Bluebird Watch

One of two birthday bluebird boxes

A gray morning breaks. I walk our land. Three and a half acres. Enough space for two septuagenarians to dwell in relative peace.
The scent of wet earth revives me—winter’s damage strewn high and low, near and far. I start toward the garden steps to upright three small urns.
No—keep focused. Hen chores first, then inspect our two new bluebird boxes.
My friend Joyce handcrafted them for my birthday. A few weeks ago in a foot of snow, we secured them six feet above ground on two different posts that help support our vegetable garden’s deer-proof fence.
“You can observe the bluebirds with your binoculars from the kitchen windows,” Joyce said.
Clever idea.
She claimed she heard a bluebird sing. I took her word for it.
Someday, I’ll know the name of all our songbirds. It’s a matter of respect and praise. And I’ll know my trees. Good thing they don’t have a voice to ID. Well, in a way they do. Firs speak a different tongue than maples when the wind blows.

I find happy hens and one messy house. One more thing to clean up, come a warm day.
As I round the coup’s corner, peeling paint on the back door and under the eaves catch my eye. Can’t postpone that project another season.
A Dawn Redwood tree close by calls my name. She models new lichen gems on her branches and stems. They’re perfectly symmetrical—green botanical wonders, “interwoven fungal filaments,” she boasts.
Lichen grows on a Dawn Redwood tree

I’m beside myself to stand again upon and amongst growing plants. I think the millionth time to change my vocation to one outdoors. Well, John Muir did both, I remind myself. Balance. Will I ever achieve it?
No activity around or in the bluebird boxes. The little entrance begs for company.
Sorry, I won’t fit.
On I go to three paw-paw trees. Bare sticks point upward with promise. ‘Would you hurry, please, before I lose my sense of taste for your mango-banana fruit?” I say.

A downspout extension is blown loose from the pavilion again. A puddle of rainwater sits at the corner, a perfect wood-rot scenario. With a few grunts and exclamations, I rejoin the two parts and return my derrière to my desk to write the day away.
By 3:30 p.m., I’m eager to walk when Mel drives us to the Polly Ann Trail in Leonard.
“You won’t need that heavy jacket,” he says.
“Maybe not, but I’ll need the hood if it rains.”
A drizzle becomes a light shower as we turn at Bordman Road and aim toward our car. Sweaty and exhilarated, I kick lichen-mottled debris from our path.
Nature’s pruning again.
Dear Reader, I’d forgotten how pleasant a soft rain falls upon my face when burning up with spring fever. Soon, the grasses, gardens, and trees will unfurl their jewels of every color.
Meanwhile, I stand at my kitchen window with binoculars, wait for blue wings. Their song in the spring sky.

Origin of Shepherd's Pie

Shepherd's Pie
My devotion to good food comes from my mother’s kitchen. Not flavor, nor nutrition alone, nor the refuge of our family table, more so her stable and flexible practice influences what I choose to cook.
Mom held the humble and unvarnished wood handle of her favorite knife as if it was the most important tool in the world. Out of the blue, she’d open her knife drawer, remove a round gadget, and slide the blade through it. With caution, she’d touch her thumb to the razor-sharp edge.
“Don’t ever touch this,” she’d say.
My eyes widened in awe of her skill and courage.
Mom used this knife for everything she sliced. She cut up a whole chicken for dinner one day and carve a pork roast the next. Swift and exact, she chopped onions, celery, and hardboiled eggs for her famous potato salad. That meant she’d soon be packing the car for a picnic.
But when it came to peeling potatoes, Mom picked up a paring knife, as she did for peeling and coring pie apples. That meant to expect company for dinner. Mom went through dozens of those stubby knives while she sharpened a smooth curve in the middle of her beloved blade.     
A meat and potatoes Irishman, Dad wouldn’t eat casseroles, stews, or soups. He preferred his beef, spuds, and carrots on a plate. With these culinary limitations, my sisters and I never tasted a tuna noodle or chicken and rice casserole while growing up.
But Dad couldn’t smother our mother’s epicurean spirit. On his bowling night, she simmered a pot of spaghetti sauce or baked a pan of lasagna.
A woman who couldn’t resist a new recipe, Mom took to Chop Suey when the dish appeared on the cuisine scene in the mid-sixties. My older sister’s high-school boyfriends (self-proclaimed “bums”) got wind of Mom’s latest homemade experiment and dropped in on Friday nights in hopes of a meal.
Fifty-three years later, long after my parents’ divorce and the demise and subsequent rise of Mom’s family table, I decide to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day with Shepherd’s Pie.
A casserole.
My husband peels potatoes because he will eat the lion’s share. I chop onion and garlic with my Chicago Cutlery and sauté the seasoning in ground beef (you may prefer lamb). In go salt, pepper, tomato paste, Worcestershire Sauce, white wine, ground thyme and rosemary. Peas. Corn. Chopped carrots.
I taste. The wine and spices make all the difference.
With my favorite wood spatula, I spread the meat mixture in a deep ovenproof dish. The aroma makes my salivary glands weep. My mother’s would too.
Then I dollop on Mel’s mashed potatoes—thick, creamy, buttery russets blended with an egg. I drop pads of butter on top.
How could Dad refuse this?
I slide the Shepherd’s Pie into the oven where it bakes while I wash and dry dishes and knives.
“Don’t ever touch this,” I hear Mom’s voice.
Dear Reader, how I wanted to! That meant someday I’d love to cook like my mother.

Brief and Indelible Season

My favorite Girls Scout cookie

I can’t remember selling Girl Scout cookies in fourth grade. Most of the brief season with my Brownie troop remains a mystery.
Martha Bradley comes to mind. Her mother led our meetings at their home. Mrs. Bradley dressed like a Girl Scout and smiled a lot. She led us in the Brownie Pledge.
            “On my honor, I will try to serve God and my country, to help people at all times, and to live by the Girl Scout Law.”
            Brownie meetings were fun like Friday night Pioneer Girls at church. We learned a lesson, sang songs, and ate a snack. I was amazed that mothers led Brownie troops throughout Michigan, the United States, and the world!
            I remember the day Mrs. Bradley demonstrated how to assemble potatoes, carrots, and beef chunks on aluminum foil to make a hobo pie. We shook on salt and pepper then folded the foil over and sealed it around the edges.
            We carried our hobo pies into her backyard to a pile of wood. There our leader taught us a fire safety lesson. Then she placed a grill above the flames where we cooked our food. We sang camp songs new to me. One was a verse about a smile in our pocket. No wonder Mrs. Bradley smiled so much.
            Another we sang in rounds. “Make new friends but keep the old. One is silver and the other gold.”
            At first taste, that one hobo pie of my lifetime fixed a steadfast hobo pie molecule in my food DNA. Just when I thought Brownie meetings and food couldn’t get any better, Mrs. Bradley doled out the fixings for S’mores.

           You mean graham crackers, a Hershey bar, and roasted marshmallows make something so delicious you want “some more?” The S’more molecule entwined the hobo pie’s.
            My second Brownie memory is a fine, delicate vision inside the former Ford Auditorium filled with hundreds of red cushioned seats. My troop sat in a row toward the back. An empty stage lay in front.
            The lights dimmed. Slow, beautiful music began and swelled in volume from some invisible place until it filled the spacious high ceiling. My skin tingled.
            Magically, ballerinas appeared in fluffy short skirts. One after another, they danced onto the stage in a straight line. On their toes! Their arms and legs moved the same way like someone pulled a cord attached to them. I could’ve cried when the lights went on and Mrs. Bradley said, “Time to go.”
            Dear Reader, come March, when I have several boxes of Girl Scout cookies stashed in our freezer, I pour hot cups of tea and melt Thin Mints in my mouth. I celebrate my indelible Brownie lessons and adventures. The hobo pie and S’more. A blazing bonfire and beautiful ballet.
            I hum the silver and gold song, take to heart the good advice for friendships fallen upon stony ground. On my honor, I will try to serve God and my country, to help people at all times, and to live by the Girl Scout Law.    

Cabin Fever Cures

Cuddles birdwatching

Cuddles, our tortoiseshell kitten, lifts a paw to the kitchen’s sliding glass door. Her ears twitch. She extends her neck as starlings gather in our bare maple tree. Her jaw trembles in cat chatter.
“I know what you mean, Cudds,” I say with my hands in dishwater. “It’s been a long winter.”
P.J. and Mo, our previous mousers, spoke the same language when bird sighting. I find this instinctive predatory muttering quite amusing.
          Mittens, our Siamese, doesn’t yet talk to birds. She’d rather make mischief, play catch and release with tomato vine stems, sometimes for hours. Mitts is interested in practicing her snaring skills—pouncing on Cudds or anything that moves.
That’s one reason why I stopped feeding birds when P.J. lived with us. The other reason? Deer, of course. One winter a doe walked away with a feeder clenched between her teeth. What talent.
          A year ago today, my husband and I drove in a snowstorm to Ann Arbor and back for lunch with old friends. “March is still winter in Michigan,” Mel repeats.
          Right on schedule, after months of ice and snow, hunger for my homegrown honey catches in my throat. I remember the few golden, sticky summers I drew off, extracted, and bottled over fifty pounds of pure goodness.
I haven’t since seen comparable traffic of honeybees, legs laden with saddlebags of amber pollen while the chickens scratched under the white pines nearby.
The 2019 Bee Order Form sits on my desk. For all my failures as a beekeeper, I may as well throw away the cost of a package of bees and a queen. However, we sometimes spend more than the bee cost on a week’s groceries. Our farm needs bees like it needs our hens, I reason. Mel and I need them too. We hope for another golden and sticky summer.

Bees love lavender

Indeed, our kittens have these and many other outdoor attractions awaiting them come spring. Great escape artists, I anticipate they won’t be rushing into the house come sundown.
Yet, they are attached to Mel and his siesta after lunch. We’ll see what happens with that habit.
Mel and I discuss what to grow in our vegetable garden. Again, he says, “We don’t need all that squash. It takes up too much space.”
Again, I say, “I love butternut squash soup.”
“We need more beets, and red and yellow onions,” he says.
“You’re right.”

I ordered Fedco organic seeds some months ago—lettuce and beets new to my raised bed and vegetable garden. I do appreciate a healthy harvest.
If the weather doesn’t foil our herb group meeting for the third month, I’ll pick up my seed order from Seven Ponds Nature Center March 13. Meanwhile, absence makes my heart grow fonder for my Earth-loving friends.
Dear Reader, I rest in our chicken chair with Cuddles and watch the starlings gather in the maple tree. At this moment, we’re entirely cured of cabin fever.
Mittens is another story.