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.


Red Kuri (Hokkaido)

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Veggies All Around

I feel a bit guilty going out to my main garden. I’ve done very little but obsess and critique the weeds that have been so prevalent out there. AND I’ve been so devoted to the greenhouse beds, watering them every day, pruning the tomato plants, oohing and aahing over the carrots, cucumbers, and very first tomatoes… heartbroken over the blossom end rot, just way too invested.

Then I go out to the main garden and one day after the first tomatoes in the greenhouse (July 11: Bloody Butcher), I find two lovely ripe tomatoes. I was even neglectful about labeling in the main garden, since those seven tomato plants seemed to have all but completely died in the greenhouse before they were transplanted. But this one looks like a Principe Borghese.

In fact, everything is going well out there. The beets, which would have liked more watering and a little more thinning, are emerging from the ground at “salad” size. The peas are going crazy, mostly snow peas, and require picking every day. Same with the first green beans, the bush beans (yea! no rabbits!) and the zucchini.

So tonight I put together the first major stir fry, a fried rice version with some leftover rice and two farm fresh eggs (still not mine). In addition to beans, zucchini, snow peas, radishes, and carrots, I used a few pieces of broccoli that were hanging around, garlic scapes and a small head of fresh garlic (harvested Monday). There was leftover red onion that needed to be used, or I would have resorted to the shallots I pulled last week. Oh, and there was one large-ish (ignored!) shishito pepper I cut up, too.

It’s heating up out there, and that means the weeds are slowing. Not stopped, and in fact tomorrow when it’s cool I’ll spend a few more hours weeding, even vinegar-salting some more burdock and weedy areas between the beds. But more and more I am looking at the beds themselves. The garlic bed is harvested, giving me lots of room to plant something for fall… more beets? some spinach? Carrots? Then again, there is more space in the greenhouse opening up, too…

(Tomorrow: pizza night! Dough rising in the fridge now.)

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Greenhouse in July

I had to laugh when I was at the Walker Sculpture Garden in Minneapolis and saw this sign. I am used to prairies and how long they take, but on this hot day in late June I was still surprised by what looked like a field of weeds. I thought: This place could use a couple thousand prairie plugs.

In the greenhouse, I’ve seen the life of the prairie plants from seed on up through their first bloom. This photo is of a little Black-Eyed Susan, blooming at about 3 inches high. After that it will go dormant until next year. Most of the plugs in the flat didn’t bloom but just went dormant.

Lupine entering dormancy

That was true of the lupine as well, that put out leaves that then dropped until they were no more than bare stems. Same with my new favorite, the wild white indigo.

I thought they were dying from the heat. It’s too hot for the plugs in the greenhouse, so Steve built a large “staging area” where we’ve moved them. One large sprinkler can cover the whole area, so no more hand watering. The bottom of the fence is fine gauge and buried in a trench– to keep the varmits out. They’ll stay there and eventually all go dormant and get covered with snow. Next year they’ll be, well, bigger!

There is, of course, always the possibility that Steve will suddenly make the decision to plant them all in our newly cleared front yard. He’s been talking about that on and off all year. As a fan of Piet Oudolf, the landscaper who did the New York City High Line, he’s been longing for a large area he could transform with “plant communities.” And now we certainly have the “paint” and the canvas. I mean, look at this planning drawing by Piet Oudolf. That is so Steve.


The cut poplars have been burned and cleared and that area is ready for prairie.

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We’re big on fire here. The prairie needs it, so there is a lot of burning in spring and sometimes fall. Last week, those poplar trees that Steve cut down in late spring needed to be burned. Two piles down and three to go (before Saturday when there’s a big party at the farm).

And… I got this for my birthday. Something I’ve wanted for four years, basically since I knew they existed. A flame-throwing weed killer. You hook it up to a grill propane tank, haul it around in a custom cart or, like me, in a small wheelbarrow that will stand on its own.

I was getting desperate for something to do major weed killing so I could keep Steve from “drizzling” Round-up on the weeds. I have 14 beds with areas all around them, plus the potato bed, plus the area just inside and outside the garden fence. A friend told me you can use a gallon of vinegar with a cup of salt and a little Dawn dish detergent to kill weeds. I poured two gallons on some of the worst areas– burdock and thistle areas. That could get expensive, however.

Then my flame-thrower arrived. It’s a great tool.

Although better on small weeds (3-6″), it has done a great job on my weeds. You don’t incinerate them; you just put the heat source over them until the leaves wilt. It’s very satisfying to see dandelion leaves wilt. At first they look like this, and in a day or two they’re GONE.

I’ve been out twice now, and for the first time this summer, things are really dead, not just pulled down to meaningful sizes. I’ll be out again… And next year I’ll get a dedicated tank for it and get on those weeds early!

In the outdoor garden, everything is going great. Right on schedule. Looks like, unlike last year, we’ll have a banner crop of zucchini (so undeservedly maligned!) and a good bean and cucumber crop (helped by keeping the rabbits out). Snow peas are coming in, too. And the celery survived and I can start taking off outer stalks now.

Inside the greenhouse there are 3 cantaloupe(!) and the first of the eggplant have set. I’m still getting cucumbers and really wish I hadn’t planted “cocktail” size cukes. I did put in a few seeds for Longfellow cucumbers where the pea vines were and they’re already coming up. The watermelon has lots of flowers but no fruit yet…

There is a problem with the tomatoes, however. A serious, heart-breaking problem. Blossom-end rot. It is caused by inconsistent watering (not the problem here, although I wonder if the watering is too shallow) OR a calcium deficiency. That’s more likely. I thought since it was fresh potting soil in the new beds that there wouldn’t be any deficiencies. I did also push calcium sticks in there, though maybe not on every plant and maybe not enough. I bought some tomato fertilizer and have sprinkled it around each plant– peppers and eggplant, too.

The problem happens when the fruit sets, so it’s likely to be widespread already. But there are still loads of flowers on the 21 plants (yes, 21). And many of the plants seem fine. We’ll see as the fruit develops. There will obviously be enough tomatoes to eat, but I’m throwing away a lot of small green tomatoes I can already tell are affected. It’s disappointing since I’ve really taken good care of these plants– from seed! Since March!

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Birthday Meal

I’ve been so preoccupied by the greenhouse goodies that I have not paid much attention to the outdoor garden. All I see out there is weeds, mostly, though suddenly things are getting started out there.

Yesterday was my birthday, so I went out to look for produce to put in the omelet. We have kind of given up on eating brunch out because it’s so disappointing! Here we have the best coffee, good breakfast sausage, fresh eggs (though not our own yet), and lots of things to put in those eggs.

Because it was my birthday, I picked the first baby zucchini and yellow squash, which were finger-sized and I’d usually let them get bigger. There were also broccoli florets– the broccoli heads bolted open early, but the side shoots are proving to be good and plentiful.

The kale has of course been producing all the time I’ve been eating greenhouse salad. Time to get that in the mix. And a few of the shallot stems are falling, so I harvested those. With garlic scapes, the veggie pile was quite large, and that omelet turned into a frittata, with feta cheese to round it out. So good.


I learned years ago not to go out for my birthday dinner but to splurge on something good for here. That has sometimes meant steaks, but this year since I’d made a trip to Holy Land grocery, I was craving a big Greek salad. We decided to also do kabobs, so I skewered up some Vidalia onion, cherry tomatoes, baby peppers, and boneless chicken thigh pieces that I dipped in a spice mix.*

It was so windy that the grill wouldn’t stay lit, so in the end I stripped the kabobs into a cast iron pan and charred them there. The key really was that spice mix and the sweet onion. The key really was all of it together.

The salad featured greenhouse cucumbers and garden lettuce. To that I added olives, greenhouse carrots, red onion, Kalamata olives, and a healthy amount of feta. We tossed it with a vinaigrette heavy on Palestinian olive oil (plus champagne vinegar, lemon juice, and a touch of dijon mustard). That salad was so fresh and sweet– amazing.

And of course I made tzatziki sauce with cucumber, garden dill and mint, sour cream, yogurt, and lemon juice. Holy cow. That sauce drizzled over the chicken and veggies and stuffed in a pita. It didn’t cost nearly as much as scallops or steak, and it was better than anything you can get in a restaurant around here.

*Spice Mix for Indian/Middle Eastern chicken or shrimp kabobs: cumin, cayenne, cinnamon, ginger powder, garlic salt, (and either Madras curry powder, garam masala, or masala mix optional).

Last year I served up a carrot cake that I didn’t eat because it tasted like sawdust. This year, oh man, all day my mouth was full of the flavors of the garden and spices.

So if you were wondering if it was a good birthday? Yes. It tasted delicious.

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Wild White Indigo


Thinking about blog post topics a few days ago (before this strange flurry of activity!) I thought: chickens, recipe/garden, beauty.

I’ve been walking around in beauty with a poem line in my head for it seems like three weeks: “When the natural world draws near…”

I’m starting to love June more than any other month. Maybe I should be worried about climate change, because clearly our beautiful Junes without late frosts or days of wind, warm and wet, reflect a significant warming trend.

But I can’t worry too much, because I’m too busy looking at everything.
Because a large turkey just came around the corner of the house in full view of my spot on the porch.
Because the mama duck and her seven ducklings are cutting a path in the grass that would make Emily Dickinson’s heart leap.
Because at night on my way to shut the chicken coup I can see a light green tree frog jumping out of my path. And it’s the only thing I can see.
Because of the exquisite flowers of growth on each branch of the white pine.
Because for the first time I saw a swallowtail butterfly– and knew exactly what it was.
Then saw another trapped in the greenhouse. Unphotographable.
Because of the pheasant standing right square in the middle of the commons.
Because of the turtle’s slow movement to the upper pond.
Because of the early light show of fireflies. (So many!)
Because of the sand hill cranes, with their child, walking through the prairie.
Because the natural world is drawing near and drawing near…

My husband has been speaking in poetry. Seriously. He uses this language about trees and plant communities and even machines and there’s wonder in his voice.

The prairie is coming into early bloom. Spiderwort and Alexander sunflowers and lupine– most of the lupine has already put out its fuzzy pods.

There’s exactly one spray of purple cone flowers, and everything else seems poised to burst open.

And there is wild white indigo. There is wild white indigo. There is wild. white. indigo.

I don’t believe I’ve ever seen it in our prairie, or anywhere, yet I’ve been watering two trays, 144 cells (though about half have germinated), of wild white indigo for months. And then I saw it, out there, something new, and in a place where the prairie is most in danger of being overgrown by grass and thistle…

It has purple stalks that sweep out, and the flowers take their time opening up each stalk, and then in the end they stick their seed pods like a tongue right out of the mouth of the flower.

Because of the greenhouse and Jeff I’m much more attuned to seed pods.

I don’t want to complicate things, this joy I’m feeling lately, this wild awake-ness to the natural world. But I did recognize it a month ago and not name it, then I did name it when I heard a former soldier in Iraq talking about PTSG. That’s PTS-Grow, kind of a different manifestation of post-trauma neuro-response. I’ve been hesitant to talk about it, because on the radio program it sounded like the professionals are just trying to say “not everyone gets suicidal after trauma” and describe what that is about. And “they” sound like cliche machines: living in the present, aware of the gift of life, appreciate what’s important.

I can’t hope to express how different it sounded to my ears, what this guy was expressing. I wasn’t really listening to the radio and when he started talking I perked right up. He was being very concrete about very small appreciations. Openness and awakeness to the world around you in all its particularity and all its splendor. Simplicity in the experience. It’s a state of being I’ve never had before, and I know it is because of the cancer– and more specifically the remission. But anything I could say about it, except to sing its simplicity and splendor, would reduce it.

I got word that my CA-125 cancer marker is still very low on June 9. So I’m not saying it was a kind of post-test euphoria. I had plenty of “scanxiety.” And I’ve been crabby, and stressed, and overwhelmed. That is not what this is. I just wish you could have seen that swallowtail butterfly, and tasted that salmon, and seen that tree frog jump.

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No Food Gap

Usually this time in June is a bare spot in our garden eating. I pulled the bolted lettuce from the greenhouse today (though I still have some in the regular garden). I’ve thinned the beets in the garden so there are baby greens… but otherwise we’d be thrown back to eating kale! Waiting for the zucchini, green beans, cauliflower, and July plants to mature. That’s Minnesota.

But thanks to the greenhouse, we can eat like people in the South eat (you know, like Iowa and Missouri). We are done with lettuce season, but we have beets, carrots and cucumbers, as well as giant basil plants and cilantro. Two cups of harvested peas (those vines also went today). All ready to go.

Out in the regular garden, we also have garlic scapes (yes, we are spared the scape-and-kale routine!)

So although I’m not a super big fan of pesto, I decided to do it for the pea pasta we’ll have tonight.

I wanted something other than the usual basil pesto. Since we have a large wild mint patch, I figured I’d go with basil and mint. And scapes. And I threw in half a seeded jalapeno, too. Local canola oil, walnuts, and salt. Make the measurements to feature the flavors you like. I went 1/2 cup scapes, 2 cups basil, 1 cup mint, 1/3 cup walnuts, 1/2 seeded jalapeno, 1/3 cup Parmesan, salt to taste, oil to consistency desired.

With the remainder of the mint I made a cucumber salad (in June!!) with yogurt sauce– a touch of cumin is the key.

Because we had company, I didn’t rudely take photos of the dinner I made on Friday. But it was a marvel and I was really impressed with my garden!

The salad was garden beet greens/lettuce with carrots and cucumber and cilantro-based vinaigrette. On the plate was roasted baby beets with feta and then salmon that was baked in the oven in foil packets with lime and cilantro, and topped with that dreamy cilantro sauce from Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone by Deborah Madison (buy this even if only for the sauce recipes). The salmon was served over rice mixed with a little sour cream and a bit of cilantro sauce, and the salmon was topped with cilantro sauce. (I freakin’ love that sauce.)

It was one of those super healthy and delicious dinners where you feel you have arrived. All will be well from now until December.

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Chicken Update

I know you’ve been waiting to hear about my new flock of chickens. It’s been awhile since I’ve caught you up.

I’m pleased to report they are every bit as entertaining as the last group. “Blackie,” the sole survivor of the last flock, remains entertaining (even if she runs over to the barn every morning to lay her egg in another coop!) and has even displayed some Lassie-esque skills. One evening when the door to the yard had blown shut, she stood outside the kitchen door until we came out. I exclaimed: “Why aren’t you in bed!” She ran along and showed me exactly why, and hustled into the coop when I opened the door.

I’m afraid she might have lost her preferred spot on the roost. Because one early evening when I went to shut the coop door, I wasn’t sure if she’d come in yet. I peered in and asked, and she ducked her head down under the bar and looked at me, as if to say, “WTF?”

The new flock loves to roost. They roost everywhere. On the rim of the compost area. On the rim of the cold frame raised bed– the only bed outside of the fenced garden. And when I came around and saw them in a row up on the garden tractor, I burst out laughing.

They also, like their predecessors, love to garden with me. They can’t get inside the garden fence, but they will often walk around just outside of it, pecking at bugs and weeds along the fence. And when I’m working on the potatoes, weeding or, this morning, hilling, they all come over and “help” me. They do stick mostly to the weeds, and mucking about for bugs in the compost pile. It’s all very interesting. We all are quite satisfied with ourselves when we’re done.

No eggs yet– I’m thinking July. They do not know about the barn, so I’m hoping they’ll lay in the two roosting boxes I’ve tucked snugly in their coop. I’ve heard Americaunas sometimes lay outside the coop. I got them for their blue eggs– and I expect blue eggs in those roosting boxes! It will probably be a game of hide and seek just as it was with the last group.

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My Tribe



I just returned from my college reunion. It was wonderful to be back in Grinnell, Iowa, with my tribe. I knew some of those in attendance back in college, but I’ve developed many more relationships with people in our “cluster,” classes of 1986, 87, and 88, thanks to Facebook and more intentional efforts by groups, particularly groups of women, to build community and get together. I reached out to this community last March when I received my cancer diagnosis, and they responded with an incredible show of love and support.

So at the reunion I was in a somewhat strange spot as “cancer survivor.” I never want to be too optimistic. I want to be just optimistic enough. But really, optimism was beyond the point, because it was glorious just to be there, healthy today, to hug and hug and have time to talk about all those things you can’t fit on Facebook posts. To hear voices and accents, see smiles, hear laughs, and contribute my own.

Many people shared anxieties before the reunion. But what was clear as soon as we arrived is that we are aging together. Three years ago, at the last cluster reunion (’84-’86), we were a little excessive. And when we got home some women posted photos of their “cankles,” swollen ankles, a new things for us at 50. This time around there was a lot more talk of “pacing ourselves” and after two nights of dancing I heard three different women say their hips hurt. My tribe.

Susan Sink, photo by JB Letchinger

As a cancer survivor, you join a tribe you didn’t really want to be part of. Membership is important for support, especially in times like this week as I wait for my 6-month check-up and blood test. In a recent column, Susan Gubar wrote about “scanxiety,” the fear at the edges each time a cancer survivor goes in for a test. Although I didn’t find Gubar’s book about ovarian cancer helpful, I really appreciate her column in the New York Times, “Living with Cancer,” which has gone on longer than she expected as she is in her ninth year as a survivor. Psychologically, you’re going to “go places,” and it’s nice to dip in to that column or tribe, check in with a member, and then move back to living day by day.

When you join that tribe, the fear is that you have jumped the track and your old tribe is going to go on without you into the distance of “ordinary aging.” So I have to say, I reveled in the experience of this past weekend. The first night a group of us, after one Cosmo each, went to our rooms to “settle in” at 9 p.m. On Friday night I decided to “leave it all on the dance floor” when “She Man and the Masters of the Universe,” a reconstructed band from our college days, played a wonderful, funk-filled set. I had more to leave on that dance floor than I could have imagined. Haven’t danced that much outside my own kitchen in years.

Left to right, Kent Staley, Byron Ricks, Tim Black, and Will Kaylor

I wasn’t sure what to expect from the weekend–none of us were. We arrived carrying more lawn chairs and fans and pillows than in years past. And less whiskey. Someone overheard a person from the Class of 2012 say, upon passing our lounge party Saturday night: “There’s good music in there. But then we’d have to watch old people dance.” Truth is, I laughed a bit at our middle aged dancing, but from love and recognition.

Now I’ve returned to watering and weeding and chickens. Tonight, we ate spaghetti carbonara with PEAS and asparagus from the garden. Life is very, very good.

View of train tracks and South Campus at Grinnell by Jim Rasmussen



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