Spring Energy

The first dandelion of the season! We love dandelions and so do the bees.

Wow! It feels like spring is finally here. Last week was a flurry of activity in our yard, and I had the energy to do it! And it was warm and sunny! We had a timeline. On Tuesday, all day I was sifting the remains of the old compost pile, and putting it everywhere–in the new raised bed, on the hugelkultur mound, the asparagus beds, under many of the fruit trees, the old potato patch, and an area near the baby apple trees in which I hope to plant zucchini this year. We have had to sift the compost because roots had worked their way into the pile from the edges, including invasive bittersweet which we do not want to spread around the garden.

The goal was to completely empty the pile, because on Wednesday we were getting a new four cubic yards of composted manure from Wilshore farm. So I finished up Wednesday morning, and Wednesday afternoon we got our delivery. Then Margy and I were using shovels and rakes the rest of the day to slightly move that pile so it was all situated on top of old carpet, with at least a foot of clearance around the edges–so no more roots.

Composted manure on old carpet.

On Thursday morning, I finished up with what was on the edges, and spread the remains over the nearby grassy areas. On Thursday afternoon, Dan from Blue Ox Tree Service was coming to cut down three Norway maples along the fence between us and our neighbors. While we hate to cut down trees, we also have been trying to remove invasive plants, and Norway maples are invasive here. They grow like crazy and spread their seeds everywhere. Both Margy and I each had a moment with those trees earlier, to apologize for needing to cut them down, and thanking them for the shade they had given, and say goodbye. We let them know that their wood would stay in our yard to benefit the other trees in the garden.

Dan up in the Norway Maple

It was amazing to watch Dan climb the trees and with a system of ropes and pulleys balance himself on the tree, and cut it from within. We really like Dan, who has delivered free wood chips to our yard many times in past years. He is very tuned into permaculture, and told us he has an arrangement to deliver wood chips to Cultivating Community gardens this summer. In fact, our whole intense timeline of last week was based on the fact that he was going to leave us a pile of wood chips from the trees, and once that pile was there, a truck couldn’t get through to deliver compost where we needed it to be.

Wood chip pile on the left, compost pile on the right covered with blue tarp.

So here are our wood chip and compost piles, all set up for soil enhancement and mulching for the season. The area along the fence has opened up to offer more morning sun to the orchard–you can see four somewhat scraggy spruce trees remaining, plus a skinny red maple and oak near the right which will have more room to grow.

Now, the growing season is fully begun. I was amazed that I was able to put in so many hours of outside work each of those days–I am thinking it has something to do with the surging energy of the earth in spring, the warmth of the sun, and also with drinking iced licorice tea while I was working–a great herbal energy booster. I am remembering how exhausted I felt last fall, how much work the garden was during the long summer, and yet, spring brings new excitement and new energy, even to me with my chronic illnesses that can get in the way. May it be that way for you too!

Lessons from Other Beings

I feel a deep calling to learn from the other beings who share this earth with us. I was reminded of this calling by a new book I just started reading, Undrowned: Black Feminist Lessons from Marine Mammals, by Alexis Pauline Gumbs. She is observing dolphins, whales, and other mammals who live in the sea, and learning the wisdom they might have for human beings–especially for black women, but also for all of us. “They are queer, fierce, protective of each other, complex, shaped by conflict, and struggling to survive the extractive and militarized conditions humans impose on the ocean.” It is a beautiful and meditative book and I am so grateful. Reading a chapter each night has fed my soul, as well as helped me remember how key it has been in my own path to listen for the wisdom of other creatures–though the ones I learn from are usually closer to home than the sea.

Yesterday morning, inspired, I began to read again my own book, Finding Our Way Home: A Spiritual Journey into Earth Community, remembering. I was remembering the many quiet moments I spent in my former back yard, listening to cardinals, watching slugs crawl through the grass, paying attention to trees, to stars, to the red light of dawn. It was a yard with many mature trees, a long row of huge lilac bushes, incredible privacy, and many critters who were our neighbors–turkeys, deer, birds, squirrels, chipmunks, and occasionally skunks. I was remembering how much those creatures taught me, when I was quiet enough to listen to them.

In our current back yard–we’ve lived here five years now–we can get caught up with work: pruning, planting, soil improvement, garden permaculture projects. It is land more in need of attention from us, ragged, more depleted, invasive vines and bushes clamoring around the edges and in the soil, imbedded in city life, though still surprisingly private once the trees on the edges leaf out. There is more room for gardening–the old place was too shaded by all those mature trees. So we have planted a little food forest, herbs and perennial vegetables, made room for hugelkultur and raised beds and even shared with our friends room to grow herbs and veggies.

But it is easy to get caught up in the work of it–a lot of work. It is easy to forget that other part–the listening to the land itself and the other creatures here, the plants and animals. I remember when we first found this place, feeling from it an unmistakable message: that through making relationship with this small piece of earth, I might learn more about what it means to be in relationship to earth and all her creatures. It was time to think small–right here I could find home, I could find earth community. The work is part of it–we are here to learn to be beneficial members of this tiny ecosystem. It has weathered much neglect and abuse from human beings in its history. But the work is not the only part of it–the listening is the most important part. Sitting quietly, watching, waiting. As spring makes it easier to be outside again, I am ready. I am ready to take my lead from what the land asks, what the land teaches.

View of the back yard through hazelnut bushes with catkins.

Duck, Duck, Goose!

We had a spring teaser day today, with temps in the upper 50s so Margy and I went to Kettle Cove to take in the sun, the breeze, and the sea. We got a special treat when we saw these lovely birds in the water and on the shore. At first I thought they were ducks, because they were that size, but they were also somehow similar to Canada Geese but not quite. When I got home I searched the internet until I found them. They are Brant Geese. The Maine coast is part of their migration route. Here are some of the ones we saw. Margy Dowzer and I shared the camera, so I am not positive which photos are hers and which are mine.

Brant goose swimming in the low tide shallows.
Seven brant geese at Kettle Cove
If you look closely here, the goose in the foreground has plastic netting on its lifted foot–it was limping and we wondered why so we moved closer to see what it was. It was using its beak to try to get the netting off. We had no way to help it, and then they all flew off. So sad. I hope it was able to get free.
Sunshine sparkles on the water as the goose swims calmly.

Snowing

Snow falling near our pitch pine

It is snowing right now, so lovely. We have had very little snow this winter in Maine. Today’s snow will be turning to rain in a couple hours they say, so I take some moments to appreciate it. But mostly right now I am thinking about sorrow and grief. A dear friend’s loved one who just died from COVID. Another friend who is sick from some unknown thing. People within my circle of friends and relatives who are struggling with loneliness and depression and worry. I am holding all of them in my heart today, as the snow falls so gently and kindly.

In Maine, they are opening up vaccination appointments to people in our age group next week. For us personally, this is both good news and not quite so good. We would have already been in the next age group, 65-69, but instead they’ve opened it up to everyone 60-69, so there will be 200,000 people looking for appointments in the next weeks, instead of 90,000. Maine has switched to an entirely age-based plan, aside from health care workers and congregate living elders who also have priority. I feel for my younger friends dealing with precarious medical situations in themselves or their families. Lots of folks are feeling upset that they will have to wait longer, though the hope is to vaccinate all adults by midsummer, and sooner if more vaccine becomes available.

Apparently, from a public health perspective, more lives can be saved by using age-based criteria, age being a major indicator of possible death and serious illness from COVID. (At least here in Maine, which has a significantly older population than some other states.) And more vaccines can be given out sooner if providers don’t have to deal with all sorts of paperwork and screening issues, which would be needed if they were to account for medical conditions. I had my moments of frustration about our spots in the long line, but then was able to shift focus to a wider lens. We, like everyone else, look forward to the day when we can more safely navigate our lives, go back to physical therapy, or catch up on delayed medical care. Not to mention gathering with friends, seeing loved ones, or just going out for a meal. But we’re all waiting, and we are in this together, even as we are feeling so much alone.

So I come back to a sense of patience, gentle like the falling snowflakes, letting go of the merely individual view and taking the wider view of all of us as a people, navigating this terrible pandemic in the best way we are able, together. I feel this patience especially now that our national government is also concerned with the health of the people, and is responding with a coordinated and extensive response. I still feel so angry that the previous administration ignored all the wisdom of public health, left local and state governments to fend for themselves, and abandoned half a million people to die. If they had responded immediately and cooperatively, so many lives could have been saved. Unforgivable. Unforgivable.

I weep for those who have died, and for those who are left behind in grief. I weep for our country, in the throes of its struggle between individualistic power grabbing and collective compassion for all. Today, my sadness is my prayer, and the gentle falling of snowflakes.

Ice Beauty

No matter how many years I have lived, I am still brought to utter delight by the icy beauty of plants in the sunshine, after a freezing rain. There is nothing so bright, so crystalline, so shimmering!

I have lived most of my life in Northern areas of the United States (except for 6 months in Texas when I was seven.) So we here are accustomed to all sorts of wintery weather. But today I am also thinking of my relatives in Texas who are in their own icy cold, so rare in that place that they are dealing with burst water pipes, lack of heat, lack of electricity. I wish for them and all their neighbors warmth, help, and support to face the challenges.

These are the among the dangers we face more and more from climate change, or as some say so accurately, climate catastrophe. I wish we could come together as one earth community to begin to live differently, to live as if our lives are totally dependent on our mother Earth and all of her beings. Because we are. And even working together we will face difficult days ahead. So much has already been lost and altered. And still, we must also be so compassionate during these difficult times, because unless we love, we can never come together as one earth community. And we must keep hold of joy and beauty, or we will lose hope altogether.

So I am sharing these photos from around our yard for beauty. May the beauty of nature help us in all of our troubling times!

Icy tree branches sparkling in the sun.
Icy plants against the fence.
Icy St. John’s Wort through the window.
Icy yew branches just outside the door.

Winter Solstice

Sun shining over brook on winter solstice morning

It is the morning of winter solstice. I take a walk to the brook. The new sun is shining in a misty sky, fresh and gentle. Snow covers the ground here in the homelands of the Wabanaki, the stolen land called Maine. I am awestruck by so much beauty everywhere, grateful for the brook and its trees, for the light of the sun, for this neighborhood walk. Now that the gardening work is asleep under the snow, I am trying to go back to taking walks in the morning.

Kisuhs koti-apacuhse” is the Passamaquoddy/Wolastoqey way to say the winter solstice. It literally means “the sun comes back walking.” So maybe I, too, can come back walking–nkoti-apacuhs nil na. Today I was able to do my 20 minute circuit. Some days ago, I had started with 10 minutes, then 15–by going slightly different ways to the brook and back. For some reason, perhaps a new supplement I am taking, my energy has been returning in the mornings again. It is much easier to walk on sunny days than on cloudy ones. By the way, the sun is also known as the one who walks in the day, espotewset kisuhs.

Tonight just after sunset, there will be a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn low in the southwest sky–perhaps it will be too cloudy to see it here–we’d have to drive somewhere in any case, because the southwest of our yard is thick with tall pine trees. I think of Jupiter as the planet of expansiveness and generosity, Saturn as the planet of limitations and boundaries. 2020 has certainly been a year of limitations and boundaries for so many. So perhaps these opposites coming together give a glimmer of new hope, that we might find our way out of this restrictive place we’ve been in. Ironically, it has been through restrictions that we have had the hope of surviving, but we also need generosity to ensure our survival as a people together, to come out the other side with possibility. Can we learn both boundaries and generosity? Can we find a way out of the individualistic greed demon that plagues our society? I pray we can.

I pray that this Solstice may be a turning toward greater light and truth, a recognition of the interwoven fate of all humankind, all life kind, on our beloved planet earth.

What’s Next?

Fruit trees with painted trunks.

Today I felt filled with an enormous dread, watching the attempted coup by a president who won’t acknowledge the results of a valid election, watching the followers who enable him to keep undermining the vote. I had felt relieved after the votes were counted. Perhaps we were back to more ordinary times and struggles–certainly the struggles were not over, but some semblance of a social order were on track to be restored.

But then I read an account by someone who had lived through a coup in their own country, Sri Lanka, who said that America is already having one right now, and I sank into a kind of terror. I won’t repeat their story here–you can read it via the link. Just to say that undermining faith in the results of an election can disrupt the very fabric of a fragile democracy, and is an invitation to ongoing chaos.

In my dread, I went outside–into a cloudy warm day–perhaps the last of these summer-like days–where Margy was working in the yard. She got in the hammock with me and I could just feel all the feelings of terror, but with the comfort of love, the comfort of the earth and sky. I certainly don’t have the answers for what we can do, what anyone can do, about this coup. I hope someone who might have the power and the answers is talking about it somewhere.

The other thing that, ironically, has relieved my anxieties about the election and the coup is a novel I have been reading about climate change. It is the latest work by Kim Stanley Robinson, The Ministry for the Future. Set in the very near future, the title refers to an international agency that is formed to be a voice for future generations in the international arena. It’s a fragmented sort of novel, with each chapter a small piece in a larger fabric, and only a few on-going characters to help keep the thread going. Like in some of his other works, Robinson’s characters are trying out all sorts of ideas to turn around or mitigate the catastrophes of climate warming. Perhaps it will get more hopeful as I keep reading, but for now, it is sobering. So the terrors of a coup are replaced by the terrors of climate catastrophe–but those terrors are more familiar to me.

In the meantime, Margy and I seize the opportunity of our own strange weather to replenish the soil in our little part of the earth–another visit to the beach to get more seaweed, more sifting of compost (to get the roots and stones out) to put near the fruit trees, raspberries, bushes in the back of the yard. As much compost as I can sift, I put it somewhere. As much seaweed as we can collect, we put it somewhere.

For the fruit trees, also, a few weeks ago I painted their trunks white. There is a whole story to this. I had read about painting the trunks of trees white to protect them from sun damage in the winter, to protect from insects burrowing. But when I first read about it, people were talking about using latex paint, and that didn’t feel true to the spirit of organic permaculture.

Then, this fall, searching the web for another project–looking for food safe paints–I came across milk paint. This is the old-fashioned white wash that Tom Sawyer used, that most people used before the modern age. It’s made of natural ingredients: milk proteins, lime, and pigments. It has no VOCs to emit, no scents to be allergic to. It came in a powder that I mixed with water, in the amount I needed for the trees. The powder will last a long time, but the mixed paint only a couple weeks. So I painted the tree trunks. You can use it for lots of things, not just trees. Finding resources that cause no harm to the earth–that help the earth–these are like little miracles that never cease to delight me.

Raised Garden Bed, Part 2

After putting in the structure of my cedar raised garden bed, I have been gradually filling it with layers of compostable material along with the soil I had taken out. This is called “sheet mulching” or “lasagna gardening” and is a great easy method to enrich the soil. In its most complete form, sheet mulching includes laying down cardboard or newspapers on top of whatever is growing on the ground (lawn, etc.) without any digging required. But since I wanted to have a deeper root zone in this raised bed, I did weed the soil and dig down deeper. Autumn is an excellent time to sheet mulch because the bed will have all winter to decompose and be ready for planting in the spring.

This is a form of composting in place, so you alternate layers using amendments rich in nitrogen (called “green”) or carbon (“brown”), but it also depends on what you happen to have in your yard. A basic permaculture principle is that waste is just nourishment for another part of the life cycle. So we are taking “waste” and giving it a chance to grow food next year. We have lots of leaves in our yard, so that is an important source of “brown”, and we also live within a half hour of the beach, so we use seaweed gathered at the shore as a source of “green.” I had a chance to go to Kettle Cove on Sunday to gather a bunch.

Kettle cove beach with seaweed.

Here is my list of layers from the bottom (5 inches below ground level) up, with some photos along the way:

  • soil from the site
  • rock dust: I added some handfuls of rock dust, which adds trace minerals (I had collected a bucket-full a few years ago from a local quarry.)
Rock dust over soil in raised bed.
Rock Dust over soil
  • a bit of old seaweed, collected earlier this year.
  • leaves mixed with a little bit of grass clippings, from Margy’s leaf collecting.
  • a few branches (I remembered this from my hugelkultur adventures) These are good for water retention, slow release of nutrients—I just added a few, and then buried them in the leaves—I could have done a lot more, but also didn’t want to limit the roots.
leaves, branches
  • more soil
  • After my trip to the beach, I added more fresh seaweed, a generous layer of it: seaweed is a great source for nitrogen, potassium, phosphate and magnesium, and many trace minerals. Note, I also added the second layer of cedar planks to bring it to its full height of 11 inches.
Seaweed in the raised bed.
  • more dried leaves with a little bit of grass clippings
  • composted coffee chaff (which was in a barrel we kept next to our compost bin to add after kitchen scraps: after a couple years it composted itself!)
  • more soil
  • a couple inches of composted manure: we have a pile of it from last year, but we have to sift it because it has become full of roots.
  • green cuttings from garden cleanup.
Garden cuttings over compost.
  • leaf mould from leaves left in a barrel for a couple years
  • more leaves to top it off.

And today it is complete! The rest will be done by winter, and soil creatures and time.

Raised Garden Bed, Part 1

I have to laugh at myself. After hardly having enough energy to keep up with the garden all summer, I took on the idea of creating a new raised bed. It was a 3′ by 6′ by 11″ kit with eight planks of cedar and 4 metal poles to insert in holes at the corners, but I bravely decided to add hardware cloth underneath to protect against little tunneling creatures. (And on that note, I managed to catch a glimpse of a tunneler in the act–turns out to be a tiny star-nosed mole. It seems to especially like to burrow under our wood chip paths. But apparently they are not huge hazards to the garden, so that is good to know. They eat grubs and other insects, not roots.)

So everything arrived–kit, hardware cloth, staple gun, staples–and I started to figure out how to be able to assemble the 4 foot wide hardware cloth to the boards so it would go 5 or 6 inches into the ground to make room for deeper roots. After a lot of math, several scratches on my hands, and many staples, step one complete:

Hardware cloth stapled to cedar planks.

Margy helped me move the whole thing over to the 3 by 6 hole that I had dug earlier.

Hole dug in ground with dirt in two wheelbarrow on either end.
Hardware cloth and planks over hole.

I assembled the bed by bending in the corners of the hardware cloth so that the ends of the planks met, and then I secured the planks with the metal poles. But it didn’t fit into the hole I had dug–the hole was too shallow. So I tilted the whole assembly over to stand on its side, while I did more digging, piling the extra dirt on a piece of cardboard on the side.

Cedar planks and hardware cloth assembled and on its side next to hole

I repeated this step several times until finally everything fit. Hurray! I added the dirt from the cardboard into the cedar bed, and called it enough for one day. I still have to add the second tier of cedar planks, and all the contents–but that can be a new post.

Cedar bed in/on the ground

Meanwhile, somewhere in the middle of it all, I was happy to take time to collapse in the hammock with Margy. I am sore and exhausted, but it was a good day.

Two pairs of feet side by side in the hammock.

Autumn Colors

The last few days have been so beautiful in our back yard. The autumn color has come to us. The best times are when Margy and I curl up in the hammock together and just look at all we can see: the trees, the sky, the clouds, the birds, the orchard. When the dusk of evening falls, we see bats fly from the trees into the clearing, diving after insects.

It is raining today, but this past week of sunny cool days I felt some new energy to work in the garden. I am weeding and cleaning up scraggly herb plants under the fruit trees–who knew that oregano could get so so wild? Two and a half patches finished and two and a half to go. The plan is to clean them up, then plant a few garlic bulbs around the trees, then refresh them with more compost. I have already sifted some compost from our very root-laden pile and added it to the hazelnut hedge.

Also, what a difference a good hand held pruner makes! I treated myself to buy a really good one, a Felco #8, which arrived at the end of September. I love it! The pruners I had before never did a good job, no matter how much I sharpened them. Now pruning is effortless. I am using them to cut the woody oregano flower shoots. Our mulberry tree (our second attempt to grow one actually) didn’t do well again–we just got two long side branches, so I pruned off the lower branch and trained and staked the higher one to be a new leader–we’ll try again to help it grow next year.

I also finally cut off the dead flowers from the plants near the street. I should have been dead-heading them all along, down to the next leaves, but so it goes. I learned this from watching old episodes of “Gardener’s World” with Monty Don, now available on Amazon Prime. When I am too tired to do much of anything, I’ve been watching that show. I’ve learned a lot, despite the climate in Britain being so much milder than in Maine. For example, I learned that dead plant stalks can sometimes provide beautiful winter structural elements.

Despite feeling like I didn’t have enough energy for everything the garden demanded this year, I got caught up into a new idea. I blame Margy because she put a cedar raised-bed kit into our Amazon save-for-later list. Now that the fruit trees are so much larger, it hasn’t worked as well to grow kale or other veggies around the perimeter of their circular beds. So after some further research, we purchased a kit for a 3′ by 6′ by 11″ raised bed. (I know most permaculture people buy wood and build their own, but sometimes you just need a kit to make it happen. So it goes in our world.)

We are going to place it next to the hugelkultur bed, with a 3 foot path in between, leaving three feet on the other side towards the hazelnut hedge. I’ve marked the space, loosened the soil there with a garden fork, and the other afternoon, I just sat on the ground slowly weeding out the crab grass as evening fell. Not much energy required, and it felt good to have my hands in the dirt. I also ordered some hardware cloth to make a barrier below the raised bed against the many small tunnelers who seem to delight in our wood chip paths. Once everything arrives, we will fill the bed with layers of seaweed, leaves, compost, soil, and so on, giving it the winter to percolate.

Still too much to do in the garden, but I feel delighted by the autumn colors, and the opportunity to learn and plant and grow, and sometimes just to lay in the hammock as the days grow shorter.