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Weekly Column

6/17/18: I Dream a Dream    

Dear readers, this column is a repeat of one I wrote a few years ago. This weekend is devoted to our 50th anniversary and my birthday- a big bash- leaving zero time for my usual reflections. I did tweak it, though... 

    

Lots of brochures and phone solicitations from aspiring politicians are starting to pour in, triggering a weird dream one night, where I find myself with the huge, temporary power to dee-cree American changes. And make one world change. 

It went like this:  

I (a little old lady who likes dirt and the stuff that grows in it) possess a smattering of hard-earned common sense, which has inexplicably morphed into a Marvel Comic-like ‘Power-To-Change-Things-By-DeeCree’. I could make massive political and social changes, implemented by my scrawled signature. Bling! All Dee-crees shall immediately become reality for the United States of America.  
(Oh: I’m allowed just ONE world-sized decree, though. See #8.) 

Here They Are. 

 

1.  Presidential campaigns shall last precisely six months.  

Candidates (representing a maximum of four parties chosen in state and local elections) will be granted a budget of one hundred million public dollars each- and not one penny more- to map out and present their platforms. All major television news stations, as a public service, will feature each state’s chosen candidates on the first Sunday of every month, for three hours. Voters will dine on the ‘meat’ of their debates, arguments and proposals, which shall be presented concisely. (A disinterested committee will fund each candidate’s submitted ‘vote-for-me’ ads, using the money drawn from the aspiring politician’s hundred million dollar fund. (No one has to be wealthy to run, or win.) 
The American public shall mine for talent and innovative ideas, and listen to- and debate- every debate. 

 

2. Candidates caught in a lie (via ads or out of their own mouths) shall immediately be eliminated from the competition. A committee of eleven respected people dedicated to Truth, Honor and the Reasoned Way, will thoroughly check their veracity, then decide, based on collected verifiable evidence, if a lie exists. (Note: solid, reliable politically untainted statement checks will make honesty popular again.) The committee shall be paid well for this service, which shall last the entire six months. 
Their decisions are final.   

 

3.  If one single ‘rotten’ ballot is discovered (ballots will be randomly reviewed to weed out dead voters and non-citizens from anywhere) then ALL of that particular county’s ballots shall be rendered void. Losing so many votes because someone tries to sneak in ringers would go a long way toward stopping dishonesty.  
If an idea cannot survive without cheating to promote it, that idea should be chucked out. 

 

4.  Part of the oath every elected official must take shall include these words:  
‘I am a public SERVANT, not the public’s Master. When a government fears the people, that is Freedom. When the people fear their government, that is Tyranny. Thus, the Lesson, repeated: I am a public SERVANT, not the public’s Master. The citizens I represent are my Masters.  

 

5. The nation’s press shall report only fact-based news of the day. The awful ‘filler’ inclusions of death and psychopathic horrors that greet a soul over morning coffee encourage depression and despair. (Dozens of instances of character assassination, bear-eats child, woman tortures horses/babies, etc, offered as a steady diet every single day encourage reader despair and poor mental health.) Only factual research for the most up-to-date information shall be printed.  

News readers shall read the latest regional, national and world news. Simply that.  

Condemnation, expressed horror over what is reported, etc, shall happen in a forum designed for that purpose. All statements and declarations of horror and disgust shall be based on factual knowledge, and not attributed to ‘unnamed sources.’ No implants of erroneous ideas of why a behavior happens- “ perhaps he’s beaten his children, so that’s why they dare not look up” is permitted. That is Malicious Gossip, junk food for unwary brains...  

 

6. The President and Congress shall serve six years, with no second term. Thus, their entire time in office shall be spent actually running the country, undistracted by fundraising or pandering to his or her base. 

All presidential decisions, congressional bills and subsequent votes shall be posted weekly, in plain English on one page, for the country to read. The author of the bill shall be prominently printed. 

No riders- ‘remora eel’ attachments- are permitted, ever. Only the bill, with a ten page-limit. The bill writers must KISS (Keep It Simple- Succinct). 

 

7. The very first word learned in school shall be ignorance - a big word (though not nearly as big as supercalifragilisticexpialidocious) but one of the most dangerous to ignore. Ignorant people, stuffed with ideology, religiously inflexible precepts, or just plain pigheadedness, regularly say and do awful, unthinkable things to other living beings. Children shall learn, for example, that not one single human being has ever been able to choose his or her skin pigment, height, eye color, hair texture, parents, sex, or place of birth. So, hating people for something they have zero control over is, by definition, the very essence of ignorance. 

(When one learns to reason, and becomes skilled as a ‘devil’s advocate,’ that is, a person who can grasp the other side of a plan, ideology, or platform to aid in understanding the other person’s reasoning, which makes it possible to minimize the number of times he/she makes an idiot of him/herself.  

Bonus: tolerance and flexibility are thus nurtured.)   

Information, gleaned from verifiable facts (never from consensus) shall be given out freely. Questions, especially at school, must be encouraged. (Teachers may never teach for tests.) When updated and verifiable data about any subject is discovered, students shall celebrate the updates. After all, a better, more complete grasp of ideas or theories is always a good thing. 
After basic reasoning skills are mastered, there’ll be more time to luxuriate in love, compassion, generosity, fellowship, fun, and the gentle art of accommodation and compromise.  

 

**8. THE WORLD RULE: There will be time to indulge in the things listed above because- Wars anywhere, big or small, will be extremely unlikely. Why?  
The sitting president, his/her staff and Congress shall physically lead any war they declare or provoke. 
*This same Dee-cree shall apply to every world leader- prime ministers, ayatollahs, mullahs, dictators, kings, queens, emperors, princes, etc., including his/her staff and their congress, politbody, rubber stampers or whatever these groups might be called. 

Put simply: Leaders, whether old or young, must lead- and fight- on the Front Lines. No desk warriors allowed. No excuses. 

 

9. The first book read to toddlers- and to all new American citizen adults- shall be The Sneetches and Other Stories, by Dr. Seuss. Children will ponder Sylvester McMonkey McBean’s Star-On and Star-Off Machines, and who was what, and why it seemed important…. 

The other three stories, Too Many Daves, The Zax, and What Was I Scared Of? are- well, just perfect for helping to sort out life’s vagaries early. 

 

10. Everyone shall pay for doctor visits. Cash, checks and credit cards accepted. This method of payment is offered in hardware stores, clothing shops, food stores, airports, dry cleaners, etc. so everyone already knows how to do it. Just pull out the wallet and pay for the service. Second, third and forth party government bureaucrats are not allowed to interfere in a doctor-patient relationship. 

RESULT:  

The price of health care will plummet. 

One’s private health information shall once again be private.  
Comparison-shopping will blossom.  
Word will quickly spread as to which physicians, clinics and hospitals excel, and which are sub-standard.  
The price of every test, and all medicines, shall be posted. 

  

11. Congress: 

- shall NOT have a Separate, Special Health Plan. They shall receive precisely what they mandate for the rest of the country.  

- Terms shall last 6 years, with a good salary- better than what they’d been earning in their regular jobs, to compensate for uprooting their regular lives to serve in this way. A nice bonus at term’s end shall be awarded to those who have served their constituents with integrity and honor, and have not left Congress 1000% richer.  

  

12. All Americans shall purchase Mandatory Catastrophic Health Insurance to cover any medical disaster, using the money they earn. 

Anyone genuinely needful- people who just can’t pay for these awful health situations-either temporarily or permanently- will be assisted using a generous federal, state or local government fund set aside to fully cover their medical expenses. Prospective people in need will be carefully checked to root out fakers. 

  

13. Lawsuits shall be filed with great care. Frivolous filers will incur a mega-fine for tying up court time. If a civil lawsuit goes to court, the losing side shall pay both bills. Nonsense will cease as offenders’ wallets become emaciated.  

  

14. Elementary schools shall teach reading, mathematics, unredacted history, geography, English, logic (critical thinking) writing skills and a foreign language. A maximum of FIVE hours daily shall be dedicated to these subjects. Homework shall be rare, because home time shall be reserved for family interactions, after-school jobs, and play.  

Furthermore, the above subjects shall be offered all day. So, if a child is naturally most alert, say, after lunch, he/she shall attend school then, during their personal best learning time. No more dragging children out of bed at 6:00 a.m. to present them at school half asleep, unable to absorb facts. No more forcing a child to learn in the afternoon, if he/she is naturally most alert and receptive during mornings. Understanding circadian rhythms greatly helps a brain absorb knowledge.   

Parents may drop in anytime to quietly observe their child’s class, from a small one-way glass room, so as not to distract. Teachers, on the merit system, shall be tested periodically to insure professional competence, and to insure they teach only the subjects mentioned. Everything not academic shall not be mandated. Schools shall have sign-up sheets for sports, music, art, driver training, shop, etc. All are free. All shall be offered all day. 

Large bonuses will be awarded for teaching excellence, as determined by the learning demonstrated by pupils. Older childrens’ reasoned, written evaluations of their teachers’ performances at years’ end shall be encouraged. Constructive criticism especially from children, is always valuable. 

 

As chief Poo-Bah I make all this happen by signing a special paper- and Presto! The above dee-clarations become the new reality. 

Smiling, I sigh and drift off again, perchance to imagine even more improbable profundities- 

Dreams are still free, eh?

6/10/18: What Bryn Knows...  

Joe and I have shared the last 4 + years with our labradoodle, Bryn. She’s brought us much joy, and even more wonderment, truth be told. 

Bryn understands a lot of English- I mean sentences- whole thoughts- that Joe and I express in her presence. I notice her ears moving smartly toward us, even as she gazes contemplatively out the window, her back to us.  When we plan our day, including the fun stuff- biking, hiking, relaxing after lunch in the Commons forest alongside that wonderful brook, she’s all ears. After we tentatively settle on where to go with her, she’ll turn her head to look us straight in the eye.  
Her tail will move approvingly, just the once.  
She knows!   
How though, can we really be sure we aren’t deluding ourselves? 

After our daily meal she’ll allow a decent space of time to pass, then softly bump Joe. He’ll look at her; she’ll glance out the window, then back at him.  
‘Ready, Boss? Let's go...’ 
She’ll walk with deliberation toward the front hall where we keep her leash and collar, and sit.  
Yes, she knows.  
This behavior doesn’t happen when it rains. She’ll do her business, sigh and drag herself back inside to wait it out. 

After her early morning walk I’ll prepare her first meal. She’ll wait outside the pantry until I announce; “Your dinner is ready, and there’s a cookie in it...” meaning dried tripe, the lining of a cow’s stomach, packed with vitamins and minerals. (Thanks to its inclusion in her diet she’s given up the habit of occasionally eating other dogs’ poo. The tripe people had mentioned this benefit, and they’d been right.) She takes her tripe ‘cookie’ to the dining room and eats it quietly and with pleasure, before tackling her meal. (By the way, meals are always ‘dinner,’ even if it’s morning.) After finishing most- or all- of it, she’ll come into the kitchen, and bump me once.  

“Ah, you’ve eaten? Let me look.”  
I get up and do exactly that. Her gleaming bowl is almost always polished. (I don’t mind the odd little bit left in there to save until later. She’ll still get her treat.) 
“Well done, Bryn.” I’ll pull out a bully stick; she’ll sniff it carefully before escorting it into the dining room to eat.    

BUT. Sometimes she’ll test me. She’ll eat a few tiny bites of her meal, bump my knee gently, then sit expectantly, hoping for her bully stick. Bryn believes in dessert first. 
I say the same words as before.  
“Ah, you’ve eaten? Let me look.” 
I go look.  
No go. 90% is still in there. 
“Hmm. I guess you’re saving your dinner ‘til later, Bryn. No problem. But the usual rule applies: First, your dinner. Then your treat.  
I move back to the table to work. 

She’ll follow and summon a pathetic expression, knowing full well I won’t change my mind.  
I casually repeat The Rule. 

She’ll stand by me doing her ‘statue,’ in case I weaken. Not a whisker will twitch. She’ll remain motionless for perhaps five minutes... 
I continue to tap at my computer.  

The Boss had spoken. And that’s that. 

Ghost-like, she’ll finally give up and move back to her bowl to devour every kibble. Soon I’ll feel a second soft nudge. 
“Oh. You’ve eaten your dinner? Let me look.” 
I knew her bowl was empty; I heard it happen, but the ritual is important, so I’ll smile and say, “Good girl. I’ll get your treat.” 
I’ll produce a nice long stick from her drawer. She’ll sniff it, accept the gift and trot off to devour it. As she’ll begin moving away I’ll sometimes offer her a choice.  
“Do you want to eat it outside, or stay in here?”  
She’ll pause mid-step, glance outside, then toward the dining room, and make her choice. It could be either place.  

Her eyes, facial expressions and where she positions her beautiful tail, convey a mountain of information. It’s simply amazing  
1. how much Bryn knows, and expresses, and 
2. that I’ve managed to learn so many of her eloquent, subtle signals.  

We’re effectively communicating, any way you look at it.  

I think Bryn has a sense of humor, too.  
I rise very early- could be anywhere from 2:30 to 4:30 a.m. A sensible doggie, she’ll remain in her bed upstairs for another three hours or so before coming downstairs to begin her day. 

But that 55-pound canine can move as silently as a ghost.  
Sometimes she’ll come downstairs hours earlier than usual. Making no sound whatever on the creaky kitchen plank floor she’ll glide into the big kitchen, select a spot on my blind left side- and switch to ‘statue’ mode for as long as it takes. It might be an hour, if I’m deeply engrossed in what I’m doing... She is stone. 

It’s worth it, though, when I gasp, jerk in shock and eek out shaky laughter at finding her there, a mere inch away! (The first time she did this I nearly fell out of my chair!) Yawning hugely, she’ll pretend surprise at my surprise.  
Gotcha, Boss!  
It’s a hoot for both of us!

6/03/18: Thoroughly Watered!  

Last Sunday afternoon Bryn needed a shampoo; she’d run through the really dusty dog park in hot, dry weather, so her fur was dust-coated and decorated with dirt clods and twigs. In the garden I used the hose to wet her coat, soap her up and rinse her clean. It registered nearly 90 sunny degrees, so the cold water felt good. But- there was a problem. The hose yielded only a tiny flow. I found a kink, but after sorting it, the water’s volume was still feeble. Rinsing Bryn took much longer than usual. This reminded me of........ 
OH, NO!! 

With a thrill of horror, I dashed into the house and down the basement stairs. Disaster! Torrents of icy water were pouring from the southwest corner of the ceiling. An elderly galvanized pipe had burst some hours ago. Water was everywhere! I ran back upstairs and outside to shut off the faucet on the house wall, then close the lever leading to the hose. The peculiar vibrating sound radiating from the outer wall ceased. I flung on my wellies and thundered back down into the basement. Two inches of water covered the floor and everything on it. I rang Les, who came straight over and shut off the impossibly placed interior valve, which I couldn’t ever hope to reach.  
The flow stopped. 
In December of 2009 my mother’s cottage in England had flooded. Burst overhead pipes ran amok for two weeks bringing it to near ruin in 2009. I’d moved there for a total of 12 months in appalling conditions to renovate. And now, Sunnybank’s basement was drowned by a split overhead pipe. Rugs were submerged, or floating; boxes of office papers were ruined.  Three of the four rooms off the main area were soaked. Only the laundry room was spared, because we’d poured a 6” high cement barrier across the doorway, rather like a ship’s galley (because in the 1990s the city sewer overflowed in a storm and the entire basement was full of –well, poop. Never again. Our simple fix would stop poop from encompassing the entire basement.) 

Even the carpet in my little music room at the far end of the basement was completely soaked. The main area’s exercise machine, a large Victorian trunk filled with my music, a ten-foot long filled bookcase, thirty or so cans of half-filled paint, and 14 large cardboard boxes of dried food that would last for 25 years, were bottom-soaked. 

I shifted what I could, lifted porch cushions out of the water, and put things on the stairs or in the laundry, hoping I could salvage them later. Then, for nearly an hour, on hands and knees, I used my little shop vacuum to suck away water, but found I couldn’t get the lid off the machine to pour the collected water down the laundry room’s sink. I finally noticed the overfilled tank was spewing it out the other end, undoing all my work!  
Murphy’s Law (Whatever CAN go wrong WILL go wrong) was in full bloom. 

So I grabbed a sturdy kitchen broom to shepherd water into the tiny main drain, which was soon overwhelmed. Unable to lift the big waterlogged rugs, or hefty stored furniture, I rang Les, a dear friend. We managed to raise most of the really heavy stuff to push bricks underneath, but had to stop after an hour or two of hard work. We were knackered. I rang my insurance company, and they put me on to ServPro, a firm that sorts flooded homes so well that ‘it’s as though it never even happened.’ They came immediately, emptied as much water as possible with their big water-collecting vac, then brought nine huge fans down and set them up everywhere while a giant dehumidifier roared.  

Fortunately, there was no drywall down there, but lower brick walls were peeling paint, and the ancient cement floor oozed earth and water... 
It was too soon – and too late at night- 10 p.m.- to do a thorough damage inspection, so I told the men to go home. Memorial Day was hours away. There was nothing to be done until we got it dried out, so I’d see them Tuesday afternoon.  
For over 48 hours the fans roared; it was impossible to find a quiet place in the house. But they did make a difference.   

(The danger, of course, is the rapid growth of black mold. Fans help prevent this dangerous curse, so it’s essential to get them going right away. In England it took me two months to get the insurance company to respond. They simply ignored what was promised in their contract!! By then, though, black mold had covered everything, necessitating much more ripping out of walls. Only when I screamed at them in frustration, threatening a huge lawsuit, did they finally dump enormous fans outside the cottage in the middle of the night and stomp off. As they weighed more than I did, I couldn’t move them until I found help...but that’s another story. I don’t believe I’ve ever been so frustrated and outraged.) 

Anyway, ServPro’s equipment roared. The men returned Tuesday afternoon to monitor progress, and decided the fans/dehumidifier should keep working for another 24 hours, just to be sure.  
But then (there is often a ‘But then,’ courtesy of Murphy) on Thursday, the music room’s white Berber carpet’s center had morphed to a rusty, ugly red. The vivid stain (maybe from the pad, or emanating from mineral deposits in the ancient cement floor) was huge- as big as a six-foot circle. The guy sprayed something on it. Voila! The ‘blood’ began to vanish- and we began to cough. I backed out, gasping, and went upstairs, but kept coughing. He did, too. Something in that spray had irritated our lungs.   
He eventually left, after saying we’d know in a few days whether such a big blemish would stay gone. I doubted it.  

So then, I decided to do a load of laundry. In stocking feet Thursday late afternoon, I brought down the filled laundry basket, took some minutes to maneuver the full basket past heaps of stuff blocking the laundry room’s raised doorway---- and found myself wading through icy water! That floor was thoroughly flooded, too! A 9x12 indoor-outdoor grass ‘carpet’ was trying to float, and two huge old wooden cabinets were standing in an inch of water.  
And it was rising.... 

I let out wails of despair. This was a blow. WAY too much bad stuff was happening too fast. 

Here’s the skinny. The ServPro techs had set the drainage hose for the dehumidifier down into the deep laundry room sink, but at some point it had managed to dislodge itself and slither to the floor. All the water drawn from the main basement’s wet air emptied onto that floor. Cursing Murphy, I stuck the hose deep down in the sink again and weighed it down with a wet towel. 
ServPro came soon after, acknowledged they’d messed up by not securing the hose, and so would not charge to put that room right.  
OK. These things happen. 
But now I was frazzled to breaking point. 

But Murphy wasn’t finished yet. No sir. 
For almost 40 years I’d kept a $1,000 deductible on our house insurance.  But now, when I rang to confirm that all was well in that regard I was horrified to find that our actual deductible was $4,818.00!!! 

Why? In 2013-14 the insurance company had included an extra notice in the semi-annual bill, that, unless they heard from me, the deductible would be raised to 5% of the value of our home. Here’s the thing: every regular monthly bill – phone, water, heat, light, etc. includes reams of extra paper crammed with various ads, notices, privacy assurances, and various legal blah-blah, all of it delivered in very fine print. Rarely bothering to read those tiny info junklets, I just recycle the paper. So, of course, I didn’t notice that an important part of my insurance policy was different.  

To be fair- I’ve saved a good deal of premium money during the four years that have passed- until this disaster, so I hadn’t noticed, up close and personal, the radical change. Now, faced with such a huge deductible, I canceled the claim. This bill would not be quite that expensive, but it would be a big bite out-of-pocket. I rang the insurance people to ask that they get rid of that enormous deductible and put it back to $1000,00. I would pay the higher semi-annual premiums.  
But. This must be submitted to The Committee, who might well deny my request to change back. So I wait. 

Meanwhile, one basement fan still roars; the air is too moist, my nerves are frayed, and my temper is noticeably shorter. Life is a trial right now. 

But (Take that, Murphy!) there are huge bright spots. One is upside down in front of me, twitching and paddling as she dreams. Bryn-dog is the essence of quiet cheer and pure love. She brightens every aspect of my life. There is Joe, the love of my life for 52 years. There is my beloved secret garden, with all its nooks, crannies, and little delights. Spring has arrived, and there are fresh babies of every kind to love and admire.  

When I have the sense to take in these ‘calmers,’ they raise me up as high as I care to be...

5/27/18: That Sinking Feeling…  

A passionate reader, I recently learned an astounding fact about England’s ancient churchyards. Bill Bryson’s fascinating book, At Home, A Short History Of Private Life (Doubleday, New York, 2010) offers an earthy revelation. 

Bryson, a prolific, popular author, lives with his family in an old parsonage in Norfolk, England. One day he and his archeologist friend Brian looked out his second story window at the gently mounded landscape surrounding the medieval church just outside his home. Brian remarked that there are 659 ancient village churches in Norfolk, alone; all seemed to be sinking, as he put it, “like a weight placed on a cushion.”  

Are they, really?  

This church’s foundations, he pointed out, were at least three feet below the churchyard. When asked the reason why, Bryson had no clue.  

His friend commented that the church wasn’t sinking; the churchyard had risen. Bryson, when asked to guess the number of souls likely buried there, thought there’d be eighty? A hundred? 

“I think that’s probably a bit of an underestimate,” Brian replied, with an air of kindly equanimity. “Think about it. 

A country parish like this has an average of 250 people in it, which translates into roughly a thousand adult deaths per century, plus a few thousand more souls that didn’t make it to maturity. Multiply that by the number of centuries that the church has been there and you can see that what you have here is not eighty or a hundred burials, but probably something more on the order of, say, twenty thousand.” 

This was, bear in mind, just steps from my front door. “Twenty thousand?” I said. 

He nodded, matter-of-factly. “That’s a lot of mass, needless to say. It’s why the ground has risen three feet.” He gave me a minute to absorb this, then went on. “There are a thousand parishes in Norfolk. Multiply all the centuries of human activity by a thousand parishes and you can see that you are looking at a lot of material culture.” He considered the several steeples that featured the view. ”From here, you can see into perhaps ten or twelve other parishes, so you are probably looking at roughly a quarter of a million burials right here in the immediate landscape— all in a place that has never been anything but quiet and rural, where nothing much has ever happened.”   

Heavens! For forty years I’ve enjoyed these lovely, peaceful places, but never questioned why British churchyard landscapes always— well, billow. (American graveyards are mostly flat; we are, after all, a very young country.) 

I’ve enjoyed pondering local churchyard epitaphs not yet claimed by earth, time and weather. Occupants composed a few of them. Usually, though, family and friends ventured thoughtful, and sometimes humorous comments that often date back centuries.  

In St. Mary’s churchyard in Ross-on-Wye, one stone displays two hands, palms up. It reads: 
She Gave With Her Hands. 

This one, in Cornwall, remembers a tin miner: 
Gone Underground For Good 

And, etched in marble in 1690, a droll farewell to a friend who could afford good food: 

Here lie the bones of Joseph Jones 
Who ate while he was able 
But once overfed he dropt down dead 
And fell beneath the table 
When from the tomb to meet his doom 
He arises amidst sinners 
Since he must dwell in heaven or hell 
Take him- whichever gives the best dinners 

Finally, I offer some last words of my own regarding those countless graves embraced throughout the centuries by the rising ground:  

So many dear souls have abandoned their bones  
To fly to heaven’s glory 
Tho’ Mother Earth hath reclaimed their stones- 
God always knows each story.

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:  

OldHundredthFarm@gmail.com 

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! 

-- 

Visit www.deeblair.com for recent columns, garden pictures and music.

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!