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Weekly Column

5/20/18: Continental Differences  

As I work in Sunnybank’s secret garden pulling little weeds that constantly try to establish, I often ponder the sometimes startling differences between the European and American way of life, just to keep from perishing from boredom. 

A German friend who’d married an American and relocated here would nervously creep up to signaled intersections for months, horrified by our heavy, dangling stoplights, which sway on windy days. Even a year later she still hadn’t fully adjusted. In Europe, traffic lights are bolted onto sturdy poles on streets’ edges. The American arrangement seemed irrational to her, especially in “tornado alley,” because the heavy streetlights are unguided missiles in high winds.   
Tornadoes are vanishingly rare overseas. 

Dry cereals seemed to her like eating colored paper. She couldn’t bring herself to try cornflakes with milk.  In Germany, a slice of bread and coffee or tea starts the day; the big meal happens in late evening.   
Here, most restaurants serve all day long and offer endless coffee refills. In Britain, one pays anew for every cup. 

In England, renovating my cottage in 2009, I’d often forget the time, immersed in a task that required my full concentration. But then, at around 2:45, I’d realize I was ravenous.  There was no food in the cottage: heck, there was no kitchen. It needed a complete redo after being ruined when overhead pipes had burst in record cold weather-- so I thought: ‘I’ll pop down the hill to the Axe and Cleaver and indulge in a pub lunch!’  
But then I’d realize I was well over an hour too late! From 12 to 2 o’clock restaurants and pubs offer hot food. The cook, hired for just those times, cleans up right at 2 o’clock, and then goes home for the day.  
Restaurants open again after 5 and remain open until 9 or 10:00 p.m. I eat one meal, usually around midday, so losing track of time over there carried a stiff penalty for me.  Apples, or cheese and crackers, tightly sealed in a tin that even clever rodents couldn’t open, were a comfort when I forgot the time.  

One miserable afternoon early in the renovation I really needed a decent meal; I popped into a local hotel nearby, explained my circumstances, and asked for a sandwich, and tea.  The receptionist discussed this shocking demand with staff at length, and with much waving of hands before they were finally persuaded to bring me a tiny ham and cheese sandwich and a small pot of tea.  The bill for that scant fare was a whopping 21 pounds.  (Thirty-five dollars) Horrified, I inquired why.  “Madam,” the desk clerk said stiffly, “food is served beginning promptly at noon; staff are not accustomed to feeding people after 2 o’clock. Come back at 6 for our evening meal.”  I felt about an inch high.  But I knew it would be useless to show anger.  I paid the extortionist price, but never went back there. 

The Brits love their dogs and their pubs. Pubs in Britain have generous windows and lovely, truly ancient interiors. Their thick, deeply worn, blackened wooden floors and ceiling beams might be over 800 years old. Flower baskets hang everywhere. Often, pubs come with a resident ghost.  

Families enjoy steak and kidney pie, or fish and chips or stew, or steak or lamb, as well as fancier meals. Children and dogs are welcomed. They sit or lie quietly at their owners’ feet at the bar, or at their tables, content to wait for as long as their masters wish. Mostly they snooze, or enjoy pats from patrons. And sometimes fries (called chips) might slip off plates and land under delighted canine noses. 

Here in America, there are no cheery pubs; instead, we offer windowless, secretive bars, many of which are dark and broody inside. Having loved the real thing for 50 years I can never go in them. (Dogs, children and families are rarely found there.) 

When I visited Paris many years ago, leashed dogs would enter various little shops with their owners. Nobody thought a thing about it. I never witnessed an unruly dog in a shop. They just kept quiet and padded along, sniffing delicately. 

In France, women frequently wear only swimsuit bottoms. When traveling through France in the late 1980s Joe and I would bike along lovely streams bisecting the countryside, and noticed everyone from very old grannies to lovely women and girls enjoying the briskly flowing streams. Most were topless.  Men of all ages, and boys who were often naked, thought nothing of this. Everyone sat on blankets spread out on the grass to enjoy lunch, all the while keeping a sharp eye on littler ones splashing about in the shallows. It was close to 100-105 degrees every day during that July and August, so, during the intense afternoon heat, villagers would abandon field or housework and gather wherever there was water to gossip, nap, and chat. Though initially startled we soon adapted, and, like the French, ignored the nudity.   

British cars are 98% standard shift models. People are nearly undone when confronted by automatic shift cars. They find them too difficult to manage. One of the workmen offered to move my (automatic shift) car so he and his mates could unload timber to renovate our flooded out cottage. The guy unraveled when he tried to back out, and then drive it forward. He had no clue how to proceed, and got out cursing and flinging his hands, so I had to take over. The workers were incredulous that I would want to drive such a complicated car! 
I found their shock fascinating.  
Personally, standard shift driving is much more complicated to learn. It’s all about coordination. 
With automatic shift cars, though, all one does is press the ‘Go’ pedal or the ‘Stop’ pedal. With the right foot.  
That’s it. 
When I travel there and need wheels, I must reserve an automatic shift vehicle from car rental agencies. And, this, of course, means paying extra, partly because it can take a good while to find such a car. I like ‘automatic’ because I tend to gape at the scenery- Britain is gorgeous- and refer to maps. Thought I drive standard shift perfectly well, I like to keep tasks simple, especially when driving on ‘the wrong side of the road,’ which requires great concentration. 

In Britain one sees long aisles in grocery stores big and small, which hold hundreds of stacked eggs nestled in cartons. They are never refrigerated. I was openmouthed- and yes, horrified- the first time I saw this, but, thinking about it, I couldn’t remember that newspapers had ever reported people sickening or dying because of this practice. Still, it seemed unsafe. All sorts of bacteria might grow inside a room temperature egg. I constantly wondered how long the ocean of eggs on those shelves had been sitting there. How could one keep track?  

Properly attired men fishing for trout in lovely streams wear suits, vests and ties, and, of course, chest-high boots, and a special woven basket is strapped to their shoulders to hold their catches. It was those tweedy suits that always grabbed my attention. Who would think?    

Part of visiting another culture is learning to adapt- and even to appreciate- these intriguing continental differences. 

5/13/18: Weather- or Not 

What odd weather we’ve been having! First it was really warm, and then, suddenly a big wind blew in a bigger snowstorm and icy air, and then, it rained; all the snow went the way of all things...  

Here it is, May 11, and we are greeted by freezing weather again, after days of delightful warmth. It’s 26 degrees in Grayling! Anyone who planted annuals recently will be upset: they don’t survive this sort of shocking change. Just before this sudden turnaround, a huge wind had taken down power lines, branches, and even trees, here in TC, and in southern Michigan. The power was out for a good while in Saginaw; school was canceled. 

Even the birds, who wake us every day with cheery chirps, were dead quiet this morning, too busy trying to keep their eggs from turning into lumps of ice to sing, or defend their territory.   

I remember other years of weird weather, too. 

Saginaw, March 10, 2012, 2:30 a.m.  Joe and I were asleep in our small 1870s brick farmhouse where we’d raised our two children, and where he still maintains his cardiology practice three days a week. Because he was covering Covenant Hospital that weekend I’d driven down to Saginaw to be with him. 

‘Wah! Wah! Wah!’ Our alarm shrieked, rudely signaling its switch to battery power. We shot out of bed and into a pitch-black world. Looking out our bedroom window we realized everyone in our area had lost electricity.  

Uh-oh. Could another storm be approaching? A dangerous one had hit the Tri-City area at dinnertime. The Weather Channel had confirmed a tornado in the northern part of Saginaw, exactly where we lived. Massive lightning had continuously ripped the black sky: a 30-second mega-wind had followed. Then – nothing. The main storm had roared by not two miles east of us. At bedtime the weather was calm.  

Sleep was impossible, so we dressed and drove into town for coffee and light, and recalled another terrifying Saginaw weather event 32 years earlier. 

August, 1986. The afternoon sky, dressed in shades of sickly yellow smeared with green and black, looked decidedly ill. An eerie quiet blanketed the three acres of wooded land surrounding our home. Birds and insects were mute.  

Nervously we gathered our two young daughters and went inside. Ten-year-old Jen watched the sky upstairs while my husband monitored the TV. Five-year-old Lisa soothed our skittish puppy in the kitchen. 

Suddenly- a huge WIND screamed in. Large trees moaned under the assault. Windows rattled. County sirens wailed. Joe ran out, looked up and his face registered shock. Dashing inside he yelled, “Basement! NOW!”  

We snatched up the children, grabbed the pup and rushed down there. 

Seconds later there were tremendous BOOMS!! Then, loud CRREEAKS! Large trees were splitting, groaning, and falling. One truly deafening CRACK!! Lightning had struck the huge elm near the living room. (The pungent stink of roasted sap would linger for days.)  Then, THUMP! THUMP! Over and over. Trees and chimney bricks were falling, flying off… going… gone. The wind raged and howled for another age--- 

An eternity later, it was over. Calm reigned. Only persistent rain remained. 

Our house had survived. But our vast, treed lawn had completely disappeared under a carpet of huge, flattened trees. What an incredible sight! Nobody said anything. We simply stared, blown away. Sixty- three downed trees tidily faced east, showing what tremendous straight-line winds can do. Rain and dime-sized hail still pummeled shocked leaves. Weirdly, two giants elms very close to our home had toppled mere inches from it. Parallel to it. But, incredibly, not on top of it.  

Some mortar-weak, heavy chimney bricks had been ‘shuck-plucked’ gone, like random kernels of corn pried off a cob.  

I wish I had a nickel for every gawker who drove by for the next three weeks. We’d be rich. It took five full days for a crew of ten men armed with chainsaws and tree-eating machines to clean up. Other people lost entire roofs: cars and sheds were overturned or crushed. We’d experienced an EF-1 tornado.  

Just two years later, in September, it began to rain. Hard. Steadily. It stopped 32 days later. Much of the Saginaw valley area within a couple of miles of the Saginaw River was under water. Frantic sandbagging commenced half way through the deluge as everyone tried to help the residents save their homes nearer the river. Our efforts didn’t help much. Our home was completely surrounded by foot-deep water. Buck, our Golden Retriever, jumped into it from the front porch and swam to the road 150 feet away. I will never forget that amazing sight. 

It took a week for the river to retreat. Lots of people lost everything. Our basement had just been redone to create better drainage; we had only an inch down there. 

In 1953, when I was in elementary school, a twister dropped briefly into Saginaw and inhaled our apple tree along with various dish-y clutter from our dining room table, which it also tried to suck through the partially open window. Then that EF-5 monster roared south to flatten Flint, where 113 people were killed. 

Ten years ago, here at Sunnybank House in Traverse City, I hastily herded six garden visitors into the kitchen one biliously dark afternoon. Everyone watched a funnel cloud form as it moved west to east- but not touch down- just south of us. It was unnervingly close! 

So, during this weird, hot-and-cold spring I’ve begun monitoring the weather at bedtime, just to make sure we are up-to-date on forecasts. 

I’ve seen, first hand, how quickly people can be snowed in, or their homes drowned in waay-above-flood-stage river water, or how everything can be blown away in mere minutes.  

Michigan weather: if you don’t like it, wait fifteen minutes. 

5/5/18: Act Now, or Moan Later! 

This recent snowfall should be Mother Nature’s last icy huff. Spring-blooming perennials aren’t fazed by her little fling.  

Today I’m working away, raking, picking up sticks, weeding--and thought I’d share some garden wisdom, and even a few warnings. 

Squirrels love to dig up tulip bulbs, or, they’ll wait ‘til the flower is up and open, and scissor its lovely flower off just under the petals. This makes my blood boil!  

The population’s high, so I employ humane traps. At first, though, I leave the cage doors propped open. A squirrel will tiptoe inside one, grab a gob of cheap, crunchy peanut butter, and then escape, triumphant. Two or three visits later he’ll relax his vigilance. Then I set the trap. Outraged captives, if driven to a forest at least 6-8 miles away, won’t be back. Squirrels have a built-in GPS, but its effective range is limited to within 5-6 miles of home. (A dab of white paint on squirrelly backs lets me know if I’ve underestimated.) 

Grass, the largest plant in the garden, loves to mingle. Vigorous blades that have sneaked into my beds, or sprung up from recently seeded areas, must be pried out immediately. If I wait, they’ll grow amongst the flowers, creating a blurred, unkempt look, and become almost impossible to remove later on without my disturbing the plants they’ve intertwined. (Removing them from rose bases down the road is painful when the plant’s in bloom, so I’m highly motivated!)  

Roses may be pruned now. I check their ends. If they’re black or withered, I cut that part away, at a slant, or just above the healthiest bud further down the cane. I trim these shrubs well back anyway, always to fat buds, and always tie climbers’ canes to fences or trellises horizontally, with zip ties. Vertical canes will grow one lovely rose on top, leaving an embarrassed, naked cane below. Canes secured horizontally clothe themselves in multiple flowers. 

Cleaning Lamb’s Ears (Stachys byzantina) is a major job each year, mostly because I have a huge population; two giant Lamb necklaces edge the alley garden. All winter lamb’s ears have been busy making more, and, of course, the oldsters are always dying, so I must sit in the alley and laboriously snip away every limp, gray ear. A ten-foot strip 8 inches wide can take a full 4-hour morning to clean. The remaining soft, new silver-green ears soon plump out and look wonderful, so I consider all that work worth it.  

I clean lamb’s ears about once a month. Again, regular maintenance always enhances their delicate appearance. 

Weeds love the moist spring earth: I try to pry them out carefully, as their roots often descend as deep as the Marianas Trench. If one breaks because I’ve stupidly hurried, another weed will develop from the tiny stump immediately. Now is the time to do this irritating task, as nothing’s up yet, so I can work deep within beds without injuring flowery treasures. Besides, these weedy wretches are so much easier to spot early in the season!  

Some weeds are adroit at hiding or disguising themselves as cherished plants, then growing into huge structures armed with thin, sharp needles that pierce my palms when I finally realize I’ve been duped, and try to pull them out. With their roots wedged deeply this is a miserable job, requiring thick gloves and a sharp shovel.  

I chainsaw big perennial grasses as close to the ground as possible, trying to cut only two inches above the earth. But first, I gather and hold the (usually collapsed) middle together with stout rope to make it easy to haul last summer’s remains to the compost heap. 

I’ve inspected all irrigation lines. A fallen, jagged maple tree branch had pierced one line; repair was easy, as the garden’s still semi-bald, making access to plumbing a cinch. 

I won’t mulch yet, not until early June. Oh – and I won’t even think about planting annuals until then. We’ve had frosts as late as June 4.  

Now’s a good time to spread Slug-go pellets around. (All local nurseries carry this expensive, but safe, effective deterrent.) Young, 100-toothed slime-balls have voracious appetites. They’ll devour an entire hosta in one night! (Slug-go dissolves the creatures, leaving only their teeth behind. I need to spread just a few pellets here and there, near hostas...) 

Daylilies (Hemerocallis) really appreciate being divided every three years. I’ll dig up a clump – it’s easy, as they’re shallow- rooted – and pry/pull them apart after dipping each clump in a bucket of water to get rid of the mud. Only the strongest ones are replanted. But if they refuse to separate, I’ll give up: they’ve effectively strangled themselves anyway. I’ll have to replant. Daylilies aren’t the brightest plant in the garden, preferring to crowd themselves to death instead of spreading outward like a more sensible plant.  

Irises love being divided, too. They’re happiest when situated in part sun, and planted shallow. 

I’m trimming my four spirea shrubs down to about eight to ten inches. They’ll soon grow madly. 

Lavender appreciates a good short cut, too. Otherwise, it’ll go woody. I trim mine about five inches from the ground in a roundish salad bowl shape. Lavender has a relatively short lifespan- normally about 6-8 years. Allowing it to ‘go to pot’ –or thicken- shortens its blooming life.  

Hydrangea bushes can be pruned now, too. I cut all dead branches away- the ones with nothing on (i.e. those with no buds). Deadwood is pruned right down to the base of the plant. (Long, pale dead sticks that poke up through healthy stalks make the hapless plants look awful.) Then, I go to the bottom of every remaining budded stick and prune it to two fat buds from the plant’s base. If a budded stick will chafe or rub its neighbor, I’ll remove the offending one. The bush will grow huge and plump.  

I try to keep each stem about the same height. 

Another chore: I must dig out the uninvited flowering garlic (Allium) every two or three years. I neglect this chore at my peril; they multiply rapidly, depending on how happy they are in their site. If regularly monitored and controlled, alliums offer a delightful show without overrunning the garden. (I planted five fist-sized bulbs a decade ago, and woke up four springs later, horrified to find so many garlic children everywhere. Arghhhh!!! It took two weeks of hard labor to save my garden from being totally enveloped. Thousands of allium were dug up.) 

My spring allium motto:  

A Chop In Time Saves Nine hundred Ninety-Nine Later…. 

I always add tool-sharpening to my list. Maintained tools make every digging job out there much easier on my back. 

I used to cherish the stunning, poisonous lily-of-the-valley (Convallaria) but realized it was almost impossible to kill, once established. It’s also dangerous to little children, who love its heavenly perfume, lush leaves, and fairy-tale bellflowers. Eating any part of it would create a medical crisis.  

(Miss Lily’s happiest in woodland areas where she can feel free to multiply without condemnation.) 

A final task: I check every branch of every little garden tree for branches that rub another, or are growing toward the trunk now, when they’re bare of leaves and flowers  

Errant ones are pruned gone.

4/29/18: Unchained Marvels! 

Late winter blues have attacked Joe and me, and even Bryn-dog. Blea! The fickle weather would warm to a shocking heatwave temp- like 55 degrees- for a few hours, and then a rising, irritating wind would usher in a blanket of very cold air to confuse the mind and scatter the seeds of frustration and discouragement throughout our home and mostly frozen garden. Heavens! It’s almost May! What’s up with this?? 

Anyway- we love to watch great astronomy and math programs on Netflix in the evenings after busy, active days- mostly spent indoors- but now, we needed something different, something to distract the mind from this lengthy winter. We wanted to travel from our armchairs to another time, preferably in Europe. 

Amazon Prime dangled some programs that might resonate... Ping! One caught our eye. ‘The Renaissance Unchained.’ Catchy! Huh. Never heard of this fellow- Waldemar Januszczak. But we liked his name, and were intrigued by the title of his Renaissance history series.  

It’s a doozey! This guy, a highly respected art critic and historian in his 60s, is rotund, fond of open-collar black clothes. His shortish dark hair is combed straight up into a high peak. There are three sparkling piercings in one ear. The ‘peak’ and piercings suit him. He’s a character! 
His Polish parents fled to England during WW2, and he was born there in 1954.  

Of course, I looked him up. Whew! Mr. J is a very busy man! He’s done many art commentaries. Here’s what Wikipedia says: (and it’s spot-on) 

Januszczak has been described as "a passionate art lover, art critic and writer. His presentation style is casual but informed, enthusiastic, evocative and humorous. He bumbles about on our TV screens, doing for art what David Attenborough has done for the natural world," and is someone who acts out of "a refusal to present art as elitist in any way. He makes it utterly accessible and understandable." 

Joe and I delight in his amusing, passionate presentation of mostly unfamiliar artists who lived in a period that is poo-pooed- or mostly ignored- by today’s art world. He slapped down a book in front of the camera titled Flemish Primitives (that is, art created 50-100 years before the official Renaissance had begun). Those two words made smoke come out of his ears. “Rubbish!” snorted Januszczak. “Wonderful art–stunning and original-and often better, happened well before the Renaissance! Come with me- I’ll show you some leading lights!”  

So, off we went on a tour of artistic marvels, nestled in Italy and in Belgium. We ventured into special rooms where few have been allowed, to view glorious art up close and personal.  

Oh! Such beauty and realistic detail! One of the wooden sculptures, of life-sized people reacting to the dead crucified Christ, is riveting. It is so magnificent I was rendered speechless- too amazed to remember who created it. I have never, ever seen anything remotely like their individual expressions of shock and despair.  
The motion!!!  
The Emotion!!! 
They aren’t in Renaissance art books I have studied.  I think I would remember.  
Just that One incredible sculpture would make a stone gasp. 

But alas, some sculptures are done in (sniff)- wood. Can’t have that, the critics huff! Has to be White marble (like Michelangelo’s ‘David’)! Maybe that’s why the Christ one isn’t seen often. 

Well, gaze at that scarily realistic, passionate group of people frozen in an instant of Time. Gaze, astounded, at the brown-gold glow of 800-year-old wood; gape at their wind-ruffled robes, and tell me this isn’t better than great. 

It’s easy to be captivated by his irreverent bluntness and humor. We now understand why artists painted or sculpted the masterpieces Januszczak presented. These men- and the population who viewed their work -were constantly reminded by the Church of Hell and Damnation, of the Devil, always in disguise, who never ceased tempting and hunting down sin-filled human beings. They were terrified by the plague, which would kill 75% of the population practically overnight; of murderous wars by neighboring city-states ...  
Art reflects the turmoil- the political tumult- of the times. It was tough to live a reasonable life then. 

One more thing; he (and we, by proxy) climbed a big hill to view a GIANT Giant (seen in episode 4) leaning back against a huge rock to ponder the spectacular scenery in the valley below. That incredible sight, like so many others, made us want to run to the local library’s collection of huge art books to linger over these treasures... 

Janusczcak is an extremely prolific filmmaker who offers lots of historical adventures we plan to follow. All have intriguing titles, like these in ‘The Renaissance Unchained’ that we’ve finished: 

1. Gods, Myths and Oil Paintings 

2. Whips, Death and Madonnas (lots and lots of them) 

3. Silk, Sex and Sin (in Venice) WOW! 

4. Hell, Snakes and Giants (such snake-y intrigue!!!! Serpents are everywhere, even set in pottery!! Who Knew!!! Check out that pottery! OMG. 

Our teacher thinks everyone way back then was in a constant state of nerves, fearful and vaguely depressed... Just look at what weird Hieronymus Bosch - a soul who defines strange- painted. People flocked to see his work, vaguely reminiscent of weird Disney cartoons, even comic book-like, or, rather like an off-the-wall graphic novel. ‘Weird’ hardly expresses what that guy produced. You need a week to take in one triptych, of The Garden of Eden, Paradise, and Hell.  What the viewer sees is ghastly, amazing, horrifying, STRANGE, disturbing stuff. 
People in pieces. 
Lots of bizarre nudity.  
Nudity is rampant-  
Naughty nudity... 

So. There is everything---- from Glorious, to off-the-wall, long before the Renaissance began...  

Each episode so far is fascinating. My blinkers are off; instead of looking straight ahead I now am open to a vast, panoramic view of the various forms of artistic expression in the pre-Renaissance decades, and even why they happened. 

Fix some popcorn, pour a glass of wine, throw in some nuts, and settle in for enlightened evenings!

4/22/18: Best Friends 

Spring, in spite of what you may see from your kitchen window, is almost in the door. Just a little more patience...Meanwhile, here are a couple of gardening books you might want to check out.  
I love to reference a book that dispenses with blather, lyrical descriptions, and poorly organized, useless information, but instead, goes straight to the point.  Rodale's Encyclopedia Of Perennials is a book every aspiring gardener needs. It’s packed with essential information that can save you money, time and misery, because it addresses what’s important for building a garden that’s easy to manage and lovely.  
Let's look at it more closely. 

First, note the layout. The book and its print are large; pages are colored differently depending on topic, and photos and drawings are clear. On a scale of 1-10, with 10 being the best, this presentation definitely earns a 10 from me. 

For those truly impatient gardeners, skip immediately to Part 3- ‘Perennial Encyclopedia.’ Each photographed plant is allowed a brief space, often less than a page, to show it, describe its size, how to grow it, as well as how to fit it into your particular landscape. Its Latin name is pronounced (i.e.Clematis- KLEM-uh-tis), as well as its common name(s). Sometimes no common names exist, so it's important to know the Latin names, or at least be familiar with them, as lots of plants have the same common names, and it can be confusing for you AND the nursery staff, as they try to locate what you want. For years I hauled this book everywhere I went, showing the photo to garden staff. As I became more sophisticated I learned early to ask for its Latin name. After a lengthy learning period I mostly knew what I was talking about. 

Everything in the ‘encyclopedia’ is in alphabetical order, BUT- filed under the Latin name first. Don't despair; simply go to the index in the back of the book and look up the common name. Eventually you’ll pick up the Latin lingo.  

Note the zone; the very first listed plant, Acanthus, lives successfully in zones 7-10.  This is important.  We, in Northern Michigan, live in zones 4-5, which is much colder, so if you grow this plant, be prepared for it to die as winter approaches, unless you are prepared to dig it up and bring it inside for seven months. Some gardeners love it enough to buy it anyway, and enjoy its beauty for the 4 months or so that the weather is decent. Note its tendency to spread... not relevant here... but this sort of information is vital. Once an invasive plant is introduced to your garden you’ll have it forever. Read EVERY word of Rodale’s description carefully.  A huge amount of information is crammed into a small space, so it's easy to miss tipoff trigger words, like ‘enthusiastic’ grower, ‘aggressive’ in too much sun, etc. 

Speaking of placement- It's tempting to put the plant you’ve purchased in too much sun/shade, or dry/wet ground, hoping it will adapt. After all, you have that space, and you love the color: surely you can make it work.   
But no.   
Plants can't be persuaded. Do your homework.  If it wants poor soil, dry conditions and full sun (as plants like California poppies and Artemisia do) and you try to sneak it into rich, moist soil in part sun, it will flop, refuse to bloom. It’ll sag; the roots will rot and then, the poor thing will sigh and die.  
Bang! There goes twelve bucks.  

Another thing to note- the book lists plants as being happy in sun or part sun. In my experience the first choice is the preferred one. Learn what is meant by 'part-sun.' How is that different from part-shade?  Sun times are important.  Take the time to really study how long your relevant area actually HAS full sun (7-8 hours is on the lesser edge of ‘full’ sun. Think 8-9 hours.). The more information you have, the higher your success rate will be. 

Lets go back to Part 1-‘Designing the Perennial Garden.’   
Now, some people may consider this next suggestion as a desecration, but I get out my pen, a yellow highlighter, and a pencil, and I underline, make margin-notes, circle relevant data, and generally USE the book.  The pencil is for personal notes, ideas, or comments. My entire book is crammed with scribble. For example, if a plant doesn't work for me, I’ll write a brief note in the margin describing why I think it failed. If I think the information provided is nonsense, I say so.)    

In Part 1 there are pictures of the same garden in the various seasons, to show how garden plants evolve.  
Gardens best suited for various house styles are intelligently discussed.  
And there are wonderful charts listing plants for shady and sunny areas, with fine drawings, and even tips about what deer hate. (Deer are a problem in Northern Michigan; the suggestions offered here are worth the price of the book.)  

Bulbs, herbs, color, foliage, and a wonderful list of plants for the 4-season garden are offered. I offer an caution: squirrels love to snip off the heads of tulips, just for fun. If you have a big rodent population, your lovely spring tulips might be lost to this behavior. I finally gave them up, as squirrels took great pleasure in killing them for no reason. 

Part 2 deals with ‘Growing Perennials.’  Plants that do well in each area of the country are listed and discussed. This is valuable for those who migrate to Florida, or Arizona in winter, where conditions are radically different from northern Michigan.  Take Rodale with you, and your garden there will be lovely. 

I've read Chapter 10 so often the pages are falling out. It offers a quick reference to the 161 plants listed in the encyclopedia section, (in part 3), with each column giving concise information as to culture, propagation and problems. You’ll love this convenience. 


There is a section on how to choose quality tools that last a lifetime. One paragraph began with this intriguing statement: 

‘You can have a wonderful perennial garden with only three tools; a trowel, a garden fork, and a bucket.’ 

This might be a slight exaggeration, but it’s generally on the mark. I would have added ‘with only three WELL MADE tools.’ With information about handles, sockets, blades, metals, size and shape, I bought wisely, looking for tools that fit me, a small woman (it hadn't occurred to me that this would be important), and today, having used them hard for nearly thirty years, my selections are still in excellent shape. And so am I.   
Diseases, insect problems and their solutions are set out in columns, so that at a glance you have important information about control and eradication.     

Rodale, now shredded and dirty, but still cherished, lived on the porch steps for ten years as I slowly built Sunnybank’s secret garden. I made far fewer mistakes because I referenced it constantly. It’s the single most influential book in my collection. 

I found another book that helped shape what I have today. The Romantic Garden, a paperback book by Graham Rose, helped solidify what I’d envisioned. The second most read book I own, it’s peppered with scribble and highlighting.  Mr. Rose offers a stunning number of suggestions that have greatly influenced my designs, but he’s also made a few statements I’ve dismissed as rubbish.  For example, he touts the usefulness of laying black plastic sheeting for weed control, a practice I find appalling, as it eventually comes back to haunt the installer. Further on he shows a photo of a 'romantic' bridge made of collected stones and boulders that is simply awful.  My vision blurred, my toes curled and I found the whole thing ugly, totally UNinviting, unnervingly narrow and incredibly BUSY. It was ‘bouldered’ to death. I imagined my feet walking on that path and bridge....ugh.  
Clutter by any other name is still Clutter.    

In another place he says, ‘Paving, when used in the garden, mustn't bear any resemblance to paving in the streets.’ 
Rubbish.  My street boasts a 150-year-old reclaimed paving brick, and so does my garden. I salvaged 1000 paving bricks from The Old Iron Works rubbish heap, cleaned them up, and now there is a lovely marriage between the front and back of my home.    

The point of all this is to remind you not to accept everything as 'gospel', simply because it's in an otherwise stellar book.  Keep what seems sensible and toss what is not. 

I own many books on gardening, but these two have truly been my 'best friends.' I've trolled the bookstore's gardening section recently and discovered that the Rodale text has been updated. The cover is different, but the information inside is still cogent. It's now available in a soft cover edition, as well. 

Mr. Rose's book is harder to find, and may be out of print.  If you are contemplating the creation of a romantic English garden though, hunt it down.   
It's worth the search. 

One more thing: I went to the Commons Farmers Market today, Saturday, and found the booth where the children’s charming greeting card drawings are sold. I wrote about them last week. Oh- and their dad proffered a little card that says: Old Hundredth Farm, Tim and Monica Scott, Kingsley, Mi.49649. Their email address is: 

I bought 24 more, including some new presentations. Their dad said they’ll be at the Commons one more Saturday, but after that, they’ll move to the downtown Farmers Market for the summer.  

Right now they do market sales only. 

I hope you’ll look them up! 


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4/15/18: Little Jewels 

This week I want to share a special discovery with you, dear readers, most especially if you live in or near Traverse City, Michigan. (Those in other cities or towns may also come upon exquisite surprises at their local farm markets that might also be faintly ‘cloaked,’ except to discerning folks...)    

A few weeks ago Joe and I visited the gorgeous, towered 1880s Building 50 at The Commons, part of the huge complex of lovely structures that comprise the visually stunning former Traverse City State Hospital complex, closed in 1989, then gradually, sensitively transformed into lovely condos and locally owned small businesses. We always enjoy wandering its arched brick basement halls, where the indoor farmers’ market is set up on Wednesdays and Saturdays in winter. It’s fun, too, to peruse its many little shops that feature books, jewelry, clothes, and other various handmade items. 

We happened upon a booth where a handsome, very tall man in his 40s was selling farm-fresh eggs. Joe bought 6 beautiful brown beauties to have for breakfast the next three days. Then, while he waited for his change, he noticed another understated display at the same table. A quiet young girl stood very still behind the table, watching people move by without noticing what she was selling. He poked me and pointed. I looked down at her display- and gasped. Joe whispered, under his breath, “What marvelous art!” 

I picked up one of the stationery cards and stared at its fresh, detailed depictions of Shire horses and children. This young girl and her twin sister had apparently created the pictures, and their admiring parents had decided to feature them on greeting cards. But no one seemed to notice. She stood so still against the wall, not promoting, just waiting...hoping... 

Have a look. There are more, but just look at these... 


I loved them, and promptly bought 3 cards. She was so glad that I’d noticed her work. (Once seen, they arrest one’s gaze...) 

I couldn’t get such talent out of my mind, so we went back the following weekend. No girl this time. Instead, two young boys were standing there just as quietly, just as hopefully... 

I saw a new depiction- of a girl in rainboots holding her collapsing umbrellas as she walks away from us through rain and wind. It is perfect! Not cluttered, just exactly right in every way. Her red coat or dress, teased by the wind, is a delightful splash of color, warmed by the street lamp’s gentle light. 


Delighted, I bought it and 4 more cards. The two boys were as happy as their sister had been, not only by the money I proffered- ($3 per card,)- but also by my fulsome praise.  
I was awarded two shy smiles. 

The stationary is bare of words. 
The sketches are not signed.  
The art Shines. 

This time Joe had a very brief exchange with their dad. His 11 children help work the farm, where their horses are clearly loved and appreciated. 

If you like The Commons farmer’s market, perhaps you could keep an eye out for this booth. I can’t remember exactly where it is, as the halls wind and turn.  
The eggs, by the way, were delicious! 

Right after all this happened I was amazed to receive a hand-written letter from my younger daughter, Elisabeth. She has decided to go back to the old-fashioned way of communicating her thoughts to people she’s close to. (Often my readers, or visitors to Sunnybank’s secret garden, write snail-mail thank-you notes, which I love to receive.) 

Lisa wrote, 
“I find it hard, and tiring, to write emails. But letters written by hand help slow me down, help focus me, and when one can’t delete a sentence without it showing, one becomes so much more thoughtful in how one goes about the writing business...”   

Exactly so! I loved the idea, and knew at once how I would respond- with one of these extra-special cards!  

Funny how things work out, eh?  

I HOPE their affectionate spontaneity, instinctive composition, exquisite detail and uncluttered settings remain free of adult ‘nudging.’ (Sometimes, well-meaning art instructors can stifle, or conventionally corral young, malleable artists.) 

Next week I’ll return to the Commons for more of their work. In fact, I plan to purchase a roll of slim red ribbon to bind together groups of 4 cards (with their envelopes) to offer as gifts to cherished friends. 

Discovering little jewels certainly enriches my life!

4/8/18: Alzheimer's- the Ultimate Terror 

That one word is a synonym for the ‘long, slow goodbye,’ as people we love are ravaged by this awful thief- of memory, time, joy, sorrow, knowledge, of everything that makes us part of the human family. 
It’s the only disease among the nation’s ten most common causes of death that has no effective medicines on offer. A diagnosis of this scourge is devastating, not only to patients but to their families. It has beaten the world’s best neurologists. Billions have been spent testing drugs that fail. In fact, most potential treatments never get past the testing stage.  

Now comes the wonderful part. 
Dr. Dale Bredesen is a neurologist who has worked decades with his colleagues to fix that. He’s just finished a book detailing what’s been learned.  
I couldn’t put it down. I’ve read it twice in three days.  
Bredesen et al have made some giant strides toward killing this killer. It’s called: 

The End of Alzheimer’s: The First Program to Prevent And Reverse Cognitive Decline 

The book marks the beginning of a research and treatment revolution. Its most important realization? Alzheimer’s ...*’isn’t a single-cause disease, but one with many potential contributors.” *(taken from chapter 5) 

His paper, published in September of 2014 in AGING, announces the magnitude of the problem.  

‘Recent estimates suggest that AD has become the third leading cause of death in the United States, behind cardiovascular disease and cancer... 

A woman’s chance of developing AD is now greater than her chance of developing breast cancer.’ 

Most of the other diseases happen due to environmental factors, dangerous lifestyles, or a single molecular failure. That’s how Alzheimer’s has been tackled in the last 40 years. The hunt was ‘for the cause.’ 
This new way of thinking- from ‘identifying the cause,’ to ‘identifying the causes’ has yielded huge advances. 

Bredesen likens previous research failures this way: think of the brain as a house that stores everything that is precious to its owner. Roofers have been trained to recognize- and fix- one hole in its roof very well, but they don’t address -or recognize- 36 other holes that need attention.  The result: too much rain gets in for too long; the house is eventually awash.  
Today, though, new technology has made possible a much more complete understanding of how to identify those other ‘holes’- the molecular mechanisms responsible for potential ‘roof’ (cognitive) failure.  

The number 36 isn’t pulled out of the air. Bredesen and his team have identified 36 different contributors to eventual brain neurodegeneration to date. He thinks a few more will likely be found. Lab tests are learning to identify how dangerous each of the ‘holes’ is. (If most are fixed, the ‘house’ can still be maintained and habitable.)  
It is yet to be determined how many ‘roof holes’ a person can safely live with. More research will lead to new revelations. Bredesen and his team will continue to improve the EnCODE treatment, tailored to each individual’s metabolic needs.)    

The patients’ dramatic responses to Bredesen’s ReCODE program- a combination of pills, diet changes, reduction of stress, minimization of inflammation, especially of the bowels, as well as many other therapeutic changes - are incredibly heartening. They knocked me over.  

Honestly, there is so much to learn and ponder in this tome that it’s impossible to get into it all, here. The man can write clearly and well. His smooth, natural delivery is never boring. Read, too, about the obstacles he’s had to contend with over the years. I was often floored, and frustrated. 

Kindle has the book, but I’ve ordered a hard copy so I can carry it everywhere, underline, make notes and bend page corners.  It isn’t a thick tome, by the way; there are 12 chapters packed with the most riveting discoveries/information I’ve read about in years. Begin with the introduction. I jumped around the chapters for the first reading, but read it much more carefully the second time, not skipping anything. The next read will concentrate on the science. 

The patients’ accounts of their personal battles with this insidious monster, and what they’ve experienced on Bredesen’s ReCODE program, leave me awed and excited. 

If you’re curious- if you want the very latest information on what is being done to diagnose and then beat back this terror, read the book.   
At long last, the bright light at the end the tunnel IS NOT an oncoming train.   

(And no, I don’t have Alzheimer’s. I’m just immensely interested in keeping up with medical advances. 
For me, this one tops them all.) 

4/1/18: Over The Rainbow 

It’s Sunday, March 25, 2018. 

Joe and I are standing ‘way above the chimney tops’ under a vivid blue sky, looking down upon a magnificent rainbow as it gradually materializes 100 yards away, in the middle of Horseshoe Falls, in Niagara Falls, Canada. 
Its sun-lit colors grow more vivid as it forms, until the entire shimmering arch completes itself, terminating at the American and Bridal Veil Falls area, about 500 yards up the road. Imagine that! A full rainbow, directly in front of us! 

Birds fly over and under it, soaring effortlessly in the cold, crisp air: any cries they make are drowned out by the Falls’ thunderous power. 

From our huge window we watch as this ephemeral wonder hovers just above a white horse pulling a white carriage full of visitors leaving the American Falls for Horseshoe Falls. (Remember that white horse and carriage in Oz, collecting Dorothy?) 

Thirty stories up we feel the earth tremble as mega-tons of water roar down the cliff. 
The scene is surreal. 

We are literally ‘over the rainbow.’ 

Ahhh, this one’s fading... fading... gone.... but, dream-like, another one is gradually becoming visible through the mist. Its primary colors glow for a minute or two before it dematerializes, a feat reminiscent of the Cheshire Cat’s mischief above Alice, in Wonderland. 
This ‘here again, gone again’ enchantment continues for nearly 45 minutes. 

How did we wind up here? 
We were idly wandering the Internet, investigating hotels near interesting places no further away than a morning’s drive from Saginaw, Michigan. (No dogs, please, they all said.) Suddenly, up popped an ad from the Embassy Suites Hotel. The photo was a gasper. 
‘Come visit- and enjoy the best view ever of Niagara Falls.’ 

Oh, Lord! The sight was fantastic! 
We’d come here with family and friends over the years, but had never stayed in a posh hotel. This one was tall (42 stories) and slim, shooting straight up from a small footprint. 

As if it heard our skepticism voiced, it offered another photo- of a suite that sleeps six (two double beds and a sofa bed). One wall was a huge window, high above the ‘Big Picture.’ 

“No way this price is legit,” we scoffed, as one. 
‘Way!’ said the ad. ‘This suite can be yours for $71.00 American Dollars.’ 
(Two little caveats: 
-Only on Sunday night, as it’s the ‘off season.’ 
-No dogs allowed.) 

Hmmm. We decided guests probably leave in droves on Sundays after breakfast, especially during the school year, leaving these lovely rooms vacant. 

The hotel’s incredible offer was beginning to feel -credible. 

We debated about 2 seconds, then booked online. Nervous that we might wake up the next day and back out, the hotel threw in some ice cream with the cake: 

-A $30.00 voucher if we’d dine at the Keg Steak House on the hotel’s ninth floor. 

-Plus, we could have one free alcoholic drink and free munchies during happy hour. 

-Plus a free breakfast with lots of fresh, hot coffee. 

These three enticements (and three more we ignored) secured the hook and reeled us in. 

I can hear you asking, “What about Bryn-dog?” 

Well, to keep myself from noticing how cold I was in the dog park two weeks ago, I struck up a conversation with a personable woman- formerly the head of a prestigious Arts and Sciences high school, whose three biggish dogs were now romping in the park with Bryn. Long story short: I chatted about having viewed a tidy boarding kennel that morning. (We were beginning to accept that we can’t take her everywhere.) The kennel was quite nice, but the cacophony of barks was deafening. Quiet Bryn would find that extremely unsettling. Another thing; the dogs- often up to 40- are left alone all night, though there are cameras, and an alarm.... 

This year we’re celebrating our fiftieth wedding anniversary by planning short jaunts to beauty spots. Janet smiled and said, “Well, why not consider a live-in dog sitter? I highly recommend mine. Janie’s a reliable, educated young woman who loves and understands dogs. My three guys love her. She even has a key to my home.” 

She came to our home to meet us. Bryn took to her immediately! Joe and I liked her, too, and the price was less costly than to board Bryn. So, Janie is in our home this Sunday, all day and night. She’s sending us short texts, photos and even a brief video of Bryn playing happily outside with her. 

She’s going to work out just fine! 

Back to the narration: 
Throwing a few things into a little backpack at 7:45 a.m. Sunday morning, we motored to Port Huron and through Customs (which took all of 2 minutes), then drove Canada’s QEW highway to this National Heritage Site. 
Total travel time: exactly 5 hours. 

The check-in lady clicked her computer keys for a few seconds and then said, with a smile, “I’ve upgraded you to another very nice suite at no extra cost, with an even more encompassing view, as it’s on a higher floor. You can move in right now, at noon, instead of waiting until 4:00 check-in.  Is this acceptable?” 


We rode up 30 floors, opened the big door and walked to the window- and--Oh, My God. 
Before us was one of nature’s most spectacular wonders. 

When our growling stomachs gave up hinting and began to shout, ‘Starving!!’ we finally went down the elevator to The Keg for an excellent meal (which wasn’t cheap) and the same stunning view, just much lower down. Our coupon helped reduce the bill. $30.00 off is not a small thing. 

Here are some astounding statistics offered by the Niagara Falls National Park: 

- 3,160 tons of water flow over Niagara Falls every second. The huge carved out bottom is 170 feet deep. 

- 75,750 gallons of water per second pour over the American and Bridal Veil Falls. 

- 681,750 gallons per second cascade over the Horseshoe Falls. 

- The water falls at 32 feet per second, hitting the base with 280 tons of force at the American and Bridal Veil Falls, and 2,509 tons of force at the Horseshoe Falls. 

- Niagara Falls is capable of producing over 4 million kilowatts of electricity, which is shared by the United States and Canada. 

- Four of the five Great Lakes (Superior, Michigan, Huron, and Erie) drain into the Niagara River before emptying into Lake Ontario. These five Great Lakes make up almost one-fifth of the world's fresh water supply. 

Now the sun is low. Mist continues to gather at Horseshoe Falls, smudging the upper rim outlining its deep curve. I remain glued to our huge window for hours, looking, writing, while Joe sits next to me practicing blues chords on his electric guitar. (He’s brought along a little para-acoustic mini-amplifier and headphones, so I hear nothing.) 


Much later I glance up- to find the sky a deep, starless black. I’ve been so immersed in trying to capture all this verbally that I hadn’t noticed. Without my glasses the lights from the downtown buildings and signs are blurred jewels of red, green, gold, white and blue. The effect is lovely. 

It’s bedtime. Spotlights flick on. While the American/Bridal Veil Falls are still well defined, the Horseshoe Falls has entirely disappeared behind mist. 

After opening the window a few inches we are soon lulled into sleep by that deep, constant roar, a sound that’s existed here for over 10,000 years... 


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3/25/18: The Thinker 

3/25/18: The Thinker 

 In the last, bitterly cold week Bryn-dog really wanted our attention. Alas, we were otherwise occupied. So, she developed a very interesting way to divert our minds – and bodies- to doggie matters. 
Here’s how it went. 

Bryn is normally undemonstrative. Her tail will rise slightly to form a more pronounced comma, and wag once when she greets us, often with her orange musical snake dangling from her mouth. She’ll toot it in various interesting ways while her eyes light up. Today though, she really wanted to play with us outside, not just make her snake sing while we watched. 

In our defense, it was really cold outside, in the teens, with lots of snow; her humans clearly preferred art’s gentle pursuit near the fire...Bryn, though, loves snow. She loves us in the snow, dashing about along with her. 

She began asking for our attention in the usual way, with a very gentle nose bump on Joe’s leg. He glanced down, smiled, fluffed her ears, and carried on demonstrating how to work out an intricate chord on the guitar. 

She sighed. Moved to me. Nose-bumped my knee almost imperceptibly. I responded the way Joe had, knowing she’d eaten, done her business, and enjoyed a bully stick for dessert. Anything else could wait a bit. 

Bryn disagreed. 
I watched her move to the window to think. 
How could she move our complacent, too comfortable selves outside...?) 

She sat, staring out the window. 

Remembering where she’d hidden something we valued, a long time ago... 

After a good while she came back to Joe, bumped him gently again, and captured his gaze. 
Her eyes moved east, to the front door. 

Please, Boss; I want out. 

That look is easy to interpret. Joe got up and opened the door. Bryn raced out and bounded through the snow to somewhere behind the garage and workshop. 
We took up where we’d left off, working out chords. 

A few minutes later I felt her eyes boring into me through the glass front door. Bryn wanted in. 
I got up and opened it. But instead of entering, she remained just outside- to drop her long-lost Frisbee at my feet. 
She looked up at me, hopefully. Her tail twitched. 

What?? That thing had vanished ages ago! She’d hidden it somewhere out there early last December, after we’d tossed it just once, hoping against hope... 

Bryn isn’t keen to retrieve. 

Now I examined it. After being stashed in deep snow for months it still looked fine. So, I flung it out, as requested. She dashed after it- and brought it straight back again to drop right at my feet. 
I was shocked! This had never happened before! 

“Hey, Joe!” I called.  “You won’t believe this. Bryn’s resurrected her ‘lost’ Frisbee; she wants us to throw it!” 
“What? Why bother? She never ever brings it back!” 
Well, she’s doing it now. Come see!” 

Joe came, saw, and, looking baffled, tossed it to see for himself. Bryn galloped away, pounced on it with great enthusiasm, then raced back in double time so we wouldn’t close the front door, thinking she wasn’t coming back with it. 

Plop. It was placed at his feet. She sat, enjoying his astonished reaction. Her tail wagged once. 

Again, Boss! 

My Lord! What was happening here? 

We stood in the open doorway holding our breaths, too flummoxed to remember to close it, too surprised to shiver, or even don our coats. Our mouths hung open. We found ourselves applauding as she fetched and then delivered it right to us, time after time. 

But- and here’s the topper- after ten or so perfect retrievals she began to place it one porch step down- then two, then all three steps- still directly in front of us, mind you, but jusssst far enough away so we’d be lured down onto the sidewalk to retrieve it, so she could... 


My hair prickled. 

Finally snapping out of our stupor, we belatedly shrugged on our winter gear, and flung that cloth Frisbee over and over from different areas of the yard, then cheering her on as she charged after it. 

Bryn was absolutely delighted! She ran and jumped and plowed through the snow for a long time, happy to bring it back. Once she even snatched it out of mid-air! Not a few times we pretended to chase her, or threw the Frisbee to each other while she tried to get it. We froze, but had a rollicking good time. 

Later, watching her sleep upside down in her nest, we quietly reviewed, in properly awed voices, how cleverly we’d been manipulated. 
-She’d known all along how the ‘fetch it’ game worked, but simply hadn’t been interested before today. But she knew what game we liked. 
-From deep within her brain she’d retrieved the memory of precisely where that Frisbee was buried. 
-It would be used to lure us outside, one step at a time... 
-She’d set her plan in motion. 
It was wildly successful! 


Sometimes our doggie blows us away...

3/18/18: Mucky-Muck Delight  

Bryn, Joe and I stopped at one of Bryn’s favorite bark parks two days ago. The thermometer registered 38 degrees, just warm enough to encourage a half-thaw. I opened the second of four gates- and gasped. The much larger ‘big dog’ park was a quagmire! The earth had softened into black glop. Muck, two inches deep in places, was everywhere. Doggie paws would pound it into thicker treacle. Bryn would be filthy in seconds, not to mention cold and wet. And how on earth would we cope with that amount of mud when she entered our car again? 
So, we backed off and opened the ‘small dog’ park gate. This area is used much less in winter, as little dogs cope poorly in deep snow. So, its ground had remained semi-firm. 

After a few minutes watching Bryn sniff its perimeter we noticed another couple had driven up. Their two pre-teen girls led a middle-sized hound into our area, remarking that they’d be crazy to let Samson play next door. Cleaning him up would take forever, and after that they’d face mucky-muck on their car seats. 
No, thanks! 
The two dogs sniffed each other, but didn’t care to romp yet. 

Then- another car drove up. It sat there for a long time, but we noticed that its chassis moved and swayed, as though a very large animal was moving around in there. 
Finally, a woman wearing an attractive fur pillbox hat and fitted winter coat got out, then struggled to extract three leashed, handsome, rambunctious golden retrievers wearing expertly combed, shining off-white coats. They looked fresh from the groomers. She finally managed to lead them past the first two gates- a tricky business, as their three leashes, connecting to one main lead she’d anchored to her wrist, kept tangling as they scrambled over each other in excited anticipation. The resulting confusion made for quite a spectacle. 
(Why hadn’t she removed them from the car one at a time? 
Oh, well...) 

As I moved closer to her she glanced my way, trying to keep her balance. 
“Hi!” I said, cheerfully, speaking through the chain link fence. “You might want to re-think going into the big dog area; it’s a lake of mud. Come in here where it’s nicer...” 

She shrugged, too busy coping to smile. “Doesn’t matter; my guys love all that room; we’ll be fine.” (Only yesterday it had been fine- about 29 degrees. A couple of inches of fresh snow had fallen, producing a white, clean, hard field. But today’s considerably warmer air had utterly changed that topography. 
Couldn’t she see??) 

Okay. Fine. 
She’d been warned... 

I backed off and all of us watched, riveted, as she eventually managed to unhook each dog’s leash and then open the fourth and final gate. The three animals fell over themselves to be the first to charge inside the big park. Barking happily they skidded through room-sized puddles of brackish muck. One gorgeous guy actually lowered himself to roll around and around in one before turning upside down to wriggle deeper! 
In seconds he was unrecognizable. 
We groaned in unison. 
He stood upright and shook mightily. Black water and mud- and the inevitable bits of poo that hadn’t been picked up over the previous icy weeks- clung tenaciously to his once-gorgeous coat, or flew off to splatter the lady’s. 
She seemed unperturbed. 
It was surreal. 

The other two retrievers raced up and down the long field on long, pale, fringed legs that kicked up, and collected, dirty water and mud paddies. Their bellies were coal-black strings. Their softly bannered tails were now soaked black poles from which dangled so much clotted mud that wagging was all but impossible. 

But wait! This show wasn’t over!! 

That lady left them to walk back to her car, where she leashed, then extracted (with much difficulty) two more biggish, short-haired, enthusiastic tan dogs of uncertain vintage, and led them into that park. 
Both gleeful animals were transformed in seconds. 
We all gaped in disbelief. FIVE?? 

Was she a dog walker/sitter? Were they were out for their afternoon exercise? But how could this be? She couldn’t return them to their owners’ homes in this state. 

Or, were they all hers, and she truly wasn’t worried about practicalities? 
Her car’s interior was probably doomed... 

None of us had ever seen such drastic transformations- from svelte, groomed calendar-gorgeous dogs to ‘creatures from the black lagoon,’ as the two children dubbed them. 

The woman’s fur-lined boots sank deeper as she stood out there cheering on her charges as they ran happily about, or wrestled. She even tossed ice crusted, blackened, shredding tennis balls for them to fetch. Her mittens turned black. 
But. Never once did we witness distress or annoyance in her voice, or on her face. She stood out there enjoying her dogs’ enjoyment, seeming to live for the moment. Everyone was having fun
Her motto could be: Don’t worry; be happy; there’s only now... 

Twilight was morphing into darkness. We began to shiver and decided to go, which meant we’d miss their eventual departure. That would be fascinating theatre, lasting a long time. 

Joe warmed our car and we and the other couple collected our reasonably clean dogs and drove away, shaking our heads. The woman would be up half the night trying to make those five animals acceptable. 
Where would that happen? Inside her house? Surely not. Her shower would gag, then cough it all back up. 
Outside? How? Garden hoses were shut off for winter. 
Could she hope to resurrect her car’s interior? 
How about her own spattered winter coat and boots? 

So many questions... 
The work she faced tonight simply boggled our minds. 

Huh! I admit that, looking past my amazement and wonder, I did feel a sneaking admiration for her chutzpah. 
There was probably a lesson here, somewhere... 
But, just perhaps, it had been taken that one step too far...