by Mimi Hedl
Finally, I built my stairway to heaven. It only took three steps, but many, many years until I had the inspiration, the time, and energy to steal away from the head gardener and our mutual duties, and just do it! What an adventure. To finally sit up with the birds and feel the flutter of their wings, to see the world from above, to claim my territory, (will I have to mark my territory? Yikes!), to defy the squirrels and chipmunks, and mostly to escape all worldly concerns and let the child in me soar.
Once I’d finished all I planned to do to celebrate the solstice, Christmas and the coming New Year, I felt like I could play, regardless of the looks I’d have to endure from my dear friend, the H. G. Years ago, when the steps to the front deck finally gave up the ghost, I couldn’t bear to make cook wood out of the beautiful old oak, so I stashed the stair stringers away in what I call the Museum (the old hay barn), along with so many other treasures no one else seems to think have any value. But what do they know, I say to myself. We all live with our fantasies and know what we need to tap into those dreams.
Frankly, fear, that ol’ bugger, kept me from taking on this task. I have few carpentry skills and no engineering ones. I didn’t quite know how to go about putting the stairway together. On that recent day in December, I simply acted like a competent carpenter, who knew what to do, and slowly and carefully, using all my accumulated mistakes as guides, did it.
Once I decided how long to make the steps, the rest went like clockwork. With a calm mind, dismissing fear, the project seemed elementary. I couldn’t have put the screws in without a drill as old oak becomes hard as nails. Jeremy always comments that working on this old oak house presents more challenges than anything he’s worked with. I can believe it. Even when the oak was green we had to drill for every hole or spend time pulling out a bent nail. Jeremy’s grandpa, Roy, helped us now and then with the building of the house. When I pointed out a nail that he hammered home bent, he said, “This way you’ll always remember me.” He was right.
I set the stairway snug up against the venerable sweet gum trunk. It fit nicely, hugging the tree. I climbed up, and up, as far as my vintage legs would safely carry me, and then I sat. Oh my, it felt better than I remembered. (Barbara painted me up in our crab apple tree with Ron holding a basket down below. I love that painting.) And I continued to sit, watching the birds flit in and out, in and out, as they bobbled on the bamboo perch, then into the feeder, each taking its turn except when a woodpecker would show up. The woodpeckers command authority and no one challenges them. My neck started to hurt from moving it back and forth and in and out as the perpetual motion of birds kept me engaged.
You may notice the custom made bird feeder. It has many adaptations. Every time a woodpecker, bluejay, squirrel or chipmunk found a way to abscond with more than their share of sunflower seed, HG would add a new device to foil them. Several I found ingenious, like the wire cord that holds the lid shut so the squirrels can’t open the lid and squirrel away seed for frigid days. The bamboo cane acts as a spring board for the birds as they lite on it and then bounce to the feeder or a branch, creating lovely musical sounds.
My friend Walt, if still with us, would’ve laughed and said to me, “Did you get that at Walmart?” And I would’ve replied, “No, they were too expensive so I had it especially designed by HG.” And I admire each funky touch she adds to it, never knowing when I’ll find her sitting at her work bench intent on the latest iteration. And so it goes.
Why would fate decide to have someone show up at that moment? I heard a horn honk and honk. Pause, then honk again. I dislike that local custom. Allegedly they do this to alert you, to tell you someone has entered your property and not to shoot. To me, it sounds like, “Stop everything you’re doing and come to me.” So of course I don’t go, as I’ve waited years for this adventure of mine and I plan to savor it. I do laugh about the coincidence and hear the door of my Honda open and close. Hmm, someone has left something for me.
When I finally climb down, all goes well except the stairway moves a bit as I hit the last step. OSHA would not approve. Now I need engineering skills, as I must attach the stairs to the sweet gum. That took several hours, to figure out where to put the support, collect the proper wood and screw everything together. I have a few more mistakes to add to my resumé that I feel grateful to’ve learned. Now if I can just remember them.
In the days after this triumph, the head gardener and I started raking up the gum balls. They feel like marbles under your feet as you walk. After several days of raking, we then got down on all fours and picked them up, plopping them into baskets, then the wheelbarrow, and on to the compost. I like this method. It eases your back and you can feel every gum ball and see countless cedar seedlings, gifts from the birds as they perch in the sweet gum. They pull out easily when only a few inches tall, even in dry earth.
Every day that I go out to fill the feeder or carry the compost bucket down, I find more gum balls, some still resist the wind and hang on, some won’t fall until spring. Now I feel like our dad. We’d see him bending over to pick up some piece of lint or what not on our floors, cigarette dangling, spilling ashes here and there, constantly. And because he held that position so often, I identify it with him, and now I do it, but outdoors instead of inside. (When you heat and cook with wood and go in and out of the house with muddy shoes, you can’t keep the outside from inside.) But gum balls have a finite nature and that, dear Dad, I will stoop for.
My friend Jill, who works with a tri-county recycling program, told me the city of St. James experimented to see how long it would take for gum balls to decompose. Three years and they turn into elegant compost. I even saw a gum ball scoop on the Internet, so folks don’t have to bend over. Considering the amount of gum balls one 35 year old tree produces, I’d say this gimmick will sit in the garage, unused, and the marbles will collect under those gum trees. This job would be perfect for high school students, heck, any students, whatever age. Don’t we have a student conservation corps in every community?
It’s been several weeks now that the ginkgo tree has shed his leaves, (yes, he. The females have an offensive-smelling fruit) but I wanted to show you the before and after pictures. One day gold filled the tree and the next day the gold lay on the ground. A haiku in motion.
And look at the Cimarron lettuce in the cold frame along with a parsley plant, thriving in these unseasonable temperatures. Even if the weather turns cold and we have below 0°, the lettuce will resurrect come spring. It amazes me how little protection lettuce, parsley, cilantro and other greens require to hold to life. And come spring, the lettuce will spring into action and become those long-sought after fresh greens. For now, I’ll spend a part of everyday up in the sweet gum, climbing my stairway to heaven.