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Weekly Column

4/29/12: Freezing Flowers and Featherheaded Folly 


Egad! My computer offered the latest temperature prediction: though it was 68 degrees now, the mercury would plummet to 28 degrees tonight, followed by – gulp! - 23 degrees tomorrow and Saturday- an incredible 40-degree dive!

Rats! I’d need to buy frost blankets, then lay them while battling gusty 25-30 mile-per-hour winds. Emerging plants - especially my infant hostas, the two thalictrums and the four old fashioned hydrangeas, whose buds would probably freeze and drop off, anyway - would be grateful. (Four 90-degree March days had fooled everybody into growing like stink.)

Alas, Stella magnolia’s lovely blossoms would not survive this. Oh, well.

I left a local nursery with an armload of 5’x 50’ wisp-thin blankets, plus a fat box of garden pins, and Les and I struggled to cover all the vulnerable foliage while gusts tried to blow the delicate sheets to China. It was deep night before the wind finally diminished. The temperature read 28 degrees at 4 a.m., precisely as predicted.

The tender foliage had coped. Barely. Tonight, though, makes me really pale. 23 degrees! That sort of cold burns.

As we paused from our labor to enjoy a cup of tea in the late afternoon sunlight in the main secret garden, Juliet Mallard (I always dub visiting lovey-dovey ducks as ‘Romeo’ and ‘Juliet’), who’d been snoozing in a sun-warmed, water-filled crease in my huge fountain cover, woke, yawned, wing-stretched, and quacked downy-soft chuckles to her love, who was always inches away. Suddenly she stiffened and looked around more carefully. AWK!! Romeo was gone!

I’d stumbled over these lovebirds for days, overhearing their murmured endearments. He’d been her shadow. Now, though, she quacked loudly, then leaped out of the watered crease and onto the grass, alarmed. “Where’d you go? Where ARE you??”

Then, she looked right up at us and quacked that same question. My neck hair rose.

“We haven’t seen him,” we said, palms open, heads shaking, and, wilting with disappointment, she circled the big fountain, orange feet flapping through the long grass, neck extended, wings half-open, calling. No Romeo. She flapped through nearby flowerbeds, calling, calling, and even searched the sky for predators, or his silhouette. No sign. Rushing back to us she peered waaay up at 6’4” Les, asking one more time: “Are you sure you haven’t seen him?” We repeated ourselves. Trust me: that duck understood, from our tones and expressions, that we were clueless. She rushed up the walk and brushed by our legs, eyes wide, beak open, voice cracking with anxiety. We felt upset, too, and riveted by this ducky drama.

Here’s the thing: Juliet was speaking. Pitch, intensity and volume clearly conveyed her distress, confusion and, yes, fear.

Romeo was never absent.

Juliet crossed the lawn into the Library Garden’s beds, peering under foliage, her quacks ringing through the property. She was near panic. Had a hawk snatched him?

Suddenly we heard a whoosh! Romeo, resplendent in his gorgeous emerald plumage, flew right over the North Gate, settled into the lush strawberry patch by the kitchen tower about 50 feet away from us, and quacked loud, masculine reassurance: “I’m here!”

Juliet’s whole demeanor changed. We pointed the way, and she rushed across the garden toward him, her quacks suddenly tender. Very soft, continuous chuckles conveyed her relief. She smiled. Scoff if you want to, but that duck smiled. Her whole body relaxed. She looked so happy! They nuzzled. Her world made sense again. There were no recriminations, no cold shoulder, no icy eyes or accusatory glares. Just affection. Cold garden, warm hearts.

We decided he’d sneaked across the street to Hannah Park to indulge in a quick Boardman River paddle and a worm dinner before flying back, reasoning she’d never know he was gone. Five minutes sooner and he’d have been right.

Honestly, we were gobsmacked. Ducks do talk, but this duck-to-people exchange seemed, well, a little bit magical.

Knowing my shivering plants had warm blankets, I burrowed under my own down comforter at bedtime, reliving that uncanny, delightful five minutes.

Life sometimes drops jeweled moments right in front of us, if we’re very, very lucky.

**More animal adventures can be found in my book, The View From Sunnybank, sold at Horizon Books in Traverse City. 

4/22/12: Catalogue Cunning 

Plant catalogues are fun to read and savor. BUT misunderstood plants, and some beautiful beasts, are within their pages. Wallets could be thinner - or gardens could be eaten alive - if gardeners don’t carefully interpret the text - and notice what’s NOT written. Here are a few examples.

Evergreens, catalogues state, ‘can grow three to four feet a year, thrive in Zones 5-8, and withstand extreme weather and temperatures.’  They don’t mention that the faster the trees grow, the weaker they tend to be, and that they need regular water the first year or two.

By the way, Zone 5 isn’t extreme. These word choices are a hint that the information may be - incomplete. Consequently, evergreens may become everbrown (Dead). It's an expensive loss.

Catalogues offer photos of CLEMatis, showing gorgeous flowers with long bloom times, but usually fail to mention that gardeners must wait three years. ‘It may be a little slow at first… is a favorite phrase, but bedazzled gardeners skim past these words and order eagerly, then rip the astonished plant out the second year because it looks dead in late spring. Alas - it’s been incredibly busy underground setting roots. I memorized this reminder: ‘The first year, Clematis sleeps; the second year it creeps; the third year - it leaps!’

Hydrangeas’ lush summer blooms emerge just when other plants are beginning to flag. But note! The first five letters are H-y-d-r-a. They need consistently damp soil and part-shade to be happy. (Hydrangeas were discovered under a waterfall.) Shallow-rooted, they dehydrate quickly. Catalogues glide by this, saying, for example, that they need ‘moist but well-drained soil’. I’ve learned to take every word literally. Moist - ALL the time.

Perennial grasses are showy in all seasons. Clumpers - grasses that stay where they’re planted - want full sun, reasonable water and well-drained soil.

But beware of ‘galloper-grasses,' which gobble up garden beds at a shocking rate. I’m passionate about my big, gorgeous blue Elymus grass, and won’t give it up, so I've jailed it. This rampant hunk lives in a bottomless Rubbermaid 30-liter trashcan, which I’ve completely buried. Even so, it sneaks out from time to time. Catalogues describe it as ’vigorous’ and ‘enthusiastic.’ Ohhhh, yeah.

The golden blades of Carex stricta ‘Bowles golden’ light up my shady areas, as does Hakonecloa aureola, a well-behaved Japanese forest grass, which lives quietly next to a hydrangea. Catalogues say - ‘prefers part shade.’ (Jeez! They should say, ‘needs mostly shade.’) Unwary buyers assume, reading ‘prefers,’ that it could handle part-sun. Nope.

They describe beautiful, perfumed Lily-of-the-valley (Convalaria) as ‘charming’ and ‘well-loved’ - quite true - but other sentences set off my 
alarm bells. ‘In the garden they spread diligently;’ (DING!) or, ‘Our large pips are guaranteed to bloom the first 
spring…’ (DING!) I snort with laughter when I read that they’re excellent for forcing. Eeeee! No one need force them; they’ll burrow into beds, and every other plant 
will be, ah, incorporated. (See? I can obfuscate, too.)

Once in, she’ll be there f.o.r.e.v.e.r.

Wisteria must be kept away from structures - houses, fences, garages. Provide a thick iron pole, sunk deep, for it to climb. Catalogues say: ‘Wisteria grows with almost overwhelming vigor’…(DING!) and - ‘Plants grow rapidly to 30 feet and completely bury any structure they are allowed to annex.’ (DING!) Note: they don’t say overrun and crush, but ‘annex.’ Hmmm. Slick.

If gardeners have the right spot, and are younger, they’ll love 
it. However, wisteria can take for-bloody-ever to bloom. ‘Wisteria is slow to flower...’  Try 8-10 years. It probably won’t bloom till you’re plant food 

Finally, there’s one really lovely ground cover that terrifies me. Aegopodium variegatum, better known as Bishop’s Weed, is described as a beautiful ‘carpet.’ Oh, yeah, it’s that. BUT! Forget zones. Aggie grows anywhere, and thickly covers
 everything with nary a burp. NEVERnevernever unleash it in a garden. The catalogue says… ’spreads 36 inches in 2 years.’ Uh-huh. Saying ‘inches’ somehow 
makes this information less alarming. But, imagine 3+ feet
 IN EVERY DIRECTION every year no matter what. They’ve warned you, but subtly. Oh, and by the way, NOTHING kills it. It simply pauses, coughs, and continues. Not even the Pope can stop it. Yet, it’s expensive! Why do gardeners pay big bucks for a plant that grows if you breathe on it? Or don’t?

So. I tiptoe through my catalogues' tulips and other pictured delights – but I’ve learned, from sad experience, to avoid its beautiful beasts.

4/15/12: Blankets for Shivering, or Overheated Babies 

It’s freezing out there! Alarmed by the icy nights I’ve purchased thin, inexpensive plastic painters’ sheeting to serve as garden blankets for emerging flowers and shrubs fooled by March’s exceptionally warm weather. Garden pins, dirt or small rocks keep them anchored in light breezes. Confused plants - especially fat-budded hydrangeas - really appreciate this consideration. I sleep better knowing I’ve done all I can. (Daffodils, grape hyacinths, tulips and suchlike, just laugh at temperature extremes.)

Days are warm enough for me to stain my new fence and think about mulch - the more permanent garden blankets - which I’ll probably lay in late May, when most perennials are up. I’ve chosen cocoa shells, as the price is much more reasonable these days.

Lordy, the stuff smells good! I put on weight just breathing it in.

Used correctly, it retains moisture. Weeds settling into it are easily dislodged. This natural by-product of the chocolate trade used to be discarded. Then some enterprising soul noticed it was brilliant as a garden blanket. Bang! A new industry was born.

I’ve tried many, many mulches; in fact, one summer I laid four different sorts – black shredded tires, three kinds of wood chips, pine needles and cocoa shells – as an experiment.

Though they all performed well, the first three kinds had to be collected every spring and discarded, as they’d faded, thinned or scattered. Cocoa mulch, which retains its rich chocolate color, is simply folded in – a huge time saver for me.

It’s tricky stuff, though, so I offer some hints for applying it intelligently.

Loosen the soil, remove weeds; then water deeply. Better yet, wait until just after a soaking rain. Apply it about two inches thick, without crowding plants’ stems – but never do this on a windy day. They’ll blow everywhere.

Next, water the shells with a soft mist to release a natural gum, which binds them into a porous mat. Note: about two weeks after application you may notice a harmless white mold within the mulch. Don’t worry: it’s a normal part of the decomposition process. Stir it around gently if you’re annoyed. (I’ve never bothered…)

Neighbor-noses will twitch appreciatively for about six days, but then it’s just mulch, minus the ‘yummmm.’ (Pets - especially dogs - will ignore it. Do keep them away until then, as some find it irresistible. Cocoa shells + pets = a fat vet bill.)

For those who dislike the cost- around $5.00 per 40-pound bag - try twice-ground wood chips, which produce a more finely textured product, offered in brown, red or pale colors. Whatever you choose is deeply appreciated by overheated flowers, including potted ones. (On a roasting day I enjoy feeling moist soil under any mulch’s protective blanket.)

Your garden will look really good, and so will you.

(By the way, some plants, like wildflowers and annual geraniums, prefer drier soil. Mulch can rot their roots.)

Another unexpected bonus: previously wormless beds are thick with them! I’m always astounded to see so many when I brush aside mulch to dig and plant. Just one squirmer recycles -(brace yourself)- over a ton of earth every year!

Next time you see a lowly worm on a wet sidewalk, rescue it, and think respectful thoughts.

A final chuckle: a foot-long garter snake clearly appreciates my brick garden walk. He’d used its rough texture to help him ease out of his old skin yesterday, leaving me the discarded, nearly transparent remains. But last night was freezing! The poor snake, shivering in his den as the new molt hardened, must have bemoaned our unpredictable weather!

Whew! Ready or not, everything’s growing!

4/8/12: Freaked Out! 

What a wild week in the garden! Roofers are re-shingling the porch roof and all the towers, and we’ve worked around each other pretty well. I duck under ladders and avoid flying roof junk, humming as I clean.

Then, on Wednesday, a mini-disaster.

I’d been prying out ten zillion maple tree helicopters and testosteroned weeds, and pruning clematis vines in the main secret garden. There’s a monstrous pile of debris in the alley, making it almost impossible to park the car out there. The garage’s interior is a mess, because the North Gate’s massive garden door is being tweaked. An electric sander, cords, stain, rags and massive hinges are scattered about, mingling with stacked bags of Wholly Cow poop, and suchlike.
Spring at Sunnybank is always like this.
Barely controlled chaos.

Well. I finally started trimming back the clematis in the front garden - and gasped. !!!Mites!!! were dining on the ten lovely columnar arborvites it climbed on. Awww! Garden-y disasters have an irritating tendency to happen while I’m making other plans. This was a major setback.

Spraying the few nits they’d had last year clearly hadn’t helped. I wailed my despair, oblivious to the stares of curious passersby.
If I didn’t adapt immediately, my established Clematis terniflora would have nothing to scramble along. It would complain, then sigh - and die in the dirt.

I stumped off to the garage. Les, a tall, dust-gray ghost, was poised over the saw-horsed door, sanding away eighteen years of grime. I finger-slashed my throat, the classic turn-it-off sign, and out came verbal diarrhea.

“I need more fence right now, today, immediately, because I have mites – a bad case, and they’re spreading – and the impatient clematis is already fifteen feet long and waving around looking for support and I can’t offer any so we need to go to Home Depot and get posts and dig holes - four, I think, for thirty-two feet of fence to build quickly – those mites weren’t supposed to return!!!”

Mites? Warily he stepped back, but looked closer. Uh-oh. I looked undone, with dry twiglets hanging from my rumpled jacket and hat-mussed hair. A saw-toothed weed dangled from my wedding ring. Clotted dirt clung to jeaned knees, and pruners hung from my back pocket. My face and gesticulating hands were a muddy study - Jeez. I presented the perfect portrait of an old hen freaking out.

“Whoa. Start over!”
Red-eyed, I explained again, more coherently.

“Lets have a look…
Yep. You do have Mites. Lots.”

A long, thoughtful silence settled in as we paced the front lawn pondering the problem from every angle. My mite-racked arbs sat there, not realizing they were history.

I ran inside for a pad and pencil. Design solutions went from wild to wildly creative, before moving toward clarity.

A board fence. Lower. Same simple lines.

Making ourselves visually acceptable we trundled off to Home Depot to think in situ and make more skeleton-sketches. From these we birthed a sturdy fence that wouldn’t make my wallet wail.

I rented their truck. $19.00 for one hour. Perfect. We loaded it with material and drove home. Unloaded. Returned the truck. Three hours later Les created that vital first panel, and stained it. While it dried he removed the first two eight-foot tall trees and dug the first posthole.

I coaxed the disgruntled clematis into clinging to a makeshift support for one more night. Tomorrow it’ll be seated in the sun atop a new fence section, ready to go nuts. And I’ll sigh with relief.

I stumbled into the kitchen about six o’clock, exhausted, full of splinters and rose thorns, and smeared with dirt. But my teeth gleamed. For now, problem solved.

Gardeners – and farmers – certainly lead precarious lives…

4/1/12: Act Now, or Moan Later! 

This recent snowfall may be Mother Nature’s last icy huff. Note that spring-blooming perennials aren’t fazed by Mama’s little fling.

Oddly, the biggest trouble facing me now are squirrels, who love to dig up tulip bulbs. The population’s high so I rely on Hav-a Hart traps. I leave mine propped open. One tiptoes in, grabs a gob of cheap, nutty peanut butter, and then escapes. Two or three visits later he gets cocky. Then I set the trap. Outraged captives are driven to a forest at least 6-8 miles away. Otherwise, they’ll be back. Squirrels have built-in GPS, but its effective range is limited to within 5-6 miles of home. (A dab of white paint on squirrelly backs tells me when I underestimate.)

Grass, the biggest plant in the garden, loves to creep. Vigorous blades that have sneaked into my beds must be pried out. If I wait, they’ll grow amongst the flowers, creating a blurred, unkempt look, and are much harder to remove later without disturbing the plants they’ve connected with.

Roses (garden royalty) may be pruned now. I trim shrubs well back, to fat buds, and always tie climbers’ canes to fences or trellises horizontally. Vertically tied 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 trial, because so many serve as a giant necklace edging the alley rose garden. A quick drive-by will illustrate the situation. Ugh. Each matted brown, snow-limp ear wants removing, which requires patience. The remaining soft, new silver-green ears will soon plump out.

Weeds love moist, spring earth: I pry them out carefully, as their roots descend as deep as the Marianas Trench. If one breaks because I’ve hurried, another weed will develop immediately.

Les has chain-sawed my big perennial grasses to the ground. But first, we tied their middles with stout rope, making it easy to haul mountainous frond piles 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.

I won’t mulch yet, not till 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 and 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.)

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 clumps in a bucket of water to get rid of mud. The strongest ones are replanted. If they refuse to separate, I’ll give up: they’ve effectively strangled themselves. (Daylilies, though absolutely beautiful, aren’t terribly bright.)

Irises love being divided, too. They’re easy.

I’ve trimmed my four spirea shrubs down to about eight inches. They’ll soon grow madly.

One more thing: it’s time dig out uninvited flowering garlic (Allium), which multiply rapidly if happy. So, every three years I thin them out. Monitored, alliums offer delight without overrunning the garden. (I planted five huge bulbs a decade ago, and woke up four springs later to find so many children I didn’t know what to do. Arghhhh!!! But they are architecturally stunning for two months.)

My spring motto: A Chop In Time Saves Ninety-Nine Later….

P.S. Remember: the stunning, poisonous Lily-of-the-Valley (Convallaria) is dangerous to little children, who love its heavenly scent, lush leaves, and lovely bellflowers. (Lily’s happiest in woodland areas where she can run free, and multiply without condemnation.)

3/24/12: A Spring Cacophony 

What’s happening outside is astounding. Capricious Mother Nature, inexplicably bored with her black-and-white world, has reminded us that her palette is rich whenever she wants it to be. Fluffy pink apple blossoms, vivid blue hyacinths, yellow daffs, Stella Magnolia’s flowers and my roses’ countless pink, yellow and red buds prove that. Trees are fuzzy with the clean green that only baby leaves can boast. And it’s just mid-March!

The overheated air is thick with promise – and work. Exhausted, I sigh, almost missing snow, and the time to breathe. Nature’s discarded her usual slow, coy seasonal seduction and plunked down an instant, hot spring. Hungry birds hunt shocked, sleepy worms, who nervously dive deeper. Cheeps begin at O-dark-hundred. Feathered architects are busily building bungalows using straw fliggits and twigs carried high into my trees, or onto tower windowsills. Their artistically woven nests are padded with fluffy miscanthus grass plumes and half-inch bits of soft gray hair I’d tossed outside after lopping Joe’s mop.
Alley cats stretch and smoothe their whiskers, pondering future possibilities.

When I left town two weeks ago for Saginaw, sixteen inches of heavy snow blanketed this ground. Six days later I’d returned to find bewildered mice sheltering in garage crevices. Their intricate under-snow tunnels and rooms had suddenly vanished, leaving the rodents exposed. Spring was that sudden. (Mountainous black snow-scabs heaped high in the schoolyard are all that remain of winter’s recent mega-dump.)

Today, while I was on my knees in the front garden removing autumn’s snow-flattened leaves from the flowerbeds, a lady slowed her car, rolled down her window and yelled, “You really are optimistic, uncovering beds now! Is that wise?”

Grinning, I rose, dusted my knees and shrugged. “Actually, I don’t have a choice. With this unprecedented heat everything’s rocketing skyward so rapidly – plants in the secret garden are nine inches high and growing more than an inch a day – that even working nine-hour days I may not finish in time. The secret garden's registering 94 degrees for the fourth straight day. Outrageous! If I don’t do May’s work right now, it won’t be possible. ”

I looked down. Near my booted foot a handsome male mallard was quacking endearments to his ladylove, who stood a few feet away, amused, but clearly interested. He waddled closer and they necked. Orange feet flapped through the newly cleaned beds as their courting behavior continued.

“Jeez,” said I, chuckling, “even the ducks are heating up! Animals know when it’s courting time... So - cross my fingers - my garden should be fine.”

The lady laughed, waved and motored away, weaving carefully through a flat-footed flock of hopeful, iridescent male mallards cruising the street and lawns looking for love.

A fat dandelion under my boots showed off rich, saw-bladed greenery. I absently plucked it out and filled the hole, still cursing those mousey paths bisecting the back lawn: mending them might take weeks. But wait! What if it had been a mole? I shuddered.

BAM! THUNK! KA-WHAP! An outraged bird battled a mirror-rival, leaving his powdery outline on the glass. I rolled my eyes and tried to ignore the noise. My shovel chinked as it slid past pebbles and bit into the soft earth. Mallards quacked love; squirrels scrabbled up and down tree trunks chasing fluffy-tailed ladies; Les fired up his chainsaw to amputate the garden’s nine huge, snow-flattened grasses; my pruners snapped at winter-blackened stems and vines. A car cruised by, emanating deep bass sounds that advertise a young, unattached human male. Spring is awash in sounds, the smell of fresh paint, and new life.

Ready or not, ladies and gentlemen, Madame Nature’s spring-tuned engine is revving…the flag is down –

We’re OFF!

3/18/12: Almost Blown Away 

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 this weekend I’d driven 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. 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 followed. Then – nothing. The main storm had roared by just two miles east of us. At bedtime the weather was calm.
It still was, now.

So, why had the power gone? Could a substation have been damaged earlier? Sleep was impossible, so we dressed and drove into town to Denny’s for coffee, and light, and remembered another terrifying Saginaw weather event 26 years ago.

August, 1986. The afternoon sky, in shades of yellow smeared with green and black, looked 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 - WIND. Large trees moaned. Windows rattled. County sirens wailed. Joe ran out, looked up and registered shock. Dashing inside he yelled, “Basement! NOW!”

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

Seconds later there were tremendous BOOMS!! Then, loud CRREEAKS! (Large trees were splitting, groaning, and falling.) One deafening CRACK!! (Lightning had struck the huge elm near the living room. The pungent stink of roasted sap lingered for days.) Then, THUMP! THUMP! over and over. (Chimney bricks were going… going… gone.) The wind screamed.

An eternity later, it was over.

The house had survived. But our vast green lawn had completely disappeared under a carpet of huge, flattened trees. What an incredible sight! Nobody said anything. We simply stared, blown away. Every downed tree tidily faced east, suggesting straight-line winds. Rain and dime-sized hail still pummeled shocked leaves. Weirdly, two giants close to our home had collapsed mere inches from it. Parallel to it. But, incredibly, not on it.

Some mortar-weak 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. Sixty-one big trees were toppled that afternoon. It took five full days for a crew of ten men armed with chainsaws and tree-eating machines to clean up. Other people lost roofs: cars and sheds were overturned or crushed. We’d experienced an EF-1 tornado.

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 small, open window. That EF-5 monster roared on to flatten Flint. 113 people died.

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 - but not touch down - just south of us.

During this weirdly warm spring I’ve begun monitoring the weather at bedtime.
I’ve seen, first hand, how easy it is to be blown away.

3/11/12: Irish Music for Love and War 

Joe and I drove around Ireland’s southern and western part thirty-eight years ago, captivated by its ruined castles, glorious houses and immense, sheer cliffs. The heaving Atlantic endlessly pounded the land. Shepherds and their black-and-white collies minded countless grazing sheep amid hilly, richly green landscapes. Horses were everywhere. Some were so magnificent I could hardly believe my eyes. Ireland’s stud farms produce some of the world’s grandest horseflesh.

Village pubs often featured a fiddler who delighted listeners with Irish jigs, and wonderfully intricate folk tunes. Patrons would often sing along, frequently in Gaelic. Dogs sitting at their owners’ feet enjoyed the fun, their tails thumping the floor vigorously.

Danny Boy is a fiddler-favorite. An ancient tune, Londonderry Air, was ‘borrowed’ in 1910 by lyricist Frederic Weatherly, who modified one of his own verses to fit that old melody. (Londonderry, a completely walled Irish city, is probably the finest in Europe.) Danny Boy is sung at funerals, or played by pipers. Parents of children gone to war get emotional when they hear it. Lovers embrace this song. It belongs to everyone, and has always been my favorite. I offer my version, in the player at the bottom of the screen. (Please, always listen with earphones.)

The Patriot Game was penned in the late 1950s by Dominic Behan, son of author Brendan Behan, to commemorate a twenty-year old boy, Fergal O’Conlon, a volunteer member of the IRA who was killed during a border campaign.
I’ve decided to include my rendition of this song as well, because Ireland has been frequently torn by wars. (You can hear it by pressing the right hand arrow or forward button once on the player at the bottom of the screen).

Honestly, we felt time slow down, there. Men took milk to market with horse-drawn carts, and women bought produce from local markets and carried their purchases back to nearby crofts in large aprons. Ancient bikes with woven baskets leaned on fences and stone walls. Almost every farmer wore a wool tweed cap.

At our isolated B&B we asked the owner to awaken us very early, as we wished to explore the area on foot. She laughed, a wicked gleam in her eye. “I can assure you that will be no problem. Simply leave your (screenless) window open, and you’ll have a special wake-up call, sure enough!” Hmmm. She must mean birds…We did as instructed. About 6:00 a.m. a fat brown donkey thrust his large, bewhiskered head into our bedroom, took a deep breath, and shrieked out a raucous series of raspy hee-haws that elevated us two feet! The beast, hugely amused by our shocked response, refused to be hushed until we fled the room, laughing, for a wonderful breakfast. The eggs had been laid a few minutes previously, and milk from the family goat was still warm, rich and creamy. The cheerful proprietor apologized for Boomer’s indescribable ‘music,’ but it was halfhearted; she kept chuckling in the kitchen.

One other memory will forever be associated with Ireland. In Dublin we wandered past an ancient little shop housing a booking agency advertising flights to America. On one wall was a large poster that reduced us to tears of laughter. Below the picture of two, ah, amorous, gleeful, high-flying mallard ducks were the words “Fly United.” It took the best part of ten minutes before we recovered any dignity whatsoever. We’ve never seen that outrageous poster anywhere else. Even decades later, I still laugh. It’s helped memorialize an absurd, delicious, stupid, wonderful time when we lived on a shoestring and fulfilled a dream – to go back to Joe’s roots (his ancestors hail from County Cork) and be part of rural Ireland for a small while.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day, everyone, just a bit early! And by the way, if you’re afraid of snakes, Ireland’s your place…

Father Patrick banished every single one.

3/4/12: Book Fare 

This time of year tries my patience. Interesting books make slushy, mushy, slip-slidey days pass painlessly.

I love well-written thrillers. Joseph Garber’s 1995 bestseller, Vertical Run, absolutely blew me away. It’s about a regular guy who must cope with the unthinkable.
A businessman goes to work one morning, brews coffee, then greets his boss in the adjacent office. From that instant, nothing would ever be the same.

William Kent Krueger has written a splendid series of mysteries, beginning with Iron Lake, featuring likable Cork O’Connor and his family and friends. Eleven books, which should be read in order, kept me riveted. Wikipedia comments:

Krueger's stories always include an element of life in and around Native American reservations. The main character, Cork O'Connor, is part Irish, part Ojibwe. When Krueger decided to set the series in northern Minnesota, he realized that a large percentage of the population of the county he had selected as a model for the fictional Tamarack County of his books was of mixed heritage. The idea of researching the Ojibwe culture and weaving the information into the stories held great appeal for him.

Henry, an elderly, wise Ojibwe, is psychic. His relationship with Cork and his family is fascinating.
These believable characters are easy to care about.

Some tomes have changed my life. Dana Carpenter wrote a best-selling book, 500 Low-Carb Recipes. Its offerings are simple and delicious. And her little pocket book, Dana Carpenter’s Carb Gram Counter, has a succinct, informative introduction. Here’s a snippet.

There is no such thing as good sugar. Obviously sugar, brown sugar and corn syrup are all bad for you. However, so are the ‘natural’ and ‘healthy’ alternatives like honey, concentrated fruit juice, Sucanat, dried sugar, cane sugar, malt syrup, rice syrup, turbinado, fructose, dextrose, maltose or anything else ending in ‘ose.’ All of it is sugar and all of it will cause an insulin release.

Eliminating most carb-listed foods made it possible for me to dump unwanted weight. Thirteen years ago I’d get ‘the trembles’ about three hours after eating a ‘healthy,’ carb-crammed breakfast of juice, whole grain cereal, fruit, milk and toast. (Insulin levels naturally rise with the carb load, and three hours later they’re still up, driving blood sugar down. You have to eat again, usually more carbs, so the whole cycle starts over. In its simplest form this is the natural physiology of carbohydrates.)

I evaluated my typical food intake per day and found I was sometimes eating over 500 carbs, far more than the human body can effectively manage. (Carbs are calorie-glue, stored away as fat.) I learned that keeping to 25-50 carbs a day ended hunger-shakes and the desperate need to eat. And, it was simply amazing how quickly the pounds disappeared. And stayed gone. I’ve felt wonderful ever since.
Bonus: my migraine headaches vanished.

Focusing on meat, fish and vegetables is a more natural way of eating, recently rediscovered as the ‘Paleolithic diet.’

A fascinating, slim tome titled The Sociopath Next Door, by Martha Stout, Ph.D. (pub. 2005) has helped me understand these baffling people.
Sociopaths are born without consciences, and therefore don’t experience guilt. They “have no empathy or affectionate feelings for humans or animals.” Most sociopaths learn to abide by societal rules, but sometimes they’re ruthless, and emotionally and/or physically injure living things, often out of curiosity. (I speak from experience.) By some estimates, one in twenty-five humans is sociopathic. Dr. Stout explains how to identify and cope with these people, and reclaim one’s life. It was a revelation.

Finally, there’s Kitty Ferguson’s book, Stephen Hawking-An Unfettered Mind (pub. 2012). Stricken with ALS in college, Hawking has lived his entire adult life trapped in a destroyed body. All he can do, literally, is blink, and think.
But oh, what a mind! He has transformed theoretical physics with his astounding, intuitive leaps.
Ferguson has movingly written of this man’s life and work.

If you have some time, click on
this link to experience the enormity of what Hawking thinks about, and what we humans are part of.
It’s a breathtaking experience.

2/26/12: Gulp! 

When not making music I find myself still fascinated by The 1900 Sears Roebuck Catalogue (see last week’s column for Part 1), which stocked everything an American (mostly) rural family needed. Exploring its 1100-plus offerings became a national pastime.

While 98% of the merchandise was really useful, charlatans expertly manipulated gullible consumers into purchasing lotions, potions, gadgets n’ gunk supposedly imported from Europe, Asia and Egypt, which were guaranteed to fix what they were coaxed into believing was broken.

Take, for example, the new, improved Rational Body Brace, meant to be constantly worn ‘underneath.’ (See picture, below.) This contraption consisted of thick, adjustable leather straps that wound around the female torso to connect to brass abdominal plates. Described as

the greatest boon to weak, suffering womankind, [it] cured drooping shoulders, weakened internal organs, falling of the womb (?) and bladder afflictions.

But wait! How did the poor thing manage to use the toilet? She’d have to divest herself of outer clothing, petticoat and corset, then remove her strapped-on hinder-bustle and hip pads, which were strapped over the RBB. Then, undo that. Whew! Imagine accomplishing this in the typical outhouse, in the dark. Where would all that stuff be hung while she was, ah, spending a penny? Egad.

Then there was the Princess Bust Developer. This gadget was first cousin to the toilet plunger (see picture below). Its business end was made of nickel and aluminum, and it guaranteed -

the right exercise to the muscles of the bust, to restore normal circulation to flabby, undeveloped parts. Soon restored to a healthy condition, [busts] expand and fill out, becoming round and firm and beautiful.

The accompanying Bust Cream or Food, in a peanut butter-sized jar, further enlarged busts two to six inches. Prospective customers were assured that countless testimonials from grateful users always expressed ‘perfect satisfaction.’ Jeez. Plastic surgeons today would be finished if this wonderful food were re-discovered in some dusty Chicago warehouse…

Consider The 60-Cent Princess Hair Restorer. (Don’t scoff: 60 cents was a lot of money, then.) This marvelous tonic grew hair on bald heads, stopped dandruff and itching, and prevented hair from falling out, or turning gray. Applied properly it produced mountains of lush, gorgeous tresses. (See picture below.)

But the most unnerving offerings were in the Drug Department.

It probably never occurred to ladies (and gents) that they suffered from sub-par complexions until a remedy for their ‘problem’ was discovered. When one consumes Dr. Rose’s French Arsenic Complexion Wafers,

even the coarsest and most repulsive skin and complexion, marred by freckles, moth,(?) blackheads, pimples, vulgar redness and other disfigurements slowly changes into an unriveled purity of texture, free from any spot or blemish whatever. Pinched features become agreeable; facial disfigurements are permanently removed. We recommend ordering one dozen large boxes. Perfectly harmless when used in accordance with our directions, it possesses the “Wizard’s Touch’ in producing, preserving and enhancing beauty in form and person in male and female by developing a transparency and pellucid clearness of complexion, brilliant eyes, soft and smooth skin, where by nature the reverse exits.

All this from pills containing Arsenic! Now, marvel at their Electric Liniment.

By a newly discovered process this liniment is electrically charged by a powerful current of electricity, whereby the ingredients undergo a powerful change, which when applied to the most severe cases of Rheumatism, Frosted Feet, Chilblains, Sprains, Bruises and Growing Pains, effects immediate relief. It never fails in its magical effects. (Emphasis theirs.)

Every product came wrapped in plain brown paper, with a 100% money-back guarantee.

Finally, there was the Egyptian Pile Cure…and pure Spirits of Turpentine - for internal consumption, reason unspecified…gulp. I felt pain after reading all this. The average life span then was 48 years. Consuming/applying this rubbish probably insured a quicker end.

Six years later, in 1906, The American Pure Food and Drug Act was passed by Congress. This single piece of legislation saved many people from skinny wallet syndrome, possible injury - and death.

I guarantee that statement, 100%.