Duck Fat and Ramps

When I moved here, I did not know that the words in the above title referred to things that are edible.

A few days ago, I walked with a neighbor on a new path in a nearby hardwood forest.  We smelled onion-y growth and saw green, gorgeous plants pushing up out of the dreary brown of dead leaves.  We figured out pretty quickly that the plants growing in the dampish areas of the forest floor were ramps: plants I had heard about but had never found for myself.

IMG_5055I read a bit about them, then returned with a little hand shovel and a bucket, ready to try something new.  All it took was 20 minutes or so to get plenty – enough for us and enough to share with two neighbors.

Ramps are wild leeks.  They are in the lily family and are related to onions and garlic.  They can be substituted in any recipe that calls for green onions.  I washed them, saved some for later, then cut the rest and threw them in a pan for sautéing.

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But here’s something else new: just last week, my neighbors who happen to own one of the best restaurants in Door County texted to say they had just put a present on our porch.  Who, after days inside with only a husband and dog, wouldn’t rush to the door and call after them to come back for a little socially-distanced conversation?

I’m sure I am probably revealing some gaucherie* to those of you who enjoy fine dining and gourmet pleasures, but to be honest, I was a little less than enthusiastic to discover that the present they left me was duck fat. I tried to be appreciative. I tried to cover up my skepticism.

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Whenever you’d use olive oil, use duck fat instead, Larry offered.  He also said, “We rendered two ducks earlier this week.”  Certainly we are all finding ways to cope with quarantine, but there are probably not too many people who can come out of 2020 saying that.

So when those ramps needed to be sautéed, it seemed like the perfect time to trust the words of a restauranteur ( especially one whose food is exquisite.)

If you are like me, it is far easier to revert to what’s easy and familiar in these days of quarantine than to challenge myself to improve or change.   I have to push myself to do more than I need to. Somehow making a chocolate cake (and enjoying it) is easier than exercise. Listening to music is easier than sitting down to play the piano poorly and work to get better. Cleaning can happen tomorrow instead of today. I admire people who are using this time to be creative, because being creative is hard work.

So I count it a small victory  that I did something new. I used the duck fat and found that it really isn’t so scary after all.  And yes, ramps are only wild onions from a forest, but it felt significant to dig those edible gifts from the loamy soil and make something yummy as a result.  It was just ramp pasta yesterday and Potato Ramp soup today, but they were gifts nonetheless. Duck fat and ramps. Who knew I could be so grateful for two things so strange and so simple?

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*gaucherie: lack of social grace, sensitivity, or acuteness; awkwardness; crudeness; tactlessness.

 

Invisible

Friends of mine who live south of us have sent pictures of flowers blooming. I am glad for their joy and for the hope that these colors bring. I am glad for them,  but also a tiny bit envious. Here, it is still cold and overcast. Lake Michigan still looks wintry in color. I must reach to believe that spring will come.

The death numbers from the virus rise.  All around us there is loss. The weeks of sequestering will likely become months of sequestering.  This virus has made this winter bleak not only literally but metaphorically as well.  And, just like the spring here,  I’m afraid change is still a long way off.

I have lived in the north for five years now, and though I will likely always begrudge spring’s late arrival, I have begun to learn and appreciate the subtler signs of  spring when they come. Here are just three of them:

I have heard the Sand-Hill Cranes calling. A pair is back in the far meadow. At their first rattle-y cry, I made Dave come outdoors with me to listen. In only our sweaters, we shivered in the wind, but the sound made us glad.

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It’s no lie about those robins.  One day there were over ten in our yard, picking at the grass on the top inch or so that has thawed.  Below that, the ground is still hopelessly frozen.  It is far too early to begin thinking of planting a garden, but the robins were delighting in that top inch of soil. 

And then there is this: the maple buckets in nearby woods have been put onto the trees; the sap has begun to flow. IMG_4966This still amazes me: the secret stirring inside the trunks of tall trees that look every bit as dormant and shut-down today as they did in the below-zero temps of January.  But in some way unknown, the sap has started its coursing. The tall maple branches high over my head have begun to suck water from the ground; there are canals, viaducts, channels flowing in the interior of every tree.

The sight of maple buckets makes me know that something is happening, that change is coming, however slow and hidden from view.

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       The virus has made us all more aware of un-seeable forces at work.  We must wash our hands, spray disinfectant to ward off invisible enemies, avoid hugs because germs that attach themselves to me or to you can do damage even to those we love. It makes us afraid. It wears us thin.  It is terrible.

However long this horrible virus will last, and however much bleakness and death will accompany it,  it will not last forever.

Easter is only a few weeks away, and it offers us what we need so badly to hear. Christianity says there is a hero of the story that has made sure that death will not last forever. Whether Christianity is your faith or not, it is easy to see that nature gives us a welcome metaphor.  The maples and robins and cranes remind us: eventually, winter will be over.  Yes, there are un-seeable enemies, and they are ravaging us.  But hidden from our view,  there is also invisible regeneration; there is also unsee-able redemption.  Someday, it will be spring.

Faith, the Bible says, is  believing in the things we hope for, having a certainty, or assurance  in the things that are unseen.   

IMG_8870Note: I started writing this post several days ago.  We’ve had two days of glorious sunshine since. This morning, I, too, had crocuses!

 

Poem: Crisis and Sifting

If you’d like to listen to me reading the following poem, click here.

On Learning That the Words “Crisis” and “Sift” are Related

I picture my mother’s hands and the silver, mesh sieve.

She was not a meticulous cook, but occasionally
she took the time to sift flour.
Big lumps remained, could not pass through.
That’s the point, she told me.
Only that which is willing to be broken down
gets through.

Heartbreak, infection, isolation: they sift us.

What matters
falls
in.

On a walk, I see a neighbor
Hungry to hear each other speak, we discuss books
at a six-foot distance.
In the afternoons, I drive out to see birch trees,
fields in thaw, and ice breaking up in the harbor.
The gulls have returned.
Our children call.
While my husband reads the recipe to me, I mix scones.
We laugh when the blueberries spill.
I memorize Psalms. He plays guitar. I read.

What does not matter does not make it through.

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Color and Ice

There has been no shortage of ice this winter.   Most of it is troublesome, making me wary to walk on paths, but occasionally it’s interesting.

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I’m glad to say the ice has begun to recede from the shores. Temperatures are rising, and the ice shelves are breaking up.

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Spring is still a long way off here, and I wish it were otherwise.   It will be a while before it’s warm enough to sit outside and bask in the bright yellows and pinks of spring or the green of summer.

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But there is color, even in winter. I hope you’ve all seen the videos this week of  Italians singing from balconies, or been reminded that Shakespeare wrote King Lear during a quarantine of his own.  Whether you find it or create it, I hope you see color even now, in the bleakness of this winter.

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The Solace of Beauty

I have long believed that beauty gives solace when we find ourselves in pain.

It’s one reason I moved to a beautiful place.

Out my window, two birches stand serenely over an old stone wall, a hawk soars over the meadow, the snow has receded to patches.  I will likely walk soon, as I do most days, to Lake Michigan. I will watch, for a moment, the waves. The water’s color and its mood changes daily: sometimes fierce, sometimes placid. It is always beautiful. There is always solace.

I have taken a hiatus from writing here,* but it seems a fitting time to come back. Even here, in rural Wisconsin, far away from the thick of fear and hoarding and shutdowns, it feels somber. Anger, disappointment, anxiety abound; it is time to deal kindly with one another, to give however we can.

In the next few weeks, I plan to give higher tips in restaurants, support local shops, donate food, and check in with my friends who will get lonely.  But beyond that, my help feels small.

However, I DO live in a beautiful place.  So here’s my little tiny gift of beauty. Far it be for me to hoard this beauty that I am able to see every day. For those of you who need to see something beautiful just now, I hope it’s solace for your pain.

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* I spent the first semester of this year as a long-term substitute at a local high school.   I helped students read, think ( hopefully,)  and write words, and thus had no energy left to write my own.

 

Birds and Words

IMG_3955 It’s been a generous bird week. That’s good, because it’s still cold here, ( 43 and rainy right now) and it does not feel like spring.  But these gorgeous birds have brought grace to us as we watch them feast at our feeders, reminding us that they don’t arrive here unless the weather is changing. 

IMG_3946 I’ve just completed two lovely weeks of writing classes; and although each week’s participants and instructor were different than the other, both followed a simple formula:  write, listen to each other read, give and take some feedback,  read a few examples, then write some more.  No one expects perfection, only words on a page.  Occasionally,  ( certainly not always) something lands that is worth paying attention to.

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Here is one of several poems that I began this past week.  The prompt for this was ” I begin my day with…”

Roost

Before, in another kind of life
we daily left each other, flying out
to peck for food
build nests
ride thermals

Now, I begin my day
with coffee. You put in cream for me
but leave the spoon so I
can add the right amount of sugar

The news on the radio is not good.
Like old chickens we cluck
dithering about the future

There are two chairs here, and side by side we
watch nuthatch, grosbeak, indigo bunting.

In winter, when
the sunrise comes so late
we linger.

It is soft luxury to wait.

 

Giving and giving

I have enjoyed a “day of rest” today after a very busy two-day conference. Our little non-profit organization which exists to foster and encourage writing hosted fifteen speakers and eighty-plus people for two days of workshops and lectures regarding “Paths to Publication.”

Many of us spent several hours this week with set-up and logistics, then two twelve-plus-hour days to make sure things ran smoothly. (Things did.) But here’s what made me really happy about the way the conference unfolded: not only did attendees walk away with some helpful knowledge, they also left feeling encouraged and supported, affirmed and energized. This was largely due to the fact that the speakers were genuinely there to give away their knowledge, to freely pass on information, to be helpful. Discussions were honest, and no one held back “trade secrets.” Speakers and attendees alike told their stories, shared their tips, commiserated, admitted mistakes. So fledging writers felt empowered and encouraged. Perhaps, because of such kindnesses, words that need to be written will now find their way into print and people who read those words will be changed; good will come from such magnanimity. As organizers of a conference, that felt pretty great.

The collaboration and the lack of greed was inspiring and refreshing in a culture that increasingly condones and admires the acquisition and hoarding of wealth and power. Unlike some voices today that say otherwise, I still believe in sharing. Generosity is still valuable. Kindness is still preferable to self-protection. Whether it’s a fledging author wanting to know how to sell a book or a mom asking for health care or a desperate immigrant needing a home, no one should be kept out or kept down. We do better as a whole when we help one another as opposed to looking out only for ourselves. I’m still mystified as to why people think otherwise.

It is Palm Sunday today, a day when, 2000 years ago, hopes were high in Jerusalem. The oppressed in that place yearned for liberation. They wanted to follow someone powerful. As that Easter week unfolded, however, it became clear that they did not have a power-hungry king; instead they had a servant king. Here was a savior who chose sacrifice, who knew that giving himself for others rather than asserting himself was a far better course. Ostensibly, in his death it looked like He lost. We know, however, that He (and we) won. Our savior was not a man that grabbed power but instead gave away all He had. But His dying meant our life, our gain.

May we all be generous and humble, sacrificial and kind, especially this Holy Week as we ponder the death and life of Jesus. 

Winter Reading

IMG_3141The snow is deep and the cold continues. It’s hard to get outside much. Every single day for the past month I have walked our dog with snow shoes on because it’s too hard to walk across the snow without them. Even so, more than once I have sunk in deep, as much as three feet into drifts and snow banks. Louie, too, tires of sinking deep, and often just walks behind me in my tracks.

But our house is very snug- well insulated and without drafts. We have wished at times for an authentic wood fireplace, but our electric one suffices for ambiance and warmth, and we are just as happy to not be carrying in wood, sweeping up wood scraps, carrying out ash.

So I have sat inside by our fireplace and done quite a bit of reading. Here are a few I can recommend from the last few months.

Oh, and by the way: JOIN a BOOKCLUB. I would never have chosen some of these books on my own. I get stuck in my favorite genres or authors, but a book club obligates me to read something else, something other. And that’s a good thing.

Caramelo, by Sandra Cisneros.   I am impressed by the way she advances a plot by the mere use of brief snapshots. Her descriptions of place are wonderful- her words paint vivid pictures of whatever or whomever she’s describing.

The Last Days of Night, by Graham Moore.   Based on the true story of the rivalry between Thomas Edison and John Westinghouse. Who among us stops to think about those days in America before electrification? Or of the people who were foresighted enough to know their inventions could change everything?

Prairie Fires, by Caroline Fraser.  If you grew up loving the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, I’m not sure I recommend this. It’s a look at the harsh and brutal conditions of the REAL Ingalls, moving from place to place because of poverty. In the Little House series, we knew the Ingalls lived simply, but there seemed to be optimism, laughter, song, love. In this well-researched biography, she portrays the true Ingalls’ lives as more hardscrabble with less cheer and light. I guess I am glad to read the truth, but it also makes me a little sad.

Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter  by Jean Pendziwol and Ahab’s Wife by Sena Jeter Naslund. I read these almost back to back, so truthfully they are a little muddled in my mind. But both are written beautifully and took me to a time in history and place other than here- and I love when books have that kind of power.

Happy Reading!

 

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Snowy and Cold

During our first winter in Wisconsin, I distinctly remember taking a walk under a blue sky in a snow-covered field with my neighbor. I was bundled up in several layers and was shivering. The temperature was in the mid 20’s. “This is my favorite kind of weather,” she said. Then she added,” maybe even more favorite than summer.”

I think at that point I told her she was crazy. I remember thinking, who could ever like a day like this?

Now, three winters later, I have grown to like some winter days. I can almost agree that a 20-degree, blue-sky day is pretty wonderful. When the temperature is 30 or even 40 in the winter, it is notoriously overcast. Skies and fields are grey. Life seems dismal and drab, and because of the ever present Great Lake in our backyard, damp. But temps in the 20’s mean blue skies. Especially if there is no wind, it’s pretty great to tromp in the snow among evergreens.


img_3766Animal tracks are visible, and we can see who shares our land.

img_3092Birds chirp. And as long as I am wearing the right socks and warm mittens, and as long as I have a few layers and a warm coat, I am truly not cold.  I can walk for miles in nearby fields and in the woods or at the water’s edge and revel in the quiet beauty of winter.

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I am also learning to appreciate the different kinds of snow. Tiny flaked or big flaked.

img_2936Wet and heavy, or powdery like fine sugar. There is snow that drifts and makes patterns reminiscent of sand dunes or eroded rock.

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There is snow that glistens and flashes like a million shards of light in the sun. Occasionally, the footprints from the day before seem to glow with an ethereal light as the afternoon light fades and it grows dusky.

So, until the polar vortex hit us a few days ago, I thought perhaps I was adjusting to Wisconsin winters. And then, two things happened. First, along with most of the upper Midwest, we have been housebound with the extreme cold and wind chills that are between -35 and -50. Even locals are staying in and admitting it’s cold.

Secondly, my neighbor ( the same one)  told me with a little touch of sadness and nostalgia there were snows in her childhood when the snow piled as high as the telephone poles. “Those were good years,” she said, and once again, I felt like telling her she was crazy. I still have a ways to go, apparently, in adjusting to Wisconsin winters.

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Thoughts from the Road

It’s a very big country.  Especially in the west, there are a lot of miles to travel between place to place. We’ve already put on 3,800 miles, and we’re still far from home. We’ve meandered on sidetrips and rarely pushed ourselves to long driving days, so our pace has been pleasant and not grueling. But, man, these distances are huge, and this land is vast.

Much of this western land is arid and desolate, nearly uninhabitable.The few people who live here seem rugged, independent, and in many cases, poor.

The fact that some of the worst land is also Native American Reservation land is no accidental coincidence. Anyone who thinks that there was justice in how those boundaries were drawn needs to think again.  But history aside, this dry, desolate land makes me realize that water is an extravagant luxury. I’m used to trees, to woods, to verdant green with fertile land and cherry orchards.   But here, in the west, there have been mile after mile and acre after acre of desolation.

The value of our National Parks cannot be overstated. We’ve spent time in five of them and each has been uniquely wonderful. Canyons with walls 3,000 feet high.  IMG_2687 Hoodoos carved by erosion over millions of years. IMG_2629Red rocks that rise out of the desert. Lava fields and geological striations that are as interesting as they are beautiful. IMG_2748 Preserved historical ruins from 800 years ago in mesa cliffs. IMG_2906Though the temps are a little chilly at this time of year, we happily did not contend with crowds. We walked trails, watched unfamiliar birds, and learned from the rangers who patiently answer the same questions day after day. The stars were remarkably bright at the Grand Canyon. In addition to the sky being enormously full of bright lights, many of those stars were falling.  We left our warm bed to venture out at 4 in the morning for the Geminids meteor showers and were glad that we did.

When I despair over our current administration’s misplaced priorities, I’m glad we have national parks, underfunded though they are.  They are places of  rare and spectacular beauty that need to be preserved and spared from development.  It is one thing that our country has done wonderfully right.IMG_2761

Travel is great, but it comes at a social cost.  We have left home for six weeks, and that means we have left our weekly church meeting, our non-profit volunteer involvements, our exercise classes, book clubs, walking and writing groups.  We aren’t having impromptu games nights with our neighbors or seeing acquaintances at the local post office or nearby cafe.   I miss the interactions with these people who have become our friends.

There are lots of retired people in this part of the country who are doing the same thing we are doing: looking for sunshine and mild temperatures as a contrast to the dark and damp of northern winters. Those who are wealthy buy second homes and figure out how to live divided lives- half in one place and half in another. Others buy RVs and move themselves for a few months to campgrounds that are little more than parking lots. Or they travel and stay a few weeks here, a few weeks there. In each of these scenarios it seems to me that deep relationships suffer. Mobility and travel cannot help but take their toll on human connections.

This is the first time ever that I have not decorated a house for Christmas. I find myself nostalgic for the little details that have become our yearly habits: certain cookies, specific ornaments, white lights on a fresh cut Christmas tree.  But beyond that, I find I am celebrating less than in other years the God who came to earth. I am thinking less of the advent miracle.  And then I chide myself; is my faith so dependent on Christmas carols and candles that I cannot celebrate advent in my car, on the road? As Christmas Day nears, I will be glad to be out of hotels and into the homes of friends and family where we might talk of the Christ child, read the gospel accounts together, listen to carols, pray.

 Perhaps I can tie these unrelated thoughts together with this: I have felt small on this trip. The vast spaces we have driven through, the heights of canyon walls, the centuries-old ruins of ancient civilizations, the multitude of stars that fill a night sky: all are proof of my smallness. 

I have also recognized my need for connectedness, for meaningful relationships that must be nurtured.  As we come close to Christmas, I see there are answers for both of these plights in the advent story. Despite our smallness, we matter to God.  In his immense-ness, He also became small and human, and now there is proof that our lives have value. Incomprehensibly, scripture says He did this because of love, because He wanted to interact with us. In this love, He affirms that relationships matter.

So as we begin to  head home, grateful for so much beauty in our travels, I am also grateful today for deep truths. I pray you each find ways to celebrate and be glad for the good messages to us at Christmas.