Women and Cancer

OK, enough with the pause (haha), I have something on my mind and some time to say it.

This morning I was reading a blog by a friend who just had her last (16th) chemotherapy treatment for cancer. She lives in Japan. In a Facebook group for women in midlife that I am part of, three of us have had cancer in a year. We were supported by women in this group who have not had cancer but also by several for whom the experience is clear and ever-present.

Last month was Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month (go teal!!) but on October 1, when the man whose wife has had three rounds of breast cancer put my chicken in a pink plastic grocery bag, I knew what month this is. Bring out the football players in their pink shoes and put on your pink ribbon pins, folks, cause it’s Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

Reading my friend’s post, where she wrote about ways she has changed this year– connections made, love experienced, a new openness and awareness of strength– and ways she knows she will continue to change and realize changes in the coming year, I thought that in a way “women” is different than it was because of breast cancer.

Last week, when Julia Louis-Dreyfus announced that she has breast cancer, she said: “1 in 8 women gets breast cancer, and today I’m the one.”

How has the prevalence of reproductive cancers impacted female identity?

I hardly know how to answer, and of course to answer, is to answer how have reproductive cancers impacted the world.

Because this is America, we can start by the industry it has generated. I’m not talking about the treatment industry, which is in itself gigantic, and includes several options for implants and reconstruction. But if you don’t want breast reconstruction, there is a piece of the industry for padded bras/prosthetics. And the industry we’re talking about here is the beauty industry. Because: women. The industry tells you two things: you can (still) be beautiful and/or you can be/are brave. Beautiful and brave. Brave in your baldness– but with many beauty options. For me it is encapsulated in the American Cancer Society’s “Look Good Feel Good” event I attended in April 2016. What was interesting to me was that only one of us out of the five was actually there for the make-up. I gave mine to Steve’s aunt afterward. We were subjected to videos by a national make-up association and a fashion association with advice on how to buy clothes now and encouraging us that proper make-up could help us continue to look beautiful even as chemo took our hair. (It also severely compromises your skin, so using those cosmetics was out of the question for me.) The event was a way for several of us in treatment to meet each other, which allowed us then to check in with each other when we had treatment on the same days. It’s where I met my chemo buddy.

So, yes, we are pelted by the fashion and cosmetics industry. I did succumb somewhat. I bought some dresses and earrings in addition to lots of needed pajamas. (Once you’re finished treatment, you’re invited to celebrate by buying a new wardrobe!) I added the term “self-care” to my vocabulary. I had amazing and therapeutic “oncology facials” once a month during treatment– to call them facials is to completely misunderstand the therapy, which moved lymph and treated burning, damaged skin, and even once included a gentle abdomen mask(!!) And the caring attention from Amanda during and after the treatment was another relationship aspect– and deepened my understanding of and appreciation for therapeutic touch tremendously.

And that, I think, is the real area to focus on. If 1 in 8 women experience a year or more of discovering how strong their bodies really are (to fight it) and are opened suddenly to receive care and love from others, and to express love for others, all of which they continue to carry with them throughout the world, well– what does that do?

As more and more women learn that death is a part of life and that dying is a natural process, and learn to be with others as they die, to face death as well as life– what does that do?

 

When I was in treatment, my baldness identified me. I was approached by so many cancer survivors. We are in a world filled with cancer survivors. What does that do?

The “pink” has brought cancer survivors out into the open. And also the vast improvement to treatment– the anti-nausea meds particularly– that allow many women with cancer to be present in the world even during treatment. There is less stigma. And so we recognize each other and start to realize how many of us are in the world.

 

 

(*Photos of one of the sunflowers I grew this year. They are scary plants– like planting palm trees in your garden! But the results were surprising and great. I’ll have sprouts from my own seeds this February when nothing else to eat is green.)

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Pause

Dear Reader,

I started writing this blog back in 2008. I started it for a specific reason. I’d written an essay that I submitted to America magazine. It was a risky essay, and it was a nuanced one– about living in an imperfect church and in response to Barack Obama being heavily criticized for going to a church with a “radical” pastor. I got a response back from the magazine saying they would like to publish it in an edited form. The edited form removed the context (Obama) and was just my description of the imperfections of my own local church. I said no. And I really wanted to have an essay in America. To let them publish my essay in this eviscerated and seemingly gratuitous form was impossible– would have been immoral, actually.

So many times, in my relationship to publishing, I have felt pain– I’m not talking about rejection, I’m talking about the way my work has been treated by those who accepted it. And that experience with America was kind of a last straw. I wanted to write and get out to people what I was writing without going through that process. I started to blog.

At first I thought I would do mostly long-form essays. But I became a blogger instead. And I didn’t want to call my blog something clever, but just simply my name, a place people could find my work.

Soon after, I found cowbird.com, and I used that as a place for posting “creative” work. On the blog I wrote about life– which was more and more about growing food and cooking, and in the winters about movie and theater reviews. It was less what I was thinking and more what I was living.

In the years I’ve been writing this blog, I have also written many, many pages about the art of The Saint John’s Bible. I have written a collection of 100-word stories based on the oral histories of Benedictine Sisters I had the honor of working for from 2008-2012, called Habits. It did pretty well out there. I wrote another collection of poems, published in 2016, H is for Harry. I wrote an unpublished novel in several drafts, and began another I hope to finish in 2018.

When I received my cancer diagnosis in February 2016, all I could write for the next year was the blog. And through the blog I received tremendous support as people followed that way of living with me.

I’ve come out of chemotherapy and into remission, which I hope will be a long term remission. The longest. Sometimes I dare to ask myself– will I die of something other than cancer? As I meet and read about older ovarian cancer survivors, this seems possible.

I’ve also found myself in a big juggling act. I am slightly diminished in my mental and physical capacity. I am doing three small jobs, but they require me to change gears more often (or maybe my gears don’t shift as smoothly). I’m about to plunge into a major writing project (Religious Education curriculum) and know my fall will be full of that. I am still gardening and still cooking, and the greenhouse has added another layer to that activity. But I don’t find myself sitting down to write the blog entries– my camera fills with images I don’t post. Sometimes I don’t have my camera with me. The blog feels more like a burden than a delight.

I’ve been writing more poetry. It is a different poetry for me. It comes, I think, from working on poetry with children, and also from wanting to go other places in my imagination. I find myself not digging into my own life experience as much as casting out lines and seeing what strange things I pull into the boat. I’m publishing that on medium.com. If you’d like you can follow me there.

And I hope to embark on a big writing adventure in February, if I can get into a class at the Loft in Minneapolis and get back to that North Dakota novel I left behind in March 2016.

I’m thinking of also getting a clever handle on Instagram where I can easily post my daily harvest and my cooking projects. Oddly enough, I still go to this blog each year when I need my red pepper sauce recipe or my pickle recipe.

For now, it’s time to “close down” the blog, by which I mean just to stop regular posting. It will always be here, I hope, (though it might move again to WordPress).

Over these years, readers have come and gone. I’ve met new people online and enjoyed some who just dropped in (to tell me how their camel cooking adventures went, for example). I’ve also been able to more deeply engage with people I already knew. It’s been strange to visit with people in real life and have them know already what’s going on from the blog. Now I’ll get to tell the stories myself.

Thank you, dear reader, for your friendship and companionship these years. Keep in touch.

Love,

Susan

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First Eggs

I’ve been really having a time of it with my chickens. I am really starting to resent them. They are just not laying eggs. I put in two nice brooder boxes for them, and every time I filled them with straw, the chickens pulled it all out. I thought they might want the boxes higher, so I stacked them. Mostly I just let them range and kept an eye out anywhere chickens might lay eggs.

Blackie, the last remaining Silver-laced Wyandotte, runs over every morning to the neighbor’s barn, where she lays her egg if she has one to lay, and where she hangs out with her friend “Old Red” until evening. We often see her ambling home across the Commons while we’re having dinner on the porch. At least she is entertaining.

My niece Dale came for a 3-day visit and we looked around for possible caches of eggs. I expected the four young chickens to start laying mid-July. That’s six weeks of frustration that has built up.

She left Tuesday, having made salsa and picked tomatoes and dug up one of the potato bags, and having eaten very nice eggs– from someone else’s farm. The chickens themselves didn’t come around and let her inspect them, either. They mostly hid beneath the pine tree by the pond.

But let’s back up. Everything was fine back when I had six lovely chickens, so adorable, often lining up on the garden cart. See how those Wyandottes all look alike??

The trouble began when we started hearing crowing. Definitely crowing. Starting at 5 am and continuing through the morning, afternoon, and into the evening. It bounced off the other houses back at us. But I couldn’t tell which of the Wyandottes (it had to be them) was the rooster.

Until I got a closer look at the tail feathers. And realized if one of these was a rooster, so was her sister. A few weeks ago we dispatched both of them while they were still tender.

I thought the hens might perk up and lay after that, but as of Tuesday, no eggs anywhere to be found. Then on Friday, I looked down next to the front door, behind the arbor vitae, where many things seem to fall, and found EIGHT green eggs!

Steve and I celebrated immediately by making a good veggie scramble as a side dish to the Friday ribs and although ribs are my favorite meal, the eggs were better.

Now, poor things, they are spending the weekend in chicken prison. And I am a fierce warden. Water and feed, well, and when I’m feeling bad for them a sleeve of very stale Ritz crackers, and this pumpkin they had already started eating when it was on the porch.

The idea is to get them to bond or at least accept that they must lay their eggs in the new brooder box. I had to do a lot of whining to get this thing, and Steve worked hard on it. Look at this deluxe piece of construction. Rain roof even. Cozy spots.

But so far they are avoiding it. No one has even gone inside to press down the straw. They’re busy dining on crackers. And when two finally broke down after 36 hours and lay their green eggs, they did so in the coop.

So that’s two eggs of the three Americaunas. I’ve yet to see a brown one from the remaining Wyandotte, and Blackie, well, she can just get to know these girls better. Wouldn’t hurt her to be a good example and lay in the brooder box. But I’m not holding my breath on that account.

 

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Epic Eclipse Road Trip

Eclipse photos by Narrah Kansas Palmquist

These are photos taken by my friend Narrah of the total eclipse in Queeny Park in Ballwin, Missouri.

I saw it from about 40 miles from there, another well-named place, Herculaneum, Missouri. In a park that had a good spooky name, Bates Memorial Park. I didn’t take many photos of the eclipse itself. I was “experiencing” it, and also the iphone-through-the-glasses trick didn’t work well for me.

It did get dark, but more like twilight with a 360-degree pink sunset. It did get slightly cooler, but since it was in the 90s and humid as heck, not that noticeable. Totality looked like a hole was punched in the sky. If I was an ancient person, I would have been freaked out, but I think I also would have gotten over it when it stopped after 2 minutes and nothing else happened. I would probably have wanted to record it in a cave drawing. That was the level of excellence of the experience.

The main thing, though, was the great road trip. I drove to Waverly, Iowa, on Saturday and stayed with friends Sarah and Tom Scott, who have a wonderful large farm home, 360 acres, some really pretty cows and a large, mixed flock of chickens. I think the biggest difference between Iowa and Minnesota is the willows. They have a gorgeous, giant weeping willow, whereas we have those floppy, not very interesting willows. Our signature tree is the oak.

The Rada Scott House in Waverly

Oh, and a peacock and a peahen with three chicks who is staying in one of the four bird buildings. (*more bird photos at the end of this post because I’m obsessed…)

Sunday we picked up their friend Lucy and went down to St. Louis, where I met up with Todd Oberman and Laura Davis. Two of their children came down from Chicago for the event, and it was great to meet Nina and Josh and observe some first rate parent/young adult interactions. As “spy in the back seat” to the eclipse and back, I got the inside scoop.

Then it was back to Waverly, and the next day home. I stopped in Northfield to have lunch at Hogan Brothers with the owner, my brother-in-law Greg, and two nephews who were working in the kitchen. And on the way out of town followed this truck full of corn.

truck full of sweet corn

Saw a lot of corn (Iowa corn and Missouri corn do not look the same) and had some great eats (ham steaks from last year’s pig in Iowa, and a fabulous quiche and peach pie by crust-maker extraordinaire Laura Davis, as well as an excellent taco, guac, and agua fresca at Mission Taco, in St. Louis.

Was it worth it? Oh yes it was. Grateful to all who took me into their homes and cars and shared this experience with me.

OK, now the birds…

hard to see in the sun, but this is a complex of four buildings, each painted in pastel colors, all housing birds, including the dovecote with homing pigeons.

The pigeons, though, were hanging out on this barn roof watching the cows.

full flock

Sarah has a mix of chickens who breed freely with each other. She has guineas, and silkies, and the crazy “naked neck” Turken chickens, and more.

Here’s a beautiful bantam rooster and a turken hen.

And here is a mixed up rooster for sure– lovely bantam feathers in back and a mostly naked neck in front.

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Green Beans

I don’t want to leave those squash bugs at the top of the feed any longer than necessary! I’m headed off to experience the eclipse near St. Louis, so won’t be posting for a few days. I’ll just share a happy garden moment.

Over the years you may have noticed that I am not a big green bean fan. When I first moved to the farm, the only thing Steve grew were tomatoes and green beans. He had a long, low fence along which he planted green beans– tons of them. And he had another raised bed for tomatoes. Those were the original two beds that quickly became three, then six, then twelve, then fifteen…

I’ve moved the green beans around and tried some fancy supports like those expandable bamboo tipis (mine broke off in the wind at ground level). I finally settled on a tall pea fence. But I’ve always overplanted. By August, my bean fence is almost always swaying back and forth or leaning in one direction and needs to be propped up and staked with rope.

But not this year. This year I planted six bush plants (saxa french beans) that produce a great multitude of sweet, thin beans, then give out. I also planted six and only six climbing bean plants, three purple and three green. The purple beans also started bearing early and then got swollen and stopped. They’re coming back now, though, for the usual late-season run. The pole green beans, though, have been– and I never use this word for beans– lovely. Just lovely. I want to say it with a British accent. The leaves are lovely and the vines are lovely and the beans are absolutely lovely.

I haven’t gotten overwhelmed, either. I froze a couple bags of them for winter stew and soups, but otherwise I’ve just had enough to cook up now and then with butter and salt and serve alongside things. Things like our roasted rooster. (Oh, I probably didn’t tell you we killed our two roosters. Did I even tell you two of our chickens turned out to be roosters? They were pretty and not very aggressive, but they were also really, really loud. And not just at dawn but every hour on the hour from 5 a.m. until noon. No one misses them. But I’m mad at the chickens, who have still not laid a single egg, so let’s not talk about them.)

Beans. The beans are what you’d most want them to be. When they’re immature they are slightly sticky. They lose that when they are full length. They hang down in full view. I only get a handful a day, which I slip into a bag in the fridge until we eat them. I still don’t like them raw– I mean, let’s not go crazy. And I always reach for a cucumber or tomato first. But the beans this year, really. So lovely.

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Race to Ripeness

The garden has been a real battle this summer. I’ve focused on the weeds, and yes, I did have to resort to the nuclear option (Roundup) to finally kill the four large burdock plants and some extra-resistant thistles (only around the garden fence, not near the food). Even salting the earth wouldn’t kill them!


I always have some bugs in the garden, usually Colorado potato bugs that I deter with an organic spray that kills the larvae and eggs and drives them away. At the end of the season I also usually see bugs I’ve always called squash bugs but they are actually cucumber beetles. Cucumber beetles are cute little bugs that look like lightening bugs but black with yellow stripes. By the time they arrive, things are mostly wrapped up and they have never actually killed any of my plants.

So nothing in my lucky decade of gardening has prepared me for the arrival of true squash bugs, the Anasa tristis. Seriously. These things arrived in squadrons earlier this summer, starting in on the zucchini. I squashed them as I could and particularly worked to rub out the eggs they lay in clusters on the underside of leaves. I was familiar with that tactic from the potato bugs.

But when I was on vacation, Steve sent me a photo of the winter squash patch that broke my heart. The squash bugs had moved on to them and clearly were doing more damage than I’d be able to manage. It is a true infestation.

But one thing that has surprised me is the ability of the plants to survive this kind of thing. Out in the greenhouse, my cucumber plants and eggplants were infested with spider mites. I tried to control them by spraying water on their webs. I had thought when I returned from vacation I’d have to pull up the cucumber plants, which I’d left in because despite the damage they kept producing good cucumbers! When I got back I also learned I could spray them with “tomato tea” made from pulverizing green tomatoes and their leaves and diluting with water. The mites wanted nothing to do with the tomato plants, so it seemed like a good remedy.

The cucumber and eggplant vines hardly seemed to need it, though. In addition to new growth, even the infected vines seemed to be rallying and gaining green. There were fewer mites and the eggplants were putting out more flowers. I sprayed and keep at them with the hose, but I’m so heartened by the way the plants have survived the attack.

August is also a time I call “the race to ripeness.” Usually about now blight starts on the tomato plants. If not bugs, then wilt usually starts spreading through the squash field. The hope is that the fruit will ripen before the plant dies.

squash vine borer

 

I pulled out two of the four zucchini plants, but the other two are still hanging in there, producing new leaves and new flowers. The two I pulled out were foul smelling (I hear anasa tristis give off a foul odor when disturbed) and had evil squash vine borers in the core of their vine. I popped their little heads off. The other two vines look healthy so far. (The web also says that squash bugs give off a bacteria that causes yellow vine disease, which I seem to have in the winter squash patch.)

 

Out in the winter squash field, I harvested the small squash that were ripe– the beautiful Hokkaido/red kuri squash are a bright, deep orange red. I’ve already made a delicious dip out of one of them. There were nearly a dozen ripe delicata.

The pumpkin might not make it. The other late ripener is the butternut squash, which just set fruit a few weeks ago. But I read that butternut squash is the most resistant to anasa tristis so maybe some will ripen before the vines die. They are the only vines still out there setting a lot of flowers and growing out into the grass and up the fence.

I’ll work harder on my “garden hygiene” for next year. I’ll drag out the dead vines to the far edge of the field. I’m hoping to lay landscaping fabric between all the beds this fall. In the spring, in addition to killing the weeds more quickly with my blow torch, I’ll keep an eye out for earliest signs of those evil squash bugs. I’ll give my vine plants more room to sprawl. In the greenhouse, I’ll control the mites with Neem oil or tomato tea before they get a foothold. Because these guys may have won the battle, but they’re no way going to win the war.

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What Makes Poetry

I think about poetry a lot. Particularly what makes a poem. In this time of free verse when it seems few of the tools of poetry are being put to good use, I still know a poem when I see one. Lately I’ve been reading poems (and essays) that gather their materials up front, do a little roaming around in them, and then completely fall apart. Right when it’s time to make a point or give me something I can be happy going away with, they collapse. I’m not saying I’m immune to this, which is why I want to pay attention when a poem is a poem and hits its mark.

Recently I picked up Nancy White’s book Ask Again Later. We were in graduate school together and I’ve always admired her poems. I was surprised to find the book is a collection of poems based on biblical stories. The approach is feminist and makes postmodern moves like writing beyond the ending (“Aging Eve”), changing the story by taking a female character’s point of view (“Jael”), bringing female characters at the margins to the center of the stories (“Moses”), and putting characters into discussions with contemporary feminists (“Betty Friedan Reads to Eve Who’s Sick in Bed”). It’s a hard thing to do well. What I like most about the poems in this book is that they don’t try to retell the story– if you don’t know it, look it up– and they are spare, pressing you to bring what you know to bear (about the Ten Commandments for example) to add richness to the poem, not just handing you some message or theological twist.

And I gotta tell you, the first poem stopped me in my tracks. It is “Noa,” the name of one of the five daughters of Zelophahad who argued successfully for inheritance rights given that their father had no male heirs. She’s an obscure figure of the Old Testament, to be sure. I actually do know a young woman who was named Noa by her Jewish attorney parents (who also had no male heirs!), but it’s more often a boy’s name, after that much more famous Noah. The poem goes like this:

 

Noa

     by Nancy White

She stumped us, the flinty
glitter of her tale,
her koans blunt and rubbly.

What to call her, how
to explain? And no one asks
for her anyway.

One more bird by the side of the road,
a high note dropped when
we just can’t hit it.

 

I had to read it twice. But the brilliance of the last stanza’s analogy made me say “yes.” This is the kind of connection, of opening up, I want my poems to do. We all recognize that experience of not being able to hit a high note so dropping a third to an easier one. Or we’ve heard it. And what happens when we drop that note? It is lost. And the song changes. The song becomes less difficult, and though it may keep its resolution, though it may satisfy just as much as the other one, though we don’t actually miss the other note after a while, we probably should.

I spend a lot of time thinking about metaphors and similes and other forms of figurative language. Asking myself: What is that like? What can this be compared to? But I never thought about that dropped high note before.

 

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Jersey Shore

Low tide in the channel

My sister and I recently returned from eight days (11 for her) revisiting the summers of our childhood in Southern New Jersey. We never took these experiences for granted– we always knew that being at the Shore and going crabbing with our grandfather and eating sweet corn and Jersey peaches at the height of ripeness was special.

Docking to eat at The Breezes. Order the crab cake.

As adults, it was especially great to drop down into the lives of our Uncle Eddie and Aunt Kathie and their children who still live in the “Pinelands”/Pine Barrens area right on the coast. We couldn’t see the ocean from their house, but we could smell it. And it was clear to see everywhere the way storms shape that place– particularly Superstorm Sandy, “The Storm.” My relatives should have evacuated but didn’t, and the water, or the surge, came right up to their door or into their garages. My aunt and uncle didn’t sustain any damage to their house– just a boat blown onshore and stacked with a bunch of other large boats at the marina. But even a few houses away they say 8-10 feet of water came into the houses. Now all the small houses are being raised up on pylons or rebuilt on raised platforms. It took me a while to hear “raised” instead of “razed” since my perspective is informed by growing up in tornado country.

This house, not my grandfather’s (which has gone through many changes) but on his street, most closely resembles the house we visited as kids. It backs up to a lagoon (which always made me think of “The Creature from the Black Lagoon,” especially at night) that is just a water road for boats.

That road leads to the channels, with a shadowy view of Atlantic City in the background, always pointed out to us, like the Emerald City on a far shore. The channels are where we put down our strings with large fish pieces, “lunkers,” on the end, and waited for crabs to pick at them. Once we felt the tug, we’d pull it up the two feet or so from the bottom, slowly but surely, until someone would dip in a net and capture the crab. This is what we did again, in those beautiful channels that smell of mud and fish, attacked of course by stinging greenheads (aka salt marsh flies or horse flies). It’s a singular experience and I do feel sorry for those who never get to do it. We caught 36 crabs that met the minimum size requirement of 4.5 inches (though there were some disputes about that later).

My sister Kathy caught this baby, which was thrown back.

 

 

 

 

These guys were not so lucky.

We ate them as part of a seafood feast– first picking the crab meat out with crackers and picks (associated with nuts in my everyday life!) and eating corn/cucumber salsa. Then came clams on the half-shell and 200 steamed little neck clams. And then, the main course, Jersey sweet corn on the cob, “Bubba Gump Shrimp” (a baked dish of shrimp, butter, onion and lemon), and an incredible number of scallops for my Midwestern self to see in one place. Once we’d downed all that seafood, we dug into the pie, hot that morning when we bought it, peach and apple.

higher tide in the channel

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our hero, Kathie Sink, at the corn pot and oven filled with trays of stuffed clams and shrimp.

 

 

The vacation continued down the Shore where my sister and I shared a converted garage air bnb a mile from the beach in Cape May, and where we and our parents and sundry relatives on my mother’s side buzzed around a giant Victorian hotel at the beach, sitting on the rocking chairs, changing in the restrooms, visiting at the pool, and accessing the beach. There were breaks for seafood at regular intervals, and a final dinner of hot fudge sundae. I also feel sad for anyone who has not sat under a beach umbrella at 4 p.m. with their feet in the sand and the waves crashing and the luxurious sea breeze on your skin. (Oh, and especially when the lifeguards walk by, making their final rounds…)

 

On Sunset Beach in Cape May… just before the sun dropped.

storm clouds on the last night at the Inn of Cape May

When I got home, Steve had kept up eating the cucumbers and tomatoes (though he had not picked the zucchini!). He told me he had heard a wonderful interview with Garrison Keillor, where Keillor was expressing his love of the Minnesota garden tomato. What a world to live in where there are tomatoes like this. Just think of the people who never get to eat ripe tomatoes! While I’d been gone, the prairie had changed its clothes. It was coated with a thick blanket of grey-headed coneflowers, the Queen of the Prairie. And yes, I thought, what a special life I have and what a beautiful time to live.

Coneflowers, August 10 2017

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Prairie Tour

 

Our Prairie

Every day I wake up and realize I am living in one of those Jacquie Lawson animated cards. My aunt sends them to me periodically and I always watch them all the way to the end, never skip ahead to the greeting. Usually an unpersoned paintbrush is making a beautiful garden scene. A butterfly or two or four flutter above. At the end everything fills in with color. TaDa! Outside my window is a scene I call “Monarchs in Ecstasy.” Flitting all over the place in ones and twos!

And yet on Sunday all I could think of that I wanted to do was go see some virgin prairie. My thought was to go to Gradeen Prairie, which we visited years ago in the fall. What would it look like at the height of flowering?

Jeff told us that because it hasn’t been burned in several years, it is a bit of a bust right now. We decided instead to do a little local prairie tour, starting with Jeff’s backyard garden in a nearby subdivision where he is cultivating a dizzying array of specimens, including the native lilies above (not to be confused with exotic tiger lilies). He has several things I’ve definitely not seen in our prairie and a few succulents that are native to the Midwest. It was more a “natives” garden tour than a prairie walk, but it was very impressive. I tend to think of Jeff as a bit of a wild man, and he’s famous around our place for leaving tools out and leaving plants strewn about and digging up things and stacking them here and there, but his vegetable garden and his flower and grass plot are extremely tidy. He’s been working out there for nine years and has really made an incredible exhibit.

Rattlesnake Master in Jeff’s garden

Cup plant at Jeff’s garden, something we’ve been growing this year in the greenhouse.

After that we stopped by three of Steve’s prairie projects, one pretty far along and two that are just begun. He had texted ahead so we could tromp around a bit at one house where the owner was away.

Then we headed out to Roscoe, looking for Roscoe Prairie, an extremely well-hidden patch of virgin prairie. It’s impossible to say why this particular piece of land was spared the farming that took place all around it. Too marshy in spots? Too rocky? It took us two tries, even with our smartphones, to find the right dirt road to access it.

Steve at Roscoe Prairie, which is much lower than our prairie but full of flowers.

It was exactly what I wanted to see. A short prairie heavy on “the forbs,” or flowers.

The place was loaded with bees and butterflies, a butterfly I’ve seen before that is plain on the underside and brilliant on the outside of the wings. You only get the display when the wings open, like an illuminated book.

A flower I’ve only seen at Roscoe Prairie.

It was full also of blazing star, one of our favorite flowers but also one that didn’t come up this year in our prairie. It’s hard to say what will appear each year, especially after a burn. This year has been an awesome display, and right now there are all these giant bouquets of purple bergamot. But it was fun to go see what had happened out there in Roscoe, between corn fields and marsh, in a spot where flowers have bloomed for thousands of years.

(Back in town the Roscoe Rangers were playing the Richmond Royals and the stands were full. We hoped to catch a few innings, but it was the bottom of the ninth. Still, everyone stuck around to finish up the hamburgers.)

Blazing star and other flowers at Roscoe Prairie

me at Roscoe Prairie

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Good Health

tomatoes left for dead that are flourishing in the outdoor garden– sunflowers behind

I just read a piece by Sherman Alexie giving his reason for halting a book tour for a memoir about his mother. She has been haunting him in his hotel rooms. In the piece, he says: “I don’t believe in ghosts, but I see them all the time.”

I feel the same way about miracles. We all like to see parallels between nature and our life. In gardens there are good years and bad years for everyone. Yet it is inexplicable to me why my garden, along with my body, was so sick last year and is bursting with life this year.

Carrots and piemento peppers

Oh sure, last year I didn’t tend to my garden the way I usually do. The beds were not as well prepared– no addition of bone meal and blood meal when I turned it over. I didn’t weed as much as I would have liked, but I had friends who helped with the weeding, and that can’t explain everything.

I don’t know why I only got three passable winter squash despite many plants in nourishing raised beds and room to roam. My friend Kate, a professional CSA gardener, said she’d never seen pepper plants have the problem mine did– what could only be called “failure to thrive.” No peppers.

Golden beets, which are notorious for small size and poor germination

And yes, Steve made really important investments in garden infrastructure this year– a fence that keeps the rabbits from the celery and the carrots (last year no carrots at all!) Last year the rabbits even ate the green beans faster than I could pick them. Landscape fabric along with a good dumping of compost in a large bed for the winter squash.

Snow peas over celery

But I’ve been so enamored by the greenhouse this summer I’ve treated the outdoor garden with some benign neglect. I put out seven tomato seedlings that seemed burned up by the greenhouse heat and told them “good luck.” And they have thrived and are covered with baby tomatoes. They are tipping their little cages and I’m just now doing some pruning and staking.

Rattlesnake beans (or some other kind of striped beans)

In my zeal with the propane flame weeder, I singed the last few potato plants in the row, and yet there are not even any potato bugs this year. That is an absolute first for me.

And just when I was feeling frustrated with the cucumber plants outside, which are kind of a mess and seem to only be producing pickling cucumbers, I found this lovely Longfellow and gasped. Yes, I’m back to gasping in the garden.

Steve, who turned 60 last week, was listing out a few “aging” ailments that are interfering with his sleep. Nothing too serious, but nevertheless, I determined not to mention my neuropathy anymore. It’s just a little numbness and doesn’t keep me from anything I want to do. I even went swimming this week to test my feet on hot sand and cold water. It was fine.

I am fine.

And the hard part of gardening is mostly done. The heat of July slows the weeds, and many of the plants produce their own weed protection– like the crazy zucchini that also barely produced last year and need to be harvested every day now. The flame thrower did its job and now I just pick up the hula hoe and get the small stuff.

Even the sweet dumpling squash, which are so picky, and which I planted next to the zucchini and watered well but still were anemic and wilty, have suddenly shot up strong leaves and vine and flowers.

cinderella pumpkin

There’s a giant Cinderella pumpkin in the squash patch, more than one. And truly, it feels like a fairy tale. Not that I believe in that stuff.

It’s hard to tell the Lakota from the Red Kuri (Hokkaido) squash– I planted the latter just because Steve spent a year after college in Hokkaido. The cinderella pumpkin is supposed to be a good variety for cooking.

Lakota

Red Kuri (Hokkaido)

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