A significant summer


Four resident baby robins 
Come spring, we watch fat female robins and the wreath on the west pavilion post. Years ago, a mama robin built a nest in the wreath’s cradle and it's become a popular destination for breeding our state bird.
                  A benefit of husbandry, harboring songbirds is not for the fainthearted. It’s sad to find a baby that didn’t survive to fledge its nest. Considering what Ben Franklin said, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” we visit the nest daily.
                  Mind, not excessively to frustrate Mama and Papa into a tizzy, but a quick peek in the morning and before sundown to confirm all is well, especially in this heat wave.
                  “I’m worried the baby robins are dehydrating,” I said to my husband during dinner last night. “They’re leaning their beaks over the edge of the nest.”
                  He laughed. “That’s what they always do. Haven’t you noticed?”
                  “Well, I have found babies on the pavilion floor,” I defended.             
                  “Don’t worry. They’ll be okay.”
                  Trusting Mel’s judgment, I didn’t check the robin’s nest before I left the house this morning for Seven Ponds Nature Center. A pair of Sandhill cranes crossed our dirt road just yards before me, aiming for the bog. A resident of this former cow path thirty years, I’d never been so close to the cranes’ beautiful sticklike legs.
                  Again, I worried for the wild birds because I’ve seen mink emerge from the marsh by the roadside. Those slinky black critters invaded our hen house once. We’ve since closed the chute at nightfall.
                  As I drove north, orange day lilies lined Rochester Road in full bloom, a sign of July’s Independence Day. Last week, day lilies bloomed in ditches along the routes I traveled in West Virginia and Kentucky, a memory of blissful childhood vacations.
                  Upon returning from weeding the herb garden a while with fellow members, I carried my camera downhill to our robin’s nest. To my relief, I found four breathing babies and rejoiced at the sight.
                  I’m thankful for these imprints of stability within Nature. No matter the weather, condition of our health, or demise of our country’s moral convictions, we may depend upon baby robins to occupy our wreath each summer.
                  The faithful robins, cranes, and double portion of day lilies are timely gifts in our country where some folk clamor to seize public places and opinion, raze historic statues, and impose myriad forms of sexual behavior upon the human race.

A volunteer English lavender blooms in our patio slate
                  Predictably, lavender shrubs bloom in my gardens—another tribute to the Fourth of July, flavoring the celebration with lavender lemonade and its heavenly scent.
                  And should you visit Seven Ponds Nature Center, you’ll find Flora at work with the foliage and sweet yellow flowers of lady’s bedstraw.
                  Both strewing plants from medieval times, lavender and lady’s bedstraw remain gardeners’ favorites for their beauty, food, fragrance, and medicinal value.
                  Dear Reader, if our earth’s goodness mattered to malcontents, might they forgive perceived injustice and embrace this significant summer of birds and flowers?

Healing in the leaves

Some lunch and healing with a friend under the pergola
And he shewed me a pure river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding out of the throne of God and of the Lamb. In the midst of the street of it, and on either side of the river, was there the tree of life, which bare twelve manner of fruits, and yielded her fruit every month; and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.
Revelation 22: 1&2

Preoccupied with gardens, I finally notice the shapely oak tree on the east end of our pergola looks rather strange. Upon inspection, I discover malformed buds and leaves and tell my husband.
     “I didn’t want to say anything, but I think it’s dying,” he says.     
     “I hope not. I can’t imagine the pergola without the tree’s shade. Do you think May’s snowfall damaged the buds?”
     “Could be.
     For days I neglect to call Uncle Luke’s Feed Store in Troy, our long-term lawn, tree, and garden experts. But I’m leaving town soon for my annual pilgrimage back home to West Virginia and Kentucky, and speak with Will. It’s Dale’s day off. I relay my concern.
     “Is it a pin oak?” Will asks.
     “I’m sorry, I don’t know.”
     “No matter what kind of tree or problem it is, you can’t go wrong with a fish oil and kelp foliar spray.”
     “Thanks. Is chicken manure water a good treatment for the roots?” I ask.
     “Yes. A good root soak at the drip line will nourish the tree and relieve stress. But wait until the temps cool down before you spray and soak.”
     I fold laundry and consider my affection for the oak’s function in our backyard’s landscape. Not only do her gorgeous limbs shadow the pergola, the leaves and wood muffle the road and lawnmower noise.
     And when a breeze blows upon the hill, the leaves speak calm and assuring words to those enclosed within wisteria covering the iron structure.
     The same sensation occurs when sitting in the pine cove where our hens dust bathe in the dirt beneath fallen needles—and when I walk through the tunnel of trees on the Polly Ann Trail or my country roads.
     I track this tranquility to my childhood home, the McCoy Bottom, a flatland surrounded by mountains and divided by a creek, and the hill overlooking the bottom. My cousin Kathy and I sit swinging on her front porch upon the knoll, curtains of rain pouring down on the green mountains. We sing and tell silly stories.
     A child, I didn’t know this intimacy with trees strengthened my spirit, mind, and body. The granddaughter of a man who knew the name of every Appalachian tree, herb, wildflower, berry, and critter, I’ll never grasp the pleasure of God’s Creation to the measure Grandpa Floyd did.
     Yet, I know a pin oak and how to feed it.
     Dear Reader, I believe there’s healing in the leaves. The Japanese term this cleansing “shinrin yoku,” or “forest bathing.”
     Yes—that’s exactly how I recall those mountain rains.

When we ironed our hair

Lincoln High School, 1966, pep assembly before the league wrestling tournament.
Iris O'Brien (attendant with ironed hair), Pegge Alstott (queen), Diane Smith (attendant)
Fair-skinned, I wear a wide-brimmed hat, long-sleeved blouse, gloves, pants, socks, and shoes to garden.
With few exceptions, style holds no sway over my clothing and coiffure when I cultivate food and flowers. Comfort and function determine my yard work wardrobe. One never knows where poison ivy lurks.
Yet, my youngest daughter declares, “What you wear effects how you feel,” as if those colorful madras shirts she gifted me years ago guaranteed I sing My Favorite Things in 90% humidity.
True, I favored those purple and pink plaid blouses for their wrinkle-free breathability. I wore them threadbare with my Salvation Army finds. It’s always the back by the right shoulder that first gives out.
That’s what happened to my yellow and white-checkered blouse this spring, leaving one lonely shirt left that’s presently in the laundry basket.
This called for some creative thinking yesterday morning, the date for our first Seven Ponds Herb Group meeting for garden cleanup. After perusing my closet, I recalled a lilac pinstriped, long-sleeved blouse in the basement’s chifforobe.
My mother-in-law purchased this furniture for her firstborn twin sons in 1946. She offered it for our firstborn’s nursery in 1970. The heirloom remains rooted in our home, repurposed for table linens and chest of drawers for my summer wardrobe.
I unfolded the blouse, glad to resurrect the garment for the glory of gardening, plugged in my Rowenta, and sprayed the cloth with starch. Lost in thought, I touched the iron to my bare waist and promptly remembered the basement of my childhood home on Wagner Street in Warren.
About nine-years-old, I wanted to prove to my mother that I could iron my own clothes. With four daughters and three in school, her ironing decreased in the summer, yet she still faced piles of ironing every day including our play clothes and Dad’s barber and bowling shirts.
I figured out how to lower the ironing board and turned on Mom’s Sunbeam. Shorts and a sleeveless top couldn’t be that difficult. Mom made it look easy.
Then it happened. Right handed, the edge of the hot iron slid across my right ribcage. In the shock of pain, I jerked the iron back. Since I couldn’t hide the burn, I confessed to Mom.
With practice, I mastered Mom’s iron. In time she recommended me to a mother of two boys who paid fifty-cents an hour, my babysitting wage. Showing up on time and standing in steamed heat for two hours developed discipline and confidence in my work.
When the trend for ironing hair invaded our neighborhood in the 1960’s, I stood in our basement, head resting on the ironing board, straightening my hair.
When Granny visited from Kentucky during the craze, she caught me in that position. She shook her head. “I never see’d such waste of power! What will ya’ll think of next?”
Dear Reader, I’m thinking of a haircut, but blowing hair dry in a salon is illegal these days.
And I’m wondering what our governor will think of next.

Learning to tie my shoes

Ruby Red rhubarb goes to market
Last May, a young woman named Mallori from Fogler’s Greenhouse in Lake Orion called. “This is our first spring at this location. The end of July we’ll bring in produce for a farmer’s market.”
           “That’s fabulous! I’ve shopped Fogler’s on Rochester Road for years.”
“Do you have lavender products for sale for our market? And would you present a summer lavender workshop for our customers?”
           I said yes to the workshop and explained, “I’m sorry, I don’t make lavender products for sale any longer, but I can offer a healthy patch of organic Ruby Red rhubarb.”
           "We’ll take it!”
           “I’ll deliver the bundles with leaves. They make beautiful bouquets.”
Every delivery sold out.
Seems I’m not the only child who craves her mother’s strawberry rhubarb pie come spring. This low-maintenance crop contributes to a well-established tradition many Michiganders hold dear.
This May, Mallori called again. I gladly gathered my baskets and discovered I had no rubber bands for bundling. Possessing a smidgen of my mother’s resourcefulness, I used jute and baker’s twine to tie a bow around the bundles. Much prettier than a rubber band, turns out.
Little did I know when I planted twenty-four Ruby Red crowns in memory of Mom’s mouth-watering pie that someday I’d carry the abundance to market. As I bound the sour food, I mused about how much easier rhubarb is to grow and harvest than lavender.
It’s fascinating how repetitive work frees the mind and heart to wander and wonder. When I tied the two ends of twine, looped the right side over my left index finger and pinched it with my right index finger and thumb, I recalled my mother hovering over my shoulder, coaching me how to tie my black and white saddle shoes. Again.
After several failures, I achieved the second loop with the left lace around the pinched loop, and the third part of pushing the left lace through the second loop and pulling both loops tightly into a bow. 
I can only imagine Mom’s relief. Perhaps that was a day she made a strawberry-rhubarb pie to celebrate our mutual victory. The second of five daughters, my three younger sisters waited in future’s cue with their saddle shoes for Mom’s lesson.
Good reason to roll dough.
Last Sunday, I shared my first strawberry-rhubarb pie of the season with a friend and her family. I reserved the last piece for my youngest daughter and drove to her house with my PJs and toothbrush.
“Brought you a slice of Nana’s strawberry-rhubarb pie.”
“Thanks, Mom, but I can’t eat it because of surgery tomorrow morning,” she said and put her gift in the fridge.
The following afternoon, I asked my convalescent, “Do you remember the shoes you wore when you learned to tie your laces?”
“My favorite brown saddle shoes. You taught me, remember?”
“No.”
Dear Reader, thanks to Mallori, Mom’s strawberry-rhubarb pie is eternally tied to two generations of saddle shoes, comfort, and tradition.
This makes the flavor all the more desirable and delicious.

Perfect timing for a nature freak

Pink columbine dances outside my study window, bloodroot at her feet
Several Aprils ago, I drove by a DTE crew lunching on a shady hill—my favorite slope on our Natural Beauty Road.
                  I pulled over to the right shoulder where orange columbine once danced in the wind, and turned off my car. I pushed the hazard button and walked up the hill. 
                  “Good afternoon,” I said to the men. “Sorry to interrupt your lunch break.”
                  “We’ve finished, ma’am, ” replied the boss. “You have a problem with your car?”
                  “No, but thanks for asking. I see you’re clearing trees around the electrical towers, and wonder what you’re planning for this hill. I’m rather fond of its white wildflowers.”
                  He stood and looked to his men. Although I can’t read minds, I declare they thought in accord, “Oh boy, another nature freak.”
                  The boss picked up his hard hat from a patch of budding plants. “Well, your timing’s perfect. We’re coming back tomorrow to clear the timber.”
       I glanced to where several men still lounged and couldn’t believe the fecundity of wildflower sprouts. I’d never seen this plant up close on my walks. This was the only place on our Natural Beauty Road where this white flower bloomed for one short week. And it now needed rescuing like I did the columbine years prior.
      I addressed the leader. “Would I be trespassing if I dug up some plants?”
                  He laughed. “Take all you want. It’s all history tomorrow.”
                  “Thank you!” I said and scampered down to my car.
Later, I glanced through my wildflower books but couldn’t identify the plant in its budding stage.
                  The minute the DTE trucks drove away, I returned to the shaded hill with a heavy-duty garbage bag and trowel. The leaf mold easily surrendered small rhizomes that bled on my garden gloves.
                  No, I couldn’t remember the ladies in my Seven Ponds herb group mention a plant with white flowers and bleeding roots. Another detail I forgot.
                  I left my bounty in the garage and consulted Wildflowers of the Western Great Lakes Region by Wells, Case, and MellichampSure enough, on page 18 I found Bloodroot, Sanguinaria Canadensis of the Poppy Family. I love poppies.
                  Sadly, bloodroot no longer blooms on my favorite ramp. At times I’m tempted to trespass and transplant some rhizomes from my gardens. For the Lord knows that little white bloom transforms into a pod with hundreds of seeds for ants, rain, and wind to carry to new territory.
                  Gardens where the seeds root to flower first then grow leaves eight inches wide on short stems to shade the feet of orange, pink, and purple columbine, ladies dancing to cheer bleeding hearts and welcome unfurled ferns.
                  Dear Reader, I certainly don’t begrudge the DTE men for doing their job. I couldn’t do mine without electricity.
                  Now I recognize swaths of bloodroot on country roads. Delightfully, orange, pink, and purple columbine bloom above bloodroot leaves outside my study window.
                  I’m sincerely grateful for my nature freak gene, and the divine intervention of perfect timing.    

Announcing winners of the Fifth Annual Yule Love it Lavender Farm Poetry Contest


I penciled my first poem as a child homesick for my Appalachian Mountains and McCoy cousins. Every summer, I consoled myself upon my family’s return to the flatlands of Warren, Michigan, by remembering my favorite place and people in the entire world. Then I mailed the poems to my cousin Kathy in Kentucky.
            Not one childhood poem survives. Yet, the love of poetry rooted into my heart. The practice granted me a strong sense of purpose and commitment to honoring the places and people who loved me.
            I’ve since traveled the world and published poetry and stories about my adventures. However, it is Appalachia, my birthplace, where the purest and truest sixth sense of summer resides.
            Dear Reader, this is why I sponsor the Annual Yule Love it Lavender Farm Poetry Contest.
            With great pleasure, I share three poems rich with the pure and true sixth sense of summer.

My Monday night writing group under the pergola several summers ago

First Place: Liza Young, Sterling Heights, Michigan

A Consequence of Warmth

I am leaning into the melon,
ready to wedge the red fruit
for lunch, the voices of my grown
children laughing at memories
formed in this sanctuary, contorted
in time and I ease into a smile.
A summer breeze whisks the wind
chimes edging the deck, the tune ethereal
and pleading, leaves of the sugar
maple barter an answer, and I smile
at the mystery of language. The pop
crunch of an apple skin, the rip tear
of celery, the suck slurp
of watermelon, the symphony
of food, manna passed hand
to hand like a last supper. The last sputter
of the pot brewing coffee, its nutty
roasted aroma wafting
the room, the sullen saxophone
of a Dexter Gordon CD and I lean
into my husband’s shoulder. We share
a smile watching the quiet camaraderie
of our children, a benediction
at day’s end. And later, slipped
between his chest and arm, soaking
in words he has whispered
Again and again like a covenant,
I breathe to the beat of my husband’s heart
and wonder at the fading cadence of this hosanna.



Second Place: Jack D. Ferguson, Auburn Hills, Michigan

Commune

Brunch is best
with family, friends
and winged pollinator,
Papilio glaucus.

Eggs over grits, asparagus
coffee and melon;
a common meal deemed ceremonial
by a butterfly
ruffling marigold petals.

Sunlight coaxes nectar.
Pollen pistils scrubbed clean
until, in dappled shade,
beneath leaves lent
by a gingko,
we rest, restore, recreate
in quiet Sabbath repast.

Third Place: Joyce Harlukowicz, Rochester Hills

Luminaries

I drift down the front porch polished wood steps,
settle on the bottom tread
a choice seat in the evening’s amphitheater.
The sun’s candle fades in the west.
The leverets emerge from safe harbor in the wetlands weeds,
lap and gnaw the lawn’s new grasses, under the doe’s
sly watchful gaze. So much beauty, so much love.
Overhead, the gulls soar in onshore breezes, kites without strings,
celestial buoys, eastward to open water
and safety for the night. The slow song of another kingdom.
Mare’s Tails soften the receding light, brush strokes
of devotion in the descending coolness.
Shorebirds rattle and call, lay claim
to secret places on the beachfront. So much given,
so few who know. The black rags of loneliness
Cleanse the temple.

Do not hurry. The calendar has nothing to do with it.
We are here, in this place, at this moment, the quick wings of twilight,
 near the satin water’s edge, like a hundred
or a thousand other places this evening. I stand to stretch.
It is time when time itself stops to visit and say,
linger, tarry, sit down, I have something
plenary for you. How long is there room for love
in your heart? Does it settle under
a watchful eye? Does it seek safety on
the shoreline of hope?

Robins will still sing down the eventide.


Judge:                                                                                                                                    
Diane DeCillis’ poetry collection Strings Attached (Wayne State Univ. Press) was honored as a Michigan Notable Book for 2015, won the 2015 Next Generation Indie Book Award, and was a finalist for the Forward Indie Fab Book. Her stories, poetry and essays have appeared in CALYX, Columbia Review, Minnesota Review, Nimrod International Journal, Connecticut Review, the North American Review, and numerous other journals. She teaches poetry for Springfed Arts and hosts a monthly literary reading series, “Mondays at the Maple” at the Maple Theater in Bloomfield.



Agricultural lessons and liberty

The summer day I saw Granny walking down her Appalachian alley, swinging a hen by its feet, the head dangling back and forth, I knew we’d find fried chicken on her supper table.
           Discreet in her butchering and processing, my sisters and I never discovered where she kept her birds—never heard a squawk, or saw a chicken running around without its head, or feathers stuck to Granny’s dress.
As a child, the platter of crispy fried chicken legs, thighs, and breasts appeared on the table without any drama on Granny’s part. And beside the meat sat a bowl of mashed potatoes with a pool of butter, green beans seasoned with pork fat, and hot pone of cornbread.
Oh, and her homegrown slaw.
           Summer-by-summer, my grandmother embedded in my soul her subtle lessons how to grow and serve food. Ninety-eight percent utilitarian, she grew one pink rose bush and a pot of red geraniums for beauty and fragrance.
In her mid-eighties, upon our last visit to her home when she still stood on her feet, Granny said, “Sorry ya’ll, but I can’t cook today.” 

I felt the hurt of her disappointment. The letting go began.
Gradually, from that moment forward, whenever I’ve gardened, cooked, and preserved, I’ve come to realize the breadth and depth of my agricultural and botanic inheritance.
The root of Granny’s gardening grew from her Scottish mother whose ancestors were merchants immigrated to America. They settled in Chapman Hollow, Kentucky. There they raised dairy cattle and produced milk and butter for sale.
As many Americans, my agricultural taproot reaches the Revolutionary generation.
I didn’t know this when my husband and I visited Jefferson’s Monticello with our three young girls in tow. Yet, when we returned decades later, a spark of recognition identified paw-paw, tulip tree, and the magnolia unknown to me forty years prior.
And the gorgeous view of the Blue Ridge Mountains from Jefferson’s terraced vegetable garden related much more to my affection as a gardener.
And while I sat on the porch of Washington’s house on Mount Vernon’s hilltop overlooking the Potomac, I pondered in awe our first President’s role in leading the colonies to liberty from Britain.
However, until I read Founding Gardeners by Andrea Wulf, I didn’t know Washington’s vision of Mount Vernon and an agrarian Union sustained him throughout eight years of battle.
George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and James Madison held this ideology in common. Planters and botanists, they believed to sever all dependency upon Britain, the colonies must grow their own food and clothing.
And this bond amongst other Constitutional Convention delegates dissolved the gridlock within the stifling room where Congress voted for the Constitution of the United States.
In succession, Washington, Jefferson, Adams, and Madison served two terms as President of the new Union. Correspondingly, each farmer returned home to Mount Vernon, Monticello, Quincy, and Montpelier.
Dear Reader, in their retirement, our Founding Gardeners grew their own food. They fed family without any political drama on their part.