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!

 

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. 

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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Photos of Fall

We’ve had snow this week. And cold. There is already ice on our paths. After a walk, wads of snow freeze inside my dog’s pads that must thaw before he’s allowed back in the house ( he waits rather impatiently in the mud room.)

Winter came suddenly, before I had a chance to share my favorite pictures of fall. But I’m going to do so here belatedly and anyway.

As always, autumn here was beautiful.

IMG_2312Election season was hard on all of us. As I find myself mourning not only the divisions in our country but also the slide towards bigotry and xenophobia and mean-ness, I find solace in the beauty of a world that is good and the God who made it so.

IMG_2109The fury of the lake in October storms as well as the colors of sunrise were memorable.

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Even running errands is a delight- beauty waits on every road of the peninsula.

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A Monarch Moon

I live a few miles from a poetry trail. ( First off, how cool is that?)

IMG_2069In Newport State Park, a ½ mile walk winds first through a gorgeous stand of deciduous forest and then meanders through a prairie.. Twelve stanchions invite walkers and hikers to pause for a few minutes along their way to read beautifully crafted words.

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Every few months the displays change, so there are periodic calls for poets to write.

The plan was two-part: meet at the park to write poems as we’d watch the full moon rise out of Lake Michigan. Two weeks later we’d return to walk the trail and read our recently installed poems about the moon.

Things didn’t go quite as planned.  Skies were overcast as my eager car-full of poets drove to the park. It began to rain as we pulled up to the beach parking lot where we had planned to watch a full moon rising. So we went inside to the nature center and dug down deep to write about the moon we weren’t watching.

Newport State Park is designated as a Dark Sky Park, so the nature center has telescopes and star charts and astronomical things.   But it’s also a park full of monarch butterflies, and I was drawn to a display where nearly a hundred of them were readying themselves for flight, for migration. This poem is for them.

 

A Monarch Moon

The moon will rise
whether we see it or not
Carefully plotted charts
assert tonight’s rising will be at 8:01

but there is rain.
Clouds cover the beach.
We go inside to sit on tiled floor
where taxidermed animals ask us
to pretend      to imagine the white globe
lifting itself into beauty

I am struck instead
by the hundred hanging chrysalis
and the scent of metamorphosis.

They need only the moony milkweed
to rise up, to resurrect
to fly

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No First Day Back

I believe in education. And even though schools aren’t perfect in this country, the fact that every child can go to school for free is one of the best privileges of our democracy. It is the right thing to do- to gather our children together to teach them history and math and science and geography and reading, to give them knowledge so they can articulate their ideas; skills so they can invent and create.

All around me this week, kids and teachers are returning to their schools.  However, I’m retired from school teaching, so this is now what other people do.  It took a while to adjust, but I am no longer sad that I’m not in that throng of kids and teachers starting back.

August in Door County is too nice to go inside. The flowers blaze with color.

 

The water is warm and swimmable.

IMG_1683Lake Michigan has been particularly clear this year.

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The gardens are full of vegetables; the eating is good. And all around me I see beauty in the small things like the patterns on water

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and the color of water

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and cranes in a field.

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I loved teaching, and it felt good to do something  valuable with my days. But it was hard work, as it called for relentless sacrifice for the kids in my care. So, thank you to all the teachers who will spend their waking moments of this year helping the children in their classrooms.  I’m grateful you do what you do.

Someday, you too, might retire and live in a beautiful place.IMG_1872