April Reprise

The rhubarb is ready to pick. The lilacs are starting to bloom. The catnip is a major personality in the herb garden, and the lemon balm is most decidedly coming back this year (last year was pretty iffy). Both sage plants are in full green and growing, and the raspberries seem intent on marching through the yard. I confess I cannot stop them. I will happily take a detour to allow the rampant raspberry.

Bookishly, I read 10 books in April. Another month heavy on nonfiction (5 of 10; 3 fiction; 2 poetry). The book I loved most was Plant Dreaming Deep, by May Sarton (memoir). I’ve read several of Sarton’s journals in higgledy-piggledy order, but this is a memoir and a prelude to the journals. I’m hoping to read all of them (in order) in the next year or so. Sometimes things call, and these books are calling to me.

My major reading accomplishment, though, was finishing The Bully Pulpit, by Doris Kearns Goodwin. Thank goodness I was reading this with a couple of friends, or I doubt I would have made it to the end. It’s about Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, as well as the journalists of the time (and most notably Ida Tarbell). I certainly learned a lot reading it, but I wasn’t as engaged as I have been with some of her earlier works (most notably Team of Rivals, featuring Abraham Lincoln). We all heaved a sigh of relief at our last discussion and decided to stay away from books with political themes for the foreseeable future.

One of the best things about April is the ongoing influx of migrating birds. I added 30 birds to my year list, including a variety of ducks, but also Eastern Bluebird, Golden Eagle, Pileated Woodpecker, Great-Horned Owl, and American Pelican. Of these, both the pileated and the pelican were seen from my yard, giving me a fairly respectable yard list this year. The pelicans were not new to my yard list, but this is the first time I have seen so many. They were kettling high in the sky—I only ran across them because I was scanning treetops with my binoculars and there they were. My other notable sighting for the month was a Belted Kingfisher. These are not uncommon in Minnesota, but I saw not a single one last year, so I was exceedingly pleased to see one a couple weeks ago, and not far from my house at that!

In the herb world, a few weeks ago my herbal friend in California sent me a hot rub that was so effective on the arthritis in my foot that I decided to have a go at making my own Minnesota version. It includes hops, chamomile, rosemary, cayenne, and turmeric. Half is macerating in grapeseed oil and half in canola oil. I am just starting to experiment with different carrier oils (up until now, I’ve used olive oil almost exclusively). It won’t be ready to decant for a couple of weeks, and in the meantime I decided to try another version, with minced ginger (along with chamomile, cayenne, and turmeric) and this went in olive oil. I will have much to compare and contrast in a month or so. Warning: If you make your own version of this, do wash your hands immediately after application and keep away from eyes and sensitive tissues. The cayenne can cause serious discomfort!

Cooking was not a high priority in April but I did have one quite excellent cooking experience. I was at a neighborhood restaurant and noticed orzo-tangelo-thyme salad on the menu. It looked delicious and I decided to try making it at home—it seemed so simple. And it was! Take some cooked orzo, add some zest from a tangelo (I couldn’t find a tangelo so I used a tangerine)—enough to add some pretty color but not to overwhelm. Add as much juice from the tangelo as you like to the salad, until it reaches a pleasing consistency. (I only used a cup of cooked orzo, and added the juice of half a tangerine—next time I will make a much larger batch!) Add fresh chopped thyme.

(Note: If chopping fresh herbs stymies you because the herbs always bend instead of getting cut by the knife, you probably need a sharper knife. I had completely given up on chopping fresh herbs with a knife and tore them up by hand for years, until a few months ago I invested in a fairly decent and small chef’s knife. The smaller knife fits better in my hand, and whether it’s the control or the sharpness of the knife, when I tried chopping the fresh thyme with this knife, it was like magic.)

Add enough thyme so the salad has a nice mix of orange and green. Taste, of course, and add more thyme as desired. Mix all together and serve with pretty much anything. It worked equally well with pork roast and sausages, and also makes a fine light lunch on a hot day.

My haiku postcard project continues. April highlights:

the nice sunny day
turns into a short blizzard
April’s lion side

not a house sparrow
skittering in the dogwoods
white-throated sparrow!

Plus the occasional tanka:

such a loud drumming
pileated woodpecker
I couldn’t find it
until it flew from the tree
so big yet so elusive

Happy reading, happy birding, happy spring. Is there a better time to be alive?

January Reprise

How did it get to be February already? January sped by, possibly because I spent much of it with my nose in a book. The January reading theme was day/month/year (any book with one of those words in the title, or if you want to get a little stretchy, akin to one of the words; I read a couple of morning books, for example, and almost read a book with September in the title, but ran out of time). I finished 16 books in January, almost equally divided between fiction (5), poetry (5), and nonfiction (6).

In a rare occurrence, I had three 2-star books in January. (My rating system: Most books don’t get anything; if I like a book a lot it gets 1 star; if I love it, it gets 2 stars; and if I think it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read, it gets 3 stars.) A Sense of the Morning, by David Brendan Hopes was a wonderful book about the natural world, and more specifically, Hopes’s observations of and interactions within the natural world. Beautiful writing, and a good reminder that if we don’t look, we won’t see anything.

Another nature-related book that got two stars was The Years of the Forest, by Helen Hoover. For many years Hoover and her spouse lived year round in a cabin in northern Minnesota near the Canadian border. No electricity, no running water, and for a good part of the book, no car or telephone. They, too, were finely attuned to nature, most especially the animals (deer, birds, groundhogs, mice, spiders, pretty much the entire animal kingdom as they encountered it).

The third 2-star book was A Month in the Country, by J. L. Carr. A short novel, the story of a man recently back from serving in World War 1 and his time in a small village restoring a mural in a church. I know, it really doesn’t sound that interesting, but it took me quite by surprise. It is very quietly powerful, and I appreciated it even more after discussing it with a friend.

January also brought some mighty cold weather (a few days where the temp didn’t go above zero) but a lot more mild days and very little snow. So far, for a winter, I am finding it a bit disappointing (I do like a good snowstorm) but there’s still plenty of time for snow.

In the cooking world, I braised a pork shoulder in apple cider and fresh-squeezed orange juice (also with celery, onion, garlic, and orange slices) and it was wonderful—my best success with braising yet. I also made a kind of cheesy wild rice casserole which turned out pretty good, and was even better reheated and topped with beans (a type I had never heard of before, called Jacob’s Cattle; who could resist getting a bean called Jacob’s Cattle? Not me!) and more cheese.

Also some typical winter fodder: chili, meatloaf, roasted vegetables, vegetable soup with lentils, spaghetti, etc.

I also started my new annual bird list, and so far I’ve seen 22 different kinds of birds (12 in my backyard) including one lifebird—the ivory gull up in the Duluth harbor.

I have continued my haiku postcard project (a haiku a day, which gets mailed on a postcard to a friend in Montana)—it’s been more than two years now! I think I’ve only missed a day or two, and those at the beginning. It’s a very good way of staying grounded and it also makes me aware of how much I have to be grateful for. Here are a couple from January:

afternoon bookclub
Bully Pulpit and a beer
the magic of Skype

my car didn’t start
but four cardinals visited
balancing the scales

And I’ve started a new postcard project: I am sending both of my U.S. senators (Al Franken and Amy Klobuchar) daily postcards, urging them to vote against the Dark Act (which would make it illegal for states to require labeling of GMO foods). I am hugely against this dark act. Poll after poll has found that upwards of 90 percent of the population supports the labeling of GMO foods. To pass an act that would deny people the right to know what’s in their food, when there is such overwhelming support for labeling, is a stupifying example of the power corporations have in our government. On this both Republicans and Democrats agree—that GMOs should be labeled and that corporations have far too much power in Washington.

So, a postcard a day—each with a new fact that my good senators might not be aware of; on an entertaining postcard (I have quite a large variety now) that postal workers and clerks can read as well. I hope they vote on the Dark Act before I run out of facts (but not before I convince them to question it!). It’s an uphill fight in this neck of the woods because we have both Cargill and General Mills (not to mention Land O’Lakes and Hormel).

This may not be your issue, but whatever your issue is, let your representatives know! Corporations are very vocal about what they want, and have millions of dollars to spend getting it. Most of us don’t have millions of dollars, but we do have phones and pens. Pick one issue. Just one.

Okay, off my soapbox. Time to sign off and go read a book.

October Reprise

October was about reading, presidential debates, repairing, and replacing. It was also a much more social month than is usual for me. But first, the books.

I read a lot in October—24 books. Half were fiction (and three of those were graphic novels, two of which were Buffy the Vampire Slayer). I read 5 poetry books which was nice after last month’s drought, and 7 works of nonfiction. The reading theme for October was scary/Halloween. Some sample titles:

  • Ghostwritten (David Mitchell)
  • Boo (Neil Smith)
  • Goest (Cole Swensen)
  • Night With Its Owl (Anne Love Woodhull)
  • Talking to the Dead (Helen Dunmore)
  • A Man Lay Dead (Ngaio Marsh)
  • The Boggart and the Monster (Susan Cooper)
  • Ghosts in the Garden (Beth Kephart)
  • Ghost World (Daniel Clowes)
  • Murderer’s Day (E.M. Schorb)

FC9781844673315The best book I read last month was The Food Wars, by Walden Bello. I learned so much about agriculture and world trade (scary things, depressing things and yes, some hopeful things)—too much to get into here. That will have to be a separate post. My other favorite book of the month was fiction, The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, by Gabrielle Zevin. I read this in one day. If you have a friend who loves books (I’m not just talking loves to read, but loves the books 9781616204518in and of themselves), hie thee to the nearest independent bookstore and purchase The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry for the next gift opportunity (a sunny day will do).

Also in bookworld, we attended the Twin Cities Book Festival at the state fairgrounds. This is always a fun event with lots of authors and speakers and books for sale. I got 6 poetry books for $3 (total, not apiece), which was amazing.

As for the repairs and replacements, we have a new computer (which I’m slowly getting used to) but still a less than perfect (am I becoming too impatient?) internet connection. Also, the dryer vent fell away from the wall/vent hole and I could no longer fix it with duct tape, so that was replaced. And then the sewer backed up (doing laundry, always more pleasant than other indicators) so we called Ron the Sewer Rat and that problem was resolved. Whew.

And such a social month. One of the highlights was my mom’s 95th birthday. We went out for a birthday lunch to her place of choice, thinking it would just be a few of us, and imagine how fun when all the grandchildren and great-grandchildren showed up. They found a table big enough for all of us and Mom just glowed.

Also in the social world were the presidential debates. We prevailed upon our TV-owning friend Kathleen, who kindly invited us over for the first Democratic and the second Republican debate. Go Bernie!

Plus visiting the apple orchards with my friend in Hastings, making more dishwasher soap with my neighbor (love it—cheap and works well!), a reception and lecture at the University of Minnesota, happy hour with some former coworkers, and sundry lunches and other engagements conspired to fill so many days, I see a couple notations of “blessed day alone” in my journal.

I also turned up the stove in October and did more cooking. Nice to be back in cooler weather where I actually want to turn on the oven. Mostly the basics: beef stew, Cuban beans, applesauce, chicken adobo, spaghetti. I want to make a soufflé. Maybe in November.

October is a lovely month in Minnesota. We had our first hard freeze so I picked all the tomatoes and took in some herbs for hopeful overwintering. Then it warmed up again, and I took advantage to immerse myself in reading on the front porch while I can. They are rare days now and to be savored.

September Reprise

September was mostly about not having a working computer (also part of August and much of October). Not having a computer makes a lot of things different. Sure, I could check email and get the internet on my phone. But I mostly use email for lengthy correspondence, and small screens don’t work so well for that. I found myself sending more things through the mail.

I missed my morning email update from the Washington Post; I missed reading news in general (again, not as fun on the small screen). I started reading the newspaper in the morning. I find it a fine start to the day and even just paging through the paper for 15 minutes I realize I am gleaning a lot more than I do when I catch the news online. All those inside stories.

I missed blogging but I didn’t miss blogging. I got a lot done around the house. I slept better.

We have a new computer now, and I’m starting to learn at least some of the new gadgets that have been added in the many years since my last computer purchase. It’s a mix of annoying and fun. Annoying if I’m in a hurry or it crashes (still some glitches to work out) and fun when I have the “aha!” of “Oh That’s how that works!” Whether I’ll be able to figure out pictures for this post remains to be seen.

We also took our first vacation in several years in September, to Saratoga Springs in upstate New York. Highlights: Northshire Books, a new independent bookstore in downtown Saratoga Springs (it earned several visits); a drive through the beautiful Catskill Mountains; a few hours wandering around a relatively deserted state park, where we lost ourselves in a beautiful meadow filled with butterflies; and a most wonderful dinner with the in-laws (sister and husband) which was a perfect blend of banter and laughter and serious talk, and everyone had a second drink. I bet we sat there for three hours. It is very rare for me not to want social engagements to end, but this one I would have liked to extend for an hour or two.

As for the rest of life in September, I read fewer books than average (only 9), but it was a bit unusual in a majority (5) were nonfiction and none were poetry. The huge standout of the month was Men Explain Things to Me, by Rebecca Solnit. Who hasn’t had this experience? The experience Solnit relates was particularly egregious (but oh so funny): She was a guest at a party in Aspen, and the host said he heard she was a writer and asked what she had written. Solnit mentioned her most recent book at the time, River of Shadows: Edward Muybridge and the Technological Wild West. He cut her off and asked if she had heard about the Very Important Muybridge book that had come out recently. He then proceeded to tell her about her own book. When he finally realized she had written the book he was lecturing her about, he at least had the grace to turn ashen. Punch line: He hadn’t even read the book; he had merely read a review of the book! Men Explain Things to Me is a slim volume, easily read in a day. I recommend it to everybody.

Much of the rest of September was about being outdoors. Harvesting, pruning, weeding, and just hanging out. We also finished the seventh (and final) season of West Wing, which I found to be a most excellent television series that I missed when it was airing. Perhaps not as good as Star Trek or Buffy or Xena, but still probably in the top five.

Oh. In the kitchen I made crabapple sauce and it was a total disaster. So much work with those tiny apples, for just a little amount of sauce, that was way too sour and crunchy. I also made my first batch of applesauce from the apple orchard season, even though it was a bit early in September. I now have Honeycrisp and Haralson apples, which will make the most excellent applesauce of substance.

Finally, we celebrated the equinox. The balance of light and dark, the start of autumn. The trees are beautiful here. The maples are flaming. The trees turn early in the Mississippi River valley, so I am happy to experience a really long autumn.

More soon I hope!

August Reprise

August was mostly about cleaning and cooking and culling. Part of this burst of productivity was due to the fact that our internet was down for nearly 2 weeks. Without that distraction (though I did learn a lot of new tricks with my phone), I turned to other forms of entertainment. Plus we were very lucky to have an unseasonably cool and rainy patch which gave me a boost of energy and made both cooking and cleaning more enjoyable.

As for the book culling, that was done mostly in the basement on the hottest days. I found it a fine way to while away a hot afternoon: going through old books that I’ve read and loved enough to keep, thinking I might read them again. But tastes change, time gets a little shorter, and new books keep coming out, and often a few years after reading it is easier to part with a book than immediately on completion. I did it at a good time, too—I was feeling quite ruthless. (It’s worthless to try book culling when in a sentimental mood. You’re lucky to find even one book you can part with.) In all, I culled about 500 books. When I saw the piles and piles and bags and bags, I hesitated. Wasn’t I getting rid of a sizable portion of my collection? But then I thought that perhaps I was merely getting rid of as many books as I’ve purchased since moving into this house 8 years ago. And then I decided to find out (because I keep track of these kinds of things). Oh. Well. I just did the calculation. From 2008-2014 (the most easily available data), I bought 1,350 books. I have barely culled what amounts to one-third of the books that I’ve brought into the house since moving in! But there are two more bookcases and another cabinet of books in the basement to cull, as well as others tucked here and there in nooks and crannies throughout the house. Maybe I’ll get to 1,000 before the end of the year!

EvermealBut August was also about reading, of course. I read 15 books in August, mostly nonfiction (8), but also 3 books of poetry and 4 novels. The best of the pack was An Everlasting Meal: Cooking With Economy and Grace, by Tamar Adler. I started this book intending to give it to my sister-in-law as part of her Christmas package (we have a “no new gifts” policy). It took me less than a chapter to wonder if I would be able to part with this book—so many things I wanted to try, cooking techniques and recipes (e.g., baked ricotta, parsley salad). Adler’s book also contributed to my August bean frenzy, with an entire chapter devoted to beans. By chapter two I had used my pencil gingerly, and by chapter six I was wielding it with abandon. This is a book that will go on my kitchen bookshelf to be consulted often, and reread on occasion. For those of you out there that love food-related literature, An Everlasting Meal is modeled on M. F. K. Fisher’s book, How to Cook a Wolf. I’ve not read any Fisher, but we happen to have How to Cook a Wolf in the house, and I expect to read it before the year’s end.

[Note: My sluggish computer is not loading pictures. I hope to come back and add more in later.]

The other best book was My Favorite Things, by Maira Kalman. This book is a visual treat—the type of book that I adore. I have loved all the books of hers that I’ve read, but this, more than any other, made me smile.

As for the cleaning, I won’t bore you with that much, except to say that the dust bunnies behind the poetry were more akin to dust hares, and vacuuming stairs is seriously unpleasant.

I’ve already written about my foray into the world of beans, and that has continued. I made a batch of kidney and pinto beans in the slow cooker (with just an onion, several garlic cloves, and salt, with the salt added toward the end) and they were great!

My efforts to limit my eating of factory-farmed meat have been moderately successful (in large part because it’s summer when I tend to eat less meat anyway) and I’ve surprised myself at how many meatless days I have (18 of 31 days in August). Eating out less has definitely been a factor in the increase in meatless days (and it has been good to my wallet!).

Also in the domestic realm, my neighbor and I made dishwashing soap and laundry soap. It was a fun afternoon of grating (bar soap—we used Dr. Bronner’s) and stirring and mixing and pouring. I’ve tried both the laundry and dish soap and have no complaints. Cheaper, fewer chemicals, and better for the environment. As long as it works, I’m there!

But the huge event of August was seeing The Music Man at the Guthrie Theater. In fact we loved it so much, we went back two weeks later and saw it again (from a completely different vantage point). A total luxury and worth every penny.

June Reprise

June was mostly about the yard and spending time on the porch reading. Also listening to and watching the rain. We had a couple of really nice thunderstorms. I read 11 books in June, 5 nonfiction and 3 each poetry and fiction. I’ve already written about the most outstanding reads (Award-Winning Books). Award-winning books was a fun monthly theme, and I covered a bit of territory: Alex Award (2), New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association (NAIBA) Award (2), Minnesota Book Award (2), Ernest Sundeen Prize in Poetry, Newbery, John Burroughs Medal (2), James Beard Foundation Award, National Book Award, and the Lambda Literary Award.

But June was mostly about plants and planting and even some harvesting. First things first: I have all my plants in the ground (or in pots) excepting one blackberry bush that a friend is giving me. (She promises it will overwinter in the pot and I don’t need to plant it until next year. Since she knows a lot more about plants and gardens than I do, I will choose to believe her!)

raspberryMy currants are just ready to harvest. There are still a few left. Not many. I don’t mind so much: I like sharing my food with the animals. I might wish they would leave me a bit more though. I am getting blueberries! I only planted these last year, but it appears that I am going to have a small crop of blueberries. (Very small.) The raspberries are starting to turn red. The tomatoes are just starting to blossom. The berries are coming in on the red-twig dogwoods (robins and vireos, in particular, love these berries).



The swamp milkweed is starting to flower, but no signs of pods yet. On the exciting front, I have finally got some common milkweed in my yard. My neighbor has a very fine patch of it and has given me many seed pods which I have scattered with abandon to no effect. Until this year! I noticed four common milkweed plants while mowing the lawn earlier this week (I almost ran over one of them). Between the butterflyweed and the swamp milkweed, I have already seen a monarch caterpillar and a monarch butterfly.

In herbland, the hops are coming up nicely, it appears the lemon balm might be coming back after all, the comfrey is flowering and spreading, and the feverfew is in full bloom. I harvest a handful of chamomile flowers pretty much every day, and I’ve also put up some rosemary and sage to dry (for winter cooking). My big failure in the garden last year was insufficient harvesting. I am trying to be a better steward of the plants this year. (But also not over-harvesting which I did last fall to a couple of plants. They taught me a lesson by not returning.)

I’ve already harvested both catnip and yarrow twice, using them together in a brandy-based tincture that I have found to be quite helpful when taken at the first sign of cold or flu.

I don’t do a lot of cooking in the summer but we had a few cool days in June and I was pulled into the kitchen. I made my first shepherd’s pie (futzy but fun, and not bad at all), rhubarb sauce (twice), pork chops with apples and rhubarb (very good), and refried beans. I’ve also gotten into the habit of making extra and freezing things so we have a few decent meals for really hot weeks when I just can’t stand the thought of cooking.

Lightning2June is not so much about birding. By the time June rolls around, I’m usually feeling a bit birded out and my interest turns more to the garden. It’s one of the wonderful things about the natural world: There’s always something to capture your interest. Birds. Ants. Monarchs. Thunderstorms. Something as simple as mowing the lawn can lead to a discovery.

May Reprise

May is my month of abundance; an embarrassment of riches. Books, bookstores, birthday, and birding rise to the top as highlights, as well as gardening and watching things come back to life. MinBooks.  I read 13 books in May, 5 each for fiction and nonfiction, and 3 poetry. The big standout was The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop by Lewis Buzbee, which I’ve already written about. I also particularly liked Red Azalea, by Anchee Min, a memoir of growing up in China under Mao. Very compelling and I learned a lot (not surprising given my sparse knowledge of China). The reading theme for May was color, and I did indeed complete the color spectrum:

  • Red Azalea, Anchee Min
  • From the Orange Mailbox, A. Carman Clark
  • The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop, Lewis Buzbee
  • A Few Green Leaves, Barbara Pym
  • Blue Jelly, Debby Bull
  • Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo, Ntozake Shange
  • Violet & Claire, Francesca Lia Block

It was fun in that I had the books in my collection to do it, and I read a lot of books that have been languishing unread for years (one of the great boons of the monthly reading theme), but I didn’t get to several of the books I had really wanted to read (the one that stands out most particularly is Red Harvest, by Dashiell Hammett). Of course that seems to be the case with every reading theme, so I guess I’m best off not blaming the color spectrum.

moon palaceProbably the bigger book story of May was the purchasing side. We went a little wild on that front. May is always a big month for buying books because it’s my birthday month and also we usually go to WisCon (Feminist Science Fiction Convention hosted annually in Madison, WI) where the books are not to be resisted. We didn’t go to WisCon, but we have a goodly number of local bookstores and we managed to hit several of them (Moon Palace Books, Minnesota’s Bookstore, Micawber’s Books, SubText, Magers & Quinn, Dreamhaven, Sixth Chamber, and three different Half Price Books). Crazy, huh? But it’s a vacation! We saved all that travel money, but then we spent it on books (yes, even more books than last May when we DID go to WisCon, an increase of a hefty 75%). We got more books in May (58) than we did in January-April combined. Lots of nonfiction (31) and fiction (19) and also several new volumes of poetry (7). An extravagant month as books go!

Birding. I added 62 birds to my year list in May! This was a spectacular May for shorebirds and I added a few to my lifelist, including White-Rumped Sandpiper, Least Sandpiper, Semipalmated Sandpiper, and Short-Billed sbdow_beauliddellDowitcher. Of these, the most exciting was the Short-Billed Dowitcher, which we saw at the Princeton Sewage Ponds. It was just there for the longest time, and we watched and watched and watched. The sandpipers I know I have seen before, but never close enough views to truly identify them. The waters were really low at Old Cedar one birding morning, and what at first looked like empty mudflats were in fact mudflats teaming with shorebirds. Oh they can blend! Other particularly fun sitings in May:

  • Wilson’s Phalarope (5-8)
  • Indigo Bunting (5-12)
  • Red-Shouldered Hawk (5-16)
  • Blue-Headed Vireo (5-19; new yard bird!)
  • American White Pelican (5-24)
  • Earred Grebe (5-30)
  • Caspian Tern (5-30)

I’ve only seen a few Caspian Terns in my life, so it was a rare treat at Old Cedar. Just one, but it flew in close and then settled down on a sandbar where it stayed for a good half hour or so. Lovely.

Medicinal Herbs. After a bit of a hiatus, I’ve gotten back into the swing of things. I felt like I had gone too broad, taken on too much, tried too much (with scads of bottles and jars filled with tinctures, herbs, and oils to prove it!) and said as much to a friend. My wise friend said it was probably not a mistake to go so broad to start—that’s how you learn the scope of the field. And I realized that I have learned a lot about what’s out there, and also the things that I most use and need, as well as what I am most drawn to. So now I am starting to focus in.

One of the things I like best is salve. I like to make it, I like to give it away, and I like to use it. I made another batch of the ginger, chamomile, clove, and black pepper salve (good for muscle massage and body aches); another batch of rosemary-chamomile salve (my favorite and most popular with my friends, and good for mild arthritis); and a thyme-chamomile salve (soothing and good for disinfecting).

Chamomile is one of my go-to herbs, so I’ve planted some from seed this year. I’ve moved several into large pots and am hoping to have a decent crop in a few weeks. Last year I was horrible about harvesting, and this year I vow to do better. Most especially with the chamomile (which I can buy at the co-op but it just doesn’t smell as good as the home-grown does) and rosemary (which I use vastly in cooking and for medicinals).

rhubarbCooking. My rhubarb was crying to be picked by early May, and pick I have. Several batches of rhubarb sauce later (the most recent just yesterday, with brown sugar, honey, and cinnamon), it’s still going strong. When we had a cold rainy spell mid-month I made some beef stew. I also made a huge batch of spaghetti sauce and froze a few pints for summer days when I don’t feel like making it from scratch.

Other highlights. May Baskets! Seeing Bernie Sanders, first mowing of the lawn (second, third), and cleaning out the garden beds. Perhaps the greatest highlight of the month: My mom gave me her dutch oven. She has used this for roasts for years, her most prized piece of cookware. But at 94, she isn’t cooking very much any more, and she has handed it down to me. I am thrilled. I hope to do her proud.

April Reprise

April was a most excellent month. Longer, warmer days, forsythia, migrating and returning birds, and new things to see every day. I also did a lot of reading in April (21 books), mostly nonfiction (9) and poetry (8). The reading theme for April was spirituality/religion, a hugely broad theme when you apply it to titles of books. For example, here are the nonfiction books I read:

  • Tap Dancing in Zen, Geri Larkin
  • Letter to a Priest, Simone Weil
  • Seeds From a Birch Tree, Clark Strand
  • Simple Truths, Kent Nerburn
  • The Fragrance of God, Vigen Guroian
  • Finding Beauty in a Broken World, Terry Tempest Williams
  • The 7 Lively Sins, Karen Salmansohn

The two standouts here were Tap Dancing in Zen (which will require its own post on truth telling, among other things), and Finding Beauty in a Broken World (which I’ve already written about).

The subjective input as to what constitutes a spiritual title allowed me pretty free range with the poetry. Here’s what I ended up reading:

  • In Quiet Light, Marilyn Chandler McEntyre
  • God’s Loud Hand, Kelly Cherry
  • Just This, Margaret Chula
  • Sleeping Preacher, Julia Kasdorf
  • Cold Angel of Mercy, Amy Randolph
  • Easter Sunday, Tom Clark
  • Pure Pagan, Burton Raffel (ed.)
  • A Silence Opens, Amy Clampitt

This is what I love about the reading theme: Since it involves primarily the title rather than the content of the book (though that is my own personal parameter, and I sometimes eschew it), you can often go far beyond what you might think of as suitable titles.

Only two of the four fiction books I read fell under the theme: The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, by Philip Pullman; and Personal Demons, by Stacia Kane. It was not a strong fiction month. Enough about books.

After a bit of a hiatus, I’ve recently gotten back into my herbal work. I think it all started when I planted the chamomile seeds outside in the middle of April. (They are sprouting now.) And then I ran out of my ginger-chamomile-clove-black peppercorn salve (which is good for sore muscles), and that was the trigger. I’m planning on making a couple more, including one based on thyme which I’ve only recently come to appreciate. It’s nice to be back in the herb groove again. In the garden, sage and feverfew are returning, along with comfrey and St. John’s Wort.

As for birding, I try to remember to bring binoculars with me pretty much everywhere at this time of year. I added 48 birds to my year list in April (which more than doubled it). I added one bird to my lifelist (Ross’s Goose), and one bird to my yard list (Brown Thrasher—it hung around for the longest time; I was absolutely thrilled). A few other fun birds and date first seen:

  • 4-1: Great Egret
  • 4-4: Yellow-Headed Blackbird
  • 4-9: Common Loon
  • 4-10: Hermit Thrush
  • 4-14: Black-Crowned Night Heron
  • 4-23: Horned Grebe
  • 4-30: Wild Turkey

With the exception of the Yellow-Headed Blackbird, all were seen in Minneapolis. I love this city.

I had a bit of a breakthrough with the clarinet. I was getting quite discouraged when I couldn’t get the lowest keys on scale. What I remembered in my fingers (I’m relearning since high school) didn’t match what I was reading in the lesson book or hearing. What was I doing wrong? What wasn’t I getting? Was it broken? Why is this key so floppy?

I couldn’t figure it out.

And then, days later. Maybe after I felt guilty about ignoring it too long, I should at least put it away in its case. But look, what’s this? This small little wire here, sticking out. That doesn’t seem like it should stick out like that. What IS this? I have never noticed it and the wire doesn’t seem right, but there was a little place that looked like the perfect home where it would snug-in, so I tried it and the clarinet was fixed!

I was exceptionally pleased. Such a small thing.

Such a lovely month. But I did miss the April showers.

March Reprise

numbersMarch was mostly about reading and cooking. A lot of reading. I couldn’t help myself. The reading theme for March was numbers, and the shelves were laden with fine number titles. So many books, and only 31 days. Here are the ones I managed to squeeze in:


  • XVI, by Julia Karr
  • The Postman Always Rings Twice, by James M. Cain
  • First Frost, by Sarah Addison Allen
  • Three, by Annemarie Monahan

None of these books knocked my socks off. I enjoyed First Frost (which is a follow-up to Garden Spells, my favorite Allen novel), and it was the perfect light read while I was recovering from the flu. XVI, a YA novel of a dystopian future, intrigued me enough to seek out the sequel, Truth, which I devoured nearly in one sitting.


  • Nine and a Half Weeks, by Elizabeth McNeill
  • At Seventy, by May Sarton
  • Forty Ways to Look at Winston Churchill, by Gretchen Rubin
  • Dance for Two, by Alan Lightman
  • One’s Company, by Barbara Holland

lightmanAt Seventy will be in my top five favorite books of the year I expect. I do love May Sarton. I also loved Dance for Two, by Alan Lightman (my favorite physicist and author of one of my all-time favorite books, Einstein’s Dreams). Dance for Two is a book of essays, often, but not always mostly, about science. It puts me in mind of Lewis Thomas’s The Lives of a Cell (also science essays), another longtime favorite book.


  • New Numbers, by Josie Kearns
  • A Thousand Mornings, by Mary Oliver
  • 19 Varieties of Gazelle, by Naomi Shihab Nye
  • Eleventh Toe, by Julie Roorda
  • 48 Questions, by Richard Jones
  • Seven-Star Bird, by David Daniel
  • 87 North, by Michael Coffey

gazelleMarch was a great month for poetry. At the top of the list was 48 Questions, by Richard Jones. This book is in the form of an interview. He agreed to a written interview, and answered 48 questions with these poems. Some are relatively straightforward answers, some are puzzles, and some are simply beautiful. I loved the concept and the book. Eleventh Toe had one of the best sestinas I’ve read in years, and 19 Varieties of Gazelle is a beautiful and at times searing book of poems about the Middle East. I should include a bit from each book, but instead realize that each would best stand on its own as a post, so watch for that in the coming weeks.

March was also about cooking. My great success was braised turkey legs (braised in turkey stock with some lemon juice). I also made potato sausage (belated Christmas), macaroni and cheese (first time from scratch and already I am ready to try for a new and improved creamier version), and spaghetti sauce that turned out extra good when I added a couple of teaspoons of thyme and rosemary ground together.

Disasters: I got a horrible gloppy mess with a casserole I HAD MADE BEFORE. I’ve never quite experienced noodles bonding with such force. And I made some chicken thighs in what seemed to be a wonderful sauce of lemon, garlic, honey, and mustard, but all that came through was the lemon and it was a surprisingly and surpassingly boring dish. Even the spouse with the forgiving palate didn’t ask for seconds on this one.

rwbbOf course March is also about spring and the start of bird migration. Here are the birds I added to my year list in March: Sharp-Shinned Hawk, American Kestrel, Eastern Screech Owl, Red-Bellied Woodpecker, Mourning Dove, Wood Duck, Ring-Billed Gull, Turkey Vulture, Red-Winged Blackbird, and Pied-Billed Grebe.

One other thing for March: I started watching West Wing (the first season). I missed this when it was on television, and am totally enjoying it. We are nearly done with Season 1 (we had to return it to the library and then reorder it, because you can only keep DVDs for one week, and even with bingeing it’s hard to fit 22 hour-long episodes into one week). Just a few episodes to go.

Already I have ordered Season 2.

February Reprise

snowFebruary was about books, cooking, and a bit of music. February was not about winter, as Minneapolis has had little snow to speak of this year. Many places have had more than their fair share of snow this year. I wish we could take some of it off their hands!

AckermanI read 19 books in February, almost evenly divided between poetry (7), fiction (6), and nonfiction (6). The standout book for the month was One Hundred Names for Love, by Diane Ackerman. It’s a memoir recounting the years following her partner’s (author Paul West) stroke—the slow but steady improvement; the challenges in being a caretaker (on many levels); and also the everyday joys and frustrations encountered when you find yourself all of a sudden in a completely different life. I learned so much about strokes and the potential for regaining lost skills and language from this book that I would recommend it to anyone who knows anyone that’s had a stroke. It is also a love story in the finest and truest sense.

Appropriately enough, the reading theme for February was love. It was a fine theme (particularly for fiction) and I found plenty of books on my shelves that fit the bill. The biggest reading disappointment of the month was Haruki Murakami’s The Strange strangeLibrary. I generally love Murakami’s fiction and was totally looking forward to this short, illustrated book. The anticipation was the best part. The book itself was done in 30 minutes (my reading of it, not the writing of it!) which is not a problem, except that my reflection upon completing the book was something along the lines of “well that’s 30 minutes that I’ll never get back.” In contrast, when I finished The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, I wanted to turn back time so that I could read it all over again for the first time. Rereads are nice, but there’s nothing like reading a book that you truly love for the first time.

But by all means, give The Strange Library a go. (I wouldn’t start here if you’ve never read Murakami though.) I’d love to hear from someone who read it and loved it!

I did a ton of cooking in February and learned a lot about braising. So far I’ve done a beef brisket (good), Boston butt (pork shoulder, very good), and next up are turkey legs. There was a recent article in the Star Tribune about braising vegetables, so I might try that after the turkey. I am starting to have Dutch oven greed. I want to have two Dutch ovens so that I can braise two things at once!

I did a goodly bit of playing my clarinet in February too. After figuring out that I simply couldn’t remember all the notes, I realized I could check out instruction books from the library, so I’m working my way through Level 1. It’s a lot of fun, and I’ve learned enough notes that I can play several (short) songs now. Mostly they are silly songs and a large number of Christmas songs, but I’ve found a couple that I will continue to work on to improve my technique.

I’m having trouble with the fingering on the highest and lowest notes. I can’t figure out if I’m reading the chart wrong or if I’m just doing it wrong, or if there’s something wrong with my clarinet. I wish my memory would jog a little bit!

I’ve also continued with the haiku project which has now been running for well over a year. Here are a couple of my favorites from February:

sun shining on snowcardinals
eight cardinals in the dogwoods
winter sentinels

everything’s slippery
you are wet like a woman
such a naughty pear

And of course President Obama continues to receive his weekly missives—I sent him postcard #35 last week.

One other thing: We discovered a new television series (new to us) and have become rather obsessed with it: Last Tango in Halifax. I got the first two seasons from the library, and we stayed up until 3:00 in the morning watching episode after episode. They are currently filming Season 4 in England, but we’re still waiting on Season 3 here in the States. Anticipation!