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Yardbird

Yardbird

Did the roses win?

My over-sized house has a super-sized yard, a playground, I imagined, when we moved in nearly fourteen years ago. I didn’t even begin to fathom the yard work required to keep it up—in fact, the former owners showed it off with pride all the while insisting it was fairly self-maintaining. That sounded good to me. Later we learned that they would routinely hire grad students to keep the weeds at bay, the leaves raked, the gardens mulched, and the trees and shrubs trimmed. These are tasks I abhor.

In the time I’ve lived in my house, I’ve—ahem—simplified the overly complicated plantings and let the areas around the trees go quite wild. I’ve hired the trees trimmed and said farewell to four tall beauties, the tree contractor showing me how they were strangled by their own roots having been planted too deep by the property’s developers. Flanked by museum-quality lawns on all sides, my yard is untreated and thus the one with violets and marigolds and, more and more, a carpet of creeping Charlie whose purple flowers I find pleasing.

This year, determined to do what I can, I purchased the “premium” yard waste sticker for the brown bin that’s been languishing in my garage. I set the goal to fill the bin once a week during the yard-waste collection season, about forty-five minutes of yard work, hoping it would be tolerable.

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My weekly challenge completed again!

The first week I cut back the bush that charmingly turns red each fall but less charmingly has grown higher than the outdoor light between the garage doors. It scratched back, leaving a four-inch trail of scarlet dots down my arm. The second week I raked leaves out from around the boxwood hedge that lines the front. I was not wounded, but I was grimy and sweaty when I finished. The third week, on Earth Day, I recruited Fifteen to help me—she cut out volunteer trees while I raked leaves. It was nice to have company. The fourth week I kept working around the side of the house, trimming the honeysuckle that has grown higher than the window line. Per usual, I was completely and utterly miserable. I hate this, I thought. I really hate this. I cut another branch. I don’t want to do this. My brain whined. I’ll never fill this damn bin. I thought, as I often do, of friends who love to work in their yards. I thought in particular of three, each of whom at one point or another has voluntarily worked industriously in my yard. Why do they love it? I thought, shoving more branch trimmings into the bin. What is there to love?

My musings rambled. When I was about nine, Sunshine and Diana, our ne’er do well goats, got out, turned their backs on 500 acres of tasty edibles, crossed the road and ate to the ground new plantings in our neighbors’ yard. My parents, muttering mightily about the costs, replaced the shrubs and trees. I remember thinking the whole thing was funny, even as I wondered why anyone would plant expensive cultivars when the world grew lush all around us.

On our farm we mowed around the barn a few times a summer—the four-acre yard more frequently, but not before it was more like cutting hay than trimming the grass. Tractors cut through the overgrowth in the woods, keeping the long-established paths clear enough for trail rides and nature walks. Occasionally we would plant bulbs in the fall, and these would go wild and spread, popping up in unexpected places. Every summer we put in a huge garden, fenced to keep out the bunnies, the rows three-feet apart so a tiller could detain the weeds.

Stewardship of that land took on a very different feel, with the woods enrolled in forest preserve, the once-cultivated fields turned to pasture, the state’s big machinery brought in to build ponds where runoff washed out culverts. It was these maneuvers that turned the once heavily farmed land into a haven, now public lands administered by the state of Iowa.

Back in the suburbs I stuffed my bin full of trimmings, remembering the farm where I grew up, and I tried on the word steward, a word I really like. Could I be a steward of this yard? Would that help? I looked around mentally cataloging all of the work to be done. Not really, I sighed. I still felt intense resentment for the fact that I am required to spend time pruning and shaping, raking and trimming. And it was then that I realized why: to me, land in Iowa, was meant to be like the land on our farm. We didn’t have to rake up the leaves in the fall—they mulched where they fell. We let trees grow, taking those that eventually toppled over for firewood. We had no need to plant flowers—the woods were full of them. There was natural beauty at every moment of every season anywhere you looked.

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My attempt at adding a little cultivated beauty.

Thinking all of this through helped, a little. At least I now understand where my intense dislike of my required forty-five minutes a week comes from. (Mowing is more tolerable and in summer months can be passed off to my teenagers who enjoy zooming around on the lawn tractor.) Then again, after last week’s wrestling match with the leaves and ivy that converged in and around the back patio, my forearms are covered in the worst case of poison ivy I’ve ever had. I may have killed the roses, but the overgrowth continues to fight back hard.

Every once in a while there’s a product that changes everything. Zanfel changed mine. If you are so unfortunate to get into poison ivy (or oak or sumac) this summer, don’t walk, run to your nearest pharmacy and get a tube of this magic. Made here in the Des Moines area, it will reduce your symptoms and help manage your outbreak swiftly. May you enjoy your gardening chores hundreds of times more than I enjoy mine. I am so much happier pruning words from sentences! With much love, Rxo

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I Believe

I Believe

So, who is Santa?

The first time the toddler who is now Eighteen encountered Santa Claus, he was wary at best. In the over-decorated mall near our Maryland home, my little boy more or less consented to be seated on the big man’s knee, only to promptly reach for me. He didn’t stay long enough to snap a photo.

A year later at his preschool, we waited until every other child who wanted to visit Santa had climbed up on the stage, sat on the sage’s lap, posed for adorable pictures, and been gifted with a candy cane. Eighteen was not entirely certain he wanted a turn, but he finally consented to go see Santa. Next thing I knew, he was snuggled deep in the crook of Santa’s arm grinning and looking like he might just stay there until Christmas. Maybe it was because that Santa smelled just right—the man in the red suit at the preschool holiday fair was Eighteen’s father.

If Eighteen at two-and-a-half had any inkling, he didn’t let on. Five years later when he was moments from losing his second tooth and I suggested the tooth fairy might be visiting soon, he leveled his gaze at me and said, wiggling the tooth the whole time, “I think the tooth fairy might be sitting right across from me.” I’m pretty sure my face fell, because the next words he said were in a rush, “but it’s okay, Mommy, for the adults to pretend about the tooth fairy and the Easter bunny and Santa—it makes it more fun.”

In contrast, Fifteen’s only fear about Santa when she was small was that the Christmas Eve fire might not be cool enough for Santa’s arrival, so she often insisted that we not build one at all. But last year, still gleefully anticipated their Christmas morning stockings, my peeps played cards with me in front of a roaring fire and at bedtime, they didn’t leave any cookies on the hearth. I didn’t remind them.1917186_1301412100329_1554404_n

From the beginning, we held to the tradition that while Santa filled the stockings, the gifts under the tree were from people. Close to Christmas we would go to Target, a place where they could each find something for everyone. We made lists, checked them twice and they even had gift budgets. When they were a little older, I’d take them to the winter farmers’ market to do their shopping. One of my all-time favorite gifts is a blown emu egg from my son. Their creative gift giving continues and today they are not only generous, they relish shopping for other people.

I found myself remarkably sentimental when a photo of my peeps with Santa from eight years ago popped up in my Facebook newsfeed. Reposting offered me the opportunity to think about Santa. Commercial symbol, wise saint, jolly elf—Santa may mean many things to many a person, but to me he’s the spirit of generosity and joy and childhood delights and a reminder that we learn not only to give graciously but to receive gifts from unexpected sources.

That’s what I thought about on a Tuesday. The very next day when I stopped to pick up a stocking stuffer for Eighteen at Bed, Bath & Beyond, I smiled at a man singing along to the Christmas carols while flattening myself so he could push his cart past me. “I love Christmas music,” he smiled, his cart already full.

“Don’t stop singing on my account,” I smiled and moved along.

“Hey,” he called back to me. “The other day I was in here and I bought the best little gadget … ah, here it is.” He had stooped down to the bottom shelf and was holding an apple peeler. “Do you have one of these? It’s terrific.”

“I don’t,” I had turned back around to see the box in his hand. “But I believe you.”

“Well, I’ll tell you what. If you’re up at the checkout when I’m there, I’m going to buy you one.”

I laughed, “You don’t have to do that.”

His friend was starting to say, “Don’t tell him not to, he will. You can’t stop him.”

By the time the words were out of the friend’s mouth, my sort-of secret Santa was already on to the next iteration of his plan, “No, you know what? Take this one, and here’s $20 to cover the cost.” He waved away any objection I might make, “the spirit of Christmas!”

What could I do? I offered Santa and his companion each a hug and wished them Merry Christmas. We’re pressing the peeler to use, making chunky applesauce per Fifteen’s request and contemplating a pie.

With these words I ripple out my festive wishes to you & yours, dear Readers, whether you are near or far. It’s a new moon (12.18), nearly the Winter Solstice, and almost Christmas. Yesterday Fifteen added “and a half” to her age, tomorrow you can celebrate National Oatmeal Muffin Day, and Mercury slides out of retrograde on 12.22. Whatever you celebrate this month, may Santa’s spirit fill your hearts as it has mine, and may your festivities be wondrous. See you early in 2018 when we’ve got blue moons and many more adventures to look forward to. All my love & best wishes, Rxo

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Here’s another magical creature we believe in—Fifteen met a dragon at the Renaissance Faire this year.

 

Remembering Redbird

Remembering Redbird

Have I been here before?

The weather Friday was an unexpected gift, a perfect summer day neither too hot nor too humid, in the midst of a slew of days with temps in the 90s and nights that never cool off. I jumped through an open window, turned south from the interstate ahead of my Iowa City destination to collect Fifteen from her summer writing institute, and carved out thirty minutes to walk on the farm where I grew up, ten miles southeast of town.

I had wanted to go the weekend before, when Fifteen and I converted the two-hour trip to drop her off into a girls’ night replete with shopping, dining out, people watching, and crashing in a hotel room. But the heat held me back—there’s a very real discomfort that I remember from growing up on the farm. In summer we got up with the sun to ride and groom the horses, garden, and complete other chores before the heat set in. Our afternoon cooling system was floating in an inner tube on the pond or, on special days, retreating to a movie theater in town for a matinee. At night we slept directly in front of fans, the whirr of the motor playing with a background chorus of crickets and cicadas, occasionally punctuated by the hoot of an owl. Day or night in July, it was rarely cool.

There was more to the discomfort—summer meant briars tore at bare legs and arms and bugs bit and stung. The first sunburn peeled, but then our skin became dark and leathery, itchy and scabbed. When I was young, I never minded—it was simply the way of it all.

I’ll just stop and say hello, I told myself. The drive from the interstate to the farm revealed Iowa at its best—rolling green hills dotted with bustling farmsteads. The roads and the views are as familiar to me as the back of my hand, even as a new house or shed has sprouted over the years, I can picture the way every turn will look before I arrive.

The farmland now belongs to the state of Iowa, managed by the DNR. An official government sign marks the turn and more signs instruct users as to regulations. I park and register as I always do, the absence of the buildings I expect to see. There is no more welcoming mailbox, no garden fence or pole barn. I even miss the failed hydroponic unit that was a misguided business venture in the mid-seventies. The little house across the road and all its outbuildings I once spent a whole summer painting are gone, as is the one-room schoolhouse, the last place I lived on the farm. The hillsides are overgrown with no domesticated animals to mow the grass, but there’s a path I follow, walking toward the pond where we used to float just down the hill from where the schoolhouse once stood.

In no time briars indeed tear at my legs and I am dive-bombed by more than one bug. I’m picking my way along the path, pushing brambles aside, but to my delight it’s edged in ripe blackberries. For berry picking we used to have buckets made from olive oil cans on strings around our necks so we could pick with both hands. I regret having no way to carry the berries now as I tentatively nibble on first one and then another and another. They are crunchy with seeds and taste like sunshine and dirt, not excessively sweet, nothing like the enormous plump berries in the market. My path all the way past the first pond to the second is lined with these treats.

The patterns I learned on this farm are still very much in play, such that I prefer to travel in a circle rather than go out and back the same way. I’d like to make the big loop, going west to the very top of the farm through the woods and back through the pasture, but I only have a little time before parents are invited to a presentation about the institute week, so having threaded my way through the overgrowth past the Schoolhouse Pond and the Woods Pond, I cut right to cross the dam of the Lower Pond. Here I catch my breath at the vibrant green duckweed that grows virtually shore-to-shore. More than one bullfrog croaks its displeasure at having to leave its log perch, casting ripples from its departure as I pass. The breeze catches the Queen Ann’s Lace and Black-Eyed Susans and an orange flower I don’t recognize. Mixed in the tall grasses is a carpet of Trefoil and Crown Vetch, the former I remember used to founder the horses when they ate too much and the latter my mother encouraged to slow erosion of the hillside.

Passing the spit that once used to be covered in sand my parents had trucked in, I can almost see a toddler me sitting at the water’s edge with a swimsuit full of sand, happy voices around me. I hear the joyful calls of my brother and his friends out in the middle playing a game they called “mudball,” the objectives of which involved covering each other and the ball with as much of the soft black mud from the bottom of the pond as possible. Far up the neck of the pond, my father casts and recasts his fishing rod. On the beach my mother passes grapes and watermelon to sunbathing friends. The memories preserved here come alive.

I’ve been thinking about memory this week, concerned, actually, that I’m forgetting important things. Fifteen has been visiting my hometown of Iowa City since she was ten months old, and though she claims not to remember the town much, everywhere we went on our girls’ night we were both startled by sudden memories: a hair scrunchy she bought herself at Iowa Book & Supply, playing on the downtown jungle gym, a meal neither of us remember liking very much at a restaurant on the Coralville strip. Maybe none of these are much more than incidental, but it’s a mental scramble to put them into a chronology, and these small memories make me wonder what I might be forgetting.

Walking down the pasture hill from the former beach, I come to a tiny pond engineered in what was once a washed out low spot. IMG_8576I like the way the prairie grasses and flowers frame the little watershed, and I stop to take a couple of pictures. Suddenly there’s a great commotion. A little wood duck hustles her brood away from me as fast as she can go. In her haste, she has left two behind and she calls them so urgently that they run across the water to her, peeping, peeping, peeping. I stay still until the family is reunited at the far end of the pond from me, apologizing to the little mama in what I hope is a soothing voice.IMG_8580 (1)

Still downy, her ducklings are months from leaving her side, but my fledgling is expecting me to collect her. Reluctant to leave yet eager to hear stories of Fifteen’s adventures, I pick my way back to the car. My legs are scratched and several bug bites are already itching and swelling; weed seeds are in my shoes and clinging to my pants. Even on this temperate day, I’m looking forward to cranking the air conditioning in my car for drive into town I’ve made thousands of times. Before I go, I walk into the embrace of the weeping willow that still stands sentry at the bottom of the hill. There are no buildings anywhere on the property any longer, but the birds and the flowers and the trees and the ponds and even the summer discomfort assure me that this is and always has been and always will be … my home.

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Among the branches of my favorite tree.

I heard recently that it helps to look down when you’re trying to remember something, look up when you want inspiration and to feel more joyful. Redbird Farm is a place where I don’t have to try to remember—the memories are everywhere alongside the new experiences. Who knew that ducklings could run on water? xoR

 

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