Spring in Minnesota

March in Minnesota is often mostly winter, but this year the official spring actually feels like spring. Today I went outside in a light jacket to put out birdseed and fresh water. It was so nice out, I found myself picking up winter trash and cleaning up around the compost bin. I moved a stepping stone to the muddy area, and rescued and cleaned a water dish frozen out over winter. Then I started to pull the leaf mulch off the rhubarb until I got to a layer of ice. Time to let the sun do its work. Honestly, there’s just not that much you can do in a Minnesota yard in March.

And then I glanced at the south wall of the house. The cacti are coming back to life! I had worried about this a bit over winter, especially with the polar vortex. I didn’t mulch them as well as usual last fall (because I mauled them the previous spring when I was raking off the mulch) and feared they wouldn’t survive polar vortex and record-breaking February snowfall. But a glance showed me otherwise: Several pads were rising up—I love this miracle of spring.

In a wee bit of awe, I went to check out the full patch (I’m trying to cover the south wall of the house). A bit more mulch than I remembered. I found a twig and used it to gently move leaves off the cactus pads. Most of the pads are still flat on the ground (they seem to almost melt in winter; the first year I was sure they were dead, and was shocked as anything when they came back even bigger and stronger the next spring). And a couple of years after that, they flowered, and continued to spread. When they started to cover the sidewalk, I clipped one off and set it in a bit of a scrape in the rocks. “Back to nature,” I thought. Indeed back to nature: It took root and grew that very summer and started its own vigorous plant the next spring. That’s when I got the idea of a cactus bed on the south wall of the house. It’s coming along nicely.

Also in the land of spring: The cardinals have paired off. No more large groups of them coming and hanging out for much of the day. Ditto for the robins. The juncos are now few and far between. I miss the groups, but the trade-off is worth it in song: Yes, the birds are singing again! They certainly haven’t hit their peak yet, but the occasional robin song and chickadee dee are definite signs of spring, along with the frequent drumming of the downy woodpeckers. There will come a time later in summer when the cardinal calling at 4:30 in the morning does not make me smile, but in March, the birds are the vocal heralds of spring. I cannot help but love them.

I saw my first chipmunk of the season today. An immediate flash of pure affection. So cute. And a few hours later, after I had put out birdseed, I also remembered what little hoovers they are. One chipmunk can clean out a seed tray in record time. They put squirrels to shame. Chipmunks have huge cheek pouches where they store the seed they vacuum up. Then they hie off to their cache, deposit their feast-for-later, and go back to the banquet for more.

Nature. Wily Nature. It makes my heart sing.

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Winterson or Waugh?

As the deluge in the basement continued, I became concerned about the books on the bottom shelf of the tall fiction bookcase. These are all my favorite fiction books from over the years (it gets culled and added to on a regular basis—mostly culled, lately). As the water bumped against the bottom of the bookcase, I scanned the bottom shelf. Evelyn Waugh, Jeanette Winterson, Virginia Woolf, Banana Yoshimoto.

Note, the scanning was taking place while I was mopping and sopping up the water around the bookshelf. I quick took off my wet gloves and moved all the Jeanette Winterson books to higher ground. I put the gloves back on and resumed mopping. It was a long time mopping and sopping.

But of course I’m mopping and sopping and still looking at Waugh, Woolf, and Yoshimoto. And The Book Thief by Mark Zusak—I loved that. So many very good books.

Back in the basement, another round. Looking at the bottom shelf. Which of those books, if I should lose them, would I buy again because I know I want to reread them?

I moved Banana Yoshimoto to higher ground. Good luck, I said, to Waugh and Woolf. I liked you and maybe even loved you, but I don’t think I’d reread you. (Note: I have a lot of unread Virginia Woolf upstairs.)

And I kept mopping. Today when I went to the basement, the waters had abated. The towels were wet, but not sopped. No standing water. I looked at the bottom shelf. Waugh and Woolf both made it, along with Zusak. But after moving all the Winterson and Yoshimoto, I noticed an entire row of books behind the books I’d saved: mass market paperbacks from forever ago. Books I couldn’t give up.

This was a fine trip down memory lane. There are all my Amy Tan books! The Source, by Michener—I read part of that in college, for one of my biblical history classes. I always meant to finish it. And here it still is, waiting.

The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, The Women’s Room, 1984. Alice Walker, Marge Piercy, Margaret Atwood, Kurt Vonnegut, Herman Hesse, and even Ayn Rand (yes, I will admit it, there she is, in the paperback stack, alongside Toni Morrison and Leon Uris). A motley crew, yes? But you know what I did not see? Gone With the Wind. How can this be? I still remember reading it when I was in 10th grade or so, heaving with sobs.

I need to go and take another look. Because I don’t particularly mind losing most of these books. I wouldn’t reread them—trade paperback books have spoiled me. I like the larger format, and now the small paperbacks seem to have tiny print. However, I do think I’d like to keep my copy of Gone With the Wind. Not because I necessarily think I’ll reread it, but because it’s so firmly anchored in my mind to a specific time and place in my life.

While I’m down there, I think I’ll also grab 1984. Now that I think about it, some books are best in the mass-market edition, and I do think there’s a very good chance I’ll reread this book.

Who would you save?

May-June Book Themes

May has gotten away from me, as it often does. So much going on, what with spring and all. For most of May I’m either outside or looking outside unless it’s raining or nighttime. You just never know when an ovenbird might show up in your yard. (It’s been back twice since. Maybe it will nest!)

Back to books. The May theme is architectural elements. So far I have read a staircase, a kingdom (perhaps a stretch), medicine chest, bridge, and fountain. In process are a picture window, stairway, and corridor. May is not one of my stronger reading months. I just don’t care so much about books. The birds are migrating, the catnip is coming up, the cactus is singing. I may still love books, but I can’t seem to focus on them.

June gets a little more down to earth. Still plenty to see and discover, but a bit more time for books as well. The theme for June is “green.” This includes any book with the word “green” in the title, and also green things (e.g., grass, trees, plants, parks, leaves, salads, envy).

I’ve not yet done a scouring of the shelves. Even so, I’ve likely found more than I can read. So far for fiction:

  • Arlington Park, Rachel Cusk
  • Sunset Park, Paul Auster
  • The Dud Avocado, Elaine Dundy
  • Tallgrass, Sandra Dallas
  • Murder on Sagebrush Lane, Patricia Smith Wood
  • The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame

For nonfiction:

  • Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer
  • Memory of Trees: A Daughter’s Story of a Family Farm, Gayla Marty
  • The Green Boat, Mary Pipher
  • Claiming Earth as Common Ground, Andrea Cohen-Kiener (a bit iffy on direct theme fit, but the greenest book of them all, and I really want to read it, subtitled: “The ecological crisis through the lens of faith.”)

Poetry often adds fun variations on the theme:

  • Goodbye to the Orchard, Steven Cramer
  • Green Soldiers, John Bensko
  • Nettles, Betty Adcock
  • Flower Wreath Hill, Kenneth Rexroth
  • Now the Green Blade Rises, Elizabeth Spires
  • You Speak to Me in Trees, Elana Wolff
  • The Long Meadow, Vijay Seshadri

With luck I will read five or six of these. You just never know what you’ll be in the mood for. And I’ll probably find half as many again before June even starts!

Happy reading to you, and happy summer as well!

Coffee Break

This morning when I plugged in the coffee maker, it made a huge sparky flash and then a fire. Not a big fire, a small, 2-3” fire from the outlet (I thought). I pulled the plug, the fire was gone. I’m sure it was less than a couple of seconds between the spark and the end of the fire, but it seemed like a long time to me—one of those times where your brain shuts out everything else and 100% of your attention is focused on this flame that could burn down your entire house.

I wasn’t sure if it was the outlet or the appliance. I toyed with plugging something else into the faulty outlet, or trying the faulty coffee maker on a different outlet. And then I decided I needed to have some caffeine before conducting any kind of experiment that might involve fire (and a spouse with a fire extinguisher nearby might not be a bad add).

I looked in the fridge, hoping for a Coke, but no colas to be found. I settled for iced tea, and went to read the morning paper on the front porch.

Halfway through the front page, it occurred to me that I could boil water and pour it into the coffee filter myself. It was not quite as fast as pouring it into the reservoir, but it took less than 10 minutes, and I had fresh coffee to accompany the morning paper.

In the way that one does, as I was reading the paper, I was wondering if I should get a new coffee maker at a Kitchen Window kind of place or a Herberger’s kind of place. Then I remembered a friend who has several coffee makers (I found this out when I was helping her clean out her basement, and when I suggested she get rid of these excess coffee makers, she wanted to keep them for friends who might need said coffee makers). I texted her this morning to see if she still has this abundance, but have not heard back.

In the meantime, after a cup or two of coffee, I took a closer look at the coffee maker. Holy cow! (We actually do say this in the Midwest—at least some of us do.) The cord (rubber/plastic) was half severed. The miracle of caffeine. No need for an experiment or fire extinguishers, the culprit is the cord.

I love this little coffee maker. It’s the mini size you often get in hotels. It has no frills—no timer, no clock, no auto-off; it doesn’t even have an on/off button. And while it’s true, I do need to make sure I unplug the coffee machine before I leave the house, I don’t have to reset the time/programming every time the power goes out.

Also going on in my background is a Wendell Berry book that I recently finished, Our Only World. God bless Wendell Berry, reminding me that reducing consumption is a good thing.

I love this little coffee maker. It has a broken cord. I called a couple of nearby hardware stores and one of them said they would take a look. I brought it in today. They estimate it will cost $25 or so to fix the cord.

I know I can get a new coffee maker at Target for less than $25, with a clock, auto-off, and possibly an espresso feature. But I don’t need any of those things. I just want coffee in the morning.

And while I’m 99% sure that they’ll be able to fix the cord, the other 1% of me is not uncomfortable with spending 10 minutes in the morning making coffee.

Small Miracles

Yesterday when I was walking the yard, I noted a huge number of tiny red bugs (only slightly larger than pinheads) hanging around in clumps on the ground around the cactus and milkweed. I’m pretty sure they’re tiny box elder bugs. I am not particularly fond of box elder bugs and thought of spraying them with vinegar, but decided to let it go. They don’t bite or sting, and so far the numbers have been manageable, so I decided to wait and see.

Today when I went to check, they were gone. But I noticed that only for a moment, because my attention was captured by a yellow flower. Flowers. My prickly pear cactus is blooming! There are four flowers. But I think there might be a lot more (maybe 20!) to come—holy guacamole, the cactus is really taking off! The transplants from last year have all taken hold, and the transplants from this year are holding their own.

These are the things we do in Minnesota for entertainment. (Okay, maybe just a few of us. A lot of Minnesotans don’t even know that Minnesota is home to three kinds of cactus.) It gets so melty droopy in the winter, I am certain it won’t come back, but then it does.

June seems to be full of little miracles like this. Before I had any expectations or had even done a trimming, the rosebush produced a brilliant flame, stopping me in my tracks on the way out the door.

The lemon balm is flourishing (excellent with catnip as a sleep aid) and I must pick soon so I will get a second crop. The lemongrass that I got from a neighbor is also taking hold nicely (another good sleep aid). In fact, all of the plants that I either potted or planted seem to be doing quite well.

Yesterday I got a package in the mail. Several weeks ago, I asked my California friend if she had any fresh sage on hand. I had used up my winter store, and my sage plants were barely starting to come back. She did indeed have sage, but had just sent off a package (which included eucalyptus, which is even better than sage since I can’t grow it here) but she said she would include it next time.

A bit of time goes by and my sage plants are growing and turning green. But then they aren’t. They have been decimated by tiny bugs. I am heartbroken (perhaps an overstatement; annoyed might be more accurate). And then I get a package from my friend, and it is filled with sage. An abundance of sage. An embarrassment of sage. Baskets of sage. She is wise, my friend. Good timing.

Merely another June miracle.

The butterfly weed is coming up in the front yard (it will attract both monarch and swallowtail butterflies when it flowers). But the swamp milkweed in that same plot shows no sign of return (it was pretty weak last year after two years of attacks by swamp milkweed beetles; yes, there is a beetle specifically targeted to the swamp milkweed—nature is amazing, no?). But on the other hand, I noticed today five common milkweed plants in the side yard that I swear weren’t there yesterday (of course they must have been). A pleasant surprise.

I’ve found two odd plants growing in the side yard—they are about to flower, and I’ve no idea what they are. Flowers? Weeds? Or, perhaps, medicinal herbs (which could be in either of the aforementioned categories)? I need to wait a few more days to find out.

The currants are just starting to turn red. The peonies are done—done in by a rainstorm that came through just as they were peaking. This is the risk with peonies. Happily, a mere day or two before the storm, I asked a friend if she wanted to take some home with her (I can’t have them in the house because they are poisonous to cats), and she was happy to take a few. I like to think that maybe they’re still blooming.

In Search of Warblers, or, Joy in Unexpected Places

I have not been having a very good warbler season. Usually in spring (May especially) you catch small waves of warblers—maybe 20 warblers of a variety of species. That has not happened to me once this year. I’ve seen warblers, all right, but it’s been one here, two there, with not even a wavelet to be seen.

Knowing that time is slipping through my hands, yesterday I headed to the river to see if any warblers might care to wave at me. I sat, I looked, I watched, I waited, I walked. I stopped, I listened, I looked.

I saw one American Redstart. Hey, at least I saw a warbler.

I left.

It was a little cloudier and chillier than I expected, and home seemed a good destination. But at the last minute, just because the warblers will be here only a couple more weeks at best, I decided to stop once more. Sitting on a wall looking over the Mississippi, I noticed a largish bird (not a warbler) fly up from the ground about three feet and then immediately go back down.

That got my attention. I watched. Waited. It came back up. Just a glimpse and it is back down again. I am thinking, thrush? (In addition to the robin, we have several fairly common thrushes in Minnesota.) I keep watching; up it comes for only a moment. White eye ring. Gone for the longest time. Back—for several seconds this time, but I only see the top of its head— very rufous, almost orange, the color of a robin’s breast. I know rufous goes with a particular thrush, but I can’t remember which.

Then it shifts, just a bit, and I see black dots on the breast. Score for confirming the thrush ID, but even more excitement about the black spots, because they are not so common on our thrushes. And one of the thrushes with the black spots, I know, is the wood thrush. Could this be a wood thrush? I keep watching. A few more glimpses—silhouette, head again, shape (very round). After half an hour of no more sightings, I retire to my books.

It took almost no time at all to confirm that I had indeed seen a wood thrush, a new life bird for me! The rufous head (the other rufous thrush has a rufous tail); the black spots, the round body, hurrah!

I have wanted to see a wood thrush for years (most especially after I heard one—at least I’m pretty sure it was a wood thrush—up near Bemidji maybe 15 years ago). But while I have seen all of our other common thrushes, the wood thrush continued to elude me. Until yesterday.

I love when birding gives me total fruit basket upset. I went out looking for warblers. At the peak of warbler migration, I saw exactly one warbler. And I most unexpectedly saw a wood thrush, a bird I’ve been searching for, for more than a decade. The vagaries of birding.

I wonder if, as frequently happens after you see a bird for the first time, I will start to see wood thrushes quite often from here on out. I certainly hope so.

Maybe one will sing for me again.

Orchard Exuberance

The robin is singing in the backyard, exuberant. Nudging me. Having nothing to do with this post (already titled before the song), the song has finally put my hand to the keyboard, as I was stymied how to begin.

It started when we went to a neighborhood event, and among all the various opportunities, my spouse wanted to volunteer to help with the neighborhood orchard. Sign me up, I said.

I am not particularly fond of getting together with a lot of people I don’t know, especially if all we’re doing is sitting around and chatting. I opted out of an initial planning meeting, but when the opportunity for actual orchard maintenance came up, I was definitely interested. Our first activity: pruning.

We started at noon on Sunday (earlier, if you got the message that coffee and snacks were being provided by the church across the street). And this was one piece of the magic, or exuberance, of the day. When we arrived, there was fruit, breads, cookies, and coffee, spread out on a table in front of the church. Spouse introduced me to people he knew (from the meeting I avoided) and I was stunned.

I was totally comfortable.

It is pretty much completely unheard of for me to be comfortable in a group of strangers. I’m still processing it.

There were about 25 of us (way more than expected), mostly guys (which surprised me). I have never in my life felt comfortable drifting from small group to small group, but unbelievably, I did. I don’t know if it’s the common goal, or that all these people love trees, or if it’s the trees themselves. Perhaps all of the above.

When we moved across the street to the orchard, we stood in a circle and introduced ourselves: neighbors across the street, people in the neighborhood, a bunch of people knowledgeable about fruit trees, a bunch that didn’t know so much, and a whole lot of enthusiasm.

One of the older men in the group suggested that if you really want to get to know trees, here’s your chance. Stop by the orchard at least every two weeks. Not a drive-by visit. A stop and park the car and spend some time with the trees visit. It is not so often you get the opportunity to shape a young orchard, or even to engage in its long-term growth. I plan to visit the orchard frequently. I have a great fondness for trees, and while I find most trees grounding, there’s something about fruit trees (even very young ones) that makes me a little giddy.

We spent a bit of time as a group around a tree, discussing pruning, examples, try it yourself, questions, etc. Again, I felt so comfortable. I asked several questions and was also able to just let go of social stress and think about what would work best for the tree.

Aha, there it is. It is the tree after all. I love trees and I have happened upon a community of tree lovers. It was a lovely contagious afternoon—trees, joy, purpose, camaraderie, and a good bit of fun.

The pruning of these little trees was a bit more challenging than I had expected (learned a lot). We will have a mission regarding blossoms in the later spring, watering through the summer, and mulching in the fall.

I like tending an orchard. This little orchard is an experiment in Minneapolis. If we can make it work, just imagine: neighborhood orchards everywhere. Why not?