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It was a dark and stormy night when my husband and I arrived in Cape May for a September vacation, so we didn’t do much gazing off into the distance as we unloaded what we needed to get to bed. The next night, Friday, the 13th as it happened, I was out on the front porch with a friend around 11 p.m. when we noticed  2 orange lights in the sky moving in tandem though not close enough to be on the same object. They headed west along the beach and then turned south over the ocean around Queen Street and soon enough disappeared. Mildly entertaining but hardly anything to talk about–until one of us noticed another orange glow coming low from the east and taking the same track as the other orange balls. And then another and another. Completely silent and steady. We called our other witnesses outside and speculated all sorts of things: something the Coast Guard base was doing, drone testing, UFO’s or a really meticulous wedding planner showing her stuff. The last was all mine.

We looked forward to the next evening with four more friends arriving to either make fools of us or be foolish with us. A little before 10 p.m. on Saturday, sure enough, the orange balls kept popping up to the east, silently coming towards our house before taking a left over the ocean to disappear–seemingly before they were so far away that we couldn’t possibly have seen them. I think we saw 8 that night over the course of 10 minutes. My usually shy and retiring husband went down the porch steps to accost some people walking along on the sidewalk with their backs to the show and they started pointing and blabbing along with us, wondering what the heck it was we were seeing. One of them had a good camera with a telephoto lens and took a shot, which my husband saw, that seemed to show that each orange ball was actually 2 separate lights. We talked about getting in the car to try to find the source of it–perhaps to Poverty Beach where we could glimpse the Coast Guard Station’s beach, but we were too lazy to do that.

This is not that photo.

aha!

Aha!

I wasn’t interested enough to do the research that one of our friends did. Somebody in 2010 noted a similar scene in Cape May and speculated it had something to do with the Electronics Support Group at the Coast Guard Training Center. I prefer the wedding planner scenario, imagining the rehearsal dinner guests and wedding guests on or near the beach oohing and aahing at the pretty lights in the nighttime sky.  We kept looking most other nights we were there, but didn’t see anything other than a beautiful full moon. When my husband and I walked to The Pier House for dinner one night, I couldn’t resist taking a photo of the light at Pittsburgh and Beach to send the friends who’d already headed home–not with the aliens–as far as I know.

Given that one of my most vivid dreams from childhood was of a traffic light near what is now the Heritage Motel in Cape May giving me lessons in how to walk on my heels, you would be within your rights to dispute the truthfulness of my earlier account. But I’d rather you just tell me what it was.

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Good ole Mary S.

Good ole Mary S.

I walked up the backyard yesterday after a walk with a friend in the soft rain. I was already thinking of the next thing I had to do when I walked over the bridge over the gully kwai (not its real name) and had enough sense to pause and see the blooms where they were planted. I felt a calming and a brightening simultaneously. The leafed out Japanese maple was all the umbrella I needed from the rain sprinkling down and the pine straw path hushed my clodhopper footfalls. And then right at eye-level were these babies. Not babies at all, quite mature like myself, but planted by Mary and Stuart decades ago, exactly in the right place for me to get happier just then. I think I’ll go back out there right this second. Our yard is such that if I don’t get right out in it and wander around, I can miss the best of what those Shumates did back there.

Mary’s been gone for a year now, but those azaleas and the phlox and ajuga and vinca busting out all over keep her ever-present. Excuse me, while I go pay my respects to her plants.

 

 

 

I have a job where I walk through Richmond neighborhoods during the day and show off almost anything to unsuspecting folks. Friday I’ll be wandering The Fan in search of good food–not exactly a difficult task. Saturday I head to North Side to show off the eats available on MacArthur and Bellevue avenues. Don’t tell the restaurants, but as happy as I will be to introduce people to their joints, and as fun as it is that we’re starting the tour at my painter friend’s Sarah Master’s studio, I get absolutely giddy thinking about showing off backyard chickens in one generous person’s yard (almost legal, even) and then there’s the creme de la creme, alpacas in another woman’s backyard! In the city. I love this more than makes sense.

 

No eating alpacas on this food tour!

No eating alpacas on this food tour!

Tickets ($44.46) are available and must be purchased in advance here. I wonder how many restaurants on the tour are serving chicken? I do know we will answer the question, Which came first the chicken or the egg?

The egg doesn't come first on this tour.

The egg doesn’t come first on this tour.

Our visit to Little House Green Grocery will settle that!

 

 

Just Ducky

Would that I had my ducks in a row on this first day of 2013. Came upon something I wrote in early Jan. 2002 bemoaning the lack of organization in these parts and our manic undertakings to improve this that and the other. Ducks have two advantages that we don’t–no email or paper to drown in. I think it might take some walking on water to stay afloat!

Rock, Paper, Scissors has never been my favorite game. I think right about now, with Sandy en route, I’d prefer the choice of Stone, Plywood, Drill Driver.

I wish….

I just finished reading Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver, with assists from her husband Steven Hoppe and daughter Camille Kingsolver. It’s the sort of book that makes me feel smug and superior compared to people who eat at McDonald’s and slovenly and inferior contrasted to the farm folks–depending on the sentence. She’s a beautiful writer and I wish I could do half of what she is somehow able to do in a year. Or perhaps I wish she would just do it for me. It’s possible I just have the wrong friends–few of whom would be all that helpful processing turkeys. It pissed me off to read that for her 50th birthday everyone brought her plants that she put in their front yard. That is a damned good idea. For my 50th birthday everyone bought me a dozen cupcakes. That was a pretty good idea, too, since I wasn’t hosting legions of friends–just a few–so I didn’t have to share so much.

I shop at farmers’ markets and have joined a food co-op to get more local produce and pastured eggs and meat and chicken. I do this and I don’t do that. I buy local and almost never darken a chain restaurant’s door. I like pulling basil out of my small kitchen garden to make pesto a few times a summer. I’m a big believer in weeding by hand, rather than by chemical and I have shrunk our lawn considerably over the years. I’ve made mozzarella twice and liked the results once. I’ve even eaten twice in one weekend at the farm-to-table restaurant Kingsolver and her husband started in Meadowview, VA, The Harvest Table. All good. I’m sure you’re tired now so I won’t tell you all the bad I’ve done–the plants I’ve killed with neglect, the plastic containers of organic spinach I’ve bought–that sort of thing.

Back to the nature

This tomato plant came from the Meadowview Farmers’ Guild General Store, adjacent to the Harvest Table. I am a neglectful gardener and as I sow so shall I reap. And perhaps weep. I want the plants to be independent. I think they should tie themselves to posts as they grow. Figure it out. Water themselves. That sort of thing. Forgive me, Mother Nature, for I have sinned. But I also bought a Twin Oaks hammock at the General Store, so somehow that works out so that I can feel smug and superior and supportive of the local little guys while I nap in the shade. I haven’t made my hammock, but I can still lie in it. Living la vida loca…

Why are tiny things so appealing? Miniaturized things? In the case of dollhouses, it can only be that one doesn’t have to clean the toilets. In the case of this display from Brookside Gardens in Montgomery County, MD, where I grew up (and pretty much the best thing in Montgomery County), it must be that there are no weeds that need pulling or no deer chomping on the azaleas.

Tiny is about control. If my garden consisted of a potted plant, I might be able to deal with it. Perhaps that is why writing picture books and poems for children appeal to me more than longer forms.

Image

Sometimes it’s hard to see that I’m making  headway in a given area of life. It could be my tendency to weed 62% of the weeds in one spot of my yard, meaning to get back to it to get the rest before they go to seed and undo any of the % I just took care of, but then something else gets my attention and it’s weeks before I return to see that I was 100% dumb not to finish the task the first time around.

Painting on Wood by Cris Pool Wise

A couple of Pileated woodpeckers have been visiting my house and yard frequently–occasionally at full tilt–as was the case last week when we all heard a terrific BAM that could only mean a big damned bird had just hurt itself somewhere. We were shocked to see a dazed and dopey-looking Pileated woodpecker wobbling around in some bushes under a set of living room windows. Its pal was freaking out nearby as was I a little, wondering what I was going to have to do with this bird. Thankfully, in a few minutes, it had hopped over to a small tree and was more or less recovered. That had to be one big headache, though.

Later my husband and I watched as one of the woodpeckers went nuts on our oak tree stump that’s carved into a throne of sorts out front. It was making headway, quite literally, chipping away at something that a few years ago seemed as solid as stone. More than one chainsaw gave its life for the cause of my throne. I should probably go sit in it and ponder where I next should make headway, what else I should bang my head against, before the woodpeckers reduce it to a pile of mulch.

I have been to the mountains and I didn’t want to leave. No cell phone coverage. No internet. Sky–lots of it. Also more maple syrup than I technically needed, but that’s Highland County’s thing, so can’t really argue with it. It won’t make me popular at Monterey’s doughnut-selling shack, but I just think maple-glazed doughnuts are a bad idea. Maple-glazed chicken I could get behind–and my mouth in front of, and maple syrup on buckwheat pancakes tasted as maple trees intended in their infinite wisdom. The folks who still make the syrup the old way are a different sort than most Americans. Spend time outside. Touch trees. Wonder if bears might wake up too soon and cause some trouble at the sugar shack. That sort of thing. The early summery weather made it tough on syrup production this year, FYI.

Ahhhh

During my two night visit last month during the Maple Festival, I was able to come up with t-shirt slogans that will make someone other than me not the least bit rich, tour several sugar camps, stare at countless gorgeous views with sun and shadow and mountains and meadows playing so well together-almost as well as maple syrup and Jack Daniels purportedly get along over ice. Perhaps the highlight was having wine and cheese alongside a rushing creek with some friends. For the rest of the story, you’ll have to read whatever else it is that I wrote in a travel piece for the May issue of Richmond Magazine.

With the passing of dear Mary Shumate, who lived and loved the house and yard I’ve lived in 16 years, I’ve been appreciating her handiwork with a sharper eye. She and her dear husband Stuart built this house and fashioned this yard starting in 1955.

Mary's garden still grows.

It helps that the lamium and azaleas and vinca and phlox and dogwoods are all blooming exuberantly, and that I finished clearing the paths she and Stuart laid out and lined with cobbles decades ago and lined them with pine straw the past week. I tell myself it doesn’t much matter what’s going on on either side of the path as long as it looks well-tended. It’s not true, I know, but thank goodness the phlox are bobbing along here and there to take one’s eye off the ivy explosion. If it is a sin to plant English Ivy, that’s on her, God–not me! She just kept it under control better than I do. I’ll take the heat for that.

A good path to follow

During the service for her yesterday, her own exuberance was still quite evident since she had planned it–so many references to the natural world: For the Beauty of the Earth and Let All Things Now Living made me smile–which doesn’t often happen to me in church. And then there was the particularly well chosen Ecclesiastes 3: 1-8:

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:

A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;

A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;

A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;

A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;

A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;

A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;

A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.

All that she planted and plucked, all those stones she lugged up from the creek, all the banks she built up, all the times she made her kids and grandchildren hate the gully (since she made them weed it for 5 cents a bushel, I heard yesterday! I offered them a quarter), and all the love of beauty she shared–they’re all evident right outside my window. And I am so grateful to be able to see her hand and eye at work still–even if I can’t keep the yard up to her standards.

Not sure she was much for keeping silence, but it was so much fun to listen to her that I think she was the exception to that rule. I’m happy to hear her voice in my head through the seasons.

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