Arriving Where We Started

If I had a blog, today I would write about coming home a second time.

Almost exactly a year ago we made a remarkable decision: With Dad’s retirement approaching, he, Mom and I decided it would be exciting to leave our native Missouri and make our home in a new place, a place quite different from that which we know so well.

Our first thought was Florida. We had a beach house near Sarasota when I was a child and memories of sun-drenched mornings on the beach, collecting baskets of seashells, and watching dolphins play in the evening surf made us think perhaps that was the place we should go. Mom and Dad made a trip down to look at homes and see if any of Old Florida still existed and, for a few months, it seemed a real possibility. But when the calculators came out and the risk of hurricanes was factored in and the bumper-to-bumper traffic was assessed, we had to admit that our version of Casey Key was gone. We were chasing ghosts of the past trying to make our dream a reality and we accepted that we had to move on.

00-solstice-sunset_0040-webOur next thought was Santa Fe, New Mexico. We’d all visited Santa Fe and loved the classy, artsy feel of this quaint city and the fierce landscapes surrounding us would be the perfect place to experience wilderness in a way we hadn’t before. We looked at hundreds of homes online, talked to a realtor, and even made a trip out to get one more up-close-and-personal Santa Fe experience, but, in the end, we realized our dreams of a desert oasis would be drowned in a sea of wall-to-wall tourists the year round and so we set this plan aside as well. It was then that we had the most remarkable thought of all: Why not stay here, on the farm we call The Greenwood?

the-house-in-summer-webTwo decades ago, Mom and Dad bought this land and built the farm of their dreams. They designed the house, planned the barns and pastures and planted crops that would benefit livestock and wild creatures as well. Together, we raised sheep, cows, horses, pigs, and chickens to feed ourselves and eventually, our growing base of customers. We had a twenty-cow dairy and sold our grass-fed meats to the best chefs in St. Louis. We hiked every acre of this place and came know the spirit of every hillside, creek, and valley. We built a life here. Why should we be in such a hurry to leave?

Eight years ago we stopped farming on a large scale and slowly sold our livestock to others until the barns stood empty – waiting for the next chapter to begin. We thought the story would be written by others, but, it turns out, we have more to say, more stories to create in our little valley by the river. When all was weighed in the balance, the answer was clear: Our next adventure begins here, on The Greenwood.

20160921_0066Twelve laying hens now inhabit the chicken house, already providing us with healthy eggs, rich in flavor. In the next few weeks, we hope to bring home six sheep to give us lambs in the spring, and over the course of the winter, we will acquire half-a-dozen young cows who will supply us with beef calves and breeding stock. There might even be a border collie in our future. Its hard to say just how deep this rabbit hole goes.

When I think about it, staying here makes perfect sense. It has the ideal circularity of story to give a happy ending. It also mirrors one of my favorite quotes, a passage written by T.S. Eliot in the final passage of The Four Quartets:

We shall not cease from exploring                                                                                                               And the end of our exploring                                                                                                                         Will be to arrive where we started                                                                                                                 And know the place for the first time.

So we begin – again.

Nothin’ Could Be Finer

If I had a blog, today I would write about one of my favorite birds: The Carolina Wren.

web 10062014_247I love wrens. They are bold, brassy, and outspoken; flitting from pillar to post with their tail upright as if in protest. I’m not sure what Carolina’s have to protest, but believe me, rebellion is in their blood.

Carolina Wren’s average about 5″ in length and weigh about 3/4 of an ounce. They are the second largest wren in the United States after the cactus wren of the desert southwest. Carolina Wrens can live to be 6 years of age and often keep one mate for their entire breeding lifespan. When a pair of wrens bond, they not only stay together through the nesting season, they remain a pair and interact throughout the year.

Although both sexes of Carolina Wren can sing, it is primarily the males we hear making their strident calls from fence row and thicket. One captive male was recorded singing 3,000 times in one day! This is news to me, as I assumed female wrens were the ones making a racket during breeding and nesting season: Sort of an, “I am woman, hear me roar,” attitude. Nevertheless, female wrens do defend their nests with great vigor and anyone approaching her brood should do so with caution.

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Baby Carolina

During the breeding season, male Carolina Wrens several nests, although only one will be used for brooding. Not only do the “dummy” nests confuse predators, but scientists believe female wrens choose the most appealing nest to use for raising young.

The hallmark of the Carolina Wren is the bold, white eye stripe that gives them a somewhat cross demeanor. If wrens come back as humans, I think many would return as stereotypical boarding school teachers. Their stern visage speaks of rapped knuckles and detention after school. There would be no talking, note-passing, or other fol de rol in the classroom of Mr. or Mrs. Carolina Wren !

web 10062014_250Carolina wrens spend the majority of their time on or near the ground searching for food, or in tangles of vegetation and vines. They also probe bark crevices on lower tree levels, or pick up leaf-litter in order to search for prey. Their diet consists of invertebrates, such as beetles, true bugs, grasshoppers, katydids, spiders, ants, bees, and wasps. Small lizards and tree frogs also make up the carnivorous portion of their diet. Vegetable matter makes up a small percentage of their diets, such as fruit pulp and various seeds. In the northern portion of their range, they frequent bird feeders.

For me, the bottom line is: I like wrens because they are small yet mighty. I admire their courage and the bold way they approach life. More often than not, life seems overwhelming to me and yet here are these wee birds who are ready to take on the world. When a Carolina is sitting on my porch, belting out his vibrant song, it gives me courage to be my authentic self, to sing my own wonderful song.

Bringing Autumn Home

If I had a blog, today I would write about the way fall arrives in our home on The Greenwood.

Yesterday fall arrived at The Greenwood. Following a forty-seven year tradition, Mom and I put up our autumn decorations. This may seem like a fairly bland occurrence, but for me, it is wrapped in a thousand memories of happy autumn days.

Kids_0013Our tradition started when my siblings and I were toddlers. In those days, we lived in a little ranch style house just outside Rolla and Mom wanted to fancy up (or cover up) our classic 1970’s brown refrigerator and equally attractive cabinet doors with something that honored her love of the natural world. To that end, she started saving calendar pictures and carefully cutting photos from magazines like Farm and Ranch, National Wildlife, and Missouri Conservationist. Mom changed the pictures every month and we anticipated the changing of the photos with great excitement.

As we grew, so did the tradition. When David and I were in school, our artwork was added to the mix as were more substantial items like silk flowers, seasonal figurines, and fragrant candles in vessels painted with seasonal decor. By the time we were in grammar school, coming home to find that Mom had put up the next season’s decorations was as exciting in September as putting up Christmas in December.

090116_2152Over the years, I’ve picked up on Mom’s idea and now my part of the house changes with the seasons as well. I honor each part of the year, but I have to say, putting up my fall adornments is my favorite ritual. Whatever the weather outside, once my home is wreathed in leaves and silk mums, fall has arrived.

We need traditions to mark the transitions in our lives. In today’s largely virtual world, it is easy to get disconnected from the cycles of nature, even from the flow of the day. We no longer break our fast together, pause at noon to gather and say grace, or sit undistracted at the dinner table, sharing the news of the day. Our lives are lived together, but apart. The technology that, in one sense, unifies the world also tears at the fabric of family life. We scarcely notice the weather unless it inconveniences us and the change of seasons are marked solely by a change of wardrobe. It is no wonder that the world is in chaos.

090116_2154Will hanging pretty pictures on the refrigerator stop global war? Will putting out the Ghost Lamp (now almost 50 years old) at Halloween stop suffering and human greed? No. But imagine what would happen if we all slowed down long enough to care that we are moving from one season to the next. If we took time to look for the change in the autumn light, the coming of migrating birds, the silence that comes with the first flakes of snow. If we took time to cherish the world we live in, perhaps we would be less cavalier about its destruction. By the same token, if we took time to cherish our family, to look into one another’s eyes and share the joy and pain that resides within us, perhaps we would stop the senseless abuse, neglect, and violence that escalates with each passing day. I can’t make any promises, but I know the peace of heart and mind taking part in my family’s traditions gives to me and it is something rare and beautiful; something that makes a difference in my world at the very least.

Late this afternoon, after my little piece of the planet glowed with the fires of autumn, I settled into my reading chair, my Labrador Gus snoozing on the bed, and listened to the rain beating a gentle tattoo on the roof. Soft light glowed from every corner and shades of burgundy, gold, and ochre called me to settle in and enjoy this perfect start to my favorite season. I have peace. I have love. I feel part of something greater than myself and it is all because I know where I belong and I have a path to follow that will always lead me home.


For the Love of Little Chickens

If I had a blog, today I would write about my love of the farmstead chicken.

06092005_223627I met my first chicken in an ambulance. I was twelve and newly diagnosed with insulin-dependent diabetes. I had the flu and, back then, in the late 1970’s, if I couldn’t eat, I had to go to the hospital for IV’s. My doctor was two hours away (the joys of rural living), so away I went with Mom by my side.

Just as we were going out the door, the phone rang. It was Dad, calling from nearby Rolla to say my baby chickens had just been delivered to his dental clinic and were cheeping away in his private office. I was bereft. I’d waited for two months for the arrival of my baby Buff Orpingtons and I couldn’t believe I was going to miss this sacred moment because of the flu. The EMT wheeled me out to the ambulance and Mom followed a few minutes later. I was weeping quietly when I noticed we weren’t on the Interstate. We were in Rolla, pulling up to the back door of Dad’s office. A few seconds later, Dad appeared, bearing a box full of twenty-five cheeping fluff-balls. The EMT’s all gathered ’round as Dad handed me one of the chicks. I was crying again, but this time it was for joy. I thanked Mom for this gift, but she told me it was the driver’s idea. He’d said once my IV was in, we had time for a stop. I wanted to kiss him, but instead I handed him a chick. He was crying too.

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When I came home from the hospital a few days later, Mom let me move their brooder-box in my bedroom. I spent hours at a time sitting next to my little flock, caressing the golden carpet of chick-dom that would now be the center of my life. Our yellow Lab, Michael, often sat with me and together, we got to know the baby Buffs as individuals.


Julie and ChicksThe first chick I named was called, “Friend.” It was a simple name but it said it all. From the start, this little hen sought me out and enjoyed sitting on my shoulder, cuddled up against my neck. I often wondered if she was the chick I held on the day of their arrival, but regardless, she remained my companion for the rest of her long life.

As time progressed, other chicks made names for themselves. There was Moshe, who only had one eye. I named her for Moshe Dyan, the Foreign Minister of Israel who was also partially blind. There was Crocus, who grew into the most maternal hen I ever had. She would accept any chick from any hen and one year, when several hens failed to be good mothers, Crocus ended up with twenty-one chicks. She was determined to get them all under her wings at night and as the chicks grew, they lifted Crocus off the ground when they settled in for bedtime.

Old Farm House0012Over the course of my life there have been many special roosters and hens, of all sizes and of all breeds and they have made my life complete. Chickens are gentle creatures who radiate happiness. Listening to a mother hen calling her chicks to a juicy worm, watching my happy girls scratch in fresh straw, or sitting in the twilight, listening to the lilting night-song of chickens going to roost has lifted my spirits on even the hardest days.

10162012 164625 webI have been without chickens for almost a year now and it has been a long haul. My hen house sits quietly on its grassy lawn, waiting to see whether we will stay or go. For a time, we thought we wanted a change, a life after farming with leisure time and freedom from the routine of daily chores, but, as it turns out, farming is hard to get out of your blood and we’ve decided to stay.

Tonight I will go down and tell my chicken house to make ready, for the girls are coming home, and the song of the hen will resound from her walls once again.






Blue Jay Weather

If I had a blog, today I would write about one of my favorite birds, the blue jay.

web 10022009_042742It was chilly this morning. The Canadian cold front that came through over the weekend brought in brisk, autumnal air on the wings of the north wind. It was fifty-two degrees this morning and walking was, at last, a treat rather than hard labor. The drying leaves shimmered in the breeze and carried one of my favorite sounds: The call of blue jays as they went about their morning work.

Web 09132007_195921 (1)I have always loved blue jays. Their wings, with windows of blue and white outlined in deepest black remind me of stained glass windows and their antics at the bird feeders only hint at the deep intelligence that is part of the family corvidae. Most of all, I have warm feelings for blue jays because, here in the Ozarks, they are the voice of autumn. During the nesting season, they are largely silent, but once the kids are out on their own, the woodlands ring with their raucous calls and brings forth memories of crisp days, frosty nights, and the smell of woodsmoke on mellow, restful afternoons.

I am fond of all the species of birds that make up the corvid family. I love jays, crows, and ravens with equal passion for they are the true intellectuals of the avian world. Blue jays use their large vocabulary not only to communicate with one another, but also to deceive other birds. They are great mimics and often make the cry of a red-shouldered hawk to clear the birdfeeder of competition for the choicest morsels. In captivity, blue jays can also imitate human voices and the calls of domestic cats. Blue jays also have quiet, almost subliminal calls which they use among themselves in proximity. One of the most distinctive calls of this type sounds like the swinging of a rusty gate or a rusty pump handle going up and down. The blue jay (and other corvids) are distinct from other songbirds for using their call as a song.

Blue Jays are tremendously loyal to their family members. They mate for life and defend their nestlings with the ferocity of a mother lion. One of my clearest childhood memories is watching Mom trying to get a baby blue jay back in its nest. Mom bravely climbed a rickety ladder, propped against a tree, wearing a hard hat and gloves to protect her from the attacking parents. The mission was a success, but after that, blue jay nestlings were left well enough alone.

Web 03012015_093520But now nesting season is over and the blue jays and I move into the autumn season together. As I forge ever deeper into the middle years of my life, I appreciate the blue jays’ determination as they put away their stores for winter. They are caching acorns in hollow trees and I am caching memories. The summer season of my life was rich and I don’t want to mislay a single golden afternoon or moonlit night. I want to remember it all, journal it all, treasure it all before winter takes its inevitable toll. Blue Jay inspires me to keep storing my thoughts, come what may. Some will fall on fallow ground, some will feed my soul, and perhaps a few will grow into mighty oaks – a magnum opus, a legacy for all to share.



Lighting the Lamps of Autumn

If I had a blog, today I would write about the coming of Autumn Light.

09192011_041320 webI’ve been waiting for days now. Waiting for the moment when the sun would shift just enough to replace the brassy summer light with a mellow autumn glow. I keep track of this day in my journal and some years it has happened as early as August 8th. This year it arrived on August 17th. I was in my reading chair, finishing a chapter of Sigurd Olson’s Reflections From the North Country when I saw it: Streamers of gold filtering through the blinds on my French doors. I took up my journal and penned, in all capital letters, “THE LIGHT HAS COME!” And my heart rejoiced.

At first, the Lamps of Autumn are most noticeable in the late afternoon and it brings back memories of walking home from school. My brother and I walked almost two miles from the bus stop to our little farm. We complained about it, as kids are wont to do, but in truth, memories of ambling along the gravel road in the waning light on a chilly autumn afternoon ranks as one of the best remembrances of my childhood.

web 09292009_034631The coming of autumn light signals an end to the frenzy of summer. The harsh call of cicadas is replaced with the gentle chirp of crickets along the lane. Birds return to our feeders and fill our days with their winter-songs: A chorus performed simply for the love of singing, now that the rush of parenting is through.


This time of year slows me down too. My daily walks are easy rambles now that I am not in a race with the heat of the day or the biting bugs of summer. My dog and I stop often and drink in the rare beauty of the changing landscape as it changes from green, to gold, to grey. We take time to watch for the arrival of the first white-throated sparrow, the fall warblers, and the juncos. This is the season for reveling. The season of peace.



Into the Mist

If I had a blog, today I would write about the beauty of autumn’s misty mornings.

10022014_075418 webSitting at the breakfast table this morning, I watched as dense fog rose from the valley to cover the hills in a pewter-grey cloak. At first, thin tendrils of mist wove among the trees, then deepened into a thick bank that hid the top of Hawk Ridge, blurring the boundary between earth and sky.

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As I sipped my coffee, the sun rose behind the pond and the somber morning was lit with pink and gold. Spiderwebs shimmered in the mist, each strand lined with perfectly formed beads of dew and the grasses bent under the weight of diamond-drops that reflected the color of the morning. I have seen such mornings before, but I never tire of autumn’s misty morns.

There is something alluring about the fog. It brings out the child in us. Who hasn’t gone out on a foggy day and imagined catching a glimpse of a dragon or unicorn in some unexplored part of the woods? We need mystery, even uncertainty, in our lives. It allows for undreamt of possibilities, for the existence of miracles.

10112013_070717 (1) webWithout a sense of unknowing, we lose our sense of wonder. Even when the unknown is frightening, it is an opening through which the stuff of dreams can slip. In times of certainty, we become complacent, overly confident in our knowledge of the future. We think we know how “it” is all going to play out and we feel blindsided when things don’t fit into the future we had foreseen. But even in that hour of despair, there is hope; hope that something better than we imagined lies just around the bend. For, we must follow the wisdom of poet Ranier Maria Rilke when he wrote:

Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language. Do not now look for the answers. They cannot now be given to you because you could not live them. It is a question of experiencing everything. At present you need to live the question. Perhaps you will gradually, without even noticing it, find yourself experiencing the answer, some distant day.

The Blue Dragonfly of Autumn

If I had a blog, today I would write about one of my totems: The Blue Dragonfly of Autumn.

06032014_182856 webIn the early 1990’s my spiritual path took an unexpected turn. While I had always loved nature and respected it as a seat of mystical power, it wasn’t until I was in college that I began to explore Native American spirituality as a way of worship that could be my own.

My first introduction into this reality was a book by Ed “Eagle Man” McGaa, simply titled, Mother Earth Spirituality. It related many traditional Lakota tales with which I was familiar, but it also encouraged me to find my own place in the Sacred Hoop, based on the animal totems that appeared in my dreams and in my waking life.

One of the first totems I identified was the dragonfly – particularly those that appeared in late summer. These, the Lakota called The Blue Dragonflies of Autumn. Of them, Eagle Man relates:

Dragonfly (Tusweca) is the Indian’s answer to Plato’s allegory of the cave, in which Plato taught us that the life we understand today is but a mere shadow on the wall compared to the complete reality that lies beyond.

Dragonflies have this great power because they are walkers-between-worlds. Born in the water, dragonfly nymphs split their skin and emerge from ponds and rivers on gossamer wings, on which they soar into a new reality. The Lakota believed this change was analogous to a human rising up and entering the spirit world: Seeking knowledge in a reality that was utterly inconceivable before the metamorphosis took place.

The Blue Dragonfly of Autumn reminds us autumn is near and the time for contemplation is at hand. Although the dragonfly moves through life quickly, he heralds the time of slowing down, when we transform from creatures of doing to creatures of being.

I am ready to draw inward and sit in the mellow sun, pondering the Great Mystery that is life. Like the dragonfly, I am ready to emerge from the world of my youth and embrace the coming of the autumn years of my life. Dragonfly encourages me that although my new reality may seem foreign at first, my life will open up and reveal the deepest magic yet. I eagerly await what lies ahead.

Honeybees Part II

If I had a blog, today I would write some more about my love for honeybees.

00-10032012_105516 webPondering honeybees again today. I mentioned in an earlier blog that we are hosting a large number of bees at our hummingbird feeders this summer and my daily interaction with these little souls has given me food for thought.

This afternoon, I spent twenty minutes trying to entrap a bee that had come in the house on one of the hummy feeders. She sneaked in underneath the feeder and immediately flew to the high windows in the dining room in an attempt to regain her freedom. First I tried gently wrapping her in a Kleenex, but she wriggled free and went even higher. Then I got a tall chair and a glass bottle and tried to coax her inside, but every time I pulled the bottle away, she flew out. Finally, I trapped her in the bottle and slid a piece of cardboard over the opening. Success! I took her outside and away she flew.

Why all the bother? Why not just get the fly swatter and make an end of the little stinger? Because honeybees are brave in my book. They are gentle, and wise, and have chosen a life far nobler than that of human beings because a honeybee cannot defend itself or its hive without paying the ultimate price.

When a worker bee stings an animal with thick skin (like most mammals), her barbed stinger (all workers are female) remains embedded in the skin of her victim. When the bee pulls away after stinging, her internal organs and the venom sac come out with the stinger. This kills the bee, but the venom sac continues to pump venom into the victim making the barbed stinger a very effective weapon against large predators such as bears and humans, who can decimate an entire honey-store in minutes. Also, because worker bees do not reproduce on their own, their sacrifice insures the survival of the queen and thus the survival of the colony.

Another reason for this altruism is genetic: Female bees are more closely related to their sisters than to their own children. This is because bees are “haplodiploid,” meaning females have two copies of every chromosome, but males only one. You’ll have to trust me on the math, but the end result is: Worker bees are 75% genetically identical to their sisters, but would only be 50% identical to their children. This evolutionary process, called kin selection, means it makes evolutionary sense for a worker to forgo reproduction, and even sacrifice her own life, if it helps her sisters.

Although I don’t suppose bees ponder whether to sting or not to sting, it still gives me pause to consider that there is a species where this kind of selflessness is built in. It makes me wonder what the world would be like if humans had the same kind of limitations. What if we had to give our life if we took that of another? Would we so readily go to war,  brandish guns against intruders or engage in violent crime? In a time where humans are killing one another with seeming indifference, what a change would take place if we had to choose whether to kill based on whether or not we were willing to sacrifice our lives in the process. Just a little food for thought.


If I had a blog, today I would write about following nature’s calendar in my garden.

When you live close to nature, one of the benefits is following the passage of time through the changes in the natural world. In my yard, the month of August, and the end of summer, are marked by the blooming of two of my favorite flowers: Cardinal flower and blue lobelia.

Both of these striking flowers are in the lobelia family, a species defined by the presence of five lobed petals on the flower. The family of plants is named for Belgian botanist, Mathias de L’Obel, who often used a “latinized” form of his name Lobelius.

081113_0822 webThe name cardinal flower (lobelius cardinalis) was inspired by the color of the robes of the Roman Catholic cardinals. John Burroughs, the 19th-century naturalist, wrote, “But when vivid color is wanted, what can surpass or equal our cardinal flower? There is a glow about this flower as if color emanated from it as from a live coal.” It was first found by explorers in Canada who sent the plant to France in the mid-1620’s. Many Native American tribes used tea made from the roots and leaves as medicines to treat everything from bronchitis to rheumatism. The leaves were often smoked in place of tobacco, despite the fact that overuse can be toxic.

In this day and age, cardinal flower is of greatest benefit to the ruby-throated hummingbird, its primary pollinator. The beak of the ruby-throat is perfectly shaped to reach deep into the flower where the nectar and pollen reside. The flowers are especially adapted to pollination by hummingbirds. They are said to “pull hummingbirds from the sky.” In fact, their blooming period corresponds especially well with the southern migration of ruby-throated hummingbirds to Mexico and Central America for the winter.

09242014_093525 webGrowing alongside the cardinal flowers are its cousin, blue lobelia. These blue-violet blooms are a favorite of bees and, being one of the last flowers to bloom during the growing season, are essential to building the bees’ store of food for the winter. Cardinal flower and blue lobelia are so closely related, they can cross-pollinate and produce blooms of fuchsia, white, and pale pink.

When these favorites are in bloom, I know the clock is turning from the bounty of summer to preparation for the scarcity of winter. These are flowers who provide lasting nourishment for the hummingbirds and bees. Cardinal flower and blue lobelia tell me it is time to add to the wood-pile, put by the last of the preserves, and glean the last of the garden’s bounty. Winter is coming and it is time to gather the harvest at last.

In a world where everything seems up for grabs, it is reassuring to see the constancy of nature. Regardless of how crazy the calendar on my wall may become, nature’s measure of time is regular as a heartbeat, and as comforting as a soft blanket on a chilly fall night. We need things we can be sure of and I thank my garden for giving me something on which I can rely.