Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Japanese Beetles

I remember with total clarity my first sight of a Japanese beetle in my first garden, back in Maryland a thousand years ago.  "Come look at this beautiful insect!" I shouted to my daughters, and we all stared at what, with its iridescent copper wings and emerald head and thorax, looked like a scarab out of a pharao's tomb.

Of course, I have since learned to hate Japanese beetles.  I have trapped, drowned, squished and cursed whole generations of them.  When we left sub-tropical Maryland for Vermont, one of the many blessings of the move appeared to be the relative absence of Japanese beetles.

There were always a few hanging around the roses in mid-summer, and the top leaves of the Harry Lauder Walking Stick (you can take a look at this weird-looking shrub: always got that lacy look that tells you the beetles have been at their orgies.  But as a semi-buddhist gardener, I believe in leaving bugs alone unless they are actually killing my plants.

This hellishly hot, wet summer, however, the beetles have arrived en masse.   They have reduced the leaves of the Harry Lauder and of the ornamental plum tree to brown filigree.  I don't eat either the bush or the tree, so I wasn't too concerned.  But when I saw that the top branches of the apple trees were turning brown, and the blueberries I picked had chunks chewed out of them, I got mad.

I went out in the early morning with a pail of soapy water and started shaking beetles out of the trees.  But they were up at the very top of the branches to catch the early sun,and this meant that when I shook the branches most of the beetles fell on me instead of into the bucket.  This caused an involuntary jumping reaction on my part, which dropped even more beetles on the ground.

I got even madder.  I had set out meaning to drown every single beetle in the garden, and I was not even coming close to my goal.  But because being in the garden often calms me down, I eventually decided that catching some beetles was better than catching none, that perfection is the enemy of action, that it is impossible to control Nature, etc.

I persevered, and when I had a goodish mass of drowned beetles in the bucket I went to the hen yard, called the hens, and poured the contents of the bucket on the ground.  To a hen, a Japanese beetle is as a truffle is to you and me.  Here are the girls, gorging on my harvest of iridescent scarabs:

My time was well spent.  In fifteen minutes I managed to decimate a garden pest and give my hens a nutritious delicacy.  My eventual recompense will be a clutch of protein-rich eggs with bright orange yolks free of the slightest trace of iridescence.

If there is a more rewarding job than hunting Japanese beetles, I don't know what it is.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Chicken Fence

Those of you who follow the complications of my simple life may recall that several years ago I tried to disguise the ugly wire fence around my hen yard.  My idea was to thread sticks through the spaces in the wire net so as to hide the wire and achieve the rustic look of a wattle fence:

The wattle fence was a dramatic failure, because after the first winter the sticks started to disintegrate, and also because Wolfie discovered the pleasure of pulling out the remaining ones and carrying them around the yard.  Worst of all, the weight of the sticks pulled the wire out of shape, so that it sagged and looked even worse than it had in its pre-wattle stage.

My next attempt at disguise was to plant four Leyland cypresses in front of the side of the fence that is visible from the patio.  But last fall was a bad season for wild apples in Vermont, with the result that hungry deer came much closer to people's houses than they normally do.  Our deer came all the way into the yard and chewed those little cypresses almost to extinction.

My urge to improve the look of the fence was complicated by my wish to avoid a suburban look--as with the pre-made fences at Home Depot and Lowe's--as well as the industrial farm look offered by the manufacturers of serious livestock fencing.  I wanted a custom-made fence--nothing fancy, just sturdy and functional and non-sagging.

But good fence builders don't grow on trees, and it took me the better part of five years to find mine, via a friend whose sheep he shears.

A fence builder who shears sheep?  Yes, and who farms his family's land and keeps cows, chickens, sheep and meat goats.  And who, with his wife, home-schools their passel of kids.  You need to have more than one string to your bow if you want to farm in Vermont.

The fence builder showed up at the appointed hour, backing his truck and big trailer all the way up our perilous driveway.  He was accompanied by one of his kids, who helped get rid of the last sticks still clinging to the old wattle fence.  He came again the next morning, with two kids, worked some more, and left behind this marvel of a fence:


Now whenever I look outside I rejoice at the perpendicularity of the posts, the tautness of the wire, and the overall neatness--even the elegance--of my hen yard fence.  The fence runs all the way around the back of the shed, so you cannot see its full glory.  But you get the idea.

And just look at the girls, pecking at the dirt, safe from ermines, weasels, fisher cats, raccoons, foxes, feral dogs, coydogs,  wolf-dog hybrids, coyotes, bears and mountain lions. They are as happy as I am.

Monday, July 29, 2013


My friend John Harkey walks, bikes and practices sustainable living in Nashville, Tennessee.  I loved his essay on walking and thought you might enjoy it too.  You can read more of John's writing at 

In his essay of the same title Henry David Thoreau repeated the phrase wrongly ascribed to Horace Greeley: “go west young man, go west.”  Actually, Thoreau was talking about “walking” west, and for him the more precise direction was “southwest,” away from his village home (Concord), and away from the city (Boston), in the direction of the setting sun.  In his essay, he said he was going to make an “extreme” statement.  As he describes his walks, and the ambition of walking, the word “extreme” seems mild
For Thoreau a daily four-hour walk was the minimum duration, and more was preferred. His walking “ambition” was to leave civilization entirely, avoiding the well traveled path and claiming the uncharted wilderness to the south and west as his home. His “home” in the village was merely a starting place for his walking adventure, but his destination was the Pacific Ocean, or maybe the Rocky Mountains.
Unfortunately, or maybe to our good fortune, Thoreau never made it that far.  In fact, his pace wasn’t very rapid, and he was easily diverted. If you have ever been on a spring wildflower walk, you will know what happened.  Every step or two there is something new and unusual for a botanist/poet to look at, and if you are in a group, comment on.  Thoreau, like Christopher Robin, knew a lot about the 100-acre wood, but a 4-hour walk might take him one place in his imagination (say to some of the Greek Isles as he followed the meanderings of Odysseus), but while thinking about Odysseus he might be observing some ant platoons outside his door re-enacting their version of the Trojan war.
For me, a walk in the wilderness is a deep pleasure. But my wilderness walks are a part time occupation. I take those walks several times a year, but in my daily walks (and bike rides), I turn Thoreau’s treatise on its head, and turn towards the city, to meet friends, to purchase coffee, to shop for groceries, and to enjoy the pleasures of the urban experience, which are many.
Thoreau, of course, did too.  His sustenance was more from the village and the city than from the wilderness.  He thrived on the intellectual stimulation of Concord and the wider Boston community, and he enjoyed friendship. He wrote about the horrors of the village (“most men lead lives of quiet desperation”), but was really sustained by The Village.
For Thoreau, walking was an elite activity. While it involved only a modest investment of money (good shoes, sturdy clothing, and a hat), it required time.  In Thoreau’s day, the only people with “time” were the wealthy and the occasional bohemian poet.  The men (and women) of quiet desperation walked to work and to market, but otherwise were busy creating the economic engine that won the Civil War.

One of Thoreau’s more memorable trips was taken by train rather than on foot, from Boston down to New York, and there he met a promising new urban poet, Walt Whitman, who had just been “found” and promoted by Thoreau’s mentor, a Mr. Emerson.  Thoreau had just published his masterpiece, Walden, a year earlier (1854), and Whitman had just published his first edition of “Leaves of Grass.”

In contrast to Thoreau, Whitman looked toward the city and its thriving masses of people for inspiration rather than to the uncharted wilderness near Thoreau’s cabin. Whitman’s walk is also open ended —walking “the long brown road before me leading wherever I choose”—but is about those he meets rather than where he goes—“the felon, the diseased, the illiterate person” and “the escaped youth, the rich person’s carriage, the fop, the eloping couple.” And, the objects of civilization: “planks and posts of wharves, rows of houses, porches” and then the ideas, the “philosophies” and the “music.”  Whitman’s walk was an exploration of culture—the city—rather than fields and forest, and he liked what he saw, as much as Thoreau liked wilderness. 
I like both walks. For my wilderness walks, though, I take part of the city with me, in the form of a friend or two. Climbing up a mountain along a shady path, we observe the beauty of a cascading stream while discussing whether charter schools really make a difference.
Walking is easy, requires no new expenditures, can be fit into a busy lifestyle, and helps you maintain health. It’s also fun, or can be. Twenty minutes a day (just over a mile) is helpful to health.  Forty minutes (2-3 miles) will help you maintain weight, and with healthier eating, possibly lose weight.  Either distance gives you time to think (alone) or banter (with friends), improving your mood and your friendships.
Thoreau set the bar too high, leaving his quietly desperate neighbors behind as he walked “away” from the Village. Today, in Nashville at least, the Village is the spark, encouraging its residents to leave the desperation (the TV, the computer, the couch, the bag of potato chips) behind, and take a walk (on the new greenway or sidewalk) “into” the Village.
For a description of one of the more interesting urban walks in America, try this:

Research note on Walking for Health
Two researchers at University College of London conducted a meta-analysis of 18 observational studies (460,000 participants) on the health effects of walking published between 1970 and 2007. Their study was summarized in the August 2009 edition of the Harvard Health Letter.
  • Walking reduced the risk of dying by 32% during the study period. The study period averaged 11.3 years for the studies reviewed. )  
  • The risk of cardiovascular events was reduced by 31%.
  • Benefits of walking were found for people walking as little as 5.5 miles a week at a pace of 2 miles per hour.  Greater protection was obtained by more miles and a more rapid pace
Here is a link to the Harvard Report

Friday, July 26, 2013

Making The Bed

Deep inside the reptilian center of my brain there lurks a  housewife with an eye for the Martha Stewart touch.  She's the paragon whose bathtubs invite long meditative soaks, and whose every tabletop reflects on its well-oiled surface a simple pottery vase filled with flowers.

The first thing this person does upon arising is to make her bed.  As the sun rises in the east and the birds twitter in the trees she straightens the pillows, gives the duvet a good shake and lays it down smoothly, and arranges a flock of throw pillows aesthetically on the bed.  Then she casts a look around the room and smiles, secure in the knowledge that her sanctuary, with its scented sheets, its orderly dresser tops, its bouquet of cheerful zinnias on the bedside table, will be waiting for her when she returns to it at the end of another happy and productive day.

Of course, this woman lives alone.

When I was growing up my mother was not obsessed with orderliness.  The living room and the music room where my father gave violin lessons were reasonably neat, but the rest of the place was another story.

As a teenager, I was dismayed by the clutter in my parents' bedroom:  piles of clothes on chairs, books and sewing projects scattered everywhere.  I thought that the mess revealed a disregard on my mother's part for the little touches that keep a marriage alive, and I promised myself that my conjugal bedroom, should I ever have one, would be a haven of order, serenity, and sensuous charm. 

I should mention that, messy bedroom notwithstanding, my parents had an enviably happy marriage.  And I'm sure that, if my mother wasn't bothered by the clutter, neither was my father, because in my experience men, straight men at least, don't care about neat bedrooms or beds.

I've heard stand-up comics deliver diatribes about their girlfriends' neurotic need to pile decorative pillows against the headboard.  I've heard happily married guys deride bed-making as an absurd and time-wasting ritual because, obviously, you're just going to mess it up when you get in it again.

Which is why my fantasy housewife lives alone.

Whereas I (fortunately, in most respects) don't.  And so I go through periods when, feeling like Sisyphus pushing his rock up the mountain, I make the bed in the morning, straightening up the duvet and placing the occasional pillows with care.  But after several days of having it callously disarranged by my (in most respects, adorable) spouse, I give up and leave the duvet in turmoil and the throw pillows unthrown.

And my inner Martha shudders with horror, and retreats even deeper into my reptilian brain.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

When You've Read All The Books

"The flesh is sad, alas, and I've read all the books," (La chair est triste, helas, et j'ai lu tous les livres) yawned the French poet Stephane Mallarme a hundred years ago.  He was a young man then, and his wife had just had their first child, but he got bored easily.

It's taken me longer to get to that point--to the book part, that is--but lately I've been feeling depressed about reading.  It's not that I've read all the books, of course--neither had Mallarme.  But I've read an awful lot of them, probably too many, and now I'm like a foodie who's tired of fancy food. 

I feel as if I've read all the dead authors, and the living writers I do like don't write fast enough to feed my habit.  Kate Atkinson, A.S. Byatt, Nick Hornby, Penelope Lively, Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes, Margaret Drabble, get on with it!  You're not getting any younger, and I'm almost to the end of everything that Trollope ever wrote.  Please write faster!

Meanwhile, the great annual book sale for the benefit of the village library is coming up next weekend.  It's held at the local school's gym, which is crammed full of cafeteria tables loaded with thousands of books, from novels to manuals on auto repair. 

The minute you walk in the door, you see everybody you know, carrying cardboard boxes and tote bags and pulling shopping carts.  When the books they've chosen get too heavy to carry, they stack them up along the walls.  Occasionally you stumble on the semi-recumbent body of someone who couldn't wait until he got home to start reading.

People circulate among the tables with their eyes glazed, bumping into each other and muttering excuses.  And from the full cardboard boxes and overflowing carts you can get the feel of a Vermont winter, of long dark evenings by the wood stove with a stack of books at hand.  Gathering reading provisions at the July book sale is one of those preparing-for-winter rituals, akin to chopping and stacking wood, that prudent Vermonters engage in even in the heat of summer, because in these parts winter is always lurking in the back of people's minds.

Every year since I moved to Vermont I have attended the library sale, and staggered home with a New Yorker tote bag full of old books.  But I'm thinking about skipping the sale this year.  I'm afraid of finding that I've read everything out there, and even more afraid of buying books only to discover later that I've already read them.

Still, I'll probably go just for the pleasure of seeing my friends and neighbors preparing for winter, and because there's always the chance that I might find an author I've never heard of before and without whom I cannot live.  Maybe I haven't read all the books.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Zen Master Dog

He still wags his tail hard enough to knock wine glasses off the coffee table and small children off their feet.  He still gets excited at the prospect of going for a walk, and rushes barking into the woods when I let him out at night.

But he's not the dog he used to be.

He has lost his stamina, that turbo-charged oomph that he seemed to never run out of.  Part of it is age--Wolfie is six now, and for a German Shepherd that is no longer young.  But neither is it old.

A couple of years ago, when he had so much energy that I thought he could win the Iditarod all by himself, on one of our walks in the woods or in the field a tick bit him and gave him anaplasmosis.

Despite tick meds, tick collars and scrupulous owners, most of the Vermont dogs I know have Lyme disease.  But they get a course of antibiotics and, though they may continue to test positive, they get better.  Antibiotics are also used against anaplasmosis, but despite repeated treatments, Wolfie has never fully recovered.

His coat is shiny, and his appetite is excellent.  When his anaplamosis limp shows up, I give him an aspirin or two and he's soon back to normal.  The new normal, that is, of not going after balls for more than a few throws;  of trotting rather than running down the steep driveway;  of walking rather than trotting on the way up.  I used to take him to herding lessons, for which he had a certain talent, but we've had to give those up.  And I wouldn't dream of taking up agility again with him, much though he enjoyed it when he was a puppy.

In many ways he reminds me of myself, bitten by CFS (chronic fatigue syndrome) in my prime, back when I was running my own Iditarod equivalents.  I too have healthy-looking hair and an excellent appetite.  But I am not who I used to be, and it's not because of the passing years.

But here is where Wolfie and I are different:  he is not a depressed or a worried dog.  When he's tired, he rests.  When his leg hurts, he takes the aspirin I give him in a dollop of peanut butter and waits for it to get better.  And when it does, he runs in the grass and chases Bisou without wondering how long this relief is going to last, or when the next relapse might hit.
He lives in and for the moment.

Of course he does--he's a dog.  I am not, more's the pity, and since living in the moment is the only possible approach to surviving CFS--because you never know how you are going to feel the next day, or even the next hour--I have to work hard at doing what Wolfie does so naturally.

Right now, as I write, I'm o.k.  My brain does not feel like it's wrapped in cheesecloth;  my arms and legs don't have that floaty, twitchy feeling that heralds a relapse;  my shoulders do not feel that familiar mantle of lead.  Nothing hurts.  But in the back of my mind there's a list of the things I'd like to get done today:  pick blueberries, freeze chard, make pesto, clean the fish bowls, clip the dogs' nails, fold the laundry--small tasks, as you can see--and I'm already weighing and prioritizing and wondering how long my energy will hold out.

While I fret, Wolfie chills, his long body stretched at my feet.  Inside his big head I doubt that there is much more than a pleasant anticipation of dinner, and the hope of a walk.  Otherwise, he is all here, on the floor, in his body, relishing the miracle of a cool dry day.

Me too, Wolfie, me too.

Friday, July 19, 2013

High Humidity Hair

'Tis the season of hair complaints.  Wavy hair turns curly, curly hair curls tighter, and straight hair does strange things.  Many women hate their hair about now and rate it as a major curse of summer, along with sweat stains, shiny noses and sleepless nights.

Some hide their hair under scarves tied with fancy knots, though that must make them terribly hot, since it prevents body heat from escaping through the scalp.

Others slather on anti-frizz gels and conditioners, which work only as long as the wearer stays in an air-conditioned environment.

My hair is highly responsive to humidity, and I used to think that its unruliness was as good an indication of the level of water vapor in the air as the hygrometer that hangs on our kitchen wall, and which, as I write, reads 48% humidity (and 82F).

It turns out that human hair can function as a hygrometer, and you can learn why this is so and how to make a hygrometer of your very own here:

In my attempts to deal with summer hair, I have gone the products route, which works for me only if I apply so much that my hair looks as if it has been weighted down with lard.  I haven't tried the headscarf solution because the very thought of it makes me break into (an even worse) sweat.

My proposed solution is to declare a moratorium on summer hair.  After all, who says that frizzy hair is bad?  Why should all women, regardless of their genetic endowment, go around with Asian-straight hair in all weathers?  Frizzy, rebellious hair looks exuberant, energetic and alive, like the tendrils of the bittersweet vine.  It's time to let go of media-induced prejudices and wear our wayward waves and out-of-control curls with pride.

Our crazy summer hair is physical evidence of our inescapable link to Nature. The plant world glories in humidity,  absorbs it, expands, and luxuriates in it.  That's what our hair wants to do, too, and I think we should let it.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Gardening In My Pajamas

These days the only way to get any gardening done is to go out at the crack of dawn--well, almost--and work until the heat gets unbearable, around nine.

The early morning air is cool, the plants look fresh and rejuvenated by the night, the birds are chirping, and I'm in my pajamas.

It's a good thing we live where we do, at the end of a quarter-mile-long driveway and no neighbors in sight.  If someone should venture up the driveway there is the driveway alarm, which I can hear from the garden, and of course the dogs, which should give me plenty of time to dive back into the house and pretend there's nobody home.

As I planted green beans this morning I pitied gardeners with near neighbors, or city dwellers who have turned the spaces in front of their townhouses into tiny potagers.  What a waste of time and laundry to have to get fully dressed, do the garden chores, then peel off those sweaty garments, take a shower, and put on a whole new set of clothes.

Whereas I have the luxury of walking out in my pajamas, getting as dirty and sweaty as I need to, then taking a shower and getting dressed for the day.

But this is only my summer luxury.  My winter luxury consists of throwing a barn coat over my pajamas and giving the hens their breakfast without having to step on mud, ice, or snow.  Inspired by the clever New England concept of the attached barn, I had the builder attach the chicken shed to the garage, which is in turn attached to the house.

All this privacy is not without its dangers, however.  I have been known, on occasions when I had to leave the house early but wanted to give the dogs their walk first, to take off into the woods wearing my pajamas.  I can see that it is a slippery slope from there to deciding to nip into the supermarket for a can of orange juice, wearing my pajamas.

But I trust I'll never go that far.  Meanwhile, I will continue to garden en deshabille.

What is your preferred gardening attire?

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Espaliered Apricots

I come from an espaliering culture.  

The civilized landscape of my native Catalonia was striated with vineyards, the vines trained uni-dimensionally along wires.  Fruit trees were espaliered on wires as well, but my favorites were the ones "crucified," as my mother's sister used to say, against an old garden wall, apricots and peaches glowing yellow to red in the reflected heat of the Mediterranean sun.

Last year I decided to grow my favorite fruit, apricots.  The Vermont climate being risky for anything softer than apples, I thought that the south-facing wall of the house would offer maximum protection.  And it would give me a reason to try my hand at espaliering.

The guy I bought the tree from gave me what advice he could on which limbs to cut and which to train horizontally, but I could tell that this was just book learning. Vermont is not an espaliering culture.  "Let me know if it survives," he said, loading the little tree on the back of the Subaru.  "I'll bring you an apricot next summer," I promised him.

I'm sorry to say, he won't get his apricot.  That's because my spouse and I just ate the entire 2013 apricot harvest, still hot from the sun:

They were delicious, the flesh sweet and firm and perfumed.  One of the fruits had a tiny worm at the blossom end, and was all the sweeter for it.

Not much of a harvest, you say?  I think it was a remarkable feat for the little tree to bear those three apricots given the climate, its youth, my inexperience, and the fact that in the middle of winter a hungry rabbit stripped most of the bark off its trunk.

This fall I'll do a better job of rabbit pre-emption, and with any luck at all next year we'll have apricots enough to share. 

Monday, July 15, 2013

Bisou's Birthday

Am I turning into the kind of person who gives birthday parties for her dog?

It appears that I am.  This may be either a sign of my mental deterioration, or the result of Bisou's hypnotic charm and personality.

Here they are, Bisou and her panting family with their breeder, Alix to whom I'll be eternally grateful for helping create this intense, adorable, fearless, cuddly paradox of a dog:

The second tongue from the left belongs to Bisou's brother, who is distinguishing himself in the agility ring.  The rest of the black-and-tans are, and I can't tell them apart unless they are running around and being themselves, Bisou's mother, Fling;  her littermate, Luna;  and Bisou's soul-half-sister Atti (for "attitude").

The brother's owner--I believe the PC term these days is "guardian"--brought gift bags with treats and toys.  Fling rolled Bisou onto her back with an admonitory growl.  Bisou and her brother disappeared momentarily for their usual incestuous break.   And while the five dogs milled underfoot we guardians congratulated ourselves and drank home-made sangria, which put us right back in the 1970s, where we belong.

I haven't made a lot of impulsive decisions in my life.  One was moving to Vermont.  The other was getting Bisou, a small splash of red between the black and tan of our two German Shepherds.  Both impulses, the move to this green state and the little red dog, were deemed crazy by cooler heads including, at times, my own.  But unlike some other, more rationally examined decisions, I have never regretted these.

So I'm o.k. with becoming a lady who gives birthday parties for her dog.  At least I didn't put a party hat on her.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Rescuing The Garlic

Please believe me when I say that I am trying hard not to write constantly about the weather.  In my last post, which was about the Pope and women's issues, I don't believe I mentioned the weather once.

But now I have to bring up the weather again, because it is wreaking havoc with farmers and gardeners in this newly-annexed province of Brazil, formerly known as Vermont.

So far it hasn't rained today, and it didn't rain yesterday, but before that we had the wettest, hottest succession of days--nineteen of them--ever recorded in the state.

Plants are dying because the ground is so water-logged that no oxygen can get to their roots.  Farmers cannot cut hay because it has no chance to dry--the grass in our fields is up to my shoulders--and people with livestock are worried about finding enough hay to last the winter.

I thought that my high garden beds would provide good drainage for the vegetables, but I decided to take advantage of a single day of respite from the heat and humidity to check on the garlic crop.  I had never planted garlic before last fall, and the instruction sheet from the ladies who sold me the seed bulbs said not to harvest until mid-July.  But I thought I'd better take a look.

I pulled on one of the stems and, to my dismay, it came off in my hand.  The end where it was supposed to be attached to the head looked like it had sort of dissolved.  I got my shovel and plunged it into the mud and the entire bulb came did a cloud of the most pestilential stench I have ever smelled in a garden.  Next to it, chicken, goat, and probably even pig manure are as nothing.  Rotten garlic is deadly to the nose.

If I wanted to save the crop, I needed to act quickly.  But the ground was so sodden, so clingy and heavy that it took a huge effort to pry out the heads with the shovel.  Fortunately not all the bulbs had rotted, though enough of them had to keep me breathing through my mouth.

An hour later, I had extracted over eighty bulbs.  Some were tiny--they should have stayed in the ground another couple of weeks--but most were a reasonable size.  All were encased in mud.  I left them out overnight and the next day spent a couple of hours brushing off the dirt.

I dearly love a garlic braid.  I'd always found it endearing that people would want to make something decorative out of this most prosaic of vegetables.  And I fantasized that, if I ever managed to grow some garlic, I would make it into a nice fat braid and give it pride of place in my kitchen.

Unfortunately, the only garlic that grows in cold climates is the "hard neck" kind, which means that the stem is too stiff and inflexible to be braided.  So I merely bunched my garlics in groups of ten or so, bound them with twine, and hung them in the shed to dry.  They don't look the least bit decorative, but I hope the flavor will be good.

The way the climate is changing, in another couple of years the winters will be warm enough to grow the soft-neck varieties right here in Vermont.  The snow will be gone, and kudzu will cover the landscape, but at least I'll be able to make garlic braids.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Dear Pope Francis, It's Me Again

I thought you might like to know my opinion of your papacy so far.

It's terrific that you've given up wearing those specially-made red shoes and living in the papal palace, and that you sometimes ride around in an old Fiat.  I like it that you talk about the poor a lot and are not afraid to tell the rich what you think of some of their tactics.  My mother would be happy that you agree with her that wasting food is immoral
But why you canonized John Paul II is beyond me.  He may have been instrumental in the downfall of Communism, but despite his cuddly media image he was cruelly conservative, preaching against birth control to women in third-world countries and condemning the use of condoms in the midst of the AIDS epidemic.

On the other hand, I approve of your making good Pope John XXIII a saint, and dispensing with the miracle requirement.  His revolutionary papacy was miracle enough for me.  He's beaming down on you from heaven and whispering advice in your ear.  Listen to him.

So on the whole it's been an encouraging beginning, a B-, I would say.

But now you have to do something for women.

You could put some nuns in charge of something in the Vatican--and not just of making sausages, as John Paul II did.  Despite how much they scared us in grammar school, nuns are about the only sector of the Church that still commands respect.  Give them some big, visible jobs to do.  They'll be terrific.

You could remove the penis as a prerequisite for the priesthood.  It doesn't seem to help make priests more Christ-like, does it?  And the seminaries are almost empty.

You say you have compassion for the poor, but who are most of the world's poor, if not women?  And what, more than too-large families, keeps women poor?  You could transform the lives of millions--and do a big favor for the planet, which you also say you care about--by lifting the Church's proscription on birth control.

 Francisco, haz algo para las mujeres!  We've been waiting for two thousand years.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Dogs In The Storm

For years, when people would tell me about their dogs being driven nuts by thunderstorms I felt inwardly superior.  They must be doing something wrong.  Maybe they themselves were scared of storms, and the dogs caught their fear.  Or they made the mistake of petting and comforting the dogs at the first sign of nervousness, thus reinforcing the behavior.  Or maybe they just had wimpy dogs.

None of my dogs had ever been afraid of storms.

Pride, of course, goeth before a fall, and now I have not one but two dogs who are terrified of storms.  I used to have three.

This is how it happened.  My now-deceased German Shepherd, Lexi, as her eyes and ears and courage dimmed in the last year of her life, became afraid storms.  And big, black Wolfie and little, red Bisou, who considered Lexi the final authority on all matters of interest to dogs, decided that she knew something we obviously didn't--namely, that storms, as opposed to, say, porcupines or black bears or speeding cars, were truly dangerous, and the only appropriate response to them was panic.

Now Lexi has gone and left me with two storm wimps on my hands.  Or, more accurately, on my lap.

SinceVermont became a province of Brazil last month, we have had a thunderstorm almost every afternoon.  When Bisou gets that wide-eyed, orphaned-puppy look and tries to sandwich herself between me and the back of the chair, I know the daily storm is on its way.  When she tries to crawl under my shirt, I count the seconds until the first thunderclap.

Wolfie, ever the gentleman, doesn't actually climb on my lap.  Instead he paces, and he pants. Then, sounding exactly like a sack of potatoes, he drops his ninety pounds on the floor and drools on my toes. Then gets up and paces some more.  If the storm is especially severe, he takes refuge under my husband's legs (why not my legs, I wonder?).

I have never been afraid of storms.  In fact I always liked the drama, and the smell of the wet earth, and the sudden merciful cooling of the air.  But that daily panting and pacing and burrowing  are starting to get to me, so that at the first faraway rumble I put down my book, go to the window, sigh with irritation, wonder if we'll lose power, pick up the book again, put it down, worry that this storm will finally uproot the big ash tree behind the house...

Who says we can't learn from our dogs?

Monday, July 8, 2013

Saint John's Wort

Went to the front field this morning, to pick Saint John's Wort.

Herbalists believe that if a plant grows abundantly in your proximity, it's because you are in need of its properties.  If this is true the Wort, which is supposed to have anti-depressant and calming powers, is accurately reading my mind.

This is my least favorite season, and the fact that each year the heat and humidity grow worse ratchets my awareness of climate change up to obsessive levels.  Holed up in the house with the windows closed and the shades down to keep out the heat, I creep wanly in the gloom like some cave creature, pondering disaster scenarios.

Hence the Wort.

Sent to me by the midsummer deities, and perhaps by the Baptist as well, its Van Gogh yellow starts to work on me right away.  I snip off the tops of branches, trying to calculate how much I'll need to make enough tincture to last me through the year.  The plants are so abundant this summer that I could cheer up entire nations of depressives.

Later today I will buy a bottle of cheap vodka.  Then I will strip the Wort stems, chop up the flowers and leaves, put them in a jar and pour in enough vodka to cover them.  I will give the jar a good shake and watch the vodka turn blood red.  This ability to "bleed," plus its habit of blooming around the feast of Saint John, in midsummer, is what gave the Wort its name.

If you're wondering what blood has to do with John the Baptist, here's a Biblical episode worthy of cable TV:  John had condemned Herod Antipas, who was divorced, for marrying Herodias, who was also divorced and had a daughter, Salome, by her former husband.

Herodias felt threatened by the Baptist, and plotted to get rid of him.  For Herod's birthday she had Salome dance for him, dressed in the famous seven veils.  Herod was so overcome that he offered to give Salome anything she wanted.  Her mother told her to ask for the head of John the Baptist on a platter.

Here she is, painted by Lukas Cranach, having changed out of the seven veils into street clothes. The dark red of her headdress and of the Baptist's severed neck is exactly the shade of red that the Wort exudes when you crush it.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Bluebirds: The Final Chapter

Yesterday, between two thunderstorms, the baby bluebirds left the nest.

For the last couple of days they had been sticking their heads way out of the hole, exactly like cuckoos in a clock.  I tried take a picture, but every time they saw me come out with my camera they dove back inside, like their parents told them to:

There were five eggs in the clutch and I can see four birds clearly in the photo:  three eyes and somebody's back next to the opening.  I want to believe that there is a fifth one in that mass of plumage. The nest box faces west, and how they survived those 90F+ afternoons last week I can't imagine.

For a while I was also worried about the parents, who were bringing in bugs and carrying out poop for hours on end in the heat and the downpours.  And I was worried about the snake that lives in the flower bed beneath the box and had been waiting patiently for the moment of fledging.

But there was no helpless fluttering on the ground for these babies, who are a grayish brown and larger than I expected.  The minute they came out, they flew right across the yard and up into the trees.  Now I hear them calling in unison, in a sound that reminds me of sleigh bells, at the edge of the woods.

The successful rearing of this brood vindicates the father bluebird, who's been banging on our window for two straight summers and about whose mental faculties I had developed serious doubts.  But summer isn't even half over, and soon the bluebird pair will be starting all over again, courting, laying eggs, brooding, and then feeding, feeding, feeding.

I hope that when fall finally comes they'll take off for some island where they can lie in the sun and listen to the waves and have meals of bugs brought to them on a platter.  They deserve a rest.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Pesto Morning

It had to be done, so this morning I girded my loins and marched to the garden after breakfast.  Plunging my arms up to the shoulder into the kale forest, I snapped off the thick bottom branches, some of which were two feet long.  When I had stuffed full a tall kitchen trash bag, I went back to the kitchen, followed by two disappointed dogs.

Wolfie and Bisou were disappointed because there is nothing they like better than raw kale stems.  In the past, I used to toss them a couple whenever I was in the garden, and I even thought it was sweet when Wolfie would snap off a leaf or two on his own and share it with Bisou.  But when this spring he pulled two baby kales up by the roots, I had to say many serious "leave it's" and make some shame inducing gestures (furrowed brow, arms at hips, torso bent over dog until tail droops and head turns aside).

I had to jam the kale leaves into the sink to wash them (found the season's first Japanese beetle), and then I put them into my big stockpot to boil for fifteen minutes, which I spent peeling garlic.  That huge bag of kale boiled down to two pounds, which I mixed with two cups each of Parmesan and olive oil, eight cloves of garlic, one cup of pecans, and some salt.

This went by stages into the food processor (a gift from the same daughter who introduced me to pesto made with kale).  How did our foremothers make pesto with a mortar and pestle?  It must have taken endless hours and brawny forearms.

When everything had been reduced to mush I had a total to guess?  Eight cups of pesto.  I had hoped for something closer to maybe twenty cups, but at least it tasted divine.

How can something so good also be good for you?  I pondered the miracle of pesto as I began the final and least pleasant task:  stuffing one cup of oily, gooey pesto into each of eight freezer bags.  It was a messy business, but at least I got to lick the spatula.

But eight cups!  That's only eight meals.  If we eat pesto once every couple of weeks or so, we'll need twenty-four cups, which leaves sixteen yet to be made, i.e. two more batches just like the one I made today.  There's more than enough kale out in the garden for this.  Right now, I'm just not sure I have the courage.

You Are What You Eat

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Mind-Numbing Weather

Like the inhabitants of a castle preparing against an attack, my spouse and I have shut every window, drawn down the shades, opened the basement door, and hefted the room air-conditioner onto one of the upstairs windowsills.  Hot weather is on the way.

It's the weather that I moved to Vermont to escape, the kind of heat and humidity that reduce me to molluscan status.  Every summer the heat gets stronger and stays longer. If and when the kudzu vines and the cave crickets arrive from the lower latitudes, I'm moving north.

Meanwhile, all I want to do is hibernate or rather, estivate ("a state of dormancy or torpor during summer").  This is unfortunate because, now that the ridiculously long spell of cool weather is over, the garden is exploding.

Instead of writing, I should be out there picking kale to make into pesto.  I should be picking and freezing chard, pulling up the bolted lettuces and planting something else in their space.  Straightening the tomato cages that the daily storms have felled. Weeding the front flower beds, the back flower beds, the vegetable beds.   And pruning the four big lilacs before the job gets too big for me to handle.

But these days the only job I like is picking lavender.  In the morning, after the dew has dried but before the sun unleashes its full fury, I go out with my basket and cut the spears where a single cobalt bud has opened.  It hasn't been a good year for lavender, for although the winter was cold there wasn't enough snow cover.  I lost a couple of bushes, and the survivors aren't flowering well.  But I'll take whatever they give me.

I leave the lavender in its basket on the dining room table, where it releases clouds of scent into the humid air.  I should be tying it into bunches and hanging it up to dry, but that seems like a big effort right now.

Instead, I go and sit blankly by the indoor pond and watch the goldfish play in the fountain stream. Don't ask me to lift a finger, express an opinion, or make any sense.  I'm estivating.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Blog Bling

See that little blue icon a couple of inches down from my picture on the right?  It's my BlogHer decoration, kind of like a general's star.  If you want to see the post chosen by the BlogHer goddesses for syndication, here it is:

It's the one about the use of "like" in Facebook.  If you're one of the kind souls who reads me regularly, you probably already saw it last March, and I apologize for sending you back to it.  But I've been urged by the BlogHer goddesses to publicize my tiny post all over the www:  Facebook, Facebook Fan Page, Twitter, this blog, Google+...

If I were really with it, I would also be spreading the word on LinkedIn, Tumblr, StumbleUpon, Pinterest, YouTube, and who knows what else.

I can't remember how long it took me to write the original post, but it wasn't nearly as long as it's taken to go through the syndication and then the self-promotion process.

I would feel that all of this was "an expense of spirit in a waste of shame," as Shakespeare said of lust, except that with every step I believe that I am keeping up if only with the rear-guard in the fuzzy, misty but implacable world of the www.

Tomorrow, I'm going back to normal.   I might even make a drawing.