September has been a busy month. We began it with the opening of the Sharkive exhibition, Onward and Upward – Shark’s Ink. – at the CU Art Museum, a wonderful mélange of prints. Curator Hope Saska chose works I might not have and put them together in a colorful overview of the Museum’s holdings in the Sharkive. We greeted old friends and met new ones. I felt a mixture of pride and sadness. Bud has made an amazing body of work with so many amazing artists. And there it was on the walls. A life’s work. Altogether an exciting – and exhausting – affair.
The following Saturday we again celebrated the Sharkive exhibition at a breakfast reception. I spoke with a woman I had known as a young girl (sixty-some years ago) and we remembered the food and the games we played in Superior, Wisconsin. Like s’mores made with saltines rather than graham crackers. Buttered saltines and gooey marshmallows! If I can bring myself to buy marshmallows (why do I have such an aversion to this purchase?) I will make these to relive that childish memory.
Barbara Takenaga arrived the next week and made a group of monotypes. Beautiful and strange atmospheres on paper. On her heels, Enrique Chagoya worked with Bud and Evan to get a BAT of a new lithograph. A new kind of codex, full of colorful characters and poignant images.
We had great conversations over meals and I made sure those meals were special. We had a spatchcocked chicken, lots of salads, bison burgers, and this salmon dish first encountered when Sherry and Jamie brought us dinner during my recovery.
Green Salmon Skewers
First make a salsa verde. Roughly chop two cups of cilantro, leaves and tender stems, then pulse in the Cuisinart with a tablespoon of olive oil, a chopped clove of garlic, and a big pinch of salt. Add drops of water to help the machine whizz the cilantro into a chunky paste. Cut a pound of skinless salmon into large pieces – 1 ½ or 2 inches. Toss with the salsa verde and leave to marinate 30 minutes to several hours. Arrange on skewers and grill or broil for 3 minutes. Turn and cook another 3 minutes or until done to your liking. We prefer the salmon lightly cooked.
If you have any leftovers they taste great with an assortment of salads.
This zucchini gratin makes a nice accompaniment to the salmon skewers or other grilled entrees.
Coarsely grate two medium sized zucchini by hand or in the processor. Wrap in a piece of cheesecloth or a smooth kitchen towel and squeeze until dry.
In a large skillet, sauté half a medium onion, diced, in two tablespoon of olive oil until lightly browned. Add the zucchini and a generous pinch of salt. Continue to cook for a few minutes.
Sprinkle a tablespoon of flour over the veggies and mix well. Stir in a cup of milk and cook until thickened. You may need a little more milk to make a thick but not stiff mixture. Add ½ cup grated parmesan.
Tip into a baking dish, or as I did into individual cazuelas. Top with a handful of panko or other bread crumbs. Drizzle a little olive oil over all and bake at 350° for 25 minutes or until browned and bubbly.
Sometimes everything does work out. Why is it we don’t know this until we’ve almost given up hope? How do you keep believing when all signs point to disaster? And why does this optimistic gardener even venture into such dark territory? Like so many folks the world over, we’ve dealt with a profound drought. Granted, not on the level African countries, Iran or Afghanistan endure, and certainly nothing like the Dust Bowl in the 1930’s, or that China faces today, but enough drought to bring despair to our psyches and wonder if rain had become another old fashioned idea. We burrowed into our shells and waited out the heat, the dryness, the shriveling up of the landscape. If I paint a grim picture I’ve only recorded reality.
Through day after day with no rain and unrelenting heat, the gardens held on ─ held on but didn’t look pretty. By 5pm each day, everything had wilted, expressing utter exhaustion. Shrubs and some perennials sloughed off leaves to reduce evaporation as they too waited, waited. It was sad, just plain sad. I didn’t smile much and began to feel what other people must feel as they watch their world, their livelihood collapse a midst one natural disaster or another.
Last summer I decided, over the protestations of the head gardener, not to water the gardens except for plants in pots. With predictions of water shortages in the future, we could learn which plants do well in drought and gather some information as to how to proceed as the climate continues to change. I felt excited to gather information and begin a large experiment. Not the head gardener. With a not so gentle voice, she puffed up, turned red, and told me I was crazy. “You have a deep well. It goes down 333 feet. Why would you let everyone else use that water and not you? All the work we’ve done to plant will just be wasted. I just don’t get you!” I looked at her, saw her utter frustration, and understood her logic. It didn’t seem like the right moment to have a discussion on climate change and we had work to do, so I told her she’d raised some points I’d think about. Fortunately last summer was generous, we didn’t need to water as the rains came and most everything did well. The discussion was forgotten or postponed, depending on who you asked.
Last Friday when she came back from her summer retreat and stopped in to say hello she wanted to walk around the gardens. I tried to deflect her but she moved right on, pushing toward the gardens. She stopped in her tracks and was horrified. Simply horrified. The naked ladies, or surprise lilies, and the zinnias were the only bright spots for her. The tomatoes weren’t producing much, only a few cucumbers on the vines, no beans, peppers sad, squash being eaten by deer (or that dratted, but cute, ground hog). I kept interjecting “but.…” though it did no good because she was on to the next angry declaration as she flailed her arms about and shook her head back and forth in total disbelief. I thought maybe she’d quit on the spot and at that point, I really wouldn’t have cared. I received her sharply delivered words like a piece of wilted lettuce. She was right. It all looked disastrous.
She spotted the straw stacked up and wanted to see it. She loves the smell of fresh straw. We walked over to the pile of beautiful golden straw. A week before, I told her, Jeremy called to say he had our straw. He enlisted the help of Petra to move the 4 stacks of 21 bales each with her tractor, taken off of Jeremy’s flatbed trailer. I told the head gardener Jeremy said they could’ve unloaded the straw bale by bale, but Petra was happy to help and seemed to enjoy showing the guys how a woman can easily lift a ton of straw with hydraulics and a calm demeanor. The head gardener smiled at that. (Phew… I continued with the story as it seemed to amuse her.)
After figuring out the route to the straw’s home, Petra slowly maneuvered the tractor’s fork into the huge bundle, stabbed it, lowered the bundle like an expert until she found the balance point and carried each ton of straw the 100 feet to its allotted space. With the triple digit temperature and high humidity, Jeremy and his dad appreciated the kind help. Afterwards, the four of us hung around Petra on her tractor, the Queen of Sheba, and talked and talked, mostly about tractors, at which point the head gardener laughed. She knows I’m ignorant about machinery of any kind. The story was a nice distraction from the calamity she had witnessed in the gardens. Her mood had changed. So I took the opportunity to ask her to come next Tuesday for work as I had plans for the weekend. Yes, plans to feel sorry for myself.
The weekend came in woefully hot and so dry there was no dew on the browning grass in the early morning. I mustered the energy to go about my duties but I felt the presence of the apocalypse. Yes, I do have the tendency to be overly dramatic but after hearing of disasters the world over, I figured it was our time to endure one too. I felt ashamed of my pathetic response, at my lack of cheerful, upbeat energy. I lost my belief that things could get better.
I stewed for several days, taking care of mundane challenges like a clogged toilet ─ is that not a metaphor for the apocalypse? And I’d lost several items, a paring knife, later found on the floor, and my pruners, placed in the wrong basket. All this indicated a lost spirit. And Agnes would come on Monday, freshly back from Germany where heat and forest fires raged. My sad gardens would assault her too.
And indeed they did. Our first chore was to clean the garlic. We sat in the shade of the sweet gum tree and she chirped pleasantly about all the adventures she and Thomas had in Dresden. With no air conditioning in her mother’s house, they suffered through the nights as they couldn’t open the windows with the fires so close by. (Doom and gloom abounds when you’ve let down your optimism spectrum.) After we’d finished cleaning the garlic, a lovely harvest this year, she too wanted to tour the gardens. I could not deflect her either. So I took her to all her favorite places and the best she could muster was, “I’ve never seen it look so bad before.” Yes, I thought, dig me a grave and bury me now. Everything seemed downhill.
We hauled some of the new straw to various beds, leaving the bales for the head gardener and me to spread. We cut back the dead zinnias. Agnes works so quickly and efficiently we finished those tasks in jig time. My enthusiasm dipped and I suggested an early lunch. We went inside to prepare what the garden offered. To her, the zucchini fritters, the millet and corn dish, the cucumber salad and the fresh tomatoes tasted like ambrosia. “You make such good food Mimi” she pronounced. That cheered me a little and she told more stories about their new kittens and their adventures in Germany. I think I even smiled.
She left before the heat became unbearable and I collapsed into a nap. Within 12 hours the rains would fall, and fall, and fall until 3 ½ inches had graced the parched landscape. I would lie in bed, in the dark, and weep with joy. Gifts from the heavens have arrived. We’re saved once again.
And indeed the gardens would come back with a vigor that surprised even me. More importantly, when the head gardener showed up for duty on Tuesday morning, she walked around with an open mouth. She couldn’t believe the transformation. I reveled in her wide eyed look of wonder and exclamation, “How can this be?”
I smiled and muttered about the underground river and mycelium, mulching, using compost etc. etc. but she didn’t hear a word. She simply walked from one plant to another and oohed and ahhed. I held on to the quiet victory. This theme of water shortages will remain a constant. We’ll have many conversations, disagreements, but now I have this one “miracle” to relate to, over and over again as we slowly try to come to an understanding of our new world, how we have to adapt and what a difference a day makes.
On the 4th of July I took a fall and broke my hip and wrist. An unfortunate accident but aren’t they all. After a partial hip replacement and a pretty pink wrist cast, I’m home, getting stronger every day.
Zoë was in California on a mountain bike trip with friends when I fell. On her return, she moved into high gear, cooking and helping Bud at the house. They brought me lots of treats at the rehab center from granola and yogurt to lovely dinner salads, saving me from the dire menus offered to patients. My sister Susan visited with veggies and fruit and – Cheetos. I feel fortunate to have wonderful support from my family.
And from our friends. We have enjoyed dinner from Walt and Sheila – gazpacho, crab cakes and corn bread – and the pleasure of their company at dinner on the porch.
Sherry is a pal, making a meal each week. Poached salmon and a zucchini gratin, baked herby chicken, cornbread and salad with goat cheese and peaches. She and Jamie joined us last week for grilled salmon skewers (in a green sauce marinade), sauteed summer squash, and salad, with Colorado peaches and ice cream for dessert. I wish I had photographed these delicious meals.
Ana Maria cheered me up with her positive attitude and velvety cold cucumber soup, a leek tart and a loaf of spinach and feta bread.
Sandra came for a visit with a ready-to-bake lasagne from MoxieBakery in hand. Better yet, we had a wonderful conversation about books, art and life.
Peter and Denise brought dinner and stayed for a lovely evening on the porch eating a delicious Salade Niçoise and catching up on our lives.
Roseanne helps me make lunch and picks up groceries on her way to Shark’s Ink.
Zoë visits each weekend loaded with produce from the farmer’s market. She also brings the fruits of her cooking – jars of gazpacho, grain and lentil salads, a pan of terrific chilaquiles, and always, cookies.
Wow. Writing this makes me grateful again for these dear ones. Not to mention Bud, my rock through all this. He has taken over the chores I am unable to do such as laundry, cleaning, and helping me shower. He picks up things I drop and cheerfully ties my sneakers for walks in Apple Valley.
Thanks too to sisters Mimi and Susan for the phone talks that help me keep everything in perspective. I’ll be out of my cast soon and by the end of August, over the hip restrictions.
I am cooking some, using leftovers from the meals friends have provided and the bounty of the season. One of the first dishes I have made is adapted from Plenty by Yotam Ottolenghi.
Roasted eggplant salad
Cut two long eggplants into ¾ inch slices, crosswise. Place on a parchment lined baking sheet and brush or rub with plenty of olive oil, up to ¼ cup. As the eggplant absorbs the oil, add a bit more. Roast at 375° for 35 minutes until very tender. I used my toaster oven for this. No sense heating the house by using the big oven.
Meanwhile, cut a sweet red or yellow pepper into dice. Combine with 12 halved or quartered cherry tomatoes. Add a tablespoon of red wine vinegar and 2 tablespoons olive oil, a big pinch of salt. (Ottolenghi calls for 3 tablespoons of capers and some of their brine. I didn’t have any so added the salt.) Let sit for at least 30 minutes – or overnight in the fridge.
Arrange the cooled eggplant slices on a platter, slightly overlapping. Top with the pepper salsa, 2-4 ounces goat cheese, crumbled, and a big handful of chopped cilantro. (The original recipe calls for torn fresh mozzarella.)
Still in the midst of the dog days of summer, I rise early and complete my rounds by noon. Walking into the gardens at 5:30, enough light comes through the horizon to show me the way. This morning, a breeze came up, moving the bottle brush and Canadian rye grasses as if autumn had arrived. I stand still, close my eyes, and revel in the coolness, soon to become a distant memory. These early hours trigger the bees and butterflies. I’ve found bees sound asleep, attached to a blossom, as if they crashed in a moment of ecstasy. And then I see the bee roused, looking for the first nectar of the day. The pipe vine swallowtails go high into the mimosa trees that seem to bloom forever. After those initial caterpillars the boys and I watched go into chrysalis (and hatch) I see hundreds and hundreds of caterpillars doing just that. Luckily, two enormous mimosa trees will give the newly minted butterflies unlimited nectar. The garden phlox comes on now too, plus the zinnias, so they will continue to feed in good style, the drought not affecting their food source.
After checking for squash bugs and picking the cucumbers and tomatoes, however sad they may look, I next fill the bird baths. The poor birds, wasps, frogs, all the critters, feel desperate for fresh water as the resident chipmunk will attest to, jumping up to the bird bath as a bird in flight. The deer come at night and drink from the bird baths in the Park. I push a wheelbarrow out to the Park with a full watering can and a 5 gallon bucket as full as I can safely deliver it those 200 feet. Of course I’m down on my hands and knees many times as I deliver water or check for bugs, so by the time I come back to the house to do my tai chi, make coffee, have breakfast and write in my journal, my knees are covered with soil and straw. No wonder I can never get either my fingernails or elephant knees clean.
Each day I set one task I want to accomplish. If I make this job something I’ve wanted to do for a good while, I’ll feel a sense of satisfaction and the heat and humidity won’t affect me. I try to find chores in the shade so I don’t wilt too soon. These paths I excavated with a hoe, and then smoothed with a rake, became essential this year. The American holly tree has grown so large I can’t easily push my wheelbarrow through the south border of the Cottage garden to the compost. The garden has spoken. We need another way. Plus, the Cottage garden covers so many square feet we’ve felt overwhelmed when we try to weed it all. Small victories seem important. If the job’s too big, like detassling 5 acres of corn, we lose hope and feel done in before we even begin. Dividing the garden into smaller, recognizable plots, with paths running through, helps organize the plants in the various plots and we’ll feel more satisfied with weeding one plot then another. (At least I hope we will. The head gardener has gone on vacation and will come back to several changes…)
Now as I stand in the shade where these paths have been carved out, I see a new scene, a different way to enjoy both the Cottage garden and the Medicinal garden where the gingko tree grows so majestically. A bench, a small bench, just enough for one person, will go here, in the shade. Such a quiet spot, perfect for spying on birds and butterflies, even that groundhog that likes to hide under the sauna. The site lays far enough away from the gingko tree to give perspective, some distance, and that changes everything as any new point of view can do if we relax and absorb the change. In this unrelenting heat and oppressive humidity, I seek out these shady retreats and ways to enjoy them even more. Sitting for a few minutes, listening for the call from some brave bird, makes me breathe deeper and feel renewed.
Last week neighbor Patrick called. He said he had rocks for me. I’d admired some along our county road as I rode with him to look for telephone poles Ron and I had stashed in the lower pasture. (Patrick needs posts for a project.) He had one HUGE rock I’d declined, but then wished I hadn’t. I confessed I’d thought about that rock since he’d shown it to me. He said he’d bring it too. His tractor has a king-sized bucket and he ended up bringing 3 bucketsful of impressive rocks, enough to create this short-cut path past the mimosa tree, into the Sycamore garden, to the path to the house, plus extra for the paths in the Cottage garden. He hand delivered each rock, except the two humungous ones and used the hydralics! as Petra would say, to move those two into place.
I hadn’t conceived of rocks that size for the barrier between the Sycamore garden and the garden phlox. I wanted a riprap wall from rocks I’d pick up along the roads, driving slowly in my Honda, with all the windows opened, pretending I was in our ‘62 International pickup, driving the back roads like we used to, one of us throwing rocks onto the bed of the truck, the other driving and scouting out more rocks. Well now I had a new perspective and would have to change my vision. I’d collected smaller rocks with the boys down at the creek. They mostly have holes in them or ledges or something that caught my fancy, as rocks will do, as we played in the creek. They’ll sit on top of the big guys and maybe a collection of even smaller ones will get flipped onto the big ones when I find a rock I can’t live without. Whatever, I continually look out the window at the new wall or when it’s not so blazing hot walk out and try adding a rock here or there. It’s more than I imagined but it will definitely tell the phlox it needs to keep in its space. Of course like all plants, it will find a way to slip across the boundary, and I will dig them out, give them to Petra or another eager gardener, and maintain my discipline over who grows where. Such a funny notion, that we can control the plant world, but most gardeners deal with that illusion until they can’t fight the plants anymore.
The crab apple tree Barbara painted came down during a storm this May. Jeremy cut it up while I was gone and when I came home I saw the souvenir he’d left. He told me, “You’ve rubbed off on me!” I liked that and I like the mare or the elephant or whatever you see in the carvings. Summer moves along and before you know it, I’ll be out at that pile of branches, making little ones out of big ones.
Summer is full-blown here on Blue Mountain Road. It’s been off and on weather ─ hot and dry, then cool and rainy. Not quite enough rain though. Afternoon skyscapes are dramatic with billowing white clouds building to the west and promising rain but often offering only drama. And in the evening, the sky is veiled with fiery orange, red and violet.
Thank goodness for the beauty of this landscape, a sanctuary in these distressing times.
The garden is planted and provides a few delicious vegetables. Arugula, lettuce, green onions, snap peas and kale are ready to harvest. Tomatoes and eggplant are flowering.
On one of the hottest days, I remembered a cold soup we love. First made for us years ago by artist Robert Kushner, this Indian soup is a Shark’s favorite. Simply whizzed in the blender then chilled, it’s perfect to start a summer meal.
Cold Avocado Soup
Combine in the blender 1 large ripe avocado, 1 cup coconut milk, 1 cup plain yogurt, a large clove of garlic, chopped, 1 jalapeño or to taste, 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground cumin seeds, 2 tablespoons lime or lemon juice, 1 teaspoon salt, a generous 2 tablespoons chopped cilantro. Add 2 cups cold water and blend until smooth. Add up to another cup of water to make a pourable soup. Adjust seasoning to taste. Chill and serve in small cups ─ this is a rich and spicy concoction.Garnish with cilantro leaves and/or a slice of avocado.
Summer fruits are coming into the markets. I scored some organic Colorado apricots and will make a crisp for friends at a long awaited dinner party.
The topping is a simple one ─ ½ cup each of flour, brown sugar, oats and butter, cut together and then crumbled over 1½ – 2 pounds of sliced fruit, (apricots, peaches, plums, apples), in a baking dish. Sprinkle fruit with a tablespoon or two of sugar depending on the sweetness of the fruit. I like my apricots to retain their tang. Sliced almonds are a tasty addition. Or make the topping gluten-free by using almond meal in place of the flour. Bake for about 40 minutes at 350° until brown and bubbly. Makes six servings. Easily halved for 2-3.
Another nice treat to have on hand to accompany summer fruit or simply a cup of coffee is this more-ish cookie from David Lebovitz.
In a medium saucepan over low heat melt 8 tablespoons butter with 1 1/3 cups turbinado sugar, ½ teaspoon cinnamon, and 1/3 cup water just until the butter melts, do not boil.
Remove from the heat and add 2 1/3 cups flour, ¼ teaspoon baking soda and 1 cup sliced almonds.
Line an 8-9 inch loaf pan with parchment and press dough into the pan, smoothing the top. Chill until firm, 2-3 hours.
Preheat oven to 325°. Remove dough from pan and using a sharp knife, slice it crosswise into rectangles, as thin as possible, 1/8 – 1/16 inch.
Place on baking sheets an inch apart and bake for 12 – 15 minutes, until slightly firm and a bit browned. Turn the cookies over and bake another 12 -15 minutes until crisp and deep golden brown. Cool on a rack. Makes 50 -70 cookies depending on thickness.
The rain finally materialized – in force. The driveway is a mess but the plants love it. Happy Fourth of July.
Aii yii yiii! As summer approaches, the head gardener’s temper has reached new heights. If not for my daughter’s class on conflict management, I may have gone over the edge. I bit my lower lip so many times it looked like a hive of bees stung me. Of course SHE never even noticed my lip. Yes, I know, it’s not about me, it’s about how we see the garden duties differently. And I respect her vision, she can just be so myopic, not give me any slack.
It started when the head gardener saw a “strange woman” mowing the grass, going lickety-split, (her words), showing her up and taking over one of her responsibilities. I’d given her time off while my daughter, Hilary and the boys were here. I thought she’d appreciate some free time but she must’ve driven by at least once a day that I could see. Who knows how often she actually drove by or even if she spied on us. I don’t really want to know, I just want peace and calm and some time off when I don’t have to feel guilty. Her calls would come and the lip biting would ensue.
When Brady and Logan come, I concentrate on them. I still have to do basic gardening chores, but mostly I cook what they love, take them to the creek, horse around, and soak up their enthusiasms. Brady tries to cream me at Monopoly. I, uhhum, “let him win”. Well, sort of. That’s another story. And Logan’s my bedmate. We sleep, all 4 of us, out on the summer kitchen, listening to the night sounds, watching the flickering of the fireflies, hearing rain on the tin roof, an armadillo scratching around under the house.
Hilary would get up at 4:45 to study for her class or work on a paper. (We three would sleep in until 6:30 or so. Logan would go from eyes completely closed to a sunny “Good morning”. That definitely warmed the cockles of me heart.) Hilary’s getting a master’s in Organizational Leadership and almost everything she studies has psychology involved. It’s fascinating to watch her stretch her mind into new fields after 23 years of flying a helicopter in the military. And she helps me stretch too, finding new ways to think about old ideas and not locking into a fixed way of thinking, hence I WILL deal with the head gardener.
We went to Mistaken Creek, a creek that runs through our bottom land, three or four times. It’s another world down there. No garden, but wild and carefree, plants of all sorts jumbled together as seed from upstream, overhanging trees, critters and whatnot, find their way into all sorts of nooks and crannies. I feel free, just like the boys must feel. I test myself on the plants, saying one name after another, while the boys are immediately into skipping stone mode. I’ve watched Brady go from not being able to skip at all (while his dad, Kerry, skipped with such power his arm made a whirring sound) to skipping stones all the way across Third Creek, 100 feet wide, hitting the rocks on the far side. He now has some of the power that awed me in his dad and an arm that never seems to tire. Logan, 2 ½ years younger, has caught on. He’s built like an attractive tank and will someday be a force to reckon with. Now he can’t quite compete with Brady, but we warn Brady, his time will come and it may not be pretty.
Roasting marshmallows in the coals of the cook stove took us into the evening of fireflies. They restrained themselves a few nights, having only 5 or 6 marshmallows, and then a few other nights they threw abandon to the wind and scarfed down so many Hilary and I felt sure they’d barf. They have stomachs designed for s’mores. And this year they were too tired to catch fireflies, hitting their beds early and zonking immediately.
Patrick, our neighbor, took the boys, one after the other, for a ride on his tractor, racing down the road to Mistaken Creek and back in jig time. It wasn’t a carnival ride but the boys had never been on a tractor and it was big stuff to them. Petra showed them the ponies, including a white Mustang, and offered the boys treats to give the ponies. They demurred saying they didn’t want to get that slobber all over them. That made me laugh as I watched how dirty they got when they play.
I try to remember childhood when the boys come. It’s a bit of a stretch because I also focus on keeping them safe and happy, providing them with their favorite foods, becoming a short order cook as the requests go from one meal to the next, never quite able to fit all the favorites in. We ended with dough gobs, a request from Hilary, remembering Ron making them and how she loved them. They’re a totally decadent treat, pieces of bread dough tossed into hot peanut oil, fried to perfection and eaten with honey and butter. The boys devoured them. Hilary and I did our best.
One Friday, an old friend from New Hampshire came to spend the day with us. Kit used to visit her parents in a neighboring town and her parents were my friends first. Kit and I met in 1998 and have been fast friends since. The boys took to her right away and we carried on as one big silly family. They even let her have some of their mac and cheese she coveted as we ate our adult meal.
Hilary found a pipevine swallowtail caterpillar as she mowed. Logan had a bug box so she brought it to him. It was a mature caterpillar and looked like it would go into chrysalis soon. We put that caterpillar and one Logan found on the screen door into this jar and in a few days they both had gone into chrysalis as if it was staged. Logan lamented he wouldn’t be able to see the caterpillar emerge, as he had learned in school it took several weeks. I’ll see it all and send him a picture, you readers too.
As we prepared to leave Strawdog, Brady commented that we’d go from the 1800’s to the digital world and video games, all in just a few hours. I felt amazed at his insight and willingness to comment on the two worlds. They’d go to a soccer camp in Saint Louis, staying with a friend of Hilary’s and her family, in what the boys rightly call a mansion. The day will come when Strawdog won’t appeal to them, so I treasure these moments with open-hearted gusto.
After spending a night in the mansion with Hilary and the boys, I came home to the fury of the head gardener. She was fuming in the driveway when I arrived and unleashed her anger at me before I could step out of the Honda. I felt tired and a little sad, the way you do when you leave people you love, and couldn’t quite focus on what she was saying. I asked her to come sit with me on the summer kitchen, have a glass of iced lemon balm tea. Lemon balm has anti-anxiety properties and I do believe the tea along with my new conflict management skills helped ease her tensions.
As we sat on the summer kitchen, a cool breeze blew, the fragrance of the catalpa flowers wafted in, along with songs from the Baltimore oriole and calls of the indigo bunting. I listened to her worries about getting the gardens planted, weeded, the peas harvested, the grass cut and on and on. She was almost frantic at the beginning but as she drank her tea and talked and talked, I saw her softening, opening up a tiny bit. When she quieted for a few minutes, I told her that Hilary cutting all the grass, all 6 plus hours’ worth of mowing, had freed me up. I’d planted all the beans, even some flower and herb seed. In a few short days, the gardens would be ready for summer and we could weed, prune, harvest, plant more beans as the peas finished up. The mowing would slow down, I assured her, as the heat of summer bore down, and we’d have more time for intensive weeding. I then told her how much I appreciated her patience with me as I had my vacation, how important it was for me to spend time with the family and wish that she would spend time with us too. She didn’t say yes, and she didn’t say no. I hold out hope that she’ll allow herself to blend in with the family, laughing and joking, helping to make delicious meals and maybe even roasting marshmallows with the boys.
The garden beds have erupted with sprouts of volunteer hollyhocks, arugula, dill, cilantro and orach. Mostly red and green orach, (atriplex hortensis), the bosses of my garden beds, growing wherever they choose. According to the website The Laidback Gardener, orach was one of the “first vegetables cultivated by humans, known well before the time of the ancient Greeks. During the Middle Ages, orach was one of the most commonly grown vegetables in Eurasia and by the 17th and 18th centuries it had ‘conquered’ the Americas and Australia as well.”
These lovely little sprouts will grow to be over five feet tall with seed heads holding hundreds of potential plants. In spring I happily uproot baskets full and cook the small leaves in tarts and soups. Somehow, (I do admire their persistence and the beautiful seed stalks), many escape my harvesting and provide seeds for next year’s crop. I am ruthless after they attain their height but leave some to self-seed, however maddening they will be as they blanket the beds in spring.
On a recent phone call with Mimi she described a dish she was making for dinner. Her visiting friend Jesse had requested enchiladas made with foraged lamb’s quarters. (Jesse delights in finding edible wild plants.) I haven’t got lamb’s quarters but the orach will serve in their place. Mimi gave me her recipe – a some of this, some of that kind of recipe. Here is my version ─
After steaming the picked over greens with just the water clinging from washing, I squeezed out excess water, (save the juices for soup or as a chef’s treat). Chopped them and sautéed with several cloves of garlic (from the braid that was Mimi’s gift last year) in a tablespoon of oil.
I made a simple ranchero sauce with tomato sauce I had frozen last fall, (or use a 15 ounce can of chopped tomatoes), half an onion, chopped, a home-pickled jalapeño or chilé of your choosing, and a handful of chopped cilantro stems and leaves. I pureed these in the blender then fried the sauce in a bit of safflower oil until darkened and thickened – 10 minutes or so.
With a baking dish at hand, I softened six corn tortillas rubbed with a bit of oil on my comal then rolled them up with a couple tablespoons of the greens, a dollop of sauce and a small handful of grated Catamount cheese, (use cheddar, jack or whatever you have), and arranged in the dish topped with the rest of the sauce and grated cheese.
I baked them in the toaster oven, covered with foil, at 350° for about 20 minutes, then uncovered for 10 minutes until hot and bubbly. Garnish with cilantro, sour cream, avocado, a fried egg or whatever you fancy. They’re delicious on their own too.
If you would like to grow orach, send me a note and I will save seeds for you this fall. Beware – this beautiful plant is very vigorous and will cover your garden with maroon sprouts. They’re easy to spot, so pull them out and EAT them.
One chilly, rainy spring afternoon, the sofa invited me to rest. I settled down, all nice and cozy, with a favorite spring tonic, Barbara Pond’s A Sampler of Wayside Herbs, given to me 35 years ago by my sister Barbara, with an inscription, “I love these familiar little plants with the lovely names.” I never tire of reading that inscription, spring after spring, with the knowledge Barbara found charm in wayside herbs like I do. If you’ve never looked at an old herbal, you won’t understand the fantasy and magic these herbals give to those who dare enter within.
A few days before, Brother Cadfael and I stood where his garden meets the Cottage Garden, both of us with hoes in hand, standing with them as a support of sorts or perhaps as a badge of honor. We smiled at each other when we stood up from our hoeing and admired the cool day, the fragrance of the first iris, and the lushness of the hillsides. He thanked me again for allowing him to take over what was the butterfly garden. He has a dozen monkshood flowers growing well now and many spring ephemerals have shown their sweet faces.
He had hoed down the elderberries explaining that they grew in other gardens and shrub borders and wouldn’t I agree this would make a far better location for special herbs for his remedies and of course flowers for the altar and for the infirm and ? “Without question”, I replied. He knows the uses for so many of the wayside herbs that creep into any area that doesn’t get mowed excessively or that grow under a tree with leaner soil, and I can come to him with my queries. He’ll show me a tincture he’s made or explain what part of an herb to use to treat an ill. I could listen to him all day but we both feel anxious to return to our labors and probably find more comfort in just knowing the other one works the earth in much the same way, with bowed head and contented mind.
My love of plants makes most people yawn or say something like, “that’s nice.” Kinda like what I do when the locals start talking about who’s related to who and so and so is their second cousin twice removed. I go into a trance at such talk and can never keep track of it all. And I’ve been called on it. “I told you she was my mother’s own cousin’s aunt.” Don’t quote me. I never repeat it quite right and my genealogical-minded friends just shake their heads. When they say, “It’s history!” I’ll say, yes, just not the variety I want to dive into.
As the years went by and my interest in plants increased I began studying the flora of Missouri. I wanted to know all of the plants in one family, just because it fascinated me to know which ones were intimately related. The most fascinating discovery was when I learned poison ivy, cashews, mangoes, and pistachios all belong to the same family. (Anacardiaceae for you plant nerds.) My mind expanded by several magnitudes. Wow! I said to myself.
On hot summer days I’d sit under the fan with Steyermark’s Flora of Missouri and make lists of all the plants in the buttercup family – for instance, clematis, columbine, anemones, delphinium. And get this, they’re all poisonous to some degree or another, especially in early spring, to both man and animals. (Think of all the times we put a buttercup under our chins to see if our skin would glow, which meant we liked butter…) I’d go from one family to another, making these lists, then studying them. As soon as I see a new plant, I look for something to recognize its heritage. So I understand folks into genealogy.
I sit among the wayside herbs under shady trees taking note of how the agrimony has spread. (Remember? It has flowers that smell like apricots, belongs to the rose family.) Or I watch this fight for survival by the noble frog. (He won, I might add, after 5 minutes or so of struggle. I was tempted to intervene but firmly believe, mostly, we should let nature go about its changes.)
As I sit, or kneel, or lie down amongst it all, I inevitably find seedlings of every sort of tree, (it’s under a tree, no less), and what do birds do but perch and purge. It still astounds me to find 5 or 6 cedar seedlings in less than a square foot.
Summer has kicked in now. No time for idle ramblings or thoughts, it’s all about getting everything planted, seeds sown. Idleness will come during the dog days. These photographs show some of the beauty and variety of plants on Strawdog. I see Cadfael out and about in the cool of the evenings, strolling around, bending over to smell or taste, sometimes picking small bouquets. Of course that delights me as did a surprise visit the other evening.
I was pounding T-posts in for the tomato cages with a heavy tool that fits inside the post and has handles on the sides to bring home the post. When you heave down on it, the sound travels far and wide. Petra heard me across the road and sent her knight in shining armor, Patrick, to assist me. I’ve never had anyone stop by, out of the blue, to help me, so I felt flabbergasted. He insisted on helping, loyal to Petra’s wishes that I not do such a chore. I demurred and actually enjoyed watching his effortless labor, sending each post in with two strokes instead of the four I required. We carried on pleasant, happy banter and before I knew it, all twelve of the posts stood tall and proud. As Patrick began to leave, I eyed the asparagus, another spring tonic, and realized I hadn’t picked it that day. So with Patrick on one side of the bed, me on the other, we picked enough spears for them to have a meal. There will be more asparagus and I see cookies in his future too.
When Zoë was a child she awoke on Easter morning to find a wicker basket full of chocolate bunnies, foil-wrapped chocolate eggs and jelly beans. Now for our spring celebration, Bud makes small paper baskets out of discarded prints, one for each guest at Easter lunch. Over the years we have saved them to hang in our china cupboard, a reminder of the artists who made the prints and the cheerful call of spring.
This year he used discards of Kara Maria’s new print for the baskets I filled with chocolate and sour jellies. Zoë, my sister Susan, Charles, Corey, Liz and new addition, Lilikoi, joined us for lunch on Sunday. This was three-month-old Lilikoi’s first outing for a party. And our first in-person sight of our sweet grand-niece.
I set the table with a tablecloth, linen napkins and my mom’s china, a pattern of gold leaves encircling the plates. For lunch, we ate a smoked salmon tart, an asparagus frittata, a kale, beet and carrot salad from Zoë, and for dessert, homemade pound cake and strawberries from Susan. I wrote about the tart here – https://wordpress.com/post/howilearnedtocookanartistslife.blog/1985
The frittata recipe is from The Smitten Kitchen. I particularly like this method of preparing the asparagus. Enough for 2 – 3. For our Easter lunch I doubled the recipe and used a bigger skillet.
Wash 1/4 pound or so of asparagus, thick stalks work best. No need to snap off the ends. Lay each stalk on a cutting board and shave into ribbons with a vegetable peeler, starting from the tough end. Discard tough stalks. Beat together 4 large eggs, a tablespoon of cream or half-and-half, a good pinch of salt and fresh pepper. Add a thinly sliced green onion. (I didn’t have these so add chopped dill. I prefer the onion.) Stir the asparagus into the eggs, coating each strand.
Heat an 8-inch skillet over medium heat and add a tablespoon of olive oil, swishing the oil up the sides. Add the egg mixture and nudge the asparagus to spread out evenly. Cook gently for about 5 minutes until edges are set but center is loose. Top with crumbles of goat cheese (1 – 2 ounces) and transfer skillet to the broiler. Cook until top is set, 1 – 3 minutes. Cool for 5 minutes, then cut into wedges. Serve warm or at room temperature.
The wild plum trees along Apple Valley Road are breaking out in fragrant blossom. Each year I await this intoxicating bloom to breath in the fleeting aroma and store for a year’s worth of scent memory. Enjoy the new growth and promise of spring.
On one of Dad’s early trips to Strawdog, he told me when I saw the first robin in spring, to think of him. He loved that bird. We were sitting on the bench under the crab apple tree where he’d go to roll his cigarettes and sit to look out at the world. He sat and looked a lot, overcome by beauty and appreciation so that joy would burst out of him in a shit-eating grin. He’d laugh, smile that crazy smile, and shake his head in utter disbelief and say something like, “Gee-sus Mariah!”
This year, a few days before spring arrived, I felt confused. Early in the morning, before the sun appeared, I went out to hang the bird feeder and the suet and was bowled over by sound pouring from every direction, in volumes so loud I needed earplugs. Everywhere I looked I saw robins. Not ten or twenty, and surely not that one to remind me of Dad, but hundreds, perhaps thousands. They were in the trees, on the ground, flying, quarreling, trying to steal the holly berries from the mockingbirds, drinking out of the bird baths, carrying on as if they owned the place and had called Strawdog home for years and years.
This has continued, every morning, early. More and more robins arrive, the expanding chorus becoming familiar. By 9 am they’ve moved on, a few remaining, scattered here and there, perhaps the ones who’ve won nesting rights. In the evenings, I see some in the cedars and other trees, bedding down for the night. I wonder how long I’ll have these visitors and what message Dad sends me and why I can’t decipher it. I also think of all the fertilizer they’re leaving behind and the pounds of meat they devour. Whatever the exchange, it seems more than fair because I have the pleasure of witnessing an amazing phenomenon.
When the neighbors arrived on their tractor, the bucket loaded with a gift of horse manure, Patrick said, “Your robins have come over to our place. I can’t believe how many there are! I don’t know what’s going on, but thanks for sharing.” I laughed as he emptied the bucket and asked them if this would be a good time for them to get starts of some shrubs and bulbs. Yes, they said, as they pulled out their shovels and jumped down from the tractor. We spent the rest of the afternoon going from bridal veil to forsythia to lilacs and everything in between.
Petra dug carefully and with respect. Forty years ago I could’ve been her, digging things from abandoned farm yards, along the roadways, from Eunice’s yard – a cranky old woman who ran a rototiller at 85 and who Ron would help in every way possible only to have her find fault. Petra kept saying how generous I was. “It’s not me who’s generous, Petra, it’s the earth. Gardeners love to share. Mostly! You may see my greed if you ask for a start of the Roman hyacinth.” Oh the fragrance of that early flower. I couldn’t choose between it, lily of the valley, lilac, mignonette and of course old fashioned roses. So what does someone with such a decision do? She grows them all, of course. Petra says she wants one of everything that grows on Strawdog and I smile at her enthusiasm.
She texted me that night at 9 pm and said they’d put everything in the ground and Yippee! I wrote back that I was impressed and hoped they’d take a long soak in their super-sized tub. They had done in five hours what would now take me more than several hard days to transplant, forty years after coming to Strawdog. Time moves on and reminds us, in case we hadn’t noticed, in not so subtle ways.
Having young neighbors move in right across the county road feels like a gift. I like hearing Patrick working, calling the dogs, driving the tractor down to the barn. It’s nice to call and ask them to help me move a cold frame or to troubleshoot a problem. Somehow the sounds of human life close by feels comforting after these years of the pandemic, isolation and a strange mental state from it all.
Don’t tell the birds this. I know they think of me as their main friend, and I certainly would feel lost without them. If I forget to put up the feeders, the birds let me know. When I’m stuck inside on a rainy day, I need to look out and see life. Watching their antics pulls me out of myself, especially when I start worrying about the state of the world. As many wise people have said, the world hasn’t changed, only our awareness. I celebrate the human spirit when I hear a Ukrainian say, “Yes, I may not survive this day, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t have a coffee with a friend or get my hair cut. We have to keep on living as long as we are.” Amen and hallelujah. I offer up my joy and every seed I sow to those brave people.
Maybe that’s the message Dad sends me via the robins. Celebrate life. Celebrate spring. Revel in the cheerful colors, the buds, the nest building, the return of old favorites and all the memories they hold. Forty years ago we cheered when we saw one bird and now “we planted it and they came”, a favorite adage of the native plant movement. Everyday I reinvent myself – or find myself. It’s an easy thing to lose, to forget who I want to be. I look across the road and see Petra’s forsythia shrub blooming! yes blooming, and I smile that same smile of Dad’s and exclaim, in his honor, “Gee-suss Mariah!”