Margy and I were chatting in the coolness of our kitchen, when suddenly I thought I saw a squirrel on our back deck, running right under the plastic “owl” that I had bought, supposedly to scare squirrels away from the orchard. That’s what caught my attention. But looking closer, we realized it wasn’t a squirrel, it was a groundhog! I ran outside onto the deck, and it ran too, but I managed to catch this slightly blurry picture to confirm our suspicions. It ran across the patio, through the back yard and over to the trees on the edge.
Margy and I are often torn between totally loving the critters that come into the yard, but also wanting to eat the food we are growing. Munimqehs is the Passamaquoddy word for groundhog, which I learned in the fall of 2018. In Wabanaki stories, Munimqehs is the wise grandmother who has many lessons to teach us about how to be good human beings. How desolate we would be without our animal neighbors!
We haven’t had any groundhogs in the yard for the last few summers. The last one disappeared, we believe due to the intervention of a neighbor. With a groundhog in the yard, however, it is a whole new ballgame for gardening. I immediately went out in the heat, and put together a netting contraption to try to protect our bed of kale, from which I had harvested the first leaves earlier this morning. I happened to have these metal arches and nylon netting, and fastened the netting to the ground with metal stakes. There is already a wire mesh under the raised bed, so no animals should be able to dig up from underneath. We’ll see if this deters our little friend. I might have to also go back to the pee protection scheme that I used to partial success a few years ago.
Meanwhile, today I am grateful for the excitement of a critter on the deck, a young one it seems. Let’s see what lessons she/he will have to teach us. We have lots of clover that we’re happy to put on her table. Let’s see if we can be good neighbors.
Yesterday, I installed a little deck on the edge of the pond! This idea was an evolving process–at first I was going to put a large slate stone at the spot on the surface that leads into the steps inside the pond. But working on the pond during the last several weeks, I discovered that slate gets really, really hot in the sun. So then I was trying to come up with something that could serve as a top step that wouldn’t get hot.
Happily, I found an upcycling solution! In our garage, there were six wooden decking boards from the previous owners that were stored on rafters above the cars. They were very heavy, about six feet long, and some of them were attached to each other, but I was able to get two of them down. The boards were painted brown, and they too got very hot in the sun. But then I found some older paint cans in the basement. I did a prime coat of white on one day, and then a coat of light gray concrete paint, which has some waterproof qualities, two days later. Yesterday, I drilled holes and screwed them together with small boards I had also painted.
Everything was a bit off level–the boards, the ground–so I installed them using small stones underneath to stabilize things. Voila! We now have a top step, which is also a little deck where we can sit on the very edge of the pond, with our feet in the water. And after positioning a few more stones, and slate rocks, I can now say that the surface level of the pond is virtually complete. I still need to find some more five inch stones to line the rest of the vertical sides under that area, but if you look at it from this side, you can’t see any liner showing.
The tiny plants are starting to grow a bit, the pond lily rhizome that I positioned on a lower level sent up a tiny leaf all the way to the surface. I’ve topped up the water level with water from the rain barrel once. I plan to add more small stones to the planting ledge to give plants more to hang onto. This morning it looked like someone had messed around with the pickerel rush plants. I still have to finish the overflow channel. It will all continue to grow and develop as the summer goes on… hopefully the plants will start to take over half the surface of the water. But what a happy moment today!
Life is getting exciting in the orchard. The other day, a friend noticed an empty nest in the branches of the peach tree. It must have just appeared that day–the Summer Solstice–because I had been spraying the tree a couple days before with an herbal foliar spray and would have noticed it. But it seemed like it might be abandoned, and I wondered if perhaps its creators had noticed the toy snake I had hung from the tree the day before to warn off squirrels.
Today, I began to wrap and tie little woven net bags around the peaches–another strategy to keep them protected from burrowing bugs and poking birds and of course, squirrels. This year, I am trying all the things!
While I was slowly adding a few more bags, this little sparrow was chirping in the next tree over, as if she were trying to get my attention. (Later, I did some research, and she seems to be a native chipping sparrow.)
Curious, I carefully put my finger into the nest (which had been empty the day before) and ever so gently touched the smooth shell of an egg. Holding my camera above the nest, I confirmed it.
Of course, this left me with a dilemma. Do I pay attention to protecting the peaches? Or do I take care not to disturb the chipping sparrow and its nest? Hoping to do a bit of both, I kept putting more net bags around the peaches, but only on the side of the tree away from the nest.
With the bags around the peaches, I won’t need to spray the tree again with kaolin clay, and that seems like a good idea as far as the nest is concerned. These net bags require quite a labor intensive process though. The design of the bags could have been better. I decided to make a small cut in the top of each bag, on the opposite side of where the drawstring tie comes out, so I can pull the tie string out from two sides. That way I can secure it across the branch closest to the peach. (Otherwise, if I just tied it around the stem, I am afraid it would pull the delicate peach right off the branch.) So bit by bit I added perhaps 15 to 20 bags on peaches. I have many more to go.
And then I saw that the sparrow had returned to her nest. Maybe to lay more eggs? Maybe to keep one or more eggs nice and warm until they hatch. I read that it takes two weeks for the eggs to hatch, then 9-12 days for the young to fledge. I think we’ve reached a truce. I hope so.
We finally have someone to clean our house today, after no one since COVID. (A true blessing for those of us allergic to dust.) So I am in the basement, where I have an office filled with old papers that I still haven’t cleaned out since I retired three years ago. I am allergic to old papers, too, (and old books, which is a real sadness). But it is hard to just throw them out or shred them, they are like messages from my earlier self. I thought maybe if I could capture some of them here, it would be easier to release these reflections of the preacher I used to be. (During the summers, I’d be pondering what to preach during the following year. I’d be trying to get grounded in what was most important.) It is grounding to read them now:
What is my message? What is my good news? God is love. You are loved. You are beloved, you are sacred, each one of you. (Especially to the ones who are on the edges, to women, to lesbians.)
Around to the question–who is my audience, who are my people? What is my message? Love is on the side of equality and we are all brothers, sisters, siblings. Every being is beloved and we are all one family. What is my message to the men and to those who are comfortable? Your privilege does not bring you closer to heaven. If you have privilege, share the wealth. I don’t like being “negative” or challenging. I like lifting up the lowly. Is that true? I like clear thinking–see what is going on and understand the times we are in. What are the big issues we face as a people?
What is my message? Look at the power dynamics that are hidden–Who benefits? Who lies? Organize yourselves–alone we can do something, but together we can really do something. Be smart about change. Hold up the vision of where we are going and also talk about the ways to get there. How to live sustainably? How to live in mutually beneficial relationship with each other and with the earth. The earth is us, we are the earth. We are children of the earth, this is our mother and our home, our only home. Stand with our relatives. What touches one, affects us all.
What gives me hope? The sense of being beloved. The witness of people before us who loved, who created change.
What are my questions? How do I preach about God? What is at the soul of my wanting to preach about God? Anger at the fundamentalists who put God into a box–an idol, who use it to go to war, to condemn other people, including me–who use God as a weapon of hate. Anger at the atheists who argue there is no God–but the only God they argue against is the fundamentalist God that I don’t believe in either.
I experience God–is “God” even the word?–but I want to claim that word “God.” They’ve stolen it, corrupted it, they’ve tried to use it to shut the true gates of heaven. Starhawk reminded us that it is not about belief, but knowledge.
What can I say about my own experience of God? How do I experience God? As the power to leave the church of my childhood, to find the experience of myself as woman, as a whole and equal person. Goddess. (Ntozake Shange “I found God in my self and I loved her fiercely.”) The power to take a leap of courage into the unknown, toward wholeness and strength and transformation. God is a power beyond institutions, uncontained. “The sound in the soul of a man becoming free.” [from the song “Mystery.”] The joy I see in a lesbian couple finding the strength to be proud of who they are and to become public spokespersons for equal marriage. God is the comforter of the lonely. The lover. God is everywhere in everything, imbues the world with beauty. God is the power of creativity. We say “Creator.”
What would be the greatest personal risk I could take? Can I be the minister I feel called to be? Why is it so hard to say I experience the presence of God? To challenge the atheists who ridicule those who experience God? God as personal, the old Universalist idea that God loves everyone so much that we’ll all get into heaven. Can I invite an atheist to go inside themselves to experience God for themselves? To pray?
It is okay to have an image for God, a doorway. We need pictures–as long as we remember they are just doorways into something beyond our ability to picture. The mystical. God isn’t just someone to make good things happen to us. God is a presence in the midst of the hard things. The cardinal who sang when I was lost and lonely. The grandmother who appeared when everything fell apart. Comfort and strength when loss comes. But what about those who don’t experience that. What feeds you? What is large enough to win your allegiance? Any other gods are too small.
Just random thoughts, like looking at my reflection in a still pool of water. After so many days of working in the garden and working on the pond, it is good to be quiet with these old pieces of paper.
Yesterday, I was excited to see a few crows visiting the pond! I was looking out my window from the house, and there is a string-and-bamboo trellis (for our snap peas) about halfway between the house and the pond that partly blocks the view. But if you look carefully, you can see one crow taking a bath, while the other is perched on a log on the edge behind it.
I have been slowly gathering more stones from country roads, and adding them to cover the pond liner all around the edge, along with placing some aging branches there, from around our land. Seeing the crows perched on the branches, I am so glad I included them. This process of covering the liner edge is about two thirds complete now, and the plants in the water are also beginning to grow some new leaves and shoots.
I didn’t notice until I saw these photos, but one crow has picked up a little stone in his beak! He reminds me of me as I go around looking for stones the right size for the edge. I wonder if he brought it with him to place somewhere himself. (By the way, I don’t know whether these crows are male or female, but they are not “its” so I prefer to give them personal pronouns. I wish English was like the Wabanaki languages in that the personal pronouns are not gender specific.) After placing a new batch of stones in the morning, I felt really exhausted and rested for the afternoon. But in the evening, I came out and just sat down next to the pond, enjoying the reflections in the water.
I have been having a few days in the garden that humble me to my core. This process of finding our way home to earth community is so difficult. Trying to care for fruit trees involves learning about so many insect pests and disease processes. Observing the trees carefully every day. Yesterday and today I was thinning the tiny peaches leaving only one every 6 inches, so that the branches can support them to grow. Often I am trying to figure out which organic solution goes with which problem. And yesterday morning, I saw one of our squirrel neighbors climbing the peach tree–a whole other issue. Will we get to eat any peaches, or will the squirrels take a bite out of each one? Or will birds peck holes in them? Or some other insect pest eat them from the inside?
I hate how gardening sets me at odds with the other critters on this land–figuring out which are “beneficial” (to us) and which are “enemies” (to us.) I remember that when I first had a little garden, many years ago now, I was surprised that so much of it was about killing–pulling weeds, drowning slugs in beer, and so forth. And now that I am caring for an orchard, a permaculture food forest, it’s the same thing. A constant battle. So how is that teaching me how to live in a mutually beneficial relationship with this land?
I start to wonder if human beings should ever have shifted from hunting/gathering to agriculture. Hunting and gathering certainly included the taking of animal life, but it seems like it was more in balance, it was received with gratitude, it was a kind of partnership. I am thinking about the different role of the groundhog in the lives of different cultures. The bane of many gardeners’ lives, groundhogs are incredibly inventive and persistent garden eaters. It was amazing to me that here on our land, the groundhog whose den was next door seemed to respect the orchard as our place, while the garden bed behind the garage she claimed for her own. But I have a friend who built a fence deep into the ground around her entire garden, and still the groundhog family dug a tunnel and emerged right in the center of the garden to eat her vegetables.
However, the groundhog played a different role in Wabanaki cultures, in tribes that were traditionally hunting and gathering. I only know a few of the stories about the legendary figure for good, Koluskap (Glooscap), the creator of human beings. But I learned that his grandmother was the groundhog, Munimqehs, and she guided him and taught him the wisdom he needed. What a different perspective! She taught him that people and animals relied on each other, that hunting was necessary for the people to be strong, but that taking more than was needed was destructive to both.
Likewise, deer might be a blessing for hunters, but destructive to trees and gardens. We see about one deer each year passing through the back of our yard. We used to have a gang of turkeys that roamed the streets of our neighborhood. They are gone now. Eventually, the groundhog disappeared too–I think a neighbor had something to do with that. Now, it seems, along with birds, we only have squirrels and a little star-nosed mole that tunnels under our wood chip paths, and an occasional chipmunk. But the squirrels are very adept at causing trouble to our garden. All winter long, for example, they climbed up our hazelnut bushes, eating the catkins that would pollinate the flowers in spring. After, they would act drunk and run around wildly in circles. Eventually I put some nets over the two smaller shrubs, to try to protect them. Maybe it worked? The smallest shrub now for the first time has some “future hazelnuts” forming on the end of its branches. I don’t know why the larger two do not.
Sometimes I am amazed at what grows, what we can harvest. I just cut a whole bunch of soft thyme to dry, and I’ve been finding wine cap mushrooms hiding under clover to add to meals. The sea kale was delicious, and now its flowers smell like honey. There are green berries on the blueberry plants. I got the advice to buy some fake rubber snakes and hang them in the trees to scare off the squirrels–as long as I move them every few days. Last night, Margy and I sat in the back of the yard and watched fireflies signaling to each other in the tall grasses and weeds. In this garden, I am bewildered, sometimes discouraged, often exhausted, and always humbled by how little I know, and how difficult it is. What are you trying to teach me, little squirrels?
I am slowly adding stones and plants and developing the top edge of the pond, to cover up all the liner. I did a minor adjustment to the overflow channel to lower the water level by about an inch, and added some soil (underneath the liner and layers) to an edge that was a little bit lower than other parts. I’ve been using my pile of small stones for the edges, but stabilizing them behind larger stones. I decided to use the larger stones to also cover the vertical slope between the planting ledge and the top. This was in the original plan, but I didn’t think I would have enough stones to do it. And I don’t. The other day, Margy and I went to another rural road and brought home another batch of larger stones from the side of the road. But it doesn’t take long to use them up.
By the way, in the background, from left to right, you can see a ninebark shrub in bloom, a summer sweet shrub, and a little elderberry that’s barely visible. I am trying to start some hazelnut bushes from off shoots of our big ones. Also, there is a lot of goldenrod that will flower later in the season, and on the far right back, our mulberry tree–which after a couple rough starts is finally doing better this year.
Back to the stones for the pond, even though I don’t have enough of the larger stones, it seemed smart to do as complete a finish as possible, section by section. Here is a close up of the most completed section, behind the cardinal flower, where I also incorporated an old piece of a branch. I am enjoying this design process.
I also ordered and received some more plants–this time I got some pickerel rush (or pickerel weed), Pontederia cordata. This native plant will grow 2-4 feet tall and have blue flowers. I ordered five, but received eight little root and stem starts. So then I decided to rearrange the arrowhead plants, moving them closer to the “front” from where the photo is taken, and where we’ll sit to watch the pond. I planted the pickerel rush mostly where the arrowhead had been, on the back left, and then put a couple of the smallest ones in front of that log. Here is what it looks like right now, and this is the largest one. It takes faith and imagination to see them growing and flowering in the summer and fall.
In other news, I have twice seen (from my window) a crow walk up to the pond and get a drink of water. Tonight I also saw a few little water bugs of some kind swimming around. Animal life is starting to arrive. The other day, when it was so hot, there was some green algae in the water, which is to be expected until the plants grow bigger–but then it disappeared again today. Time to think of another place to find some more of the larger stones. It all feels magical.
This morning I was up at sunrise, which seemed such a sacred time to finish filling the pond! While the hose was running, I planted several plants that I had previously purchased, and then added three ferns from our yard. Sometimes, I just had to sit and watch, amazed at its coming to life in this way.
I used our city water from the outdoor spigot because the rain barrels nearby were empty from yesterday’s filling. City water is less ideal because of chlorine, but the chlorine will evaporate quickly, especially in our 90 degree sunny weather today. Plus it is being intermixed with the water already there. I filled it until it just started to drain into the overflow channel. Hurray! The overflow channel worked.
The method I used for planting was that recommended by Robert Pavlis in Building Natural Ponds. No soil, just anchor the roots of each plant with some stones. That meant rinsing off the plant roots from the soil they were packed in. I added some more stones in one area because the recommended depth was less than what I had. Here are the plants I planted:
Sweetflag was first. It was a bit unclear whether this was Acorus calamus, or Acorus americanus. Online where I purchased it, it was listed as Acorus calamus (Americanus). I was hoping to buy the plant native to here (americanus); the other was brought by Europeans, but naturalized, and then it was also used by Indigenous people. I learned the Passamaquoddy name for this plant in the class I took. Kiwhosuwasq, (which now can refer to either plant). It means “muskrat root,” because the muskrat would eat it, and it was an important medicinal plant.
Next I planted Cardinal Flower, or Lobelia cardinalis, which will have a bright red blossom that is beloved by hummingbirds. It is a native plant. Both Sweetflag and Cardinal Flowers will grow tall, so I placed them toward the back of the pond, across from where we tend to sit.
The next plant is Arrowhead, or Sagittaria latifolia, which is a shorter plant. It will have white flowers. When I rinsed off its roots, it divided into two plants, so I planted them near each other. It is native plant, but also an aggressive grower so I placed it on the narrower planting ledge where it can spread out on its own. I hope that all of these plants will spread out to fill their areas, but also make room for each other. The goal is to cover half the water surface with these plants on the planting ledges.
I had two pots of Blue Eyed Grass, or Sisyrinchium atlanticum. This one is also a smaller plant, and in the spring it blooms early with delicate blue flowers. I placed it in the part of the pond nearest to where we will sit.
Because it is so late in the season, a number of the plants I wanted to buy were no longer available this year. I am hoping I can find some Marsh Marigold sometime. (Calthus palustris.) It is another shorter plant, with spring blooming bright yellow flowers.
I was able to purchase a hardy white water lily, on Etsy. (Nymphaea spp.) The hardy variety of lilies can survive the winters in Maine, especially if their roots are deep in the pond. They sent me two root tubers. They arrived in my mailbox on one of the hot days, and were warm when I opened the package, so I hope they will be okay. But I planted them in temporary pots filled with stones, and placed those pots on the planting ledge. When they get bigger, I will move them lower in the pond. Water lilies are important parts of a natural pond, partly because their pads cover the surface of the water, providing shade and inhibiting algal growth. Plus, maybe frogs will sit on them. But for now, they are tiny.
After planting all these, I found two types of ferns among the many growing at the back of our yard, dug them up, rinsed off their roots, and planted three of them in the pond. I tried a few different ones–one tall, one small, one mixed, to see which might transplant best. A friend has offered me some Blue Flag Irises from her pond, so I’ve saved a space in my plan for them. Of course, now the question is, shall we try to buy some more plants to fill in more space right away, or wait for these to grow into larger versions of themselves? In the meantime, by 10 a.m. I had to come inside to get away from the heat, so all future parts of this project have to wait. Maybe this evening, we’ll just sit by the side of the water and enjoy.
This morning and this evening I finished adding stones to the planting ledge of our pond. And this evening, I began the second half of filling the pond, using water from our rain barrels! While I watched the water flow in, I used a pond skimmer to try to clear some of the debris that has fallen in–maple seeds, pollen, pine needles. I hope tomorrow I can finish filling it, and start to put in plants. Some plants have already arrived, I have them waiting in a bucket of water.
It was a really hot day today for Maine (88 degrees), and earlier in the morning, I mostly watered my vegetables and tended the fruit trees. I have spent so much energy on the pond, and I didn’t want to neglect the other parts of the garden. I checked on the cherry trees, thinned tiny peaches from the peach tree, and did a kaolin clay spray on both. Yesterday I had cut off some leaves on the cherry that were infected by black cherry aphids. I left a few, especially if I saw ladybugs near them. Ladybugs lay eggs, and when their larvae hatch, they eat the aphids. In this photo, the curled leaves have the aphids hiding inside. But see how bright the ladybug eggs are!
The next two days are predicted to hit 90–so there will only be a few hours in the morning and evening that I can bear to be outside. That seems to be our new rhythm here. Planting will be so much fun–updates later!
This week has been a big adventure in stones. In my last post about my pond project, I mentioned that I needed to get a pickup truck, to go to a store that had “2 inch round stones” in bulk. Well, I did some research, and put on my big girl pants, and rented a pickup truck from Home Depot. I drove to Estabrooks, where a clerk rang me up for a half cubic yard of the stones. But then they were informed by the people in bulk orders that they didn’t carry 2 inch round stones. Despite a clerk reassuring me two days earlier that they had them. So a manager came by, and explained that the previous clerk was wrong, they didn’t carry them any more, and had no way to order that amount from a possible supplier. She was very apologetic about the mistake, and gave me a $40 gift card to compensate me for the truck rental.
So truthfully, I was proud of myself for doing something I hadn’t done before–renting the truck–and they did treat me well and took responsibility for their mistake. But I was disappointed, and back to square one for finding stones. I started looking again at the notes I had made before, and noticed that I had written down another possible source for stones–but the information online wasn’t very complete. (I think people who sell stones in bulk don’t really like to work on websites.) So I called New England Specialty Stones, left a message and got a call back a few hours later. They were happy to deliver a half yard of 1 1/2 inch round stones to my house, with a delivery charge, and the total price was $76 dollars–less than what it would cost for my earlier Estabrooks adventure. The stones arrived on Thursday, and were expertly dumped on the tarp I had placed on our patio. I felt such relief and joy to see those stones.
Some parts of the pond project have been step-by-step, like digging a hole. But other parts have required a big push on my part, with some help from others–like laying the pond liner, or getting a bulk order of stones. Now that the stones have been delivered, I am back to the step-by-step processes. The person I spoke with about these stones mentioned that they’d need to be washed, to use them for a pond. So I started doing that today.
It took five rinses before the water was relatively clear. But I did have the idea to dump out the “dirty” water onto the beds around my fruit and nut trees. I am thinking that this stone dust is likely a very good soil amendment–like the granite dust I put around the tree beds earlier on. Once rinsed, the stones are actually quite pretty and colorful, with a great variety of sizes and shapes.
Once rinsed, I take them via the wheelbarrow back to the pond area to use. Load by load. First of all I rebuilt the stone “beach” that is an incline for critters to be able to access the water, to get in and out easily. I mentioned before that after my first attempt I was worried it was too steep. So I removed those stones, lifted up the liner and underliner, and dug it out deeper–I took away a whole wheelbarrow full of soil to make a longer gentler incline. Then I positioned larger stones at the bottom inner edge, and also at the lower outer edge, to be a stronger support for the stones on the incline. Now, it feels sturdy and very usable. Once the pond is filled, the water will reach about halfway up that incline.
The beach completed, I started bringing back stones to put on the planting ledge. I positioned a few of the larger stones I had previously found into spots along the inner edge of the ledge, and then shoveled lots of the small stones behind them. Well, I did this wheelbarrow by wheelbarrow, after five rinses of the stones each time. I think I did about 5 or 6 wheelbarrows this evening. I have seen some beautiful ponds on the Building Natural Ponds Facebook group–with large rocks covering every part of the pond liner. I don’t think that will be my pond. I don’t have access to that kind of rock. My goal is to cover the planting ledge with these small stones, and then finish filling the pond. Then I will start putting plants there, and eventually, they’ll hide the pond liner going up the side from the ledge to the top. But that might take a while. Once I’ve put plants in, I’ll use whatever stones I have left to cover the liner at ground level. Or come up with another idea. But I am excited that critters will have access, and I am happy to be back in a step-by-step process.
The other day, I was talking to a group of friends, and articulated why this work is so important to me. With all of the pain of our world, the injustices past and present, the dangers of environmental degradation and climate change, why do I work in the garden, why do I make a pond? For me, to make relationship with this little piece of land, to love and care for this land, is a spiritual practice. I am only one small person, but I hope by learning to love this small piece of land I can make a prayer, make magic, for humankind to learn to love the earth. I pray that we can stop exploiting the earth and find a different sort of relationship to the earth. A relationship built on respect and mutuality and humility. A relationship in which we understand the sacredness of the earth. A relationship of gratitude, for water, for soil, for stones, for plants. That is the magic that lives in each stone.