Snow Signals

My broken green vase, recycled in a backyard garden.

We scooped up our Irish oatmeal: cinnamon, pecans, brown sugar, and milk blended with cooked rolled and steel cut oats. If we hadn’t run out of dried black currants, my husband would’ve thrown them in, too. He’s perfected what he calls “curing” oatmeal.
Third month into his retirement, our spoons chinked in this profoundly quiet house. The refrigerator and furnace rested as whirlwinds of ice crystals played at the kitchen sliding door. The snow had washed the sky blue as the Virgin’s robe.
It seemed the definite set of circumstances to cause the atmospheric phenomenon of a sundog. So I ran to the window and shielded my eyes toward the eastern sky. The morning must’ve been far spent for the sun’s double rainbow.
An ache to hug my daughters’ necks—to hear them call “Mom!”—passed through me.
As life goes, our nest grew quieter with each departure of our three girls. I learned the rhythm and voice of our household appliances, the furnace and its boom when it cooled.
“You’re lucky this thing didn’t burn your house down,” the heating and cooling technician said two years ago.
We replaced that fire hazard with a more energy efficient model. Alas, the new furnace lacks personality, but the new hot water system hisses with its sister, the softener. And I won’t part with our vintage clothes dryer. Old Faithful complains a few seconds when we start her up, but she keeps on ticking. It’s that or the Scrap Metal Recycler.
Then came the moment I wait all winter to witness. Snow signals whirling up from barren treetops—Nature’s telegraph. Behold the beauty of the Lord.
I recalled such an exceptional winter morning with my mother. She also loved Irish oatmeal, although she didn’t name it so. Her last winter with us, we sipped tea and watched the wind blow powdery flakes up and over the landscape.
“Mom, look at those trees sending up smoke signals!”
“I can’t see that far, Iris.”
Macular degeneration had claimed sight in one eye, and Alzheimer’s her sense of smell and taste. We could no longer talk recipes and family stories. In that season of sitting still, we held onto our tea mugs for dear life.  
When we climbed the stairs at night for bed, I followed behind. She’d grip the railing and say, “Iris, don’t ever get old.”
“I’ll do my best, Mom.” Then I’d tuck her in.
“I’m so thankful for my five babies,” she’d say.
“And we’re thankful for you, Mom.”
My mother passed the following June before my middle daughter was married in July. As then, the Wheel of Life turns within and without us, each season sending up its signal: Sit. Watch. Listen to those you love.
Dear Reader, I’m holding my teacup, reading signals of what is to come. Letting go what I must. Holding close the miraculous moments given me. Sundogs. Snow smoke. The scent of my daughters’ skin.

I rest in the promise of eternal life.

March Like a Roaring Lion

Three unbreakable vases in Yule Love It's backyard garden. 

We awoke to a roaring lion Wednesday morning. Pines and maples flailing. The green vase on the patio table toppled over and rolled off the edge and onto a chair. I winced at the crack of breaking glass. March claimed my backyard beacon.
Wind damage is common out here on the hill. I can’t count the dismembered garden chimes I’ve gathered with regret. 
            As a new build years ago, gales ripped the siding right off the west side of our house. Thankfully, the replacement cost was within our builder’s one-year warranty. Welcome to country living.
We planted the row of pines for a storm and sun shield and ran to the basement when the house shook from what seemed a passing freight train. The trees waxed. Our fear waned. Often, Nature prevailed over DTE. 
Yes, we’ve suffered our share of power outages. I’ve learned to see this Act of God as our right of passage back into the natural world—an opportunity to practice skills our forefathers depended upon.
For instance, in one energy failure, I filled buckets from our rain barrels and boiled water on a propane burner. A bar of soap completed the bath.
The gratification from that experience enlightened me. In my educational and spiritual pursuits, I had overlooked how to survive. My mother’s mantra, “use what you have”, took on new meaning. A woman who had pumped water from an outside well for her childhood household, Mom would’ve laughed out loud at my resourcefulness.
With a positive attitude, sudden deprivation can build strong character and strengthen relationships. Today a fellow writer told our critique group that a friend took in her family when their power went out.
“I didn’t want to go home. Her house is cleaner than mine,” she joked.
Ah! Love thy neighbor as thyself.
Several years ago, it was a cold November night when our youngest daughter and her husband offered us shelter. Three nights. During the day, I worked with her laptop and monitored DTE’s online grid indicating restored power.
What fun to serve my family dinner when they returned home tired and hungry. We gathered around their fireplace, a pleasure our schedules would not have allowed otherwise.
Wednesday’s wind purged the woods of dead ash trees, littered our road with branches and limbs, some places near impassable. When my computer flickered off, our generator started up. This happened several times with no need to draw buckets of water, gather candles before dark, and secure a warm bed for the night.
When I prepared dinner, I felt a small sense of victory. We’ve invested heaps of research and income into a more sustainable and economical life, and it’s paying off.
Dear Reader, as I forced the jagged bottom of the green vase into a backyard garden, I realized natural consequences of our electrical independence.
We no longer need our children’s lodging.
And what shall I do to practice survival skills?  
Oh, yes! Beware the Ides of March—gardeners say an ideal day for sowing spring peas.

Perspectives of Seven Ponds Nature Center

Director Mike Champagne, Office Manager Dan Hayes, and Naturalist Lois Rheaume
Seven Ponds Nature Center's three retirees

Where there is no vision, the people perish. Proverbs 29:18
In 1967, the year I graduated from high school in Warren, Rip and Patty Schemm and Don and Bee Naish founded Seven Ponds Nature Center in Dryden. They devoted the center “to conserve the natural environment as a sanctuary for native plants and animals, as a living classroom for environmental education, and as a peaceful retreat for its visitors.”
About twenty years ago, my first experience with Seven Ponds was one of spiritual healing as a grieving mother. Trees of all ages and species embraced me like those of my beloved Breaks Interstate Park, Virginia, where family memories of three generations belong. Although the Breaks’ ecosystem is mountainous, the soggy paths and glacial lakes at Seven Ponds were as welcoming as the Cumberland’s rocky ridges, waterfalls, and brooks. 
            Seven Ponds became my home away from home. With it came friendly staff and a group of like-minded women who love to dig and study herbs in the center’s Herb Garden. There I learned the benefits of growing and using lavender that changed the landscape of my life.
Mike Champagne, the Director, and I discussed different models of operation for a lavender farm I developed on my property. Birder extraordinaire, Mike joined the farm’s list of programs we offered our harvest guests.
Lois Rheaume, the naturalist and humorist who taught me to appreciate a naked tree, was a speaker for my last Farm Girl Revival in September 2014. Lois loves to talk native plants and animals, and a crowd loves to listen.
With this in mind, I anticipated a large gathering last Saturday to bid farewell to Mike, Lois, and Dan Hayes, the office Manager. Fond of the three retirees, I aimed for a front row seat with a fellow herb buddy.
The room swelled with Seven Ponds volunteers and birders, astronomers, photographers, beekeepers, and Wildflower Garden folk—members of clubs who also call Seven Ponds their second home.
Knowing their audience well, Mike, Dan, and Lois proceeded to host a “roast thyself” in answer to questions Mike had printed on the chalk board. Ever the Director.
We laughed for two hours as the guests of honor reminisced their past thirty years with polished wit, playing off one another as if they’d rehearsed the show. I felt blessed to belong to a place and band of people where “natural” is an abiding human and earthly value.
“Our founders didn’t want their names on the new building,” Dan said. “Don once said that a gift is to be given anonymously.”
Dear Reader, from my perspective, the founders’ mission thrives. On its 50th Anniversary, the purpose of Seven Ponds remains the same. “We believe in the importance of the continuing existence of native plant and animal ecosystems. They are valuable for their own sake and as places for peace, enjoyment, reflection, retreat, and spiritual renewal.
“We value and respect individual effort and personal growth, but it is as a team that progress is made and goals are met.”

Early Birds and Skunks

I fry potatoes and Uncle Tab makes Chicken & Dumplings

While you folk bathed your faces in Michigan’s sunshine last weekend, rainclouds hovered over me in Lexington, Kentucky. On the other hand, while my husband and I wound our way through beautiful horse country, you waited in long lines for a car wash.
            What is life but continuous trade-offs? I’ve truly missed snowshoeing this winter, yet haven’t had to deal with much walking and driving on icy roads. For instance, when we drove through Cincinnati with open windows, the daffodils were breaking through the leaf-litter along I75.
            Ah, the unexpected scent of springtime. “Bet Uncle Tab has plowed his garden,” I said.
            Clouds soon gathered after we crossed the Kentucky line. And sure enough, Uncle Tab’s patch of earth was turned over when we found him cooking tilapia, rice, and vegetables, limping from stove to sink.
 “When you coming back to help me plant?” he asked.
            “When you plant. And what happened to your hip?”
            “Aw, I tripped on a rug upstairs and fell. I’m okay. The doctor gave me some medicine.”
            The following day while my uncle and aunt dozed in their recliners, Mel and I found a flock of Canada geese on his driveway. What a freaky February. The birds scattered as we drove through the gate and turned toward the Kentucky Horse Park, a stone’s throw down the road.
After passing by the national park for twenty-eight years, we at last toured its magnificent grounds. My goodness, what you don’t see from the expressway and Iron Works Pike!
More incredulous is the fact I’d never toured the region's scenic Bluegrass estates. When friends said, “Oh, you’re going into horse country,” I couldn’t visualize what they meant because I’d never strayed from the family fold.
My Appalachian ancestors depended upon a strong mule with a good work ethic for their sustenance. However, the Bluegrass people claim “a handsome horse is the highest pride of a Kentuckian.”
True, it was a sight to behold—pristine, mammoth barns on thousands of rolling acres with black fences and grazing thoroughbreds on limestone grasslands. And how I would’ve loved to tour one of those gone-with-the-windish mansions.
The vast scope of it all suddenly made me grateful for our three little acres and five hens. “Can you imagine moving all that manure? The cost and work to feed and doctor thoroughbreds?” I asked Mel.
The daffodils were opening on our drive home through Cincinnati. And our six little fruit trees were budding when we pruned them this past Thursday.
“I heard the Sand Hill Crane today,” said a friend.
“I saw a skunk yesterday!” hollered another.
I worry about Uncle Tab’s limp and Nature’s early birds. What will happen to my fruit harvest this year? And I’m a small potato. What about the commercial orchards surrounding our local communities?
Dear Reader, personally, the highest prize of this Appalachian-Michigander is gathered in a basket and bucket. The only thing I would trade my homegrown food for is another good story.