The flute reed remembers …

Carolina wrenWhere’s home for you?

Me, here: a dynamic attention brought to the moment, composing the writing-to-be as close to the impression as possible, allowing no thought—that officious intermeddler—to fill the space into which innocent material will be given, new, as if this moment has never happened before:

Continue reading

After the season

They whisper and laugh among themselves: they’ve had a good season.

burning-bushThe ladies of the woods have dropped their green maple, ash, and elm gowns. They stand together in silence behind the pool fence, naked to the forest floor, arms limbed out as if still in their sassy scarves. Swaying like Mandarins, they recall summer’s social season when they ringed us on three sides and we stood in awe of their dancing.

Continue reading

How to pick a peony

The expansion-of-time part is important.
Never mind that this is about new impressions
—it is, you know—
but don’t analyze for once; just enjoy.

On Tuesday, ants crawpeonyl the tight globes. Dozens of ants, dozens of buds.  It is said that ants are essential for the opening of these tightly bound promises, that they sip the nectar, somehow loosening the grip of the green glove-like coverings. I don’t know, but I assume Nature knows, and I don’t interfere.

On Wednesday, I check on the peony bed from my upstairs writing room.  I think of paint blobs dropped from a higher place, pooling in small cups in a lower place.

On Thursday, the sun licks at them, smothers them all day.  They like that. They heat up from the outside in. It’s almost as if they are ready to yawn. They’ll open quickly now. I stay at home, check them often.

Peonies bloom in silence and in dignity, and to catch their annual four-day show, you have to pay attention.  You have to be there. If your attention is taken elsewhere, the blooms have come and gone.  You wait a year.  The rare gift of hot pink, snow white, and deep magenta blooms calls for deference, and you feel the need perhaps for an early summer garden ritual that expands time and deepens presence.

Continue reading

The risk of the rue

I sneak up on risk now, take a long look, consider, expect clarity, bring some wisdom to bear. Not like the old days …

GumboWith the thermometer at 40 degrees–an improvement over last week–and the sun moving around and coming up where I can see it, I’m feeling like a Paul Prudhomme gumbo.

The rue’s the risk.  It was Wynton Marsalas who said, Without a good rue “you might have yourself a killin’ soup, but you ain’t got no gumbo.”

The rue scares me to death. I fret the whole time it’s cooking.  I stir and sweat and count the minutes.  I feel the tension in my shoulders, my face, my stomach.  You know: the places in the body where emotions live.  One second too long and the fire alarm trips, the firemen arrive in the big red truck and say the usual: Oh, you burned dinner. They don’t get the risk of the rue.

Continue reading

Such a big deal …

… her father’s middle name is MightyOne.

My electric mixer flew apart yesterday, mid-preparation for a big event, so Husband and I went to Bed, Bath, and Beyond to buy a new one.  Shopping together for an appliance, large or small, reminds me so much of his mother and mine.  His mother read Consumer Reports, wrote down all the salient detail in a memo pad, visited several stores, read every word on each box, and bought the best, with a 20% coupon, while my mother ran to the local Sears and parted with her money, reluctantly, for the cheapest model she could find.  She was back home in less than an hour.

So, we’re at B, B, and B yesterday. I’ve chosen the 18-dollar model in as many seconds.  He’d read Consumer Reports before leaving the house; now he’s not only reading every word on the model he’s chosen, a doozy at 70 bucks—I mean this is a mixer, and I use it maybe twice a year—he’s also punching up on his iPhone comparisons on mixers within a thirty-mile radius.

“This one’s quieter and will last,” he says, “and it has a dough hook.”

A dough hook.  Swell.

“This one’s 18 bucks,” I say, “and why do we care if it’s quiet. I won’t use it often.”

What do dough hooks do exactly?

He gives me a mildly amused look and puts the 70-buck model in the cart.  Later, Daughter, who knows what a dough hook does, uses the mixer. It practically purrs. Its three technologically advanced attachments are packed in their own little glove, which has assigned pockets. It has a digital display. She’s further convinced that her father’s middle name is MightyOne.


I sit down with a cup of tea and a cookie, and read the directions on the box.

Dough hook …

In full aerial dogfight mode

In memory, there’s nothing so thrilling as the sudden pulling up into an arc — those Gs! — and flying upside down, hanging from straps with the earth 3,000 feet below and the blue Pacific stretching forever.

Something tiny darts through my peripheral vision.  I put my book down and go to the back door.  A ruby-throated hummingbird is in full aerial dogfight mode.

The enemy: a nuthatch minding his own business on the trunk of the sycamore and a skittish chickadee hunting seed on the patio slates.

The hummer is having none of either.  I assume she’s protecting her young in a nearby nest.  Out!  Out of my territory!  I watch with fascination her zips, hovers, banks, and dives. The sound is that of a tiny motor — no, more like a tiny fan on HI.  Her attacks, beak first, are aimed at the heads of the interlopers.  She doesn’t miss.  She’s a missile.

In my younger years when there was nothing I wouldn’t try at least once, I did some aerobatic flying with a friend who was equally as experimental.  An R&D engineer who knew his physics, he’d draw the maneuvers on paper.  Inside loops, outside loops, lazy 8s.  I’d see on his face the thrill of it, and he probably read expectation on mine.  “Let’s do it!” I’d say.

Continue reading


“… their insides are open to view, simple, clear, and direct …”

They seem to come with the houses these days.  Who would buy one otherwise?  And for what?  But once received as a gift, or once inherited, one finds many uses for them.  One might finally ask, What did we do without this machine?

I suspect there’s a part of the brain that longs for black dirt, and digging in it, smelling it.  If lucky enough to have been born with gardens and real crops and big machines, one inherits a love of digging.  And of dirt.  Southern dirt is best, but what we have is New England dirt.

We inherited the tractor with the house we took over from my in-laws ten years ago.  It came with the three-stall garage which half-serves as a barn to those with a history of farming.  We have old family photos of my father-in-law farming the lower two acres with the FarmAll.  In my memory of him, he is sitting high up on that black seat with that wide-brimmed straw hat on his nearly-bald head, with that patient pace of his, with that look that said he had all day to plow the corn field, in those baggy Levis, in those L.L.Bean rubber shoes.  Then that mild reporting at day’s end of the earth he had moved, the dirt he’d played in.  Before putting the FarmAll with its specialized plough attachments to bed at night, he’d tend to it, check its oil with the dipstick, kick its giant tires, then wedge it into its tight space, wiping his greasy hands on a rag and stamping his feet at the back door.  Word is that photos exist of his dad on the same tractor – he’d bought it, after all, to do some real farming – but we don’t seem to have them.  It’s enough to know that our FarmAll has served three generations faithfully.

Continue reading

A Rascally Fellow

Every morning at 7:30, the red fox stops by our granite bird bath to take a sip.

This oasis, lying low in Siberian iris, we now keep scrubbed of bird droppings and filled for our discriminating friend.  He sips carefully, his pointy nose finding the sweet spot, his tongue lapping, thin and quick.  I move silently to the kitchen window to watch. I want to run my hand down his gray-red back, down to his white-tipped muff of a tail.  His legs are thin.  He walks with delicacy on small paws.

Before political correctness doomed Uncle Remus’s rich wisdom, I enjoyed his stories as a child –– right alongside Aesop’s Fables, Grimm’s fairy tales, and Greek myth.  Brer Fox was my favorite character in Joel Chandler Harris’s Songs of the South.  I suppose I identified with him – a loner, pondering, watching, a sometimes rascally fellow into occasional thoughts of schadenfreude.  Even now, when I get stuck in my own “tar baby” messes, I remember my furry teacher, Brer Fox.

I imagine our fox feeling safe at our place.  His route is predictable:  up the hill from his den down in the field, a stop at the watering hole, a slow and graceful trot across the back yard, a clear preference for the steps through the perennial garden, up to a rocky outcropping where he pauses, listening, at a thicket of cactus.  I imagine that he remembers the chipmunk he discovered there, pouncing and capturing it in an arching leap through air.  I have learned that foxes hear low-frequency sound and that, perhaps, he heard the hapless little mammal with the racing stripes, burrowing, coming up for morning air.  The fox’s wait was quiet, patient.  No struggle about it.

Just a graceful in-the-moment watching, poised in a relaxed attention, natural to him, that holds him together.

Just a graceful in-the-moment watching, poised in a relaxed attention, natural to him, that holds him together, inside and outside. I remember thinking the lunge was cat-like.

“I said ‘Good mornin’,” Brer Rabbit said to the tar baby.  Dressed in a hat, the tar baby looked to Brer Rabbit like a real person. Impatient and not one to be ignored, Brer Rabbit punched the tar baby with a left hook, then with a right, then with both feet.  His struggles had landed him, stuck, in his own issues.  Brer Fox, laughing like crazy, enjoyed the show from behind a bush.

Several weeks ago, we watched with fascination as our fox cornered a mouse and played with his catch for minutes, enjoying a game of volleyball, of sneak and toss, of cavort and hide, until his joyful game became his lunch. And we know that good feelings and a few light moments at table aid the digestion.

This morning, our fox rests on the garden steps in full sun, grooms himself patiently and works those pointy ears like rotating antennae.  I stand at the sunroom windows, not moving, ten feet away from his small gray-red body, and look at him in wonder.  He looks at me straight on.  His ears come around when I move closer. He wraps his tail, white-tipped and muff-like, and rests there, confident.

Moments later, having had enough of me, he trots up the hill toward the vineyard, looking for something else to stick his nose into. His gait, so appropriate to his purpose, is unhurried.  Inhabiting his small body, he knows what to do, and when, while my human day stretches out, over-planned and held together by a list. When I remember the fox, I can slow my pace, remember my purpose, and inhabit my body too.


Making do along the natural path

A natural wildlife corridor crosses our land, a sometimes-grassy space, open and sunny, a sometimes-woodsy space, protected and dark.  It begins we-do-not-know-where, over that hill past the vineyard, perhaps near the deer thicket, the fox den, the coyote camp, the possum hole.  It comes at us along a steep grade, within sight of the sunroom, and disappears down the hill, ending we-do-not-know-where.  I imagine it circling a corn source, a meat market, the reservoir.

When I look out the sunroom window, I see a path from a vague beginning to a vague ending.  Like a life. We’re all distributed along it.

The deer pick a careful path along the corridor – the four does, the eight-point buck that covers them, and their spotted fauns.  The fox plays along the corridor as if it is his, cat-like, sweet-faced.  The coyote sniffs his way in stealth, and he is thin and leggy.  The possum scampers from rock shelter to an overhang under the rhododendrom.

Only the lame doe stays close.

I saw her last year along the corridor, keeping up with the small herd, limping along, always last in the watchful line.  When alerted, the herd would leap logs and rustle through the bushes along the path, leaving the lame doe to make her own way.  I’d watch her from the sunroom, viewing her as almost human, and wish her courage and tolerance of pain, as I would wish myself.

I see her as resilient and brave, taking to her life alone, compensating, without complaint.

This year, I see her more often.  She is alone, favoring the woodsy space, protected and dark, within sight of the sunroom.  And the patch of grassy backyard where the rhododendrons grow tall and wide and lush.

It’s her front left leg.  Caught in an unseen hole?  Shot by a careless hunter?  Wounded by a hungry coyote?  It doesn’t matter:  she limps.  If she could travel with the herd, she would.  If she could cry out, she might.  But she seems to be making do – her coat is smooth, her bones do not stick out, her eyes are alert, those ears work, and that white tail.  I see her as resilient and brave, taking to her life alone, compensating, without complaint.

It’s winter again, and we are older.  The berries are gone, and the leaves from the deciduous trees.  My husband looks out into the yard.  “It’s time to hang Irish Spring on the rhododendrons again,” he says.   Let’s back up a moment:  that strong-smelling soap protects our rhodys from deer that would otherwise strip them of leaves as far up as they can reach, leaving bare limbs with leafy crowns.

Last week, late at night, we pulled up into the driveway, the headlights shining across the backyard.  There she was at the rhodys, alone, her head up and still, her eyes reflecting her silent attention, but unafraid.  Up off the ground she held her left front leg.  She limped away slowly, favoring the woodsy space, protected and dark.

Over time, nature may favor the fit, but I’m a sucker for the isolated and brave.  I postpone the soap project.



photo credit: mary k. baird

The locust does not survive

At seven, the men from Timber Tree arrive.  They come in a truck with a cherry picker, and a crane with a fifty-foot reach.  Six hefty men, with rope, hoists, and chainsaws. speaking three languages,

The tree is a locust.  We have old photos:  my husband and his siblings just children, my father- and mother-in-law proud, the just-planted locust a sapling in the side yard.  The anomaly developed later. The teenaged tree branched into a perfect V, one thick leg pushing east, the other due west.  Fast growing, big trunked, and loose-leafed, the adult tree towered over the house in not-so-many years.  Later photos show just that. My husband grown and in his Easter suit, the locust’s mighty trunk in the background, the V far above his head and unseen.

A family favorite that tree, one of two big ones planted near the house.  The locust had a job to do:  shade the house, serve as perches for birds and squirrels.  Wait.  Have you ever seen a sixty-foot locust?  The shade is dappled, and the leaves are small and lacey, and they dust at the sky in a soft breeze, and the trunk seems to be much ado for the little it produces higher up, and dead limbs fall out of it all year round, and the roots push up volunteer saplings in the yard.  Birds don’t seem to nest in them:  not enough cover, too much movement.  But they are as lovely as a young girl in a green summer skirt, trailing ribbons.

Trees are friends.  My own childhood favorite was a hollowed-out cypress that a low tide could be reached in my bare feet.  At high tide, only by a green rowboat with rusty oarlocks.  But it was mine.  I gathered Spanish moss for cushioning for the deep hollow, so big I could fit into it, along with my books and my lunch of apple and peanut butter and Pepsi.  Once or twice when I forgot the boat and read through afternoon, I either swam home or waited for the tide to change.  Pintails, mallards, and black duck swam and dove.  Once I saw a cottonmouth, intent for the far shore, its back stamped like footprints.  Last time I was in that Pamlico River town, the cypress was still there, but smaller.

Today, I look out the kitchen window at the locust.  The eastern leg of the V has shaded the kitchen, the dining room, and the master bedroom upstairs; the western V, a lovely patch of Bermuda grass, and a border of rhododendron and azalea that bank the top of the long drive down to the road.  A suet cage for the red-bellied woodpeckers hangs from the trunk. A little perch gives them a place to stand; my mother-in-law wouldn’t have a bird inconvenienced. The swinging bench, rough of wood, without paint, faces northeast into Massachusetts – “a beautiful view,” she said often, urging people to sit there.  If you took her advice and find your partner’s rhythm, you ha a fine view over Rhode Island’s woods into Massachusetts.  A five-layered tree line, green to blue to gray to mist to sky.  But I never saw my in-laws sitting there.  They didn’t sit.  The bench belonged to the squirrels by adverse possession.  My father-in-law would look at their leavings and say, “They’ve been before us.”  Still, he loved that locust.

My daddy was a tree lover.  His favorites were long-leaf pines.  Back in the early 1950s, he dug a hundred of them out of the Croatan woods, stuck them down into Maxwell House coffee cans, and set them out in the yard of our new house.  “The cans will rust out,” he said.  And they did.  By the time I was struggling with Algebra I and looking for prom dates, those trees were way above the rooftop and waving their fragile arms straight out, looking for all the world like giant green scarecrows.  But they were lawn trees.  Landscaping.  Daddy’s real love was his apple and peach trees.  He pruned and sprayed and canned.  And he counted the fruit..

But it’s the locust that’s to be taken down today.

My father-in-law saw the problem with the V and called the tree expert.  Back in the 1980s, big-tree Vs were treated with steel rods, like those braces small children used to wear to keep their legs apart after hip surgery.  The locust didn’t seem to mind the rod and screws.  It wrapped its bark around them as if it knew it needed the support. The tree looked to be permanent – medical problem solved – and my mother-in-law, who never saw a square foot of earth without thinking of some growing thing perfect for the space, planted vinca at the base and let violets roam free.  In the greenery, she nestled a granite birdbath.  The area became the local hangout for birds perched on specialized feeders stocked with gourmet seed.  A small pair of binoculars and a copy of The Guide to North American Birds sat on the kitchen sill in case new bird flew in for supper.   The upside-down nuthatches took an instant liking to the bark.

The workmen unpack their surgical tools.

Until today, the steel rod’s been a perch for the local covey of doves that share our yard.  The brace can serve a dozen or so when, late in the afternoon, they gather on the rod high above the birdbath, chased there by the raucous jays, but contemplating a cool dip.  When sufficient in number, they drop to the vinca, hop up onto the stone birdbath, and begin the evening ritual of dousing and flapping, dousing and flapping.  They’re good about taking turns.

Me, I’m a worrywart. I checked the trajectory of the eastern leg of the V when we moved into the house up on the hill.  It’s not that my glass is half-full.  Rather, it’s that I like to consider all the possibilities as if checking the V and the rod after an ice storm or nor’easter might be helpful.

“If that rod goes in the night,” I said to my husband, “we’re dead in our bed.”

When Hurricane Irene approached, I asked him, “Should we sleep in the guest room?”  The other side of the house seemed safer to me.




I watched the Weather Channel for wind speed.  Then I paid the tree a visit.  But what do I know about tree crotches?

Daddy watched the hurricanes too.  Hurricane Hazel, who blew her bitchiness right over our house back in 1954, arrived at sunset, howled all night, took down several of Daddy’s long-leafed pines, and damaged others.  He was just sick about them.  Mama was less concerned – she liked more light in the house – and my brother, who had to mow around every tree, appreciated fewer interruptions on the lawn.  What I think is that Daddy wasn’t so worried about the pines as he was about the house, and he wasn’t so worried about the house as he was about the apple and peach trees.

Today, I know that it was Hurricane Irene who finally defeated the locust.  Fully leafed out and heavy with rain, the crotch gave way.  The next day, we found a deep crack running from the bottom of the V down into the heartwood beneath.  We called Timber Tree.

The workmen unloaded their surgical tools.  I watch from the kitchen.  The chainsaw begins to buzz.  It will buzz all day and into evening. First the lacey canopy, which the crane lifted up and out and over the woods and down.  Balanced on rope, still alive, still green, it offered dappled shade even as it traveled its high trajectory to the brush pile.  The cherry picker reached up; the crane reached even higher.  Workmen were everywhere with ropes, pulleys, saws. They were quiet men, sharing a small job vocabulary in English and Spanish and Hmong:

“Further out.”

“One more wrap.”

“Heads up.”

“Take that one next.”

Then much later, the legs of the Vs themselves, further down, closer to the heart.  Sawed off mid-thigh, lifted by crane, they resembled amputated limbs aloft.

That part I couldn’t watch.

Branches lay in the yard.  And logs.  Too many to count.  The tree men will come tomorrow to grind the stump.

There’s more light in the kitchen now, and the side yard has opened up.  We’re thinking of a river birch if anything at all.  Last week, a dove sat on the tuft of vinca, looking for the birdbath.

To Irene, much obliged …

The copper beech, our upside-down octopus in brown and green, has roots-to-China sturdiness, and stood firm in the gale.

A good Chardonnay is good at any temperature.

I am careful with water, with food, with my MacBook Pro battery. I think ahead.  I consider consequences.  Four sheets of toilet paper will do.  (Did I actually write that down?)  The smaller red onion.  Fewer spinach leaves.   The laundry chute doesn’t need a foot of wet dishtowels tossed down into it, so hang them out to dry.   What is “conservation” anyway?

Ancient candlesticks in the sunroom, the kitchen, the dining room.  A lovely glow.

Two bathtubs full of water – our “wells.”  The indoor plants – we’ve taken them from the wilds – need water too, and we can’t forget them.  And the birdbath.

The refrigerator/freezer:  40 degrees is the cut off.  Under 40 – fine, eat it; over 40 – toss it.  So much food ….

People from far away call.  They care.

My laptop, my imagined freedom from being “shut down” creatively, is now at 47%.  Careful!  And pick up a pen, silly woman.

Raking debris works the upper body and raises blisters on the palms.  I don’t like to do this.  I’m lazy.  Can somebody else to this?  I’m interested in my own comfort.  I need to see this about myself.

I need to figure out a way to wash my hair, dry it, put that goop in it, style it.  My hair is on my mind more than I’d like to admit.

Ice is a (relatively) recent phenomenon.  But today, where to get it?  Who has it?  Should I get in the car and go out on a search?  Or conserve gasoline?

Shoulders that usually are coat-hanger tense relax when given a welcomed three-day reprieve from Fox News.

We have dinner by candlelight.  We talk.  Nice.

The Coleman stove – hissing, whispering yellow-blue under a pot of water – brings memories of camping at Mount Desert Island and a promise to return there next summer.

Two candles – one his, one mine – carried up the dark stairs, placed on bedside tables, and blown out simultaneously provides a Downton Abby moment.  How quaint and fun.

I glance, from habit, at the digital display on the range, the VCR, the clock.  But it’s the grandfather clock in the library that’s the faithful presence. “Well, the clock works,” he says.  Interestingly, it was built in the 1800s.   I like that.

When the lights pop on, part of me is delighted; part of me is sad.   I think about my hair … and Fox News.  A return to old habits.

But for new impressions, thank you, Irene.

Hard winter: shut in and seeing out

The roof leaks under tons of snow and ice.  The bathroom, in the high frequency, pitty-pat gurgles of children playing.  The kitchen, in the flat plops of its plastic bucket.   I check the jar in the library window.  At this rate, it’ll fill up by noon.  Red water, like the cherry window frames.

Hanging outside the sunroom window is the icicle.  Icicle is too fragile a word.  At the gutter, it’s maybe thigh-wide.  And as we say in New England, a good eight feet long, with rings of ice-fat.  I think of a see-through Michelin tire boy.  By ten o’clock, it’s dripping like a 1940s fawcet.  That’s a crater it’s making beneath.  To see what it’ll do next, I put my pen down and find excuses to be in the sunroom.  We should leave it there, this glassy stalactite. This crystal curtains.  No harm.  It’s a museum piece.  Temporary art.

I’m still a Southerner at heart.  We saved a dogwood last summer from encroaching shadow-giants.  For light, it leans southeast, an F in italics.  Its arms bring to mind a font the Brothers Grimm might have designed for The Frog Prince, or Lillian Hellman for The Little Foxes.  Crazed fingers-with-fingers.  Sun seeking, frozen and black-foresty against the field of snow that climbs the hill to the vineyard.

Gran’mama’s wrought iron love seat, solid in its present black over many coats of hundred-year-old green, is buried.  Only a scrolled corner sticks out.  A perch for Noah’s dove in this winter’s Deluge.  A chickadee this time.

My partner in hip boots digs shovel-width paths to the bird feeders and the bird bath. There’s a loyal population to feed.  Squirrels can’t be seen down in the troughs.  But the skinned-back, red turkey heads bob by – ga-lump ga-lump ga-lump – along the new turkey road.

Last night, high in the bare trees on the north side, the turkeys looked like tumble weeds, but thirty degrees east of their usual longitude.  Buddies, the two of them snapped out fan tails for balance.  High wire walkers, they’re an awkward a species at these heights.  Not the place to pick at fleas (but they do), nor to dress feathers.  But just so.  Then they slept. Headless and still, they faced north, both of them, into the wind that was to come, according to Accuweather.  But they knew this.

But now the turkeys peck at sunflower seeds splashed on the ground by profligate squirrels who have unlocked the secret to yet another bird feeder.  Some squirrels are smarter than others, I’ve noticed.  They learn; they teach their friends.

If I had written a thousand words of non-fiction this morning, I would have missed all this amazing stuff of the present.  I report all this to my partner who calls mid-afternoon.  I’ll go to Borders to write now, I say.

“Remember to empty the buckets before you leave,” he says.