Saunterday: The city’s noise, the candle’s light

The Great Blue Hill trail map, courtesy of MassAudubon.

The Great Blue Hill trail map, courtesy of MassAudubon.

 

The noise has been getting to me.

It started last month, spending so much time in Downtown Crossing. My days down there were mostly spent hanging balsam wreaths and setting out other Christmas decorations. The sound there is endless, all engines and heavy gaits and voices. It’s not the nicest part of Boston; there’s a lot of misery and a lot of seediness. At first I took pleasure in bringing green to the grey, planting spruces and spring bulbs, reaching the bowed wreaths up ladders. But as December darkened the noise grew too heavy to bear.

Nearly everything else in my life is quieter and less crowded, but that sound has stayed with me—the drone and the colors. And the shapes of humans, sometimes hardly anything but a harsh shadow. There are a lot of shelters, a lot of drained eyes, a lot of bedrooms made of cardboard.

That is hard living and, guiltily, I’ve shirked away from it. I’ve only been downtown twice since the holiday madness ended and was struck by the darkness, the crammed decibels. I’ve been longing for spaces, for long ones humming gently in human-free life. I’ve longed for the companionship of trees, of plants not so tame as to live in buildings, or so dead that they’re twisted into a wreath and hung to dry.

Yeah, well. The city is where I am. It takes more than a song to get out of here, especially on a Friday when rush hour starts early. And I’ve had work to do, words to write and spreadsheets to create. I’ve felt crazed with restlessness. The memory of sounds, the misery of stillness.

So finally I escaped to the Blue Hills.

I’ve written about that edge of town majesty elsewhere but, strangely, not here. It is a refuge to which I go in order to escape myself and find myself in turns. It is to me what the ocean is to Ishmael:

                  Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping to the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.”

To sea for him, to trees for me.

I parked at the Great Blue Hill, which rises alongside I-93 in pines,oaks, maples, and ski trails, and began climbing the road to the weather observatory. It had snowed all morning and the trees and forest floor were white, but my soul still felt pretty bleak. 128 runs right along the hill and the noise of it moved right up the road—fuzzy mufflers, rasping engines, heavy tires, the occasional pitch of a horn. The drivers below were hurtling along in their aluminum cans, heading home and picking up kids, and doing so Loudly.

Eventually I came to a path that rose into the woods, veering from the paving with steps made of the sort of perfect logs that build a cabin. Hungering for the uneven embrace of the earth I left the asphalt and carefully ascended the logs. They were slippery with the sneaky ice that lives in shadowy places and I took my time, feeling a tender rush of accomplishment after stepping off the last stair.

(Here I must admit that I pictured myself as Reese Witherspoon during this little hike, meaning that I pretended that this was a Very Great Journey instead of, um, an hour’s jaunt. So there I was, Hauf as Witherspoon as Cheryl strayed, grunting and humming in satisfaction, not wearing hiking boots or a pack, but feeling satisfied.)

The path was close with branches and trunks and I walked, surrounded by life. The nearness of it eased me as I carried on up the red dot path and on to the blue dot, feeling a communion with the sweet green colors carrying nourishment below all the rough creases of bark around me. As I often do in the woods or gardens of winter I remembered Dickon in “The Secret Garden:”

“There’s lots o’ dead wood as ought to be cut out,” he said. “An’ there’s a lot o’ old wood, but it made some new last year. This here’s a new bit,” and he touched a shoot which looked brownish green instead of hard, dry gray. Mary touched it herself in an eager, reverent way.

“That one?” she said. “Is that one quite alive quite?”

Dickon curved his wide smiling mouth.

“It’s as wick as you or me,” he said; and Mary remembered that Martha had told her that “wick” meant “alive” or “lively.”

“I’m glad it’s wick!” she cried out in her whisper. “I want them all to be wick. Let us go round the garden and count how many wick ones there are.”

I didn’t count all the wick ones in the reservation, I just walked among the ones skirting my path. A quiet joy was spreading within me. I felt like I was strolling in the light of candles, ones that weren’t fussy and blown out by a breeze. felt like a candle, glowing and warm.

Eventually I came to the old building with a roof and two walls for picnicking. From there it was a short tripto the hill’s summit. When I arrived at the top I moaned a long, honest, appreciative Ohhh of appreciation for the haze below and beyond, for the hills and valleys and forests dressed in the lovely grey blue. All of it blended together perfectly, all those colors of New England that have lived here for centuries.

As I went back down the hill, more patient now with paving, the snow filtered from the canopy like gilded motes, shining in the slanting sunlight. I walked in bliss and, when the traffic again began licking at my ears, kept on going. I had to join it, to go back home, to get to work.

This post is devoted to sauntering, a rare art espoused by Henry David Thoreau which I have resolved to embrace in this still new year. Saunter posts will hearby be tagged Saunterday, so keep an eye out for them! 

 

Things that fall from the sky

One of the many Elecampane (Inula helenium) plants that I started from seed last year, now blooming in Boston.

One of the many Elecampane (Inula helenium) plants that I started from seed last year, now blooming in Boston.

 

I began this post from my steamy bedroom a few nights ago, in the aftermath of the neighborhood’s Roman candle blasts and even louder late night party cackles. Summer, that grand doozy of a season, had spent the whole week sitting on this city, stifling everything and exhausting me as I did anything. I’d go for days in a wilt before some kind soul would grant me a blessing spun with lemon, lime, or watermelon. Naked water sat within me uselessly, my body stubbornly refusing hydration as it tsk-ed me for having such a lousy electrolyte balance.  All was irate and fecund and full of color.

Arthur broke the everlasting sweat with his billions of raindrops, and now I can sit here in the backyard, an umbrella stretched over my little patch of sleepy, breezy afternoon, and feel pleasant and not at all sunstruck.

As I last wrote, June was a month of herbs. I taught several classes at Herbstalk, Allandale, and the Fenway Victory Gardens (of which there is YouTube proof). Herbstalk was especially amazing. I sold hundreds of plants and talked myself hoarse while trading ideas, tips, and techniques for growing and using healing plants with folks from all over the northeast.

Farmside, I sowed tulsi and am now watching it flower tinily, enjoying its fruity, spicy, sacred self as it wafts around the garden center and through the greenhouse.

 

The lovage and elder umbels in my victory garden.

The lovage and elder umbels of my victory garden.

 

In my own garden everything is amazing, or at least vigorous and vivacious. My favorite part at present are the umbels. Those beautiful wheels of infinitesimal blossoms are anchoring the space in the white of elder, the chartreuse of lovage, and the firm red (lightened with sweet little pale centers) of ornamental yarrow. I also had valerian, started from seed and glorious in its tiny blushing blooms, but something—rabbits, I’m sure—trampled it and now it’s tenaciously starting over again, about six inches tall after its towering 48, photosynthesizing and fattening sleepytime roots for the winter and fall.

I’m possibly busier than I’ve ever been before between the farm, landscaping, beekeeping, gardening, and general around-the-house-ing. And occasional socializing. And very infrequent resting. The living madness of my schedule has kept me from seeking out too much wildlife as of late, but I’m seeing tons of it incidentally which, really, is what I prefer.

The best bit of wilderness that I’ve lately encountered fell from the sky, tumbling suddenly into a tray of pots being carried by a coworker. It was a tiny, scowling, perfect fledgling of a swallow. The little bird, only slightly tousled, looked at us as we ogled and oohed, admiring its jaded gaze and amazing wings. Its wings were clearly its best feature. They were  so clearly those of a barn swallow—dark and beautifully preened in an almost violet, parallel tilt that met elegantly in a point.

The tiny thing was clearly startled and shook slightly but its stare was steadfast, so fierce for such a miniature thing. Eventually we set the tray down on the ground, or started to before, without warning, the bird took flight. Its downy self, so squat and crabby, was instantly gorgeous as it flew through the wide open air, taking a pretty, curved path to its nest along the garage. What a pretty Independence Day.

Tiny swallow staredown

Tiny swallow staredown

 

Herbstalk is this weekend!!

Hi all!

It’s been a crazy spring but here I am, ever so briefly, to tell you about Herbstalk, an event that I am very proud to be a part of.

 

Herbstalk!

 

Herbstalk is a magical, nourishing, and delicious event created by my friend, herbalist Steph Zabel of Flowerfolk Herbs. In its third year, this celebration of healing plants bursts at the seams with good food, brilliant teachers, lovely music, and…HERBS! Herbs in every incarnation! You’ll find teas! Green salves! Powders! Smoking mixes! Scrubs for your face and body! Soaks for your tiny toes! There will also be live plants brought to you by yours truly, most of which I’ve started from seed and all of which I’ve grown with love at Allandale Farm.

I am also honored to be teaching a class, Growing Urban Herbals, on Sunday from 11 to 12:30. I’ll be covering all the basics (and many of the more advanced techniques) of growing herbs in the city. There will be useful information for the amateur and experienced gardener alike. To get a taste of what I’ll be speaking about, check out my articles at the Herbstalk blog, like this one that focuses on the ecological benefits of growing herbs in the city (or anywhere, for that matter!), and another on growing healing herbs indoors.

I will also be teaching a class on container herb growing at Allandale on Saturday, June 14th. I’d love to see you there as well! Check out the blurb and buy your ticket here.

As you can see my next few weeks are going to be an herbal whirlwind. I am, however, looking forward to getting back into the blog this month. Stay tuned, and feel free to follow me on twitter (@jennykraut) and instagram (@jennyhauf), where it’s a bit easier to keep up with the world in bite-sized bits. (I’ll be livetweeting from Herbstalk, so even if you can’t make to Somerville I can give you a virtual taste of the party!)

See you soon!

 

 

Summersweet.

ruby-spice-summersweet-86946

Today was Summersweet:

Clethra alnifolia, ‘Ruby Spice’,

Sweet Pepperbush,

Abloom like a bottle brush. Pink and white sorbet. The scent, a customer said, like lilacs;

a fragrance so oiled and heavy in its syrup and nectar

that it recalled May, but thicker

than those heady scents that devour the senses in spring

leaving only the shades of twilight that strike the eye sweetly.

Summersweet, Pepperbush: drinking hole of bees and butterflies,

hunting terrain for eastern amberwings.

Summersweet in the weight of August, its fragrance arresting walkers in their paths,

stopped and turning, searching for the scent that brought them honey and brought them

pink.

Colorful woolgathering in the prickly cold

Introducing Spokes and Petals’ first guest blogger, Erin Therrien! It’s a snowy morning and it’s warm inside, so pour a fresh cup of tea, pull up a chair, and enjoy.

Hello readers of Jenny’s blog! Please forgive my tardiness in posting this Q & A about my current and upcoming book. Between renovations on our 120 year-old house and over-booking myself with other projects, time to sit and write about myself has been scarce. I have finally carved out some time today, as it is -17 F, and I am hunkering down for a cozy day of reading, writing, and snuggling with my dear pup, Fido. I am honored to be a guest blogger, so a million times thank you Jenny!

What is the working title of your book?
I’ve already self-published a very small book on natural dyes, focusing on the Upper Midwest, but am in the process of expanding it into a more in-depth book on the subject. My working title is Wild Dyes: Expanded. It is unimaginative, but everything needs a name. I hope to find a more arresting title as I get further along.

Where did the idea come from?
I was asked to teach a small workshop on natural dyeing and wanted the students to have a take-away with recipes, notes, images, etc. Once I began the layout, I realized that for all of the work I was putting in I could just publish it as a small paperback through Blurb. Time was what kept me from going full-on with the first iteration; I had to leave out a lot of information and imagery.

What genre does your book fall under?
My first book is 100% DIY instructional.  The current project will be 70% instructional/guidebook and 30% nature writing.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
I’m not so sure it would work so well as a movie. Perhaps Martha Stewart could do an episode.

What is a one-sentence synopsis of your book?
An Upper Midwest guide to natural dyeing, covering the plants that grow through the cracks in the sidewalk to those found in the Northwoods of Minnesota.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
I am hoping that one year will be sufficient to get all of my ideas assembled.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
The Handbook of Natural Plant Dyes by Sasha Duerr: hers is a more project-based book, but I can see she has a love for experimentation, layout and texture, as do I. Also, Eco Colour by India Flint: such an in-depth guide to dye plants, processes, and colo(u)r.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?
While starting to use natural and plant dyes in my work, I had a hard time finding information specific to my region.  As any gardener out there knows, many of the fun and showy plants are reserved for those who reside above zone 5. The same goes for North American dye plants. Through more research and experimentation, I found that nearly every plant will yield a dye, however faint. I slowly built my own palette of natural color from foraged plant material, spices, and food waste bound for the compost (and even the compost itself).

What else about your book might pique a reader’s interest?
After obsessively seeking out new dye plants and correctly identifying those that I hunted, I began looking at all plant life around me differently– especially in my urban Milwaukee neighborhood. The scrubby plants in vacant lots and along highway embankments began to attract my attention as I went about my day. I started taking note of when the goldenrod started to bloom, the staghorn sumac showed its first fiery leaves, and the curly dock dried up and turned that wonderful maroon-brown that transfers itself almost identically onto silk. Toward the end of summer, I feel like I am on a constant treasure hunt. I hope that my book will give readers this same feeling.

When and how will it be published?
I plan on self-publishing my book through Blurb once again. Being a visual artist, I like having that hands-on control over the layout and imagery.

Thanks again, Jenny, for inviting me to share your splendid online space! And thank you, readers, for doing what you do best.

Color-full ball jars!

Sun-dyeing in the summertime…for the really hot days. Credit: Erin Therrien

Lists of the Lately

(Source.)

It has been too long! But I am here, and as the season of growing things continues to ebb I’ll be coming back and posting much more often. In the coming months and years I aim to find the gumption to keep up with S&P, even in the madness of April, the thick green heart of July and the satisfying everything of September. I will do it. I think the secret is shorter posts and a less-anal attitude. Difficult, but possibly attainable?

As it often is, my time is mismanaged and short. And so, I shall offer some egotistical lists of the lately.

 
What I’ve been seeing:

Praying mantises on the mums – with an egg sack on one, and what we assumed to be a dying mother on the other, her body ravaged with the perpetuation of life. Another grand Dillardian drama!

A lot of gleeful kids picking out a lot of ridiculous pumpkins.

Warfare waged by squirrels in the canopy while I rummage for shagbark hickory nuts on the pasture’s edge.

Ember-colored leaves lilting past the window.

Autumn crocuses precociously busting out of their bulbs, entangled in their retail packaging and albino from a cardboard darkness.

(I brought it home for free. We’ll plant it in the garden in the rain and someday I hope it will bloom a light magenta.)

Tasting:

Apples. Mulled as a hot cider (a work perk), simmered into sauce, melded into butternut squash soup.

Cheese. And other animal fats. (They are All I Want.)

The last of the tomatoes. Sitting like asymmetrical harvest moons waiting to ripen, dappled with bulgur in a tabouli, dancing with cilantro in salsa.

Amazing Goan engagement party food! Curries, sausages, and, um, fancy cupcakes. (The latter’s a bit less Goan and a bit more Andrew and Melissa.)

Reading:

Tolstoy. A lot of Tolstoy. (In fact if you’d like to join my little Anna Karenina book club you can do so here.)

Research on coyotes and wolves in the American landscape.

The private lives of bullfrogs. (Completely mind-blowing – stay tuned for more on this in the future.)

Making:

A hat with a sperm whale on it. (Shameless plug: I’m taking orders for fingerless gloves, mittens, and hunters mitts (fingerless gloves with a mitten flap). Email me if you’re interested in a pair!)

Spiced plums and bourbon peaches.

A lot of jars of dried herbs – sacred basil (Tulsi), lemon thyme, mullein (flannel leaf) and Cascade hops flowers. (I don’t make beer, but I do like falling asleep, so sometimes a pot of hops is made before bed. It works wonders.)

(I want to point out that the scientific name is improperly represented in this image, as the genus is capitalized. Faux pas!! Source.)

Anyway. It’s good to be back. Tell me what you’ve been seeing, too.

Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Blue Hydrangea”

(Now, I know I’ve not written here in awhile, and that I ought to. I will soon. But for now – I was in the backyard earlier and thought so fondly of this poem. Please enjoy, and know there will be more news from the urban wild soon.)

Blue Hydrangea
Rainer Maria Rilke

 

Just like the last green in a colour pot
So are these leaves, withered and wrecked
Behind the flower umbels, which reflect
A hue of blue only, more they do not.

Reflections are tear-stained, inaccurate,
As if they were about to cease,
And like old blue notepaper sheets
They wear some yellow, grey and violet,

Washed-out like on a children’s apron,
Outworn and now no more in use:
We contemplate a small life’s short duration.

But suddenly some new blue seemingly is seen
In just one umbel, and we muse
Over a moving blue delighting in the green.

(Thanks to http://docsouth.unc.edu/ for the image.)

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