Letter from Birdland: A morning stroll down memory lane
This morning, I woke to a perfect fog in Birdland, and Michael and I took our morning walk. My husband likes to start the day with a cup of coffee in his hand, visiting all the corners of our yard, making plans for landscaping and other projects. Since I don't teach the early morning classes, I can join him.
I never get tired of looking at the same half-finished projects every day, hearing his plans to encourage native plants in the yard or build a coop for next year's turkeys. He points out a furry gray rosette of thick leaves, growing flat on the ground, like a flower itself.
"What's that?" he asks. "Mullein," I tell him, though I have identified that particular plant a thousand times for him already. I make a note of its location to dig it later and transfer it to my path, or I might let it grow right there and flag it so he will not mow over it. I guess he doesn't get tired of hearing me identify plants, either.
I think I have finally got him on board with my mowing philosophy. He heard our local bee expert on the radio (actually, I think May Berenbaum is an expert on many topics) say she did a controlled burn in her yard and afterward let the native plants replace the turf grass. Michael has mentioned that interview twice in the past two days, and I think now he sees the benefits of a more diverse lawn. Two years of drought have meant that we got the lawn mower out once or twice this summer, and that gives our yard a chance at more diversity.
My technique for mowing is to mow around flowering plants, like mullein or aster, creating little islands of variety in the yard, with only paths of mown grass between. Eventually, maybe I could mulch those paths and let the lawn mower go altogether. In any case, I think of the lawn mower as a trimming tool, while he has favored a suburban golf course style of lawn. We fight our quiet battles, but I think maybe I am winning him over.
Last week, we walked out the grass waterway to the meadow behind the Benson Timber. We looked at beans along the way, now drying, shrinking in their pods. It was just a walk, but without really discussing it, we realized we were both looking for the fish.
Many years ago, we walked back there with our oldest two boys. I carried the chubby, red-headed baby; the oldest, in a turtleneck shirt with his shock-of-wheat hair, walked alongside. Michael said we were going to find some fish, and I snorted, because we have a tiny stream back there, zigzagging out of the woods before it goes underground when it hits the meadow. But that stream only runs in spring and fall or maybe after a heavy rain. It's little more than a trickle, washing over a stony bottom. We might see a salamander or the prints of raccoons or deer, but it's not enough water to support a fish. I thought he was joking.
In those days, the waterway was full of weeds — goldenrod, milkweed, jimson weed, multiflora rose — but also a lovely briar of wild rose as tall and as wide as a Volkswagen bug. Grass was as tall as our oldest, and we blazed a trail through the timothy and bluestem, Canadian rye, indian grass, or sometimes, when the brush was too much for him, we edged along the side of the cornfield. But before we even got to the meadow, Michael stopped at a spray of milkweed. Its gray, thorny-looking seedpods hung from the plant like something prehistoric. Some had opened, spilling snow-white floss into the wind.
Michael picked one just barely dry and knelt carefully to show Chandra. My oldest bent his blond head solemnly over my husband's cupped palm. "There's a fish in here," Michael said. What does he have up his sleeve? I wondered, and I bent over too, pointing for the baby. Michael carefully opened the pod, and sure enough, we could see the fish scales—the seeds all laid out in a regular pattern, the floss beneath still damp and tight in the pod. An eyeless fish, waiting to swim out and spread its seeds across to feed the monarch butterflies.
I shake myself back to the present and take my husband's hand, and we continue our fishing expedition. We finally find a small school of fish plants at the very end of the furthest waterway. None of the seedpods is dry enough to burst, so we will come back next week to bring home seeds to plant in our yard, to give the monarchs an oasis on their long journey, in the desert of corn and beans.
Fish in peace; cultivate beauty; blessed be.
Mary Lucille Hays lives in Birdland near White Heath. She is interested in diversity as part of any sustainable system. You can read more of her writings at http://www.letterfrombirdland.blogspot.com. Mary can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or via snail mail care of this newspaper.