It has been a wild time. The winter that wouldn’t end ran headlong into spring, stopping only for a moment to catch its breath, send out some delicate green shoots, and deliver some crushing news. Everything here springing up wild and wick, the bees finally hitting their honeyed stride, just in time to get left in a hurry, coffee still on the stove, the needle poised above the record, the bounding radishes and collards and kale unthinned… to head south and attend loss. Then a quick accounting, a slapdash suitcase, and a whirlwind trip out west, full of joy and light and adventure. A perfect time. Then home again, which, after weeks of absence, looked like something out of The Secret Garden or Grey Gardens or Mrs. Havisham or Miss Honey’s House… some lovely testament to elegant decay, but also probably garnering some judgment from the neighbors. Vines and blooms and ripening, peonies bent over double, canary roses full of promise, about to burst, irises sprung up seemingly overnight, grass in the meadow at hip height. Just enough time to gather this hasty bouquet, improbably, the pale yellow broccoli that bolted into unruly flowers in the unexpected heat, the wild spreading white Cherokee roses that make me repeat my grandfather’s mantra (“it’s only a weed if you don’t want it there”), and the sweet buttercups in the yard that I knew would be falling under the scythe in a few day’s time. A funny wild bouquet plucked accidentally, almost out of necessity (leaving the fancy flowers where they were), delicate and dropping petals and perfumed with a sweet fragrance that, for essentially zero reason, always makes me think of Emmylou Harris. Put in the center of the table with a happy sigh. Just in time for more crushing news. And again, we leave the coffee on the stove, the compost in the bin, the laundry on the chair (at least clean and folded if not put away), the bees in the clover, the cat in the window…all to head south and attend loss. It’s what the living do, care for each other in this great yearning, and rejoice together because we must, absolutely, celebrate this wild loveliness that is the. thing.
I’ve always loved plants, flowers, blooms. Made forts in boxwoods, learned and loved the evocative names Mama had planted in the gracious swooping beds surrounding our house, onomatopoetic almost, Bleeding Hearts, Johnny Jump-ups, Naked Ladies, Jack-in-the-Pulpit, Poet’s Laurel, St. John’s Wort, Harry Lauder Walking Stick. I held dear The Secret Garden, Peter Rabbit, and a book called “Flower Fairies of the Garden“ (my copy of which my Mama brought back to me recently for use as a research tome). I’ve always loved plants, but it’s been like how you love Paris or how you love Vermeer or how you love Virginia Woolf. You love them from afar, through the lens of where you are, they’re distant, somehow, you appreciate their beauty and softness and worldly majesty when you are lucky enough to brush by it, but Paris is not yours, the Vermeer isn’t in your care, and you will never truly understand Virginia Woolf, no matter how many times you re-read To The Lighthouse. I’ve always felt the same way about plants. I love them, but that they are not meant for me to understand. And when I try, one of us usually ends up a shriveled brown mess.I think this has a lot to do with our relationship with time. Talking about this crazy winter, the forsythias straggled in just last week, leggy and blown like a horse ridden to far too fast. In deciding whether to cut it back drastically or let time take its course, the words got tossed around we’ll just have to see how they do next year. It’s unfathomable for a person of 25 to be thinking about what a plant is going to do a year from now when they don’t know what they’re going to be doing six months from now. The rare young birds that do have very old souls indeed. You have to be in a place where you’re ready to put your own roots down before you can be worrying about anyone elses.
Understanding a plant takes commitment, the delicate pruning of the lilac, the blooming off of new-wood-old-wood argument of the Azalea (what, that takes 3 years to understand?), and the dauntless perennial bulbs that are springing to life right now, a testament to the staying power of loveliness and perhaps proof of the rightness of civilization. Miss McKay says that her mama told her that if you see daffodils in the country, it means a house used to stand there, the plants become the record of the people, and are still there after decades. And this is the, ahem, root of it. The best kind of plants have a kind of permanence (like Paris, like Miss Virginia) that, literally, takes root and hangs on for years, you are their steward, you have to be in it for the long haul, and if you do your job well, the roots you put down will outlast you. I discovered a stand of daffodils in the back woods, near where some mysterious stone columns have sat, fallen for years like an Appalachian Ozymandius, the dark green shoots bursting from bramble, proof that someone cared here. And I care here now.
This picture doesn’t even begin to do my dear friend Jay’s meadow justice. His new house (which feels ancient and lived in and almost smoky with tangible good vibes even though they just moved in) is bermed into a hillside and the sloping greens on all sides are simply filled to bursting with wild baby’s breath, black eyed susan’s, zinnias, cosmos, feathery coreopsis, plain little daisies, queen anne’s lace, wild yarrow, sunflowers, branching asters, and the whole thing is chock full of bees. He planted it all, wide strides and a linen bag of seeds at his hip, feeding a rain of possibility across the fall-dark naked earth in last year’s chill, and now it’s this. To me it feels like magic, but he’s the kind of man who makes you see that magic like this beauty is just intention with a touch of wonder. After our last visit, just as we were leaving, his sun-kissed bride ran out of the house with one of her precious jars and a pair of Japanese shears in hand and said you must take flowers with you, take as many as you can. These are my kind of people, in every possible way.
After last week’s post about the birds coming back (and that one dastardly squirrel who keeps thwarting my efforts to keep him out of the bird seed… my next brilliant plan: grease the pole the feeder hangs on so he can’t get purchase??), it was perfect timing that I discovered the needle-nest of the young cardinals in love in the flowering quince up next to the house. There are three little bird babies in there, probably about to fledge out of the nest this week. The red feathered daddy circles the nest cheeping cheeping cheeping and the brown feathered mama answers, and they take turns bringing back those funny little bugs that look like leaves and feeding their little sweeties. Feather by feather, indeed.
This Brooklyn sidewalk garden on the block next to ours is exactly how I want my wild country side yard to be. Juuust out of frame: an apple tree (I have that), and this awesome mural (I don’t have that).
Wasps were taking over, building their strange and beautiful papery cones under the eaves of every overhang on our first floor. If they weren’t constantly threatening to sting me, I’d leave them well enough alone (as I’ve done with the SPIDERPOCALYPSE that has been coating every corner of the house with cobwebs as if it were the entrance to that holy grail cave in Indiana Jones). But since they are stinking stingers, they had to go. Because of the bees, I didn’t want to use any deathly flying insect spray, but, also because of the bees, I find myself in possession of a specially designed stinging-bug-impervious suit. So, I slipped into my bee suit and caught three baby wasp nests in mason jars. They were MAD. But fascinating. And now they are gone.
Slimer image from here.
It’s funny, when people you love learn that you love something, you all of a sudden end up with a lot of it. My grandmother is known for always wearing fabulous scarves, in fact, the only time I’ve ever seen her without a scarf wound impeccably around her crown is when she’s swimming (in which case she wears an awesome old-school bathing cap)… but I digress. The point is, she loves scarves and I bet every holiday she unwraps at least three new ones. Dear Miss McKay’s Granny somehow got a reputation for loving pigs, and now pig-jars, pig cutting boards, piggy banks, and winged pig figurines fill the surfaces of her brilliant turquoise kitchen. My own mama loves bird nests, so Miss Rav sends them to her in the mail when she finds them, thatched with Samson’s fur. It’s sort of a commerce of affection, you become linked with the object in the minds of those that love you. For me, this has most certainly been the case with honey. Since I’ve been blathering on to anyone with earholes about how awesome bees are and how fascinating their behavior structures are and how CAN YOU BELIEVE IT they will actually overthrow their queen like something out of Shakespeare if she starts acting unruly, it seems that my dear circle has taken notice. Honey from an old beekeeping couple Rav’s family lets keep hives on their South Carolina farm, honey from Miss McKay’s old rooftop hives that I taste once a season to remind myself of those sweet old days, honey from Anna’s acres, honey from Abby’s north wilds, honey from the beekeepers with the roadside sign, honey from Mexico, honey Rachel picked out, honey Mama and I helped extract from Art’s hives, all laid out in glorious honey jewel tones waiting for teas and hot porridges or even just a tiny spoonful dip to taste on the kitchen windowsill. Such sweetness.
So you might have noticed the radio silence last week… a couple of pretty magical things happened at our sweet little homestead: our first summer tomatoes came in (and one old fashioned “white wonder” cucumber), and Sweetheart asked me to marry him. Heirloom tomatoes, heirloom ring (his grandmother’s), just right, just so, just some seriously giddy full hearts over here—!!!—what joyful bounty. I said yes.
Whew, it’s hot! In an effort to try a “more vintage lifestyle”, as my Dad calls it (or as my Mom calls it: “crazy”), we are making an effort to forgo air conditioning this summer. Our Brooklyn apartment faces a back corridor of gardens and has a lovely cross breeze, and our old farmhouse is situated in the ancient manner, facing due East/West, meaning that from an hour after sunrise to an hour before sunset there is no direct sunlight streaming in through the windows. While in winter I lamented not getting enough direct light to nurture an indoor lemon tree (the epitome of house-dwelling luxury to me), now that summer’s heat is upon us, I understand. This orientation means the house stays a good 10-20 degrees cooler than it is outside at all times. Brilliant old almanac readers. Still, Virginia in the summertime can be, well, let’s say “balmy”. For us, that means ceiling fans going full tilt boogie, popsicles in the freezer, bathing suit in the freezer, sprinkler in the yard, cotton nightgown on repeat. And still, we’ve been craving refreshment. So. Enter the summer tonic. We’ve made a few and we love them all, so here’s the first one concocted, a brew of the wild mint and lemon balm (brought by Mama to plant by the beehives) that spread and grow voraciously in every bed and along every treeline. Some people think of both of these plants as runaway scoundrels who hold flower beds hostage and generally take over, shooting up their leggy stems and heart shaped leaves wherever they possibly can. This invasive carpetbagging reputation is true in some respects, but when you consider the benefits of lemon balm and mint, both as flavor makers and as medicinals, the fact that they’re simply growing wild everywhere seems more like a little miracle than a problem. Here, a fast-and-loose miracle tonic recipe in action:
Lemon Balm and Mint Summer Tonic
2 cups packed mint leaves
2 cups packed lemon balm leaves
Gather a big bunch of mint, gather a big bunch of lemon balm, wash and strip leaves from stems. Fill a pot with water, add leaves, bring to a boil. Strain leaves, pour tea into half gallon mason jars, put in fridge to chill. You can also add honey if you want a little sweetness.