Berries for Birds

While outdoors to cut little stems of salal berries and evergreen huckleberries to paint – and earlier in the day picking blueberries – I kept noticing the silence. It’s broken only by the unmistakable “chick a dee dee dee” of chickadees. It’s comforting to hear them – calmer than the many-voiced busyness of spring, a mellow twitter hinting of the coming autumn.

I read that birds often stay hidden in late summer and early fall. After the time of breeding and raising their young, songs and territorial announcements being over for the year, many birds molt, replacing worn feathers with new. Bushes thick with leaves and berries make disappearing easy.

Another theory suggests that benevolent weather and plentiful food encourage birds go further afield to eat and store up fat. Perhaps our year-around residents, like towhees and juncos, leave the berries here for later to find when they return. Except for the blueberries, these berries belong to the birds.

Olé

It’s fun to watch Julia Roberts eating, praying and loving, and I got reminded of Elizabeth Gilbert’s joyous salute to creativity in her TED lecture: (http://www.ted.com/talks/elizabeth_gilbert_on_genius.html).

Gilbert is irresistible to me – her questing, her sense of humor, and her delicious cascade of words. In the TED lecture she wrestles with the “problem” of how to keep writing after a huge success – how to keep doing the writing that so matters to her. How to keep writing in the face of fears. How to woo the muse.

Gilbert’s take is a respectful survey (in 18 quick-witted minutes of liveliness and laughing) of the ways people view the creative life. She suggests and supplies examples to support the idea that the source of creative thought might be outside oneself – a genie in a corner rather than a genius in a person. Some will doubt, as she says, the existence of “fairy juice” to sprinkle on a project, but her notion takes some of the pressure off the individual – which might well support the endeavor.

Gilbert calls herself a “mule” and says her creative process is “to get up every day at the same time and work.” When thoughts or ideas come from sources she can’t identify, she calls it “brushing against the magic.” A time of Emerson’s “strokes of the imagination.” A moment for “Olé!”

Usually I think of gift thoughts as coming from my undermind – a part of me fairly unknowable and temperamental. Can’t be forced, but can be wooed – maybe. It’s so enjoyable to toy with Gilbert’s construct of a power beyond. The creative worker’s job is to show up, but the fairy or genie in the corner of the room might not take orders that day.

Accountability to readers often lures the spirit from the corner, and keeps me going past the uncertain points in a self-imposed schedule. A faithful reader in an email sidebar to the blog refers to my “high standards.” If that’s true I owe my first readers – my husband and the wordsmith.

And blog readers matter very much. I’m grateful for readers. Thank you all. Olé to you!

Plenty More – Berries

We shuffle the seasons and store summer in berries. Pull open the freezer door with its frosty puff of air in January and conjure up memories of vendors at the Farmer’s Market wearing tank tops, t-shirts, and tans. They man tables lined with produce, and greenish-blue fiberboard cartons full of red or purply-blue berries. Summer abundance to savor – and save.

Our sons and I used to fly from Alaska to visit my old friend on Bainbridge in the summer – long days in a long season, borr-ing or memorable. In memory, those summers seem endless days of sunshine and banging screen doors.

One hot day we’d buy flats of raspberries from a farmer named Daisy, organize jars and canning kettle, (making at least one extra run to the grocery for sugar or lids.) The kitchen would grow fragrant and hot, we’d grow sticky from sugar and berries, but by the end of the day dozens of ruby-toned faceted jars of jam lined the table. Kids were tired out from fun and water fights. Grown ups too.

These summers, freezing berries is less work (also less fun). From the Farmer’s Market I bought a flat of raspberries and froze them in labeled bags (trying to organize the storage better this year). From the cooler at Red Dog’s farm stand, I selected a flat of strawberries to hull, rinse, and freeze on cookie sheets before transferring to plastic bags. (Freezing first keeps them from clumping together, so it’s easier to remove just a few.)

Now blueberries begin. While still at the Market, I repack them (into what a friend calls “Nancyware” – yogurt containers holding about a pint and a half) – easy to carry home, easy to freeze and use.

On the bushes in the garden, berries ripen as individuals in a cluster – so the picking must be selective. Real abundance is to walk outside and gather a little bowlful for salad or cereal – blueberries covered with a fine mist or warm from the sun. That’s plenty.

Last summer our older son and his wife sent a little video of their blueberry-loving dog eating her share while they picked in the mountains above Anchorage. In the movie she worked the low-down bushes against blue sky and red bearberry leaves. This month my young friend in Alaska and her family picked 24 quarts of raspberries to freeze – at an organic farm near Anchorage – gaining their winter stash by their own work. Harvesting your own berries teaches appreciation for those who pick.

It’s a thought encountered before, but I read recently, in a Penelope Lively novel, a character describing how you don’t always know you are happy, but only looking back do you realize the “flavor of the moment.” Berries point the way.

An August Day – For The Record

August slips away, but we thankfully have had days now of real summer. At the beach one morning, as we started our walk, two men were boarding a yellow rowboat – a sort of specialized rowboat – shiny and narrow, a little like a scull, with two sets of oars – a burst of yellow on blue water.

A splendid August day – by evening Frances rolled from one warm paver to another when called to come in. We stood on the balcony in the dark, looking at stars and moon without shivering, and slept with all the windows open.

But mornings are best – the garden early on a still summer day is a delicious time – even the shade is warm – a time to be in the garden and file away these rare moments.

Watering has settled into a once a week routine – though a week ago rain did the job, unusual for August. And watering makes for time to survey the garden, this day a second flush of nepeta is coming on, so I cut back the spent ones finally – the bees continue to visit till the very last blossom is gone.

In the afternoon – silent and hot – the thermometer in the sun reads 100°, but the temperature in the solid shade of a building feels perfect. So quiet. Occasional twitter of tiny birds, so quiet I can hear madrona leaves, dry and crackly as they fall from branches.

Shades on the south side of the house block the sun’s heat. Too hot by far under the umbrella. Frances has taken to lying directly on the earth, in the shade of kale, wrapped around a growing tall Brussels sprouts.

Bees work scabiosa and nepeta. A hatch of little orange butterflies flutters about the lavatera. A hummingbird repeatedly visits crocosmia. A butterfly with orange-tipped wings settles on white yarrow.

This silent afternoon heat is different from the sweet morning when blossoms of stargazer lily perfumed the air. It’s the summer afternoon we’ve been waiting for all year – earth heated and air still, only the tiniest breeze. Clothes bake stiff on the line. It’s quiet because it is hot, and quiet because it’s too hot to fuss – too dry to transplant or plant. Grass grows dormant.

I’m happy sitting on the shaded north-facing deck, and the dinner wind gusts a few desultory little puffs with no edge. At 5 p.m. gull traffic overhead – shadows and wing flaps – commuters, heading along the bluff in pairs or trios or individuals.

I watched the rowboat pass below the bluff – heading back to North Beach. A good day to be in a yellow boat on a blue sea.

Balance

A Sunday or so ago our best laid plans for a hike became a trip to Poulsbo – to the pet emergency clinic serving the peninsula. Frances finally got my attention and needed to be seen.

Driving south with little traffic, we wound through paintable scenes: forested low hills and valleys where cows lounge on green pastures near white clapboard farmhouses and red-sided barns. We passed fields separated by hedgerows or tall larch windbreaks and watched the arms of irrigation robots lazily spread water wide. On either side of the Hood Canal Bridge, the water was summer calm.

After the drive home I felt thankful for the vet, for antibiotics, for normal life, and with the patient resting comfortably, we began the day again with a walk on the beach.

Near the lighthouse we came upon a young man making towers of beach rocks of diminishing size, stone stacks. We often find these constructed piles of flattish rocks on our early morning walks, but I’d never seen someone making such sturdy structures.

Why do we like those stacks so much? They are the sign of the human hand in a controlled-only-by-nature beachscape – and they’re about balance. Precarious balance – establishing a point where good-size rocks will neither tilt nor wobble. Each added rock threatens the stable structure.

When I asked the builder if he was responsible for the stone stacks I sometimes see in town, he said, “No, I’m more the Andy Goldsworthy type of stoneworker, wanting to see what nature does to the things I build.”

The next morning nature had intervened. Most of the stacks were scattered, and tide in the night had strewn seaweed in a line on the beach. But one stack remained upright, with seaweed scraps stuck two stones up. A burst of sun revealed the stack’s fine balance.

That’s the title of a favorite book – Rohinton Mistry”s “A Fine Balance.” In the story, Mistry’s improbable combination of characters (who survive) balance hope and despair – the big things we juggle in finding equilibrium.

We walked along trying to list other things people balance in life: worry and obliviousness, solitude and company, work and leisure, independence and connection. Work and family – young people now seem to do that with an admirable consciousness.

Change – small and large – can upset the balance and require adjustment. So – in a minor way – the pleasures of a day at home instead of in the mountains: Frances enjoyed her dabs of yogurt, the two of us read or worked, anticipating leftovers and a good junky movie in the evening. A balanced day – a thankfully normal life.

Plenty

A friend here once said when he brought an elaborate and plentiful starter tray of Mediterranean treats – olives and pita and hummus and more – that he had “abundance issues.” He’s a mathematician – so he could probably quantify the amounts involved. But I know those issues – wanting to be sure of plenty – not just enough, but way more. Enough so there is no danger of “not enough.” It’s one of my favorite things about my old friend (she says it leads to an overstuffed refrigerator).

Especially this time of year – the CSA box brims with colorful vegetables – a big head of green cabbage, cauliflower, cilantro, Walla Walla onions, fresh garlic, green beans, sweet peas, strawberries, raspberries, and flowers. Ripening speeds up now, and in our cooler climate snap peas and kale can overlap gorgeous beefsteak tomatoes (helped by hoop houses).

At the Farmer’s Market you can find nearly any vegetable you can name – yellow beans, basil, broccoli, and beets, new potatoes, kohlrabi, carrots, and cukes. One of the local farmers makes runs to a friend’s farm in Eastern Washington where the sun is hotter, and brings back truckloads of incredible tender corn. And lately – peaches and orangey-yellow apricots.

Melons with few food miles (Eastern Washington again) have so much flavor. Sweet cantaloupe and a little seedless watermelon, which made a perfect cool, crispy note with quinoa. Curious about more quinoa (I loved having loads of leftovers), I tried Deborah’s “Quinoa Salad with Mangoes and Curry Dressing,” but added ripe Washington peaches instead of mango to local scallions and quinoa.

Containing garlic, salt, mayonnaise (or yogurt or sour cream), curry powder, lemon juice, light olive or sunflower seed oil, and finely chopped cilantro, the curry vinaigrette Deborah puts on this quinoa is delicious (also “good for beets, asparagus, broccoli, and cauliflower,” she says).

August offers a wealth of summer squash – little patty pans, tiny green zucchini, and curvy small crookneck squash. A profusion of them cut apart made containers (the patty pans even have lids) to fill with chopped squash sautéed in butter, kernels from the fresh corn, rice, a little grated Muenster, scallions, a jalapeño chile (seeded and minced), and chopped cilantro (or parsley or basil). That’s Deborah again – “Zucchini with Corn and Squash Filling.”

It is a bounteous time for sure – pure pleasure all this plenty. August abundance!

Courage

While getting ready for my “demo” at a retirement center on Bainbridge, I thought about a handout – I liked the idea of ending it the way the artist Don Nice did once for a workshop. At the bottom of his requirements he wrote: “courage.”

I’d made palettes out of yogurt lids and labeled the squeezed out colors around the edge: Rose Madder, Ultramarine Blue, Thalo Yellow, Green, Red, and Violet. I took cut squares of good hot press watercolor paper, a handful of older small brushes, and a mix of pencils and pens. Before we began I set jars filled with water on white paper towels.

Any “excellent prep” about me proved unnecessary. I’d printed out some of the blog and gathered old things – by way of explaining why I paint, but have no recent big paintings. That didn’t matter.

These folks were interested in doing. I tried to hold the board upright and draw a yellow sunflower, while chattering nervously and keeping my eye on the crowd’s restlessness (10 swelling to 14 or so as the time went on). My drawing had no life, Cadmium Yellow dripped. I gave up and said, “Let’s paint!” One woman had already begun with the stir stick from her coffee, making enchanting gentle marks. The individuality of all the pictures amazed me.

Cherries seemed possible subjects to me, but I also brought flowers in vases. More for cheerful prop than actual subject – I thought. One woman said right away: “I don’t like cherries, I’ll do the flower.” (In the end she made a tiny expressive still life with cherries added to either side of her flower’s vase).

We talked about primaries and secondaries, and I allowed as how you can’t really make green with blue and yellow in watercolor. A painter corrected me: “Well I just did!” I don’t know if they learned anything but I did.

As I left (many “thank yous,” “that was funs,” and one woman said maybe she could do this instead of on-line solitaire), it struck me that after our teen years, we often can’t see past the disadvantages to the possibilities of a time with less independence.

Driving home, listening to the radio, I heard Rosanne Cash say with a chuckle that she was a better person (more expressive I think she meant) in writing than in person – that she didn’t understand things until she wrote about them.

She’s so right. And the next morning it dawned on me (writing) that considering a more restricted life made the drive home literally full of the freedom of the road. Normal irritating things – hot afternoon traffic full of worker bees off the ferry, the drone of NPR crisis news, intense west sun only partly blocked by visor and sunglasses – might be what I will miss and remember at some point (like the way I think back on my children’s childhood, while in truth I was often frustrated and impatient).

Impatience. I wonder just now if impatience is a signal – that’s worth thinking about. As is Nice’s essential ingredient: courage.