I did my favorite (not) task yesterday: cleaned out the Himalayan blackberry thicket. I call it “freeing Sleeping Beauty.” While other locations I have occupied space in (i.e. the Southeast) have poison ivy, copperheads, and kudzu, the HB (Rubus armeniacus) is arguably the most challenging wild thing I deal with here. (Well, and the dastardly moles; getting rid of them is another hopeless cause.) It is an aggressive noxious weed with stout canes and wicked thorns that form an impenetrable thicket (think Prince Charming) and have a significant impact on native vegetation and wildlife. And there is almost no chance of eradicating it. And did I mention the dead canes are even nastier than the live ones?
This particular thicket is mostly only a problem for the magnificent man who mows the meadow, but it has gotten out of control. It has gotten out of control because I always wait to tackle it until it’s too hot to wear heavy clothes, and it can’t be done without donning heavy clothes. And so I only cut away at the edge and leave the rest to grow—40 feet up into the trees and out into the meadow to grab the hapless passerby.
It was not my intention to dive in yesterday. I cleared a trailhead from storm blowdown then headed to the corner of the thicket to remove another impediment to mower and trail access, and was going to call it a day. Then, there were the blackberries. I had on the right clothes (though I could have used face armor, I snagged my nose twice, lip, and cheek), the wheelbarrow, and the loppers. Might as well just do it.
Once I started, I was determined to finish; I did not want to come back to it. I filled the wheelbarrow twice and was ready to call it done. Until I realized I could now access the farther back vines and get all of it out of the trees. Ugh. I filled the wheelbarrow again. And now it is done. Next year it won’t be so hard. Maybe. It grows more than 25 feet in a season.
#ilovewhereilive, #michiganfolkschool, #notesfromthreeofearthfarm, #staeblerfarmcountypark, #ThreeofEarthFarm, farming in the 1900s, gratitude, hummingbirds, living in my childhood home, Michigan Folk School, spring, Staebler Farm County Park, Sunrise, this old house
Despite last week’s surprise snow, things seem well on the way toward a season change now. Other people have crocuses and daffodils. I don’t know where mine are; maybe the moles ate the bulbs. My Lenten rose is MIA too. Weather Underground boasts 71º next Monday and Tuesday and I will have to decide if one of them is an adventure day or if they are both work days.
Monday is definitely a work day. My far away sister will be in town and it’s my in-town sister’s day off (this month anyway) and I’m putting them to work on the “farm,” pre-installation painting of 450 feet of trim for baseboard and door frames. But there’s still Tuesday. Perhaps next week’s blog will be an Adventure Log.
After the Friday snow, Sunday was a spectacular day and I pulled on my boots and headed outside while my cute floor installer and his weekends-only side-kick finished putting in the beautiful hardwood floors that didn’t quite get finished while I was away.
There were maaaaannnnny tasks to choose from and there is no point in prioritizing them because they all have to be done. Maybe I should have chosen preparation of the raised beds in my vegetable garden, but I haven’t even ordered seeds yet, so pffft. I could have repaired the fence and gates, or pulled out the bricks in the walkway the moles destroyed last autumn. (I’m considering inhumane measures for those fiends this year.)
I could have picked up winter blowdown in the woodlot that used to be meadow that I didn’t pick up the last two springs, which was a big mistake. Or maybe the fir branches in the meadow that have to be gone before the first mowing. Or cleared trails from overgrowth and downed limbs. Or returned to my mother’s garden (read that story here), or any of the other flower beds that need to be weeded and mulched. I could have cut up the small tree that collapsed into the far corner of the meadow and is in the way of the mower, and is where this year I hope finally to follow through with my idea to mow a labyrinth.
But I arbitrarily chose to scrape the fir needles and silt from the edges of the driveway before it started growing. It was a task I knew I could finish and that wouldn’t take all day. I gained a foot of pavement on each side and hauled three wheelbarrow loads of the rich loam down to a long abandoned strip of vegetation where the soil washes down the hill. I will probably never try to make it beautiful, but I will show it what love I can. Maybe the daisies and euphorbia will be happier. I can hear my mother saying, “Nothing will grow there. It’s not worth your money.” It’s almost enough to make me want to try.
As I continue to read stories my father and his siblings wrote about life on the Michigan farm where they grew up, I ran across one about how my grandfather eased the plow-pulling horses into spring work after the relative ease of their winter workload—mostly just pulling the wagon of milk to market or the sleigh for Sunday family excursions. He took care of his horses so they could take care of the farm, and hence the family.
I’m taking a page out of his playbook and easing my aging body into the work of spring. There was much more to do, the weather was perfect for more, I still had energy, and there was an extra hour of late day light. But I stopped. I had done three hours of heavy work, it was enough for early season.
As I put away the wheelbarrow, shovel, and blower, and straightened my spine, I was both pleased with having finished the task and overcome with the heaviness of all there is to do. For one thing, I had ignored the blackberry vines along the driveway that need to be pulled out before they cross to the other side. I shook it off. I did one good task, there will be other days.
Before I went inside, I sent a message to a local Facebook friend who works with the local Girl Scout council, asking her if she knew of a troop earning money for opportunities. She responded immediately that she does. Many hands make light work. I will hire out the winter blow down…and maybe the blackberry vines too.
I returned to the house as Chris and Corey were loading their tools. Corey, who had been there alone on the weekend, told me a story. He had left the sliding glass deck door open and a hummingbird flitted inside. He followed it around with a broom trying to coax it toward the door. The hummer was having nothing of it. Finally, exhausted, it lit on the corner of a windowsill and sat trembling with fear. Corey scooped it up and held the tiny quivering being in his cupped hands as he went outside to release it. “It was so soft,” he said in wonder, “but it was lighter than air.”
It reminded me that I have a choice as I care for my family’s beautiful property. I can choose to see it as a burden that has been dumped on me and weighs me down. Or I can choose to see it as a privilege lighter than air. Either way, I am the guardian for now, and I reap both the responsibility and the good fortune.
Christina Baldwin, George Ella Lyon, legacy writing, letters from World War 2, Marty's Place at Strawbridge Farm, Peer Spirit, Saratoga Passage, Self as Source of the Story, she writes press, Staebler Farm County Park, the great depression, the greatest generation, Where I'm From poem
I’ve spent the past week in a gorgeous historic house on the south Whidbey Island banks of the Saratoga Passage of Puget Sound. I first attended Christina Baldwin’s Self as Source of the Story writing retreat in 2012, five months after I moved back to this corner of the country. I’ve returned to the alumni retreat four times. It’s a gift I’ve given myself.
I’m writing, reading, and listening to the powerful stories of my writing sisters, eating delicious healthy food, watching eagles carrying sticks into a nearby copse for nest building and two coyote pups trotting about. The first four days the cerulean sky reflected on the calm waters and the white mountain range sparkled on the horizon. Yesterday we cocooned in front of the fire, as the world disappeared in gently falling snow.
I am honored and humbled to sit in communion with the natural world and in community with these beautiful women and bear witness to their sacred words and experiences. Although each year some of them begin as strangers, they are my tribe.
It’s different to be here this year, not escaping the lonely claustrophobic years of caring for my mother; and not writing about those years, that manuscript complete for now. Yesterday, on the first day of Lent and the new moon, in the midst of this gathering of women, some of whom first heard the beginnings of my story more than six years ago, I pushed the manuscript out of the nest. I sent it to a small press/editorial company (that auspiciously had its beginnings the same year I began my journey of mother care) for an assessment. Later this month I am going to submit the first 26 pages to a contest. It’s time to see if it can fly.
And now it’s time to move on to a new project. This week I’ve immersed myself in the letters written by my elders during WWII, when they were younger than my children are now, and the stories of their lives on the Michigan farm when they were the ages of my grandchildren. It’s hard to put down an old familiar project and pick up a new one. I feel a little lost. But I look toward spinning the threads of my ancestors’ story into yarn, that it might then be woven into a blanket to wrap around those who will never know them: my children’s children’s children’s children, and their cousins.
The Seventh Generation Principle is based on an ancient Iroquois philosophy that the decisions we make today should result in a sustainable world seven generations into the future. The decisions my grandparents made in the way they raised their children in love and strong values, and saw that all six of them got a college education—inconceivable for the 1930s and on a farmer’s income during the Great Depression—can be seen one, two, and three generations later (my lifetime) and will continue, I trust, to the seventh generation and beyond.
This is where I’m from. This is where the seventh generation of my family will be from.
These are the legacy years, when we of a certain age look back at where we have been and ahead to what we will one day leave behind. In the legacy writing circle I facilitate, we wrote “Where I’m From” poems last week, in the style of George Ella Lyon. (How serendipitous that my father’s name is George and his mother’s name is Ella.) I invite you to write your own poem—it’s so much fun. (Google “where I’m from template” for help writing it, apologies that I can’t get a direct link.) Here is mine.
Where I’m From
I am from the slamming wooden screen door and Mr. Bear’s house in the woods,
from Breck shampoo and Ipana toothpaste, iodine and oleum percomorphum.
I am from the house on the bay and the home on the hill,
from stinky sulphur mud at low tide and fresh perfume of evergreens after rain.
I am from the big leaf maple whose arms hide me from parental view.
I am from the bookmobile and the green canoe,
from Stellajoe and George
and Ella and Jessie.
I am from “go help your mother,” “don’t sass me,” and my southern grandmother’s “well ahl swanee.”
I’m from staying put and cross-country moves,
from independence and courage.
I’m from crossing the ocean on a sailing ship and the country on the Empire Builder.
I am from my parents’ Great Depression,
and from my man on the moon.
I am from “This Is My Father’s World,” Girl Scout badges, and piano lessons in the pink house.
From Boston baked beans and chocolate “stir over low heat until thick” Jell-o pudding.
I’m from homemade 2×4 building blocks and dish gardens,
from heart disease and dementia.
I am from eight decades of antiquity stuffed onto basement shelves.
From a thousand letters and shoe boxes of photographs
snapped on cameras that line my window sill
where I sit at my father’s desk to put stories of days and people long gone between the covers of a book.
farming in the 1900s, gardening in the Pacific Northwest, legacy writing, letters from World War 2, living in my childhood home, living without my mother, Mary Alice Arthur, my mother's garden, restoring a garden, searching for my mother, Story the Future, winter garden
The house is not the only place that needs to be cleaned out, or where I search for my mother. The hillside garden—that was grass I sometimes mowed, before I left home in 1970, with the Toro Flymo hover mower to avoid having to be on raking detail—is the only outdoor area my mother really tended to in the past couple decades. It was a glorious riot of colorful perennials and flowering shrubs all spring and summer: heather, rhododendron, Shasta daisies, lavender, yarrow, iris, allium, dianthus, sweet woodruff, my grandmother’s lemon lilies.
I’ve been here seven years this summer, and have paid it only cursory attention, pulling blackberry vines and cutting down dead stems—nearly wiping out the Canterbury bells in my zealous outrage at having to do the task at all after my mother stopped hiring people to care for it, and stopped caring about it herself. I don’t like working in other people’s gardens, and even my own interest me much more in the creation than the maintenance. It lost all its variety under my watch, only the most hardy survived.
One day last week, though, I walked past it on my way to somewhere else and realized that in the barrenness of winter, before the weeds take hold, it doesn’t look as daunting. I could just rake out the moss, I thought, kicking it up easily with the toe of my rubber boot; bring in some top soil.
Nothing seems as daunting to me in winter, when all is stripped down to its bones. I see more clearly when there are neither flowers nor weeds; potential rather than obstacles. I’m embarking on a new writing project, diving into the lives of my father and his siblings before I knew them through 1200 letters written during WWII and boxes of photographs, hoping to record their legacy and put it between book covers. It’s easier to attend that project at the desk by the electric fireplace while the rain splats against the window and patters on the roof, occasionally thickening with fat snow flakes, than when sun and warmth beckon. But where to start? How to move forward on this epic idea that right now is hair thin?
Last Sunday, as the wintry mix came down outside the window, covering the moss and weed garden, I dozed in my father’s recliner with my sister’s cat—on loan while she was away—while half listening to a rebroadcast of interviews on “Story the Future.”
Mary Alice Arthur said something that woke me from my snooze: “Start with the crack, not with boulder. You know,” she said, “that’s where the light is.” Oh, I thought, kind of like don’t look too far ahead.
What can I do toward getting the letters and the stories my father and his siblings have written of their childhood braided together? How can I bring my mother’s garden to new life as I am doing inside the house, moving out unloved possessions to spotlight those that mean something to me? Where is the crack?
I can read the letters and the stories, study the photographs. (Thank you to my cousin David for scanning and sending 50 photos I’ve never seen before from albums rescued from the farm after our Uncle Donald died at 106.) I can figure out what I want to have learned about this American mid-west farm family at the end of the book. That’s all I need to focus on right now. What comes in the middle can be left for later discovery.
And I can strip the garden down to dirt. Those cracks are all I need to focus on right now.
When February’s snow and rain took a one day hiatus last Thursday, I skipped my weekly yoga and Olympia day and got outside while the ice was still formed on the puddles and fog still filled the valley as the sun rose promisingly above it.
I cut down the dead stems of last year’s daisies and rudbeckia, raked out the moss, dug up clumps of grassy weeds, pulled out rogue blackberry vines, and finished extracting the dead branches from the rhododendron thicket. (And, as always, tried to avoid getting sucked down the rabbit hole of all the other tasks that need to be done. One crack at a time.) For the first time in these years here, I started getting curious about what the garden could be. It will always be my mother’s garden, but it’s time to put my own touch on it.
As I sat at the dining room table eating my lunch during a brief break, I wondered if my mother is pleased that I’ve finally taken an interest in her favorite flower bed. Just then a bald eagle glided down the valley and swooped over the house and back into view, making several passes. A few minutes after it disappeared, a red-tailed hawk took its place. I only rarely see these birds of prey here, up close enough to see the white head, the red feathers. When I do, I imagine they are my mother and father checking in and, hopefully, approving what I’m doing on this property they loved and nourished for most of my life. I took their appearance as a sign that all is well; though I suppose it could as easily have been a warning to back off.
My body aching, I was grateful for the return to rain, snow, sleet, and wind the next day. I buried myself again in my aunt’s letters to her parents from a dirt-floored tent in Italy in 1944 with the 36th General Hospital, where she washed her clothes in her helmet. When favorable weather returns, I’ll give my mother’s garden one more pass with hoe and shovel, then bring in topsoil and fertilizer. I will let it sit this summer to see what was deep enough in the ground to escape my decluttering. The daisies and rudbeckia, the heather, a clump of daffodils remain above ground. Hopefully the Canterbury bells, alium, and lilies will come back and I can mark their positions. Next spring I will plant around the enduring presence of my mother’s hands.
These are the cracks. This is what I can do right now to find my mother’s garden and to make my own mark. I will be with my writing tribe on Whidbey Island for the next week, diving into whatever opening I can find on my ambitious writing project; striving not to run into the boulder of self-doubt and the magnitude of that adventure.