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Archive for June, 2010

Man Versus Mulberry


 I tend to agree with Thoreau, “How near to good is what is wild!” He would encourage us to “bring [our] sills up to the very edge of a swamp” rather than live near to “that poor apology for Nature and Art” that is a gardenous front yard. I’m not saying that I want the rancor and stench of a swamp, or that I don’t weed and trim and plant in an effort to have a beautiful garden, but I err on the side of letting nature take its course in our yard. I lean towards…a cottage garden, let’s say… where wildflowers, herbs and vegetables strive towards the sun entangled as one. However, my husband Luke glows with appreciation when passing perfectly manicured rows of impatiens. Since his parents were not gardeners, his garden sensibilities probably stem from the tidy, docile beds he first encountered lining the entrances to golf courses he frequented. Luke rarely sits to enjoy the array of flowers we have in our yard; he is too busy buzzing, tunnel-visioned, with clippers and tools like a bee working for honey. Order is the sweet he seeks. Plus, what would the neighbors think? If not for his efforts, vagrants might descend on our overgrown city plot thinking it vacant. I say let them come in out of the sun, under the shade of the Mulberry tree where “all things good are wild and free.”

Despite Luke’s best efforts the red Mulberry in the center of our small back yard reaches mythic proportions each summer. Though Luke hacks the lustrous tree to a spindly, pale stump each fall, the giant rises, seemingly overnight, like the squid from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, its tentacles threatening every corner of the yard. Come to think of it, the first to have been defeated by the beast was a Frenchman with an ax. (Luke happens to be half French.) The tree remains the bane (which just happens to be my maiden name) of his existence. Bird lover that my man is, it remains a paradox that he wants to chop down the Mulberry, a veritable birdie buffet. Starlings, grackles, thrashers and finches, robins, catbirds, cardinals and creepers all flock to the abundant tree—along with squirrels, a cousin named George and a neighbor named Julia—to feast on the juicy fruit. The tree becomes a hub of activity in June. This year, while climbing, my son Jacob found a robin’s nest containing three sky-blue eggs. Surprise!

in the Mulberry Tree

Jacob Harvesting Mulberries

I, along with Jake, thrill to see nature’s exploits and transgressions left untouched by human intervention. I smile to see woodland ferns sprouting next to the vegetable garden between the rocks, lamb’s ear eavesdropping in the asphalt driveway, a rogue pumpkin sprouting overnight like Cinderella’s magical coach. Each spring, I yearn to soak in the scent of the wedding mantle spilling over the back door creating a cave of flora through which we have to enter and exit awkwardly like fat, somnolent bears. After a rainfall, forget it, we have to limbo out the back door lest we get smacked by arms of soggy tissue paper-like blooms. Luke twitches and quivers with the urge to domesticate the unruly shrub. “After it stops flowering,” I plead. I show him how the cascading bush brings the cardinals and jays closer. Each morning we arrive at the bathroom window exited to see which bird sits singing its aubade to the sun.

I know plants need our management, that the sweet pea dropped by seed will choke everything I spent $90.00 on at the nursery, but still there exists a philosophical difficulty in murdering the sweet pea and flowering weeds. I, like Thoreau, have a hard time making “invidious distinctions” in my bean field. Who am I to mess with the garden hierarchy and natural selection in the plant world?

Lamb's Ear Through a Crack

Green offers wildness at its best (did Thoreau say this), fulfilling promises, coming round and round again to us—if we care to notice. How dare we persist in domination when the wild comes baring its gifts, teaching us lessons we are too heavy-eyed to see? If we spent more time outdoors we might learn of our own abundance and need for light—our need to flourish and express ourselves authentically. We might tune in to our own bodily cycles as we notice the common source to which each being returns. But what do we do? We rip and spray, saw and hack until all things, wild and cultivated, rest in their proper recesses. We notice nothing of the wild in our own nature, so clipped and pruned are we.

Worse yet, many of us have given up on a relationship with the natural world. Our guilt makes us turn from our history of harnessing the earth’s bounty. We shrink from the state we have created on Earth. (See most recent oil spill.) We busy ourselves seeking stuff, seeking comforts, seeking distraction in a technologically induced comma. Yet, at times we look up and remember nature is home, that we are part of nature. The spirit of a patch of ground calls to us and we ache to remember that we are a part of something larger, that we too contain the potential for wildness and creation.

Before Luke and I moved into our house it was vacant, in foreclosure in fact, and wildly overgrown. When walking by one day, the unruly snarl at the top of Havelock Road called to me. Apparently the couple before us had divorced. She had loved to work in the yard, according to neighbors; he loved his beer in front of a ball game. After their departure, wilderness encroached on the back yard. Ultimately, with some searching, we found a tall stone fireplace beneath saplings. With axes and saws in hand we took back two feet of lawn, and beyond that we found the footprint of terraced gardens created by yet another previous owner of our house. Later, one warm March, we spent each day cutting brush and removing stumps, bringing air and light to struggling perennials:  hostas, tiger lilies and forsythia. We used the plants we found and some of the rocks coughed up during our excavation to recreate something of the sanctuary that once existed in our back yard. 

This was our first home, our first back yard, and we worked harmoniously to make it our own. We learned collaboration and compromise and discovered a shared love—rhubarb.

So I planted some, in a corner near our neighbor’s border. The second season the one barb flourished into a healthy mound. “Don’t you think this takes up too much space?” Luke asked. “No. It’s a leafy plant; it needs some room.” The next day the rhubarb was gone.

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Gramma Libby’s Rhubarb Sponge Pie

2 eggs, separated                     1 c. milk

1c. sugar                                  2 c. diced rhubarb

2 Tbsp. butter melted              1 pie shell

3 Tbsp. flour

Beat yolks slightly. Add butter, sugar and flour. Stir in milk slowly. Fold in the stiffly beaten egg whites. Arrange rhubarb in the pie shell. Pour mixture over rhubarb. Bake in 425 oven for 10 minutes. Reduce to 350 and bake for 30 more minutes or until inserted knife comes out clean.

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Since then, each spring my husband covets my neighbor’s healthy rhubarb patch. (She’s not the sharing type.) Once under the cover of evening, Luke skulked across the great divide to snatch a couple of stalks. Our children called from the window above, “Dad, what are you doing? That’s Joyce’s!” Filled with shame and guilt (and the fear of getting caught) he executed a dive forward roll across the yard and down to the Big Y where a small bunch cost him $2.75. I shook my head. One beautiful plant was all we needed. Why had he butchered it?

Though we come at everything from a different point of view, Luke and I usually find a middle ground when we meet at the shovel in the compost pile. Here, our partnership flourishes. Yes, I’m being a tad facetious. It goes something like this…

“We can’t spend a lot on plants this year, Jess.”

“Okay, I hear you.”

Then, eyeing an unruly hydrangea which cowers at the corner of the house, Luke says, “I think this need to come out of here.”

“But it’s perfectly healthy. It’s thriving,” I sigh.

“Yeah, but it’s in the way.”

“Please. Don’t. Stop.” (I’m conjuring Gene Wilder’s admonishing tone in Willy Wonka.)

HACK! He justifies his massacre. “What good is it?”

Ultimately, his rash action proves fruitful. Now, in place of one flowering bush, we have a 4×6 vegetable garden and a climbing red rose. Our partnership is not one of planning and philosophizing, seeing how our efforts can complement the natural world around us. It’s more like Luke leaps into action (picture Berishnikov in tights), pruner, like a tiny ballerina, fixed across his shoulder, and I try to keep up and guide him where I can.

I hate to sound like I am promoting gender stereotypes here—the man of the house being the destructive, vigorous force, and I, the methodical, thoughtful fem. While I have no problem calling Luke a destructive force, he remains outwardly courteous and does not call my lack of intervention and activity in the yard—LAZY.  

Instead, he uses his brawn and vision to raise the corner of a sloping garden bed, whereas I would shrug and let nature take its course down the hill. Luke, in fact, resurrected a piece of iron and glass sun statuary that had been swallowed by the rose and peony to place it in a spot of honor where I can appreciate it again. He has found the cement garden sign given to me by my mother-in-law that reads My Garden. I want to tell him it should say Our Garden.  He’s so good, I think, and the urge to thank him overwhelms me. Where do I find him? Swinging like a maniacal primate from the Mulberry, saw in hand, aiming to maim and tame the bane of his existence. As much as I appreciate his efforts, the truth of the matter is—some days I don’t care if the signs of man get swallowed by nature. Who cares about curb appeal when a jungle of activity pulsates in the backyard?  I want Luke to put down his saw and render to awe like the kids I watched the other afternoon.

I stopped near work to witness an army of children, ranging in age from two to thirteen, trying to construct a giant puddle on the corner of their city block. Temps hovered around eighty. Many of the kids had been in a brick oven called school all day. For hours, bucket brigades like lines of black ants trailed from stoops to a baked crater in the ground. No matter how many Dunkin’ Donuts cups and yogurt containers full of water came to the hole, they couldn’t fill their pool. The fun was in trying, in working together opposite a formidable competitor. The first day of summer had arrived and the earth opened to them—no school house, no Spongebob Square Pants, no Play Station Portable. They worked feverishly, in force, panting, sweating, and day dreaming.   I watched them from the car long enough to witness their glee, see them eventually submit, and happily, to the magic ground that continued to swallow every drop of water that they fed it. It looked to me as if they were pleased, maybe even reassured on some level, that they could not overcome their opponent. Nature won that day. Perhaps on a later date—after a day or two of rain—the neighborhood kids will emerge from their three-deckers and find a puddle where they had hoped for a pool; and like kids, they will be enchanted and grateful for nature’s surprise gift.

Some how I think Luke would be saddened if his epic battle with the Mulberry were to end, if perhaps the tree succumbed to his threats one day. Yet, there exists something in his persistence I must pause to admire.

Perhaps that place where tenacity originates to tame the Mulberry is also the same well from which springs his stamina to stick with me—a creature often unruly and uncooperative like the tree (so I like to believe). It seems unnatural to stick with the same person for a lifetime, as likely to last as water dumped into the arid ground.  But, here we are still together after 21 years, still on opposite sides of the compost pile. I’ve got a vase in hand, and he has the clippers. “Aren’t these things weeds,” he’ll ask of the flowering vetch. And I’ll say, “Yes, aren’t they beautiful?” We will meet later over some mulberry wine (or rummy mulberries—see simple recipe below). He’ll be admiring the symmetrical triangle of annuals I planted for him, and I’ll say, “Oh well. The sweet pea choked the zinnias again.” He’ll try to tame, and I’ll start a tangle. Man and woman, nature and culture—must they forever struggle in opposition? Or can they enjoy the tango?

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Rummy Mulberries:Dissolve sugar in potent rum, ½ cup sugar for each cup of rum used. Wash and drain mulberries and place in jars, covering with the rum/sugar mixture. Seal tightly and store in a dark closet for three month before using. Enjoy over homemade vanilla ice cream. Come on over in September!
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In appreciating my own backyard, I’ll start with my favorite spot just about a mile from my door. This tract of land in Worcester has reminded me of home in Maine while providing sanctuary and preserving my sanity on many occasions. Boynton Park and its surrounding woods consist of about 300 acres off route 122 across from the Worcester Airport, abutting the town of Paxton. The park is one of the largest wilderness areas Worcester has to offer with a tremendous variety of flora and fauna. In the woods stand the stone walls of forgotten pastures, relics of long ago lives—rusting 

Toast Anyone?

farm tools, trucks, and appliances—and a Native American amphitheatre. The woods also tell more recent stories of fire and lightning strikes, of damaging ice storms, and of teen rabblerousing.   

  

I’ve been hiking in the park for well over a decade. For years, I could sit in front of the small waterfall and wander up and down the streams and cascades and never see a soul. I did see wildflowers, snakes, red and gray fox, bard and great horned owls. Every time I visited, the woods had some secret, some gift to offer. If I stayed away for long, I knew I would miss out on something special; the least I could do was show up.   

Boynton Stream

I hiked early in the morning or late in the evening. One evening, two Bard owls called to each other through the woods, I guessed in some form of courtship. One remained stationary, I supposed it was the female playing hard to get. As I descended the trail, their voices grew closer and closer, until one owl landed on a branch just two feet above my head. He jumped right in to conversation. “Who cooks for-you? Who cooks for-you-all?” he asked. “I do the all cooking,” I said.  “Can we not talk about it? It’s a sore subject.”   

He didn’t say another word as we stood for what seemed like thirty minutes, though I’m sure it was less, engaged in a staring contest. I have to admit, a seed of fear sprouted in my chest. I held my breath. For a moment, I felt like a field mouse looking up into his black eyes, cold as marbles, and at his beak, yellow and sharp as a shard of glass. I felt humbled and small. I softened; my shoulders relaxed, and I received this rare gift, this intimate moment with an owl in daylight. Frozen in awe at his intense majesty, I tried to send him a wordless message of thanks. Eventually, daylight began to fade and I finally said, slowly and aloud, “Could you please leave first? It’s getting dark.”  I was also thinking that with a ten-year lifespan, he had better hurry up and go get the girl, start making a family.   

At last, my dry, burning eyes blinked. The owl was gone. I didn’t see or hear him leave. It was as if it all had been a dream. That’s how secret gifts in the woods are; you blink, and you miss them. You must go into the woods often, walk softly, and sit patiently.   

Or bring children, lots of them —nephews and nieces. I have done so many times, always grateful that a place existed right in our backyards where I could share my appreciation of the woods with them. With me, they shared their fresh, keen sight. As Emerson says in his essay Nature, “…few adult persons can see nature. The sun illuminates only the eye of the man, but shines into the eye and heart of the child.”   

When the kids were younger, I especially cherished the first hot late April or early May day before the mosquitoes and flies arrived, when the kids could strip to their undies and play in the brooks. (I’m sure the watershed police aren’t reading this blog.) Hours passed as they raced sticks and acorn caps down rivulets of water. The kids skittered up and down the streams like water striders, discovered newts and salamanders hiding under rocks. Such joy!   

But, so much for our private sanctuary and parading through the woods in our skivvies. Many years ago Boynton Park became Doggy Park. The only wild creatures that approached were black labs and German shepherds as they came bounding—off leash—to plant their paws on my thighs in overzealous hellos. I scowled as I watched the crazy doggy people congregate in the baseball field in the middle of the park for doggy playgroup. They gave their dogs ridiculous human names—Deidre or Fitzwilliam for crying out loud! They pampered their dogs as if they were children—special toys, little coats, and sundry expensive doggy treats. And what happened to names like Spot, Fido, and Blackie?     

I wondered how I had become so cantankerous. I had come from a long line of dog lovers who had owned every breed from beagle to great Dane and every kind of lab and mutt in between. My grandfather Sam warned, “Never trust a person who doesn’t love a dog.” I had to ask myself, Why so bitter? In my defense, I found my opposition understandable, that I would feel the need to have a space to call my own. I had grown up wandering hundreds of acres alone—for a time Boynton Park provided the best return to PLACE Worcester had to offer.   

While the park does have a different flavor (and sometimes smell) now that its primary denizens are four-legged friends, it still offers many delights. First of all, the dog people are lovely folks. They are people like my neighbors Sue and Judy who care deeply about getting outside and experiencing a place right in their own backyards. These responsible dog owners happily share the woods. Of course I say this now that I have introduced our new canine addition—Carmelita, yes, Carmelita—to dogs with proper doggy names like Rocky and Scout.   

The fact is, with the exception of occasionally stepping in a pile of poo left smack in the middle of the trail, the dogs and their friendly owners, whose names you scarcely ever get, have not dampened my experiences at Boynton Park. Sure I see fewer wild creatures, but my heart is warmed to see so many people out and enjoying one of the largest preserved patches of wilderness in Worcester.   

The Mass Audubon also visits the park in search of the protected Pileated (crested) Woodpecker. According to them, Boynton Park is one of the few locations in Central Mass where the bird can be reliably found. My father-in-law, a great birder, died in 1990 before he could catch a glimpse of the illusive, pterodactyl-like bird, the prototype for Woody the Woodpecker. I think of George every time I feel the Pileated’s shadow passing overhead or hear its maniacal laugh or distinctive drumming—like a city jack hammer. The woodpecker prefers snags (dead trees) for its habitat and mates for life in these woods. Just about now you might spy some fledglings. The birds nest anywhere from 15-30 feet up in the trees. Look for 4-6 inch oval openings.   

Knowing George’s quest and the love the Robert family has for the Pileated, my father presented my husband Luke with this painting that currently hangs in our bedroom.   

by Doug Bane

Boynton provides inspiration for this blog and I will revisit the park often. Right now my favorite woodland season is passing; some of the spring visitors like the trillium have faded.   

Trillium

The wild geraniums and flox are at their peak…   

Wild Geranium

Keep your eye out for the elusive lady slipper, and breathe deep the mountain laurels. They look like lasting mounds of spring snow in the sun dappled woods.   

Mountain Laurel

Today, inspired by a yellow swallowtail at my mailbox, I went to look for butterflies in the Boynton Park’s meadow. I found a Morning Cloak and an Indian Leaf (so camouflaged I couldn’t get a photo) and many others that escaped my shutter. I also nearly stepped on a toad and two snakes: a racer and a garter snake.   

 

However, my favorite moments were spent with a dragonfly. He posed (I can hear my daughter saying, how do you know it’s a he?) like a Calvin Kline underwear model on the tip of a reed. Switching his rippled thorax this way and that, he seemed to enjoy the shoot, though eventually he jerked his head to the left as if to suggest that I depart. Examining his bulging, rust-colored eyes and his yellow, scaled mandible, it struck me how reptilian the flying creature looked. How often I am reminded of the interconnectedness of all creatures when visiting the woods.   

  

Then above Carmelita and I, two streaks of blue again the sky: a great blue heron and an Indigo Bunting. Just this one twenty-minute visit to the park rendered many rich encounters.   

So all you dog walkers, stay in touch and let me know what you see happening in Boynton woods. And if you’ve been inspired to visit for the first time, I especially want to hear about your experience.

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