A Yard Full of Symbolism

The three-year juvie eagle was sitting atop my chimney this morning. An assortment

chimney eagle

Mr. Juvie Eagle, not bald yet

of small birds that nested nearby were dive-bombing him in panic and outrage, trying to drive him off. He was busy with a very extensive grooming session, beaking and smoothing away at his chest, his shoulders, his tail, completely unperturbed by these dinky birds, whose eggs and young would not have made a decent snack for him.

And so the National Bird held himself above the fray.

Down on the deck my Fourth of July decorations are still flying. There was a time when I was not enthusiastic about the flag. During the Viet Nam war, supporters of the war adopted the flag as their emblem, defining patriotism as refusal to evaluate whether one’s country was perhaps making a mistake. They hogged up the flag to the point that you couldn’t be seen with one, without being taken for a war supporter. My anti-war friends and I shunned the flag.

Then one day Senator George McGovern, a prime opposer of that war, appeared with a flag pin on his lapel. The assembled reporters went wild, assuming it meant he had switched sides. “Why are you wearing that flag?!” they called out. Senator flower flagMcGovern smiled innocently. “It’s my flag,” he said.

So I learned not to cede worthy symbols to opponents.

It’s as true now as it was then, that you have no claim to loving the nation if you hate half its inhabitants. And as Peter, Paul, and Mary once sang, “there is no freedom in a land where fear and hate prevail.”

I watched the eagle for a long time, hoping to get a photo when he took flight. But when he was all preened and ready, he swooped off the other side of the roof, out of my field of vision. I couldn’t see him as he went, but I have faith that he was flying.


The Butterfly Effect


Milkweed in the herb garden

Orange is my least favorite color. Though I’m fond of it in marigolds and pumpkins, and have been known to appreciate a field of California poppies, I generally avoid orange flowers. So when I wanted to help out the monarch butterflies (which also get a pass on orange), I tried planting pink or white flowered milkweed. Whether through mislabeled seed packets, chance, mutation, or chicanery, what I got was orange flowered milkweed. I was feeling grumpy about this until I discovered that a monarch butterfly had found it.

I watched the monarch fanning herself over the flowerheads, lighting here and there along the way. As she flapped her wings I thought of the butterfly effect: the idea that the small shiver of her wingbeats in the local atmosphere could propagate, cascading, until it influenced an entire tornado forming – or not forming – somewhere else. It is a very pleasing demonstration of the interconnectedness of separate actions, and inspires hope that small local acts can lead to big changes in the country, or even the world.

Milkweed – what an innocuous-sounding plant. But the reason the monarch caterpillars thrive by feasting on it, is that it supplies their bodies, and those of the butterflies they become, with a foul-tasting, heart-stopping steroid that deters or destroys would-be butterfly predators. The butterfly, all delicate stained glass flutter, has this power at her core. No one talks about this butterfly effect, but it is proven, rather than supposed, and of much greater importance to the butterfly. Just thinking about it, I feel strong.


Bunny Break-in

I am deliberately calling this rodent a bunny, not a rabbit, in an effort to feel less outraged by her raiding my garden, where she not only ate the two early cucumbers, but gnawed through all five vines. I am growing cucumbers – or, I was growing cucumbers – for my niece, who is fond of them and helps me in the garden. My niece was a vegetarian for a while, so on the one hand I’m trying to channel her bunny-sympathetic vibe, but on the other I’m wondering how to get the local hawks to hang out in my yard a little more. Or the eagles. As you can tell, this is not a Beatrix Potter moment.

the perp

the perp

I inspected the fence and found the long section of chicken wire which, though fine three weeks ago, was broken at ground level now. Unless the bunny had wire cutters it must have rusted through. This realization slightly refocused my outrage on sellers of supposedly galvanized but extremely short-lived chicken wire.

Doug mended the fence and I sprayed rabbit repellent, and then I bought plants to replace the ones I raised from seed. While he was at the hardware store buying more chicken wire, Doug asked a farmer there how he kept the critters out of his crops.

“We don’t,” the farmer replied.

I have only a few vines, not fields full of cucumbers, but I’d be willing to share with the bunnies. They don’t get that concept. When eat or be eaten is all you know, I guess you take what you can get when you can get it.

Memorials and Flowers

iris and peonyMemorial Day used to mark the start of the gardening season in Ann Arbor, the date after which you could be reasonably certain your new plants would not be killed by frost. Then the garden catalogs began to arrive with new information. This, they said up front, was not a political statement and they did not want to get into any political arguments. It was just their duty, as provider of my seeds and plants, to notify me that my Ann Arbor garden was no longer in Zone 5. It was now Zone 6a. I could start planting on Mother’s Day.

As far as I could tell, this did not initiate any angry letters cancelling orders or detailing conspiracy theories. When your hands are in the dirt things get real: do you want to be the person who shouts the loudest, or do you want to start eating tomatoes and cutting zinnias for bouquets as soon as possible? Expertise may be out of fashion elsewhere, but in the garden it is always in style.

bouquetFlowers carry so many associations. They fill the bride’s hand, grace the table on Mother’s Day, wreathe headstones on Memorial Day, and have done these jobs for a long time. Fossil pollen has been found in burials from thousands of years ago; if we had wedding fossils I’d bet there would be flower remnants there, too. Flowers, fragile and short-lived, do a lot of emotional heavy lifting for us. Speaking for us in difficult situations, they are also traditionally used in apologies and fence-mending, activities that always seem to be in short supply right when we need them most. So, grow some flowers. Give them to someone you’ve had a disagreement with. Start a dialogue.

Mother’s Day

I am at my daughter’s house for Mother’s Day. She has given over her office to be my guest room and she has put a vase of flowers in it for me. This is especially kind of her because she knows she is no longer the main attraction for my visits here. The main attraction now is her little boy, Julius, not quite four years old.

Yesterday we planted things in the small front garden of their city house. We moved j watering 2a fescue. We took out a flowering shrub that needed more space than it could have. We put in some compact lavenders. We nestled a few succulents around the stepping stones. Julius handled the watering, pulling the curly hose along, pointing its spray nozzle at the new plants, and bending down to them with a big smile.

“They’re singing!” he said.

Why wouldn’t they be, with this small gardener catering to their thirst. He sings too, wet mud on his hands, spitting and humming to imitate the sound of bumblebees, processing life through the discovering eyes of new acquaintance.

But to himself he is not new. He is constant, and complete. He defends this self of his against attempts by surrounding adults to redefine it, even as he adjusts to new circumstances, which come at him constantly. He knows who he is. And if he asked I could tell him that just as he doesn’t feel young, I don’t feel old. You get bigger, older, wiser, and more experienced, but it’s still you underneath, acquiring all these traits. Some of them layer on more gracefully than others, and there are so many to acquire. I think we all know people who never manage it.

On Mother’s Day morning, sharing handmade gifts, we check the garden for signs of progress. The transplants all look happy.

The Wind in the Daffodils

The yard is awash in daffodils. After a long, late autumn and a very late spring, here they are flaunting their variety and splendor, ruffled and bumptious, nosing their trumpets in each other’s faces like cheerful gossips. It’s warm enough to open the window, and the scent of the daffodils blows in.

daffsDaffodils are the clear choice for spring bulbs here, because we have lots of deer. Deer eat tulips, not daffodils. You could plant tulips anyway, curse the deer as the tulips are beheaded and trampled, and join the vast army of trolls contributing only negative comments to the social enterprise. Catastrophizing. Getting so pumped from your own outrage that you lose sight of any flowers, at all.

There is so much of that around today, and it is so dispiriting to see us all blasting accusations at each other, without regard to how the plain truth looks different to a deer than to a gardener. Channel your outrage, and don’t let it derail your investigation into true causes. Lots of things can go wrong in a garden. Be sure you’re fixing the right problem.

Then you can dig out the failures, and put in something bright and healthy that will succeed.

Too Cold To Plant

IMG_3419I expected to be outside weeding and planting perennials by now, but the ground is too cold and too wet and not good to stomp around on in its current, compactible state. We’ve had some little lost snowfalls – forlorn flakes blowing around with a what-am-I-doing-here look to them.

The snow up in South Dakota got its act together, though, and is putting on a blizzard today. There’s an Indian reservation in the blizzard path where many homes had their power shut off for having overdue bills. I didn’t want to believe this at first – what kind of Simon Legree would turn off someone’s power in a blizzard? Didn’t the Indians pre-pay all their bills by giving up their land, their hunting grounds, and their means of support?

Social media takes a lot of hits for bad behavior, but in this case it helped. When the call went out for people to step up and pay some of these bills, the power company’s line was busy, busy, busy. I couldn’t get through, but enough people did that all the accounts are now current and the power back on. The larger question of how and why people were left unable to pay their bills and what to do about it is still unsolved, but at least no one’s going to freeze to death this time, in this blizzard.

This small-scale solution happened crocus close-upthrough personal connection – someone who taught at the reservation told her friends, who told their friends. The people shivering in the cold were no longer “them.” They became “us.” Small-scale solutions are often criticized as being a patchwork, but whole big, bed-covering, life-warming quilts are made that way. Patch by patch. Piece by piece.

April Arrives

We went from snowy to springish in very short order, and suddenly I had to get my seeds started. Doug brought the folding tables up from the basement to the second floor guest room, and I covered them with my collection of cut-off milk cartons halfIMG_3392 full of dirt. In went the seeds: Black Pearl and Supersteak tomatoes as usual, and a new bush variety I decided to try; Japanese eggplant; and cucumbers for my niece who likes to work in the garden with me. And lots of white Profusion zinnias. Seeds for the big zinnias will go directly in the ground, but I like to give these little ones a head start to help them stand up to marauding woodchucks. My neighbor tells me that when she sees the cartons lined up in that big front window, she knows spring is really on the way.

We had several bursts of very cold weather instead of a steady warming trend in late winter, and I suppose this is why all the flowering things are behind schedule. I helleboreknow they are because Facebook, helpfully, keeps sending me images marked “last year” and “two years ago today,” and what’s out there now is pathetic by comparison. But the hellebores and crocuses are holding down the fort, and I think there will be daffodils tomorrow. They’re that close to bursting out of their sheaths.

And the turkey buzzards have come back. Ah, spring.turkey vultures – Version 2

In Defense of Winter

These are the days when the snowbirds come back to Michigan from Florida, and voice their disappointment that winter has outlasted their vacation. As a light snow drifts down, powdering bare patches of ground and outlining tree branches in that particularly attractive, lacy way, I rise to winter’s defense.

deer tracks twoFirst, winter is informative. The structure of trees, the depth of woodlots, the secret nests where birds and squirrels made their summer lives, are revealed both by the absence of leaves and by the snow echoing and outlining them. Shrubs that were a green curtain in summer become transparent, revealing burrows and pathways previously unsuspected. The snow clearly displays the tracks of animals you may never have seen, but which you now know have laid claim to your garden. The clarity of winter explains many things that were mysterious the rest of the year.

Second, it is restorative. There are plants, peonies for example, that do not flourish in warm climates because they need winter to rid them of parasites and buck them up for another round. For humans, it’s an opportunity to sit quietly and think about what to do next, to reassess last year’s efforts, successes and failures, and where things might be improved. This is specifically true of the garden, but not limited to it. Our entire culture recognized this long ago when we located our New Year in winter, in spite of so many other cultures placing it in spring. Spring is a new beginning, yes, but new beginnings go better if some planning comes first.

Third, to wish the winter was over is to wish away a quarter of your life. The older I get the less interested I am in speeding up the passage of time.

Fourth, it is beautiful. Can anyone be looking at the winter-wonderland effect march 1 snowof a snowfall when they say winter is gloomy? Michiganders will see high, bloomy, rolling clouds and say the sky is grey, but if you’ve never lived with the “June Gloom” of the west coast’s seasonal low fog, you do not know what grey is. Yes, it’s cold outside, but you need sunglasses when you walk out in it.

The equinox is still a week away, so winter is entitled to hold the field. I see the hellebores are already shaking out their flowerbuds and the daffodils are nosing up, so those who are impatient for spring can take comfort. Meanwhile, I am going to sit here by the window with my cocoa, enjoying the season at hand.

The Buzzards Are Back

Here’s another thing that’s sort of the same and sort of different between California and Michigan. The swallows come back to Capistrano about the same time the turkey buzzards come back to Ann Arbor.

The buzzards are better known for coming back to Hinckley, Ohio, which has a festival for them every year around March 15th. Hinckley is about 170 miles southeast of Ann Arbor, around the corner of Lake Erie, so you would think we’d get our buzzards about the same time. The Bird Count People would agree with you. When I count my buzzards in February, they’re dubious.

But there’s no mistaking buzzards – the cauldron-stirring flight pattern, the unfeathered red heads. They’re early, but they’re correct: the snow’s gone and it’s clean-up time. How did they know?

On Buzzard Sunday in Hinckley (March 18 this year) thousands of visitors welcome the buzzards back from winter break, but our birds here have beat the rush. I see from the Hinckley website that they will have hikes, skits, songs, stories, crafts, contests, and a pancake breakfast with sausage. I’m not sure I’d go for sausage on a holiday honoring vultures, though I guess that’s irrational. And according to The Ohio Traveler, a turkey buzzard’s digestive system kills any viruses and bacteria they ingest. Even their droppings, says Ohio Traveler, are disease-free. I hope some pharmaceutical companies are studying this.

As a sign of spring they aren’t exactly romantic, but they’re part of the pattern of renewal nonetheless. This is a poem I wrote about another vulture, the condor. California had condors, but the ones I saw were in Chile, where I spent many hours staring at the desert mountains to make some of the pictures you can see in my “Paintings” section.

The Condor

He is the grandee of birds,
like a sixteenth century gentleman of Spain,
white ruff around his neck,black wings spread wide
over the prey of the New World,
his head blood-red
but he does not blush,
full partner of creation,
his dark back patched
with a pattern of angels.


published in Cumberland Poetry Review