Letter from Birdland: A splendid evening of sights and sounds

This evening, Birdland is full of activity. Three big tractors work the fields: a red one across the road, a green one to the east and I forget the color of the one in the back south fields. It has been half an hour since I've seen it, crawling across, back and forth, raking the earth smooth, like brown corduroy.

The green tractor is dogged by a bird. It looks like a crow from here. The chickens graze in the grass, and Ursula has found something pungent to roll in. My dog brings the stinking nubbin up close to me and lays it delicately in the lawn, then rolls over on her back, scraping her neck into it. She reeks now, and I yell at her to go away.

I can hear the wind and the frogs and the chugging. The three engines, one close, the others farther, weave their sounds into the breeze and the birdsong, the chuckle of the chickens and the dog crunching that spicy bit of jerky she found in the road.

A fourth engine comes around the corner, closer and higher in sound. It is Michael on the little green garden tractor. He is using the wagon to haul dirt from where he's grading the yard next to the garage. My new husband vowed to take a week to do nothing after that big party we had, but I knew he could not last that long before he got back to his chores.

I, on the other hand, am the only thing not moving in this green landscape. I'm sitting on the Adirondack chair, watching, listening, typing. I take a sip of water and listen to a bird scold high in the maple. Another joins in, and the tractors have all faded into the distance.

A couple of bicyclists ride by on the road. Ursula stands up and watches them cautiously. Are they a threat? Will they come and play? But no, she doesn't bark. They continue on their ride without noticing us.

Shiva comes out quietly from the shelter of the ornamental quince. Now I remember that my cat came with me when I brought my computer out. She is stalking something in the poppies. The poppies have lost all their showy petals and are now just velvety pepper shakers on crooked stems. Soon the stalks will dry and go brittle. The wind will crack them, shaking the seeds into the earth. The leaves will wilt and be taken over by the grasses and weeds growing there.

Some years, we set the mower very low to the ground and cut away all the weeds, scattering the tiny seeds, then cover the poppy bed with hay to keep it mostly in poppies. Maybe we'll get to that this summer.

Something flutters to my left, and I look over. It is one of the Rhode Island red hens jumping to reach the mulberries ripening on the tiny tree. Mulberries are weedy and try to come up in all our beds. I usually cut them out, but two years ago I let one go and then trimmed it in the fall, down to nearly the trunk at about 3 feet.

I got the idea from when we lived in Barcelona. There they have what looked to me like sycamores, but now I see are "London plane trees." They prune them severely, so the trunk is majestic, but instead of climbing to heights of 50-60 feet as the sycamores do in our woods, the trunk ends about 10-12 feet up and sprouts into a shorter, rounded canopy.

I discovered by accident that a mulberry tree pruned harshly like that will result in the same kind of lovely dwarf tree. This summer, my tree has a spherical crown, about 12 feet at the tippy top. It is full of berries, just beginning to ripen, and my chickens have discovered them.

Hence, the jumping. The lowest branches are only about 2-1/2 feet from the ground, and by jumping, my chickens can just reach them. The berries are sweet, especially when sun-warmed and apparently worth all kinds of acrobatics.

Jump in beauty; plow in peace; blessed be.

Mary Lucille Hays lives in Birdland near White Heath. She would like to remind her Champaign friends that the city council study session on backyard chickens is scheduled for July 9. You can see photos of chickens at http://www.letterfrombirdland.blogspot.com. Mary can be reached at letterfrombirdland@gmail.com or via snail mail care of this newspaper.

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