May 31, 2007


Last week I planted a river birch in my front yard, digging a deep hole, and then backfilling with topsoil and mulch, leaving lots of room for the roots to spread. I planted it out near the road, where I will see it every time I turn into my driveway, every time I arrive home.

Many people see birch trees as weak trees, associating them with the slender white trunks that come crashing down beneath the dominant oak in succession or the ornamental trees that look pretty but so often have to be cut down after pest infestation. But the river birch (betula nigra) is resistant to most pests and diseases. Unlike many other trees, river birches can survive in standing water, and their roots can penetrate a heavy clay soil. Their flexible trunks handle strong winds and heavy ice.

River birches are survivors. In April, the river birch in my back yard was flattened almost to the ground by heavy snow. Many of the scotch pines in my woods came crashing down during that storm, the brittle trunks breaking under the weight of the snow. But the river birch was unharmed. When the snow melted, the flexible limbs and trunk of the river birch simply sprung back into place.

On hot August days, the green leaves of the river birch are edged with gold, and in fall, the leaves turn bright yellow. The leaves don't stay on the tree very long after turning colour; if you live close to a river birch, you get just a glimpse of the beautiful colour before the leaves fall to the ground.

As a river birch matures, the bark shreds and peels away from the trunk, which makes the tree look battered and scarred, and yet somehow beautiful. Ironically, the rough edges of the curling reddish bark, contrasting with the vulnerable pink smoothness underneath, are what make the tree so attractive. In winter, the lovely shredding trunks and red-brown twigs of the river birch provide colour to a bleak February landscape.

In spring time, the green leaves of the river birch sway in the wind and offer a dappled shifting shade. A river birch might grow three to five feet in one spring. More than anything, this is a tree known for rapid growth, its branches bending and reaching toward sky.

Birch bark


I finally finished my spring landscaping project, using a shovel, a bucket, and an old plastic toboggan to distribute 30 cubic yards of topsoil to low spots in my front yard. Yes, a wheelbarrow would have made sense but the wheel on mine is busted. I'm tanned from working outside, and my limbs are covered with insect bites and a few patches of poison ivy rash, but I am happy to report that my knee gave me no trouble at all. It feels good to be able to use my legs again with no restrictions.

I dug up some of the flowers, separating them into bunches and planting them in places where they can spread into big clumps. In my front yard, I prefer flowers that grow like crazy and bloom in untidy bursts of colour: daylilies, peonies, coneflowers, and yellow loosestrife. I planted a river birch out near the road, in a place where it has all kinds of room to spread its branches.

Of course, this project has made it hard to mow the lawn. I have to weave around my new flower gardens and maneuver over the newly seeded patches of topsoil. We are having a very dry spring here, which means the topsoil is mostly dust. When Boy in Black came out to help me mow, he tackled the rough spots at high speed, leaving a cloud of dirt swirling about as he moved.

Mowing the lawn

If you look carefully to the left behind Boy in Black, you can see the new river birch and one of the new day lily gardens.

May 30, 2007


Early sunset

My parents' camp faces west. Standing under an oak tree, I can look across at an island that lies between their quiet bay and the deep, cold river. The bay is shallow and weedy, about two miles long, and the southern end is filled with acres and acres of cattails. My parents' land is a peninsula snuggled into the marsh.

A marsh is a wonderful place to spend summer days. Sitting quietly on the dock, you can watch frogs, turtles, and watersnakes. If you lean over the water and look into your own shadow, you might see fish gliding by. The tourists, with their fast motorboats and annoying jet skis, don't come down to this end of the bay, so on a summer evening, we have the bay to ourselves. I'll go with my father on his sailboat to ghost about on a still evening, or some of us will take the canoes to explore the creeks that wind through the marsh.

In the evening, the sun slides down into the narrow strip of cattails that separates the mainland from the big island to the north that protects the bay from the rougher weather of the river. This weekend, the early sunset was blue and purple, sparkling from the rain that was still coming down lightly. But within minutes, the whole bay turned red, the water shining with pinks and purples, the spectacular sunset that is, to everyone in my family, both awesome and familiar.

Sunset at camp

May 29, 2007

Nap Interrupted

I've gone camping every Memorial Day weekend that I can remember. The extended family gathers at my parents' camp, a peninsula of oak trees surrounded by acres of cattails up on the river. About every ten years or so, we get a weekend of hot, sunny weather that fools us all into thinking it's summer, luring us into the icy river water. Most of the time, though, the last weekend in May is cold and rainy, not exactly swimming weather.

On Saturday, the air was cold but the sun was shining. I spread an old blanket out on a patch of grass and stretched out to take a nap. Close to the ground, in what scientists call the boundary layer, the air was warm and I could feel the spring sun against my jeans and sweatshirt. Taking a nap outside on a spring day is an incredibly peaceful experience. Unless of course, your frisbee-playing teenage sons decide to make your sleeping body some kind of target.

I was just waking up when I heard a frisbee swoosh by, just above my head. I sat up to yell at Boy in Black, and another frisbee cut by on the left, just barely missing my shoulder. "Cut it out!" I yelled, and in response, another frisbee zoomed by on my right, just inches from my hip.

I heard laughter, and realized that we had spectators. My parents, sitting comfortably in the shade, began chiming in with admiring comments. "Wow, what good aim Boy in Black has. Nice shot, Shaggy Hair!"

"I'm trying to sleep!" I screamed. Another frisbee swooshed by, so close that my hair stood up in the wave of moving air. More laughter came from the unsympathetic crowd in the lawn chairs.

Beautiful Smart Wonderful Daughter, lying on a blanket over near one of the tents, looked up from her book. "The more you scream, the more you just encourage them." She smiled smugly from the frisbee-free zone. I ignored her.

"If you hit me even once, you're losing your frisbee privileges!"

Boy in Black just laughed.

Outnumbered, I put the blanket over my head and tried to go back to sleep, ignoring the flying disks that hurtled past centimeters above me.

The sunshine didn't last, and much of the weekend was rainy, cold, or windy. But despite the coolness, it still felt good to be outside. My father gave With-a-Why his first sailing lesson. We played numerous games of cards. My husband and I took a long walk on the country roads up in the hills above the camp. We had a bocce tournament, old folks against the young folks, and the old folks won by a point. We sat around the campfire on Saturday night, with musical entertainment by my sons. Despite the cool weather, it felt like the beginning of summer.

View from the dock

The view from the end of the dock.

May 25, 2007

Gone sailing


The tents are packed. We're off to camp for a few days. I've packed both my bathing suit and my long underwear; this time of year, we could get any kind of weather. Whether we get sun or rain, it'll feel good to be up at camp under the big oak trees, beginning another summer of canoeing and sailing, swimming and hiking, playing bocce and throwing horseshoes, taking naps in the hammock in the afternoon and building campfires in the evening.

May 24, 2007



Last weekend, when we took a walk at the art park, a 104-acre piece of land with art installations set along nature trails, With-a-Why seemed fascinated by the art. "I wanted to look at everything," he told me that night when I was putting him to bed, "but everyone else just wanted to run around." So yesterday, I asked if he wanted to skip school for the day, and we drove to the art park early, just the two of us.

Because he's one of four kids and a houseful of extras, I don't get much time alone with With-a-Why, except for an hour or so in the evening when I read to him before bed. He's a shy, serious child who will focus intently on the things that interest him — music, books, art. He's usually the quietest child in any group. On car trips with the whole family, he is so quiet that I will often turn to see if he's even in the car.

But alone with me, With-a-Why chatters non-stop, a constant stream of questions, most of which he answers himself. "Do you know when the saxophone was invented? Did you know that the guy who wrote Alice in Wonderland was on drugs? Do you want to hear me do the Xiaolin Showdown theme song?" The flow of interesting tidbits is interrupted only by his musical numbers; he performs the music by singing nonsense syllables, but clearly he pictures it as piano music. "Okay, want to hear me do it with both hands now?"

When we arrived at the art park, we were the only car in the visitors' parking lot. We had the place to ourselves. Everyone else in the whole world was at school or work, or still sleeping in bed.

It was a sunny day, cool but getting warm rapidly, so we first followed the mown trail that ran through farm fields, climbing down a big hill to look at a giant clay sculpture shaped like an ear. We climbed around on that sculpture for a while, with With-a-Why doing a suburb imitation of Spider Man, and then continued downhill to a black steel structure that seemed more like a physics experiment than a piece of art. "Look, this whole thing moves when I touch it," With-a-Why said. He stood underneath a long beam and pushed on it with his hands. The beam seemed almost to float. We puzzled over this, figuring out how it could be constructed, as we followed the trail to the next piece.

When it was time to retreat to the shade, we hiked the trails that went through the woods, with me admiring the wildflowers and With-a-Why taking time to look at each piece of artwork. He loved climbing on and over and through the works of art, rubbing his hands against different textures, peering through holes and slats. We took a break to eat some oranges inside a strange playhouse type structure, and then continued on until we had seen everything.

We stopped for lunch in the little town near the art park and drove home, getting back well before the school bus. "Where have you been?" asked my daughter, pretending to be surprised, looking at With-a-Why as we came through the door. "Skipping school?"

"Yep," he nodded smugly. Then he went over to the piano to begin playing – loud, fast, happy music.

Meditation Space

This piece was called "Meditation Space."

May 23, 2007

Counting the rings

My latest project began sometime in February, when I was lying awake in the middle of the night with a throbbing knee injury, thinking about the stuff going on in my life — my kids turning rapidly into adults, my husband clearing out and selling the house he had grown up in, my brother getting engaged, a close friend disappearing from my life because of problems in his marriage, health problems in members of my extended family, my daughter living overseas for the semester. I decided then that when spring came, I would plant a tree, a way to remember this particular year, this particular stage in my life.

It sounds simple, doesn't it? Buy a tree, dig a hole, plant the tree.

But my projects are never that simple.

During the seven years I've lived in my house, I've been gradually changing the landscape around me. The scotch pines, planted many years ago by the CCC, are dying, and several came toppling down during an April snowstorm. Over the years, I've been taking out unhealthy trees, non-native species, and replacing them with trees native to the area. I've been filling in low areas in my front yard, too, with the realization that the lawn mower is the only way to keep the poison ivy from creeping right up to the front door and into my living room.

So as soon as I decided to plant a new tree, I looked out at my yard and noticed dead ones that needed to come down. On Saturday, I enlisted the help of the gang of teenagers to move the dead trees that had fallen over the winter. Dragging the dead trees off into the woods, where they can decay in peace, was the first step of the project. Then yesterday, my father came over with his chainsaw to cut down the trees I had marked in my front yard. (I have an axe, but a chainsaw is so much faster.) He cut the trees down and sawed off the branches, while my mother and I lugged logs over to the basketball court, where they would dry in the sun, and then dragged branches off into the woods.

We finished the job just in time because the topsoil I had ordered arrived soon after: fifteen cubic yards of dirt, a whole huge truckful delivered by a cheerful neighbor who dumped into right into the middle of the front yard. It's a pretty big pile of dirt, and it'll take me days to move it around, using a shovel and a wheelbarrow and a plastic toboggan that I use like a sledge. If my arms get tired, I'll probably enlist the help of my two college kids, but today, I enjoyed tackling the pile myself, shoveling dirt into low areas. I keep walking around the yard to figure out where I want to put new trees.

So that's what I've been busy with this week. I am cutting down sickly trees, pruning unhealthy growth, clearing away dead wood, spreading dirt – and making room to plant healthy trees.

May 22, 2007

Pseudonymous Chainsaw Guy

Pseudonymous Chainsaw Guy

Conversation with my daughter as we sit lazily on the couch with our laptops.

Me: Do you like this photo?
Daughter: Yeah. You gonna put it on your blog?
Me: I guess. I need to write something to go with it.
Daughter: Who's that guy in the horror movie?
Me: Horror movie?
Daughter: Yeah, the guy with the chainsaw.
Daughter: Here, I'll google it.
Me: You want me to compare my father to some murderer?
Daughter: Maybe not.
Daughter: You should write something funny,
Me: But I'm not funny.
Daughter: That's true.
Me: Other people say funny stuff, and I write it down.
Daughter: You could talk about how you get your fashion sense from your father.
Me: What?
Daughter: That would be funny.

May 21, 2007

Frog pond

Stalking the frog

This weekend on a walk with the younger kids, we came across a pond filled with frogs, big green frogs that leaped into the water as we approached, frogs with big bulgy eyes that floated in the water, looking up at us. My husband and I found a bench where we could sit in the spring sunshine and talk while the kids spent hours playing along the edge of the pond, entertaining themselves with the frogs.

What is it about snakes, turtles, and frogs that is so appealing to kids? It seems like there's always at least one kid in every group that wants to catch a creature and look at it up close. In my family, it was Blonde Sister. She was (and still is) especially expert at catching turtles. She'd go off in a rowboat and return minutes later with a turtle. She'd hold it carefully, while we would gather around to inspect it up close, looking at the markings along the shell and the way the head pulled back underneath. Then she'd put it carefully into the shallow muddy water, and we'd watch it swim away.

The frogs in this pond had that same kind of allure. Skater Boy, determined to catch one, took off his sneakers he could wade in the pond. He'd stalk a frog, slowly, patiently, moving closer and closer, whispering a narrative to the other kids, "I've almost got him, I'm really close, he's just right there." Then he'd make a sudden frenzied leap at the creature. "I've got him! I've got him! I've – oh, crap!"

Every once in a while, I'd look across the pond and warn the kids, "Don't hurt the frogs," but the warning hardly seemed necessary since the frogs seemed much faster than the kids. Clearly, none of these kids have reached the level of expertise of Blonde Sister.

Older Neighbor Boy knelt down in the mud in what looked like an attempt to hypnotize the frog. Shaggy Hair Boy had sort of an impatient approach – he kept circling about and changing his strategy, and when he finally did get a frog in his hands, he jumped up and down screaming in such an excited way that I thought maybe he had stepped into a nest of yellow jackets.

With-a-Why, my quiet youngest child, took the Zen approach. He sat on the edge of the pond, perfectly still, watching the antics of the other boys, and waited for the frogs to come to him.

By the pond

With-a-Why in the foreground, with Older Neighbor Boy and Shaggy Hair Boy on the far bank. And the boy in the top photo is Skater Boy.

May 20, 2007

Art amidst the trees

"Should we get a trail map?" I asked.

The gang of children scoffed. And I suppose they were right. It's more fun to just wander and explore, with that thrill of discovery as we stumble upon things.

It was cool, sunny day – no mosquitoes yet – a perfect day to walk through the art park. A hilly landscape of meadows and woods, set in a rural area of cornfields and red barns, the 104-acre art park is a lovely place to spend a Saturday afternoon. Art installations are spread throughout the open, natural space, alongside the many winding trails. The weather, the seasons, and the wildlife collaborate with the artists as time goes by, the sculptures evolving into something wild.

Many of the art installations invite interaction. We looked through panes of glass to peer at farmland spread below the hill, we climbed inside wooden structures, we put our heads inside picture frames, we stood below bright coloured art that dangled from tree branches. One of the big wooden sculptures looked, by the time I reached it, like a mural capturing the energy of teenage boys, who were circling about and ducking under to get inside. Wildflowers bloomed along the paths and sometimes inside the works of art. Sunlight flickered as clouds moved across the sky, changing shadows and reflections.

Volunteers doing trail maintenance had just filled the trail through the woods with mulch that smelled wonderfully of pine. My husband stopped near a teenager cutting a fallen tree and said in a dramatic voice: "This one is called Girl Sawing Logs."

Shaggy Hair Boy liked just racing ahead on the trails, but With-a-Why was fascinated with the works of art. He kept saying, "Let's go find more artwork," and he insisted on going back to his favorite piece, a clay sculpture that imitated the movement of water, a piece big enough for him to step into. He sat inside the sculpture and rubbed his hands along the swirls in the clay. "Look at how the curve changes – suddenly and gradually."

"Those are opposite," Skater Boy said.

"I know. That's why it's cool."

The other boys took the artwork less seriously, joking and fooling around as they ran through paths in the woods, shouting to each other when they found something new to look at. One piece might lead them to a bout of silliness, all of them coming up with crazy new titles. But other times, they'd all go quiet, circling and touching glass or stone or wood, their feet and tongues slowed for just a moment as they puzzled over something that moved them in ways they could not articulate.

Portrait of an artist

With-a-Why adding his reflection to an art installation.

May 19, 2007

Low bridge, everybody down


On a Friday evening, sunlight glances off the stone walls of the canal. Kids run along the towpath, tossing rocks into the water, racing ahead to get to the next bridge while young parents push strollers along the gravel path. My parents bring a bicycle built-for-two to the canal and pedal along, attracting looks from runners as they go past. Urban Sophisticate often runs along the canal when she is home for a visit and training for a marathon, and I go there in the evening sometimes with Signing Friend to take her dog for a walk. When I was a teenager, Outdoor Girl and I went canoeing on the canal, paddling along for miles. In the winter, the canal can be a smooth surface for ice skating.

When the canal opened in 1825, hailed by many as the engineering feat of the nineteenth century, the 363-mile long waterway was used primarily for transporting goods, although packet boats would sometimes carry a load of passengers as well. I've seen the boats in a museum downtown, so I can picture one moving slowly through the water pulled by mules whose hoofs would thud against the packed dirt of the towpath. As I stood on a bridge to take this photo, I could almost hear the call of the boatman yelling, "Low bridge! Very low!" warning anyone enjoying the sun on the roof to duck down.

May 18, 2007


The college roadtrip

"They've got a good day for it, " my husband said early this morning, looking out the window. He added wistfully, "A college roadtrip. I never had a chance to go on one myself."

Down in the kitchen, my daughter was making sandwiches, packing a cooler full of food. Her bag of clothes had been packed the night before; next to the bag she had lined up maps, her purse, her cell phone, and a yellow legal pad covered with writing. FirstExtra was wide awake, too, helpfully carrying things out to the car.

Boy in Black, on the other hand, was asleep on the couch. He has simply never been a morning person. When he was in kindergarten, I used to carry him down to the couch and get him completely dressed for school without him ever waking up. He's almost a foot taller than his sister now, way too big to be carried out to the car, but I had confidence she would somehow get him out there.

I followed my daughter around, giving last minute motherly advice. The advice was completely superfluous, of course, since my daughter is way more efficient and organized than I am, but I felt it my duty as a mother to hover.

They had a nine hour drive ahead of them, traveling several states away to visit Sailor Boy, who is just finishing his training with the Coast Guard. They will be delivering a box of stuff from Sailor Boy's family, including bags of homemade cookies from his grandmother. Grandma had even included a bag of cookies for Daughter and the boys to eat in the car.

Me: You got everything you need?
Daughter: Of course.
Me: Make sure you don't let Boy in Black fall asleep at the wheel.
Daughter: Don't worry, we'll be blasting music.
FirstExtra: Oh, yeah, we'll be rocking out. Don't you worry.

Boy in Black said nothing, just turned over in his sleep.

Me: No, seriously, don't let him drive before noon.
FirstExtra: We'll be fine.
Me: Driving overtired is like –
FirstExtra: Driving drunk!
( He and Daughter exchanged high fives.)
Daughter: We know. We'll be fine.
FirstExtra: We've got homemade cookies.
Daughter: Hey, any chance you want to donate some gas money?
Me: I stuck in your purse earlier.
Daughter: Sweet.

My Smart Beautiful Wonderful Daughter and First Extra packed everything efficiently into the trunk of the car and then somehow managed to wake up Boy in Black, who grabbed his duffle bag and stumbled out to the car, wearing the same clothes he'd slept in, his long uncombed hair hanging in his eyes.

Their car pulled out the driveway. My husband and the younger boys had already left, and I had the house to myself. I checked my email, ate my breakfast, and enjoyed a long phone call with a friend.

Then I left my mug of tea on the windowsill with impunity.

May 17, 2007

The stories they tell

I am not particularly good at identifying plants or flowers. I'm not much for noticing detail. A naturalist friend to whom I am describing an unknown plant will ask things like, "Were the leaves opposite? Alternate?" and I'll usually have to admit that I didn't even notice.

Part of this comes from living in the same place my whole life. I can hike past the white flowers blooming under oak trees in late April and know at a glance that they are trilliums. I don't need to kneel down on the ground and look at their leaves to figure that out any more than I need to get out of the car to pick out which of the teenagers milling about the sidewalk of the high school is Shaggy Hair Boy. Most of what grows here is familiar to me, and I learned the names long ago, in childhood perhaps, or on a hike with Poet Woman or Signing Woman, two of my naturalist friends.

I know the names of the flowers in my garden and the trees in my yard because I planted them. The daylilies came from the house where my grandmother lived up until she died. The forsythia bush came from Red-haired Sister's yard, as did the rose of sharon and the chocolate mint. The lily of the valley and the peonies I dug up in my parents' yard. The white pines came from camp, and the lilac bushes from an abandoned house near camp. The hostas came from the garden Reiki Woman had to leave behind when she left her husband.

The plants and trees have not just names, but stories. I often plant a tree or a bush to mark a new stage in my life, sometimes as a way of grieving, sometimes as a way of celebrating, sometimes both at the same time. As I walk around my yard, looking over the gardens, pulling up weeds, deciding what I might add this year, I think about all that has happened in my life since last spring, and what tree or flower would best tell those stories.

Crabapple blossoms

The flowers in this photo are Profusion crabapple (Manzano Silvestre). I know that because I planted the tree myself, about seven years ago, and that's what the tag said.

May 16, 2007

Under the lilacs

In a blog post the other day, Bright Star said that the reason she loves flowers so much is that she grew up in a desert. I am the opposite: the flowers I love are ones I've lived with my whole life. They are woven into childhood memories.


One of my earliest memories is playing with my brother and our trucks in the sandy bank on the side of the house, shaded by the thick green leaves of lilac bushes. Every May, the bushes would fill with flowers, a lush profusion of purple and green, and the heavy scent would surround us as we pushed yellow metal trucks though the dirt roads we'd dug.

When I was school-age, my mother would cut some lilacs for me to bring to my teacher. She'd fill my arms with flowers, then wrap the stems with wet toweling and tin foil, a big clump that I would carry proudly onto the school bus. Of course, I was too shy to ever talk to my teacher, even the Dancing Nun in second grade whom I absolutely adored. When I came into the classroom, I would go up to the teacher's desk, feeling thankful for the background noise of slamming desktops and chattering kids, and silently hand her the flowers. Then I'd retreat to my desk and pretend to be busy getting out my books, while I secretly watched from behind the slanted wooden desk top as she made a fuss over the bouquet and put it in a vase.

When I was older, I can remember my mother sending me out to gather lilacs. Often it would be raining, a light misty rain. You can't wait for good weather to gather lilacs; the blossoms open in a day, and one good rain storm will scatter the petals to the ground. I'd take the scissors she handed me, but I never really needed them. I'd just reach up and pull down tall branches, snap off twigs that held purple blossoms, and then let the branch spring back into place, showering me with rainwater and lilac scent. I'd dump the whole pile onto the kitchen table, scattering purple petals everywhere, and we'd end up filling several vases and jugs.

I planted lilac bushes in the first house my husband and I bought, and at the second house, which is where I live now. Lilacs were blooming the night that I was in labor with Boy in Black, my spring baby. I can remember walking through the dark neighborhood, my husband at my side, our two-year-old daughter clinging to me, me stopping to breathe through intense contractions. With each deep breath, I pulled in the purple scent, and I wondered whether that smell would forever mark the baby who was about to slide into the world.

Lilac flowers last only for a week or so each year, but the bushes are loyal. You can depend on them. Years after a house has been abandoned, the porch caved in, the windows busted by vandals, and the lawn grown into a field, bushes of lilacs will continue to bloom. More than just bloom. They will continue to grow and flourish, sending out new shoots, getting taller every year. The house will collapse under heavy snow, the wood will rot away, and yet still the bushes will burst into purple every May, as if hanging onto hope that someone will return.

May 15, 2007

All back home

Candle ceremony

To celebrate birthdays in our household, we hold a candle ceremony in the evening. I begin the ritual by grabbing random candles from windowsills and bedside tables, and gathering them on the oak bench we use as a coffee table until we have at least one candle for each person. Blonde Niece will begin lighting the candles while Spouse and I turn out all the lights.

Last weekend, as we gathered to celebrate Boy in Black's birthday, everyone fighting to sit on the comfy couch, I kept thinking how nice it was to have my kids home. Most colleges are done for the year so even our extra college kids are back home, too, settling into their summer jobs and coming over here to play Ultimate Frisbee.

My daughter was back in her spot in the big comfy chair, the candle on her lap lighting her face and hair. She never gets the chair to herself: First Extra lounged on the arm on one side, and Shaggy Hair squeezed in next to her with his own lit candle. Boy in Black was home, too, sitting on the fireplace hearth, a bandana tying back his long hair, his long legs stretched across the floor. With-a-Why was cuddled next to me on the couch, half-asleep, and Pirate Boy, on my other side, looked like he was asleep, although his hands were clutching a lit candle.

The ceremony is far less serious than you might imagine. Boy in Black, Shaggy Hair Boy, and First Extra never miss opportunities to crack jokes. They especially mock my need to go back and retell the story of Boy in Black's birth. The idea is that we are supposed to go around the circle, and each say something nice about Boy in Black, but the kids go off on tangents and remember-whens.

As I watched the kids, their faces lit by the candles they were holding, I kept thinking about an extra whom we haven't seen in over a year. Croaky is a young man with a deep frog-like voice who used to practically live at our house when he was small. He was a neighbor kid who often had to escape his own difficult home situation, usually bringing his two younger brothers with him. Despite the painful stuff going on in his life, he was a kid who was full of fun and high energy: he features in many of the stories my kids tell about the funny things that happened when they were little.

We haven't seen Croaky much since he joined the military.

I usually get news about Croaky from Blonde Niece, who sees his brother at school sometimes, but on Saturday I saw his stepfather, Bitter Man, at the grocery store. Croaky is still in Baghdad. He's been there for over a year now. Originally, he was told he'd be coming home in February, but then that got changed to April, and then to June. It's been more than a year since he's been home, more than a year since he's seen either of his younger brothers, the kids he took such good care of when he was just a kid himself.

When the candle ceremony was over, I walked With-a-Why upstairs. He was half-asleep already. He's almost a teenager now, but he still seems like a little boy to me, especially at night when he wants to be cuddled as he falls asleep. I thought of the young men, and occasionally women, that I see whenever I am at the train station and airport, dressed in camouflage, duffle bags in hand, getting shipped up to the big military base just north of us. Perhaps it's my Mom status, but they are all always so polite and serious as they talk to me. I think of the last time I saw Croaky, dressed smartly in his BDUs, his round freckled face looking just the same. They all still seem like kids to me. Kids who should be home.

May 14, 2007

Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme

Grocery shopping often feels like a pointless task. I drive to the store, fill a cart until it's overflowing, pile the food into my car, drive home, and then honk the horn until the kids come out and unload the car. We put everything away into the refrigerator and cupboards, and then – about ten minutes later – all of that food has disappeared into the guts of ravenous teenagers, and the whole process needs to be repeated. In fact, most of the time, it's not even worth my effort to put the food into the cupboard. It's just easier to let the kids tear into the food while it's still piled on the counter.

This week, I thought of bringing my camera to the grocery store to take some cool photos of produce like other bloggers do. Then I thought about the conservative community I live in. Most people in the community already think I'm crazy – I am a feminist, a poet, a liberal – but I would be elevated to a new level of weird if they caught me snapping photos of fruit. I'd become She Came From a Such Nice Family but Now She Takes Photos in THE GROCERY STORE. I was willing to risk my reputation, making that sacrifice for my blog, but then it occurred to me that there's not enough natural light in the store for my point-and-shoot camera.

The one part of grocery shopping I do like is the chance to find out what is going on in the lives of the people in my community. Saturday, for instance, I ran into QuietMan in the parking lot. He and I have known each other since ninth grade. His kids are in school with my kids, and he recently went through a difficult divorce. He told me where his oldest would be going to college in the fall. "I'm going to have a kid in college, " he said to me, "That makes me feel old."

"We are old," I said to him, and he laughed.

In the produce section, I saw an older woman I've known for years; I went to elementary school with her daughter. She was checking cantaloupes to see which ones were ripe: apparently this process involves lifting up each piece of fruit and smelling it. She gave her dramatic news: she sold her house this week. I thought maybe she would feel sad about leaving the house where she raised her nine kids, but she seemed excited about moving into a small apartment with no maintenance. Her husband is dead, her kids are grown up, and she wants to do some traveling.

In the frozen food aisle, I heard someone call my name. It was Blonde Niece. With her were Red-haired Niece and her boyfriend, who had come in from Big City Like No Other for the weekend to see some of their friends graduate.

My nieces had their silky hair pulled back in pony tails. Both were wearing skimpy t-shirts, shorts, and flip-flops. "You two look alike today!" I exclaimed. With the same movement, they recoiled, looking at each other in horror. Apparently, no one likes to be told she looks like her sister, no matter how beautiful that sister is.

Red-haired Niece talked a bit about her job; she teaches at one of those progressive pre-schools where rich people send their kids. She said she's definitely coming home for my brother's wedding in July. "A family wedding! We haven't had one of those in a long time."

By the time I had finished talking to everyone I knew in the store, my grocery cart was full. I chatted with the kid at the checkout about the AP exam he would be taking on Monday, piled the cartons and bags into my car, and drove home with fruit, veggies, and news.


A picture of fruit, taken in the privacy of my own home. Because only crazy people take photos of fruit in public.

May 13, 2007

You say tomato

Jesus shotglasses

Every time I go to the monastery on retreat, I return with a whole bag of beeswax candles. I've visited the sunny workshop where Brother Joking makes these candles, and I've walked with Brother Beekeeper to the bee hives, an untidy cluster of white boxes piled on the side of a hill. I love the smell of beeswax candles.

Last time I was at the monastery, I was pleased that the giftshop had little glass holders for votive candles. They fit in the palm of my hand, just the right size for the small candles that I sometimes burn when I am doing reiki. I bought several, along with a whole supply of beeswax votive candles. I like the simple design etched on the side, a chapel with a cross.

What has surprised me is how often teenagers or college students who come to the house will comment on these little glass candle holders. "They sell these at the monastery?" Blonde Niece asked the first time she saw them. I couldn't figure out why she was so surprised. It seems perfectly appropriate for a monastery gift shop to sell votive candle holders.

My daughter saw the glass candle holders the first morning she was home. I had washed a couple of them, and they were sitting on the kitchen table, where they caught the morning sunlight. She picked one up, looked at the design, and smiled. "The monastery is selling shotglasses now? Cool."

May 11, 2007

For the birds

When Beautiful Smart Wonderful Daughter read the post I wrote about my phone call with Artist Friend, she laughed and said, "I like the dialogue. It's funny." She looked at me. "Of course, you do make him sound like a nerd."

So now I feel obligated to say, for the record, Artist Friend is not a nerd. It's true that he has four degrees in three different fields and reads dreadfully long dense books for pleasure. It's true that he asked me to send him digital photos of the flowers I had seen on my hike, and he would not give up until we had figured out their Latin names and common names. But no, none of that makes him a nerd. Not at all. I mean, it's perfectly normal to get excited about a wren carrying a stick.

In fairness to Artist Friend, I am including here the context of what he said about the wren. I was just at the end of a story when the wren came into the conversation:

Me: And the worst part is that now —
Him: A wren! A wren carrying a stick!
Me: What?
Him: A wren! Going into the birdhouse!
Me: Oh, a wren. In your yard.
Him: Sorry to interrupt your story, but this is exciting!
Me: (laughing) Yes, I can tell.
Him: Really, go on with what you were saying.
Me: So like I said, the worst part is that now –
Him: He's trying to get the stick into the hole!
Me: The wren?
Him: Yeah, but the stick is sideways.
Me: He doesn't know enough to turn it?
Him: He's a bird.
Me: Oh, right.
Him: The stick is like six inches long. He needs to turn it.
Me: How's he going to figure that out?
Him: He's just banging away at it.
Me (laughing): So, as I was saying ....

See, it's not that he's a nerd, it's that he's easily distracted. One time, for example, when we were driving to a conference together and we were already a couple hours late, we happened upon a softball game in a small town, and he actually pulled over so we could climb onto the bleachers and watch an inning. That same day, a short walk to the Pond Made Famous by Big Time Nature Writer turned into a long walk when he decided we needed to rescue a duck tangled in a fishing line, a rescue attempt that involved me leaping into the water to chase the bird towards him. And I couldn't tell you how many farm stands we stopped at to buy homemade fruit tarts, navel oranges, and a basket of hanging flowers for him to bring back to his wife.

Of course, Artist Friend himself defended his preoccupation with the wren: "You should have added that the wren was visiting the birdhouse that my son and I built on Sunday and hung in the apple tree on Monday. That's exciting!"

Well, that does make a difference. And it's true, he had told me all about building the birdhouse. Because, in addition to his many other talents, Artist Friend makes furniture: "The dovetailing on the birdhouse is actually a failed first attempt at making a drawer for the table I've been working on. It's plenty good enough for a birdhouse, with too many gaps and glitches for a nice piece of furniture. The wood was ruined for the table, but it was perfect for the birdhouse--that's why it's built out of cherry and walnut, which would normally be too expensive and fancy even for as delightful a bird as a wren."

The most exciting news, of course, is that the wren did eventually figure out how to get the stick into the hole.

Artist Friend sent me a photo of the wren house, and I admit that it's beautiful. I knew it would be. Artist Friend loves beautiful things – whether it's the language of a novel, a painting in a museum, the pattern of colour on butterfly wings, the view from the top of a mountain on a rainy day, the legs of a French woman walking past a cafe on a lazy afternoon, or the way sunlight falls on varnished wood.

For the birds

Photo by Artist Friend

May 10, 2007

If you can't stand the heat

At the beginning of each season, we have meetings with the kids to decide which chores they will be doing. At our meeting last weekend, I was pleased when Boy in Black agreed to clean the kitchen this summer. Since he is always the last person to go to sleep at night, I figured he could finish loading the dishwasher and then wash the "big dishes" late at night, and I would wake up every morning to a clean kitchen. What I didn't expect are the weird twists he added to the process.

Here is the scene in our living room yesterday morning.

Me: Why is With-a-Why drinking out of a cereal bowl? Aren't there clean cups?
Boy in Black: He lost his cup privilege.
Me: His ... cup privilege?
Boy in Black: Yep. He didn't put his cup in the dishwasher so now he's lost his cup privilege.
Me: So he can't use a cup?
Boy in Black: That's the way it works around here now.

I have tried for years to get my kids to put their dirty dishes in the dishwasher when they are done with them. No one has ever listened to me. But people listen to Boy in Black. I watched in amazement as With-a-Why finished the bowl of juice he was drinking and put the bowl carefully into the dishwasher. I came back into the kitchen later to find Shaggy Hair Boy washing the pots and pans.

Me: How come you're doing the dishes? Isn't that Boy in Black's job?
Shaggy Hair Boy (mockingly): I lost my fork and plate privilege.
Daughter: So he's got to do some dishes to get them back.
Boy in Black (from his spot on the couch):Yep, that's how it works.
Me (turning on him): Are you eating right out of the sherbet container? That's disgusting!
Boy in Black: I don't want to get a bowl dirty. Now that I'm in charge, we're eliminating the unnecessary use of dishes.

He grinned at me as he stuck his spoon into the big container of rainbow sherbet.

Later that night while I was putting With-a-Why to bed, Boy in Black appeared at the doorway. I looked up from the book we were reading.

Boy in Black: Last time I checked, you were the only vegan in the house, right?
Me: Uh, yeah.
Boy in Black: So you're the only one who drinks soy milk... right?
Me: I guess.
Boy in Black (producing an empty glass): Then this is your cup?
Me: (with a sinking feeling) Well, maybe.
Boy in Black: I found it on the windowsill.
Me (making a quick decision to plead guilty): I was going to put it in the dishwasher as soon as I finished putting With-a-Why to bed.
Boy in Black: I'm sorry, but you've lost your cup privileges.
Me: What?
Boy in Black: That means you need to wash the big dishes.
Me: How fair is that?
Boy in Black: I mean, if you want your cup privileges back.
Me: You can't delegate chores to me!
Boy in Black (grinning): I'm afraid that's the rule.

With-a-Why looked up from behind his book, and the brothers exchanged a triumphant glance. Without another word, Boy in Black left the room.

I looked down at my youngest son, and he gave me a smug smile.

May 09, 2007

Brings May flowers


This morning, after taking a shower, I sat outside to let my hair dry in the sun while I indulged in a leisurely phone call with Artist Friend. I call him Artist Friend because he is an artist, and his creative work seems to be the defining part of his personality, but he's also a writer who teaches at a college like I do, and we don't have much time to talk during the busy semester. So it's become a tradition in May to catch up with a long phone call.

We don't have too much in bloom here yet, but my lawn was just covered with bright yellow dandelions, those cheery spring flowers, and the softer blues of forget-me-nots and purple creeping charlie. I could feel the sun on my wet hair, on my legs and on my arms. Birds trilled and sang from the woods around me, and the wind chimes that hang from the house sang softly when the wind blew.

Artist Friend, miles and miles to the west of me, was relaxing in his own backyard, and our conversation would get interrupted every time he saw something exciting. "A wren! A wren carrying a stick!" (Honest. That's an exact quote. I am not making it up.) A bunch of crows in his neighborhood were getting so excited about something that I could hear their cawing over the phone line.

We talked about our summer plans – vacations with our families and a conference we're both going to – and about the writing we want to accomplish over the next month. We talked about the hike I'd taken yesterday: Artist Friend is a naturalist who always wants to know the names of flowers and birds and butterflies. By the time I had hung up the phone, my hair was dry, smelling like lavender and sunshine, and it was time to get dressed and begin my day.

May 08, 2007

Things behind the sun

Falling water

Suddenly, it feels like summer.

This morning I drove past farmhouses and newly plowed fields, past red barns and old silos, past white churches and trees with leaves just coming out. I went to Gorgeous Town to meet up with a blogging friend who had promised to take me on a hike.

First we walked through his neighborhood, past front yard gardens and trees with outstretched branches. Flowers were unfolding everywhere, long branches of forsythia hanging down bright yellow over grey stone walls. The coolest thing about Chip's neighborhood is that you can walk just a few blocks and find yourself at the base of a waterfall. We climbed down from the bridge to see the waterfall up close, feeling the spray on our faces.

We hiked for a couple of hours in a nearby state park, and I lost track of how many little waterfalls we saw. The trail seemed almost entirely up hill as we followed a creek upstream, first along damp mossy stone walls, and later through the woods. At the top, we came to a low flat lake, green water with mud flats and boggy areas. We stopped to sit on a bridge to eat some oranges, and I realized that we hadn't seen any other people at all. I love sitting in a peaceful spot, doing nothing at all, on a Tuesday morning when elsewhere in the world, people are rushing about in their busy lives.

The crashing water kept us company as we talked. At the top of the trail, we crossed a flat grassy area near a road, a field filled with tiny flowers. The flowers were the size of forget-me-nots, but up close, I could see they were something different.

Just as I was saying to Chip, for the twentieth time, "I wonder what these flowers are called, " and he was saying patiently, for the nineteenth time, "I don't know, but I have them in my backyard," a group of students appeared out of nowhere, wildflower identification books in their hands. Their leader paused, pointed at the flowers, and said, "Does everyone recognize this?"

I made Chip stop. "Wait. He's going to tell us."

I stood there hopefully, but the students seemed clueless. They mumbled and paged through their books. The teacher kept giving them hints. They kept shrugging and looking helplessly at the plants. I inched closer, waiting to hear the answer, thinking maybe that if I was close enough, I could peer into the teacher's book.

Minutes went by. I was beginning to feel like a stalker. The sun was beating down on the students, and I kept thinking the teacher would take pity on them and just announce the name of the flower, but that was not to be. In the end, I decided that the whole group, with their bright-coloured wildflower identification books, the only people we'd seen all day, a group who appeared out of nowhere, were just some kind of mirage.

So we continued the hike, downhill through trees with bare branches and hanging vines, some dead trees bleached white against the blue of the sky. We were both hungry, ready for cold juice and sandwiches at the local bakery. Because so little of the foliage is out yet this time of year, the hike was mostly in the sun, and my body actually felt warm, warm all the way from head to toe. That's the feeling that means summer is here.

May 07, 2007


The breeze was cool, but it was warm enough to eat outside. We met at a restaurant with an outdoor patio and chose a table in the sun, a place where we could absorb warmth as we talked. After lunch, we slipped out underneath the pink and brown branches of a flowering tree and followed a side street down past little restaurants and shops to the lakefront.

It's a long narrow lake formed by glaciers, a lake considered sacred by the people native to this area. It's also the most polluted lake in North America. Swimming was banned here in 1940, the fish from the lake cannot be eaten, and the EPA reports on the toxins that lie at the bottom of the lake have numbers so ridiculously high that they seem like something out of a novel and not real life. And yet, despite all the damage caused by industrial dumping, Polluted Sacred Lake is still a lovely place to walk on a spring day.

As we meandered up the paved path, we passed runners, bikers, and parents with small children, everyone taking advantage of the sunshine. Poet Woman and I talked about relationships that had ended, about family members, about our marriages, and about our children; we were both analyzing the patterns and issues in our lives. Poet Woman laughed when she realized that she was telling me the same story she had told me the last time we walked the trail by this lake. How often the landscape dictates our topic of conversation: we each have a lifetime of memories embedded in the lakes and hills and woods of Snowstorm Region.

New leaves were unfolding on the trees that stood at the lake edge. We passed a harbor filled with empty docks that reached into the lake, and big puddles where the lake overlapped onto the grass. Christmas lights, unplugged but visible, still hung in some of the trees, gaudy electric decorations which annoyed both of us.

We each had a busy afternoon ahead of us, but we could not resist stopping when we came to an empty bench that faced the lake. The sun touched our faces, our arms, our hands. We kept talking about our long to-do lists but when it comes right down to it, few things can take priority over conversation with a close friend.

Polluted Sacred Lake

Polluted Sacred Lake


Shaggy Hair Boy and With-a-Why are thrilled to have their siblings home for the summer. With-a-Why will snuggle up to his sister or his oldest brother on the couch, looking completely happy. The house is lively with the college kids home. There's always a card game going on in the living room, always someone wanting to play frisbee. Shaggy Hair will stay up to all hours with his siblings, who have the nocturnal lifestyle of college students everywhere.

But the excitement of having the older kids home has taken its toll, and Shaggy Hair is seriously sleep-deprived. By late afternoon, he collapses on the couch for a much-needed nap.


May 06, 2007

Piles of red

Piles of red

All weekend, red balloons have been drifting down from the ceiling, covering the floor, catching on windowsills, balancing on plants and furniture. Overachievers, we'd blown up not 99 balloons, but 216, and most of them, shrivelled smaller, the helium leaching out, are piled on the floor, where they are constantly being kicked and thrown and batted about. When my parents came over this morning to welcome their granddaughter home, they had to push balloons aside to find a place to sit.

After a busy weekend, our extras went home, and we went to a park this afternoon, just the six of us, to spend some time together as a family. The park is actually the playground of an elementary school, a place famous for a big wooden structure with all kinds of ramps and towers and things to climb. It's a place we used to go often when the kids were little. We haven't been there in years, but we figured we'd go there for old time's sake.

In the car, we all starting teasing Beautiful Smart Wonderful Daughter about how the playground had been destroyed while she was gone. We were just kidding, of course. Then we pulled into parking lot of the school, and walked around the corner.

The wooden playground was gone. It had been completely removed.

Boy in Black was more interested in the big field that we had all to ourselves, and he talked us into playing some frisbee. I'd brought a blanket, and eventually, some of us ended up just lying in the sun, talking lazily. Boy in Black climbed a tree, and With-a-Why curled up next to his sister on the blanket. Eventually, we drove to a place that sells submarine sandwiches and bought a picnic lunch to take to Pretty Colour Lakes. It was nice to be together again, just the six of us, hanging out under a gorgeously blue sky and doing not much of anything.

It's evening now, and everyone is tired. Shaggy Hair is asleep on the couch, and Boy in Black asleep in the chair. Spouse is sorting laundry. Beautiful Smart Wonderful Daughter keeps saying she is going to unpack, but I suspect that if she gets near her bed, she is more likely to take a nap. With-a-Why is playing the piano – Bach's Solfegietto . His fingers are absolutely flying over the keys: he is the only one in the family with any energy left.

Tomorrow, I drive to campus to hand in my grades, and my summer begins.

Drifting down to the windowsill

May 05, 2007

99 red balloons

99 red balloons

Yesterday morning before school, while With-a-Why was snuggling with me, I said, "Your sister will be home tonight." Of course, there was really no need for me to announce this news since it's all we'd been talking about all week.

"We should get 99 red balloons," he said sleepily.


"Yeah, 99 red balloons."

Later, when I was more awake, I thought over his odd request. Why 99 balloons? And why red ones? He had left for school, so I decided to ask the expert on all matters With-a-Why.

Boy in Black, of course, knew exactly what his little brother was talking about.

"It's a song."
"About homecoming? Like the Simon and Garfunkel one?"
"No, it's about communism."
"What's so great about the song?"
"It's not very good, actually. It was once on a list of the 100 worst songs."
"So it's not even good music?"
"Well, it's so bad it's good. That's the point."

By now, Boy in Black had called up the song on iTunes, and the music was playing in the background of our conversation.

"It's in a scene from Scrubs," he explained. "The one where JD dances with 99 red balloons." He showed me the clip on YouTube.

And so that became the theme of my daughter's homecoming. After school, With-a-Why and I went out to buy packages of red balloons. We spent the next couple of hours blowing them up and tying them to furniture, thinking all the time about that plane that was crossing the ocean. With-a-Why insisted that we leave lots of the balloons rolling around on the floor loose so that we could kick them when we danced. By the time Boy in Black came back from the grocery store, picking up Shaggy Hair and Skater Boy from school on his way, the room was beginning to fill with red balloons.

"I'll figure out the chords," Boy in Black said. "Skater Boy, you take the drums. Someone download the lyrics ...."

Older Neighbor Boy and Philosophical Boy arrived with guitars and amps, and began practicing the song.

We had to take two cars to the airport, picking up Blonde Niece on our way, and we got there way early. The small airport was quiet. The gang of teenagers amused themselves by leaping over posts, running up the down escalators, and racing each other on the wide, empty staircases. My husband kept calling and checking on the status of the flight. "It's on the ground!"

When my daughter finally came walking through the big white doors, everyone was fighting to hug her first. She was carrying presents because she couldn't fit them all into her suitcase. She looked beautiful and happy and just the same. She was laughing and handing out gifts and trying to talk to everyone at once. She pulled bags of candy from her overly full carry-on and tossed them to the boys as we stood in a big clump in the baggage claim area, her brothers shoving each other and jockeying to stand the closest to her.

And then we brought her home to a room full of 99 red balloons so the boys could serenade her with a song about communism.

May 04, 2007

Homeward bound

Silently for me

It didn't take long to move Boy in Black home from college. His stuff fit easily into the back of my car: one laundry basket of clothes, one crate of books, one box of stuff from his desk, and one plastic bag filled with bedding. He certainly embraces the simple lifestyle. He was unpacked in less than ten minutes, and by the time the younger boys had come home from school, he was announcing to everyone, "I live here again."

Meanwhile, on the other side of the ocean, my daughter was packing her clothes tight so that she would have room in the suitcase to bring home presents. "I bought stuff for the three boys, of course," she said on the phone. "But what about the extras? Once you buy for one extra, then suddenly, you have to buy for all of them, and that can get ridiculous."

Today, she begins her journey home.

She'll leave the flat where she has been living since January, taking one last look at the sunny room with the blue carpet and broken couch where she wrote papers and drank tea. She'll walk across the courtyard, nodding at the Arab women in their dark veils and the little kids with their friendly eyes. She'll drag her luggage up the busy street, with little grocery stores that have crates of fruit and buckets of flowers set out on the pavement. Perhaps she'll stop to buy one last sleeve of digestive biscuits.

She'll cut down a side street of tall red buildings, and for the last time, swipe her Oyster card through the turnstile at the Underground. I think Film Guy has offered to help to go with her on this first part of her trip, to help manage her luggage on the long escalator that will bring her deep underground. The first train ride is a short one: she'll get off at the Station Named After the Famous Bear to switch to another train, one that will bring her to the airport.

She'll have a long flight over the ocean, and then of course, once she arrives in Big City Like No Other, she'll have to go through customs, picking her luggage up in the big room with the dogs that sniff everything. She'll have another long wait before boarding one more airplane. And this is the flight that will bring her, fifteen hours after she left her flat, home to Snowstorm City. We'll be waiting for her in the airport – my husband, her three brothers, and a gang of extras – eager to hug her, to talk to her, to hear all her stories. I hope she gets some sleep on the plane because I suspect her brothers plan to keep her up all night.

May 03, 2007

May 01, 2007


One of my readers asked what my students and I did for Earth Day this year. I am glad for the reminder to write about it.

We met early on a Saturday morning, on a day that promised to be sunny. About twenty-five students stumbled onto the bus, most of them looking as if they had gotten out of bed just minutes before. The bus ride wasn't long, and I could see students looking out the window with interest as we left the city and wound our way though hills. Yellow spring flowers – coltsfoot – bloomed along the roadside as we drove onto sovereign territory, land governed by the People of the Longhouse.

We gathered first at the cookhouse. Plantswoman greeted me with a hug, and Friendly Eyes, a dark-haired man with a big laugh, welcomed the sleepy students, teasing them and saying that they had better come in for some coffee. A couple of women we'd never met before greeted us warmly, putting fruit out on the counter and juice. "Come have something to eat and drink," Friendly Eyes kept saying. Three little kids, with dark hair and lively eyes, joined us, weaving their way in and out amongst the college students.

Originally, we were supposed to help plant some trees, but the snowstorm earlier that week had suggested that it was too early. Instead, we were going to the big vegetable gardens behind the homes of the elders. Some of the gardens were to be expanded this year, and we were assigned the task of clearing brush. Friendly Eyes handed out pruning shears, saws, and gloves. We split into four work-groups and went off in four directions, clutching the maps Friendly Eyes had drawn for us.

We talked lazily as we worked, everyone savoring the sunshine. "It feels so good to be out of the city," students kept saying. Many of my students come from rural areas and small towns, and living in Snowstorm City all winter seems confining to them. Clearing brush is such a satisfying task: we clipped and chopped, we raked and gathered, we piled sticks and stalks into tall piles to be burned. I overheard Enthusiastic Student talking to a young girl, asking her to teach him the phrase "Thank you" so that he could use it at the end of the day.

Even though snow was still piled in the corners of yards, the sun grew stronger as the day went on, and before long, we'd all stripped down to t-shirts. Bare arms are not ideal for clearing brush, but the feel of sun on winter-pale skin is well worth a few scratches. No one had thought to go out during the snowstorm earlier that week to buy sunscreen, but a few of us had bottles of water, which we shared. Enthusiastic Student told us that ElderWoman had told him that they would feed us lunch: "Reciprocity, she said. She insisted."

The little boy I was working with kept showing me cool things like the galls on last year's goldenrod. We cut one gall open to see the insect still inside of it. Plantswoman was distracted by the reddish brown branches of dogbane in one field. She broke one branch apart to show us how strong the plant fibers were; they can be used for all kinds of things. She gathered some and piled it into the back of her van. As we drove from one site to the next, the dried pods opened and the wispy white wishniks danced in the air all around us.

As the day went on, we all grew hungry and then hungrier. None of the students had eaten much breakfast. By the time we'd cleared several large areas, we were sweaty and pleasantly tired. We returned to the cookhouse, which was filled the delicious smell of simmering stew. The women had prepared a feast for us: platters of sandwiches, big bowls of salad, fresh rolls and juice, and hot stew made with potatoes, carrots, onions, and chunks of buffalo meat. PlantShaman explained to us that they keep a small herd of buffalo, sometimes as many as forty, and a buffalo is sometimes slaughtered for meat.

The students at my table ate an alarming amount of food. "It's so good," Baseball Cap kept saying. "It's so nice to eat real food and not dining hall stuff." Since we'd been working in three separate areas, we all traded stories about the morning, and compared scratched arms and sunburns. The little kids who had joined us were no longer shy, but happily sitting amongst the college students with their own plates of food. PlantShaman, hearing all kinds of questions, took some time to talk to us about her culture. "There is a tradition of friendship between us and white people," she said.

No one wanted to leave. Friendly Eyes went out to talk to the bus driver and urge him to come in for a plate of food. Dark Blue Shirt kept saying that we were fun to work with. PlantShaman patiently answered questions. We talked about dance and government and lacrosse. Eventually, we did climb onto the bus, several hours later than scheduled. The students, with sunburned faces and bits of brambles clinging to their clothes, their bellies filled with food, settled into the seats with contented sighs.