot of meetings, documents, and moving of chairs.

                On Sunday, we gathered to plan a large seed order; my way to save on shipping and split packages of seeds. Everyone brought lists and catalogs, and we tossed varieties around for an hour or so. Then, spouses joined in and we broke out the potluck dinner.  Served on terra cotta colored plates, the deep green kale salad and golden dal looked lovely.  Democracy is growing community, though plants and food.

                On Monday, I gathered with fellow League of Women Voters to meet with the city’s community planning director. We are considering our April event and wanted to see how it would mesh with work the city is considering.  We are in a land use planning crisis, being reactive rather than proactive, and are working to change that. For an hour and a half, we talked land use code and development. Democracy is about meetings, searching for common ground.

                On Tuesday, I was home to make dinner. I chopped up a squash from the back yard and some onions from a local farm and roasted them in the oven. With a huge green salad and a bit of rice, we were fed. We’ve been eating only local, seasonal food for so long now that we really don’t miss the old ways. By doing so, we support our local farmers, who are also active in the politics of our city and county.  Democracy starts at home.

                Wednesday was another home night. I spent some time listening to “Democracy Now” on the radio, a program I love because it discuses a few topics at length, for 20 minutes to the full hour, rather than in three minute segments. It allows me to consider several viewpoints—all to the left of center, to be fair—and gain a more nuanced perspective on the news. We also read The Economist and The New Yorker every week, as well as the local paper. Democracy is about staying informed, but also about focusing on just a few subjects. We cannot know everything.  But we can learn who to ask.

              On Thursday, I had a Budget Commission meeting. We were given an overview of the forecast for the next few years—not too bad for three, then PERS will kick in and it is bleak. We need new revenue or to cut services in the coming years. This is hard. Do we set aside money for the “rainy day” that we know is coming or fund a summer festival?  Is there any way we can tax the non-profits that dominate our economic landscape? We barely scratched the surface here and I was merely a new observer at the table while the commissioners who had asked these questions for years batted around the first volley. Democracy is about volunteering to serve your community, year after year.

                On Friday, I came full circle and walked downtown at five for the peace vigil held by Veterans for Peace. They have been standing in front of the courthouse every day since 9-11.  It is the longest vigil in the country. I spent time there before the Iraq war, when the number of protesters lined the block every day, but I have not been down in years. Now it is a small group, but welcoming. Standing for an hour while the sun goes down and people drive by on their way home to dinner is a peaceful act, meditative. Sometimes people chat, sometimes they are quiet. Some have signs. Friday night, we were visited by a man from India who had moved here as a young man because he loved America’s values. He taught engineering at OSU for years and he was very concerned for the state of our country. He moved down the line, telling everyone his story, one by one. When he moved on, three guys in “Canner” garb—heavy grubby coats, big bags, dirty boots—stopped by. “Ask me how cold it was a few nights ago,” one demanded, a grin on his face.  “How cold was it?” “So cold that when I took these out, they were still chattering,” he proclaimed, waving his dentures around. We all laughed. “Peace wins!” he shouted as he picked up his bike to move on.

                Peace wins. Democracy wins. But not by huge marches, although they have their place. But by daily acts of community, repeated over and over, by those who show up. 

Friday, January 6, 2017

Winter Weather

                It’s cold.

                Every few years, weather patterns shift and cold air rushes into the valley, reminding us that we are pretty darn far north. The sky clears so that we can see just how low the sun is in the sky; at this time of year, it barely clears my neighbor’s two story house.  Without the blanket of cloud cover, all of our heat rushes away.

                The light is beautiful. One morning, I walked to work in early rose-gold sun that danced off of the ponderosa pines which line the baseball field and lit up the dusting of snow on the hills around town. Evergreens and snow at dawn—it doesn’t get much better. The next morning, snow swirled around our houses, covering everything, including the Christmas lights, with a dusting of white frost. When the sun came out in the afternoon, it was blinding.

                We’ve had to do some serious snugging down against the cold. I covered all of the garden beds with plastic sheeting and wrapped a spare piece around the wheelbarrow of strawberry plants. In the greenhouse, we pulled all of the plants close together on the ground and covered them with remay cloth. I wrapped the beehive in two layers of frost protection blanketing, leaving just a small opening for them to come in and out.  We also emptied the larder, which vents to the outside, into the basement so that the onions and squashes would not freeze.  Finally, we plugged the fireplace again, although we will take it out for Twelfth Night on Friday.

                When it is this cold (below 20 degrees), the chickens are not happy outside overnight. After dark, we pull on boots and wool hats and march out to the coop. Mark reaches in and captures one chicken, I pick up the other, and we settle their wings close to their bodies under our arms. Mark heads for the house first. I stand outside for another moment, holding the warm and sleepy chicken close, and glance up to the sky. High about, Orion carves his way across the sky and a quarter moon lights the yard. Once inside, we settle them on a log perch, over newspaper, and shut off the lights. They will spend the night down there, protected from the deep cold, until morning, when I release them into the back yard to cluck and shake their wings free once more. It is good to know that we are all settled into our little homestead on these bitter nights.