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Sunday, June 27, 2010


I've never been to Kansas. No skinny legs have ever shriveled up, beneath my house. Okay okay, we do have our share of little people here in the township, but that is a story for another time.

But, I would just like to declare to those in charge ENOUGH WITH THE TORNADOS!

A long long time ago, I was a twenty year old Pennsylvania girl transplanted to an army base a little north of Nashville, Tennessee. I had a brand new baby, two weeks old, and a pilot husband on active duty with the 101st Airborne. He was never home, especially during bad weather, which I was to learn over my three year stay there, occurred every afternoon from April through October.

I got used to the sky turning greenish black in seconds. After you have been warned tornadoes are on the ground about five hundred times, sometimes three or four times a day, you kind of get complacent. Get a "I'm gonna wait to panic til I see the actual funnel cloud" attitude. Until the day you do.

I was in my living room on an afternoon late in May. It was hot. It was humid. My baby son was asleep naked in his playpen. I remember his precious little head looked like a slightly damp egg. I didn't turn on the tv or radio, or play any music for fear of waking him up. We were still getting to know each other. Later I would learn he actually slept better with background noise.

Saying SUDDENLY, forming the thought and the word, does not express how quickly the sky outside the huge windows turned blackish green. No rain one second, the next - hail and rain started driving directly into the panes. I could see my funnel cloud, finally. It was moving slowly, methodically through the valley, I guessed, about a mile away.

Without thinking, I went to the hallway closet and got out two motorcycle helmets - the kind with the full face? I grabbed my sleeping baby boy, and shoved him into the helmets. Miraculously, there was a roll of duct tape on the coffee table. I used it to strap the helmet together around him. This takes longer to tell than it actually took to do. I sat back down on the steps (WHY do homes in tornado alley never have basements?) and watched as the tornado moved towards us in a freakishly random matter. It reminded me of a huge toddler left to wander at will. Very soon, I couldn't even watch it, because it was so dark, so loud and the rain and debris made it impossible.

Maybe three minutes after I first saw the cloud, the pointy end of it must have been at the bottom of the hill just below my windows. And it bounced.

Bounced up and traveled directly over my house. The wind howled with an agony, everything was vibrating, water started coming in through the cracks around the doors and windows. Yes, it sounded like being under a train. No other way to describe it.

My front door blew open against the hinges. With a commonness of purpose, all the front windows blew out at the same explosive moment. And then it was over, and all was silent.

Of course, the sirens started soon after and because we were on an army base, big green trucks started showing up, unloading people here to help. I didn't have to do a thing, except undo the duct tape and hold my screaming baby boy.

Fast forward thirty five years.

It's an afternoon in June. I am sitting in the living room of the house I share with my baby boy, now full grown, with two sons of his own. The darkness of the sky out the windows to the south catch my eye. Hmmm. That's strange. I get up to look. The view out the windows to the north west is a curtain of rain and wind, moving horizontally across Rt.82. My trashcans fly past the windows. My grandsons are in their part of the house, which I have to reach by going out on my kitchen porch. At the same moment I get to their door, my eldest grandson opens it and says, "Mom called. There is a tornado on the way." I said, "Get your dog and get into the basement." I went back in my house, snapped leashes on my dogs, dragged them out into the howling wind and into the kids' half of the house. (because of the construction of the addition, you can't get to the basement of either house from inside my house any more)

Youngest grandson is pushing their English Bulldog Bob down the basement steps. Apparently dogs do not have a special knowledge of impending danger, because at this moment, all four wanted to stop and sniff butts. Down the basement we all went, the boys and I, and four dogs, climbed over piles of tools and supplies for the construction, and stood at the sliding glass door watching branches and random bits of trash blow past. It occurs to all of us, after a very loud CRACK that it might not be a good idea to be here in front of all the glass, and we get under the steps.

Five or six minutes of the loudest thunder I have heard. Five or six minutes of mysterious crashes and bangs. Here I am, under the steps this time, with the babies of the baby I put in the helmet. My grandsons love that story, the thought of their big strong father inside helmets, duct taped together, to ride out the storm. You would think I was scared. You would assume that I would be anxious about protecting them. You would be wrong.

What I learned under the steps is that my grandsons are calm, collected and capable during scary times. At 13 and 17, they are mature and even funny when stressed. There was just a feeling of waiting it out, that nothing bad could happen to us. I would rather be in a tornado with them then anyone else I can think of. The dogs were so relaxed, they all laid down, taking the opportunity for a quick nap.

While waiting for the storm to pass, we chatted about how we knew a storm was coming - I told them the trashcans flew past the windows. They told me their mother called to tell them she watched a tractor trailer blown over in the parking lot of her business. They went around and unplugged everything, closed all the windows. And then, gone looking for Nana. That would be me.

As suddenly as it came, the storm was gone. We had no electricity, of course. Eldest grandson went across the lawn and checked on the animals in the barn. The horses were already out in the pasture grazing like nothing had happened. The goats don't like being wet, so they were hanging out inside. The chickens were all under the coop, not in it, which we thought strange. Well, except for one Barred Rock, who had ridden it out on the fence behind the coop. We imagined her there, wings unfurled, beak clenched, facing into the fray. She got a new name: Fearsome Bitch!

The three of us sat on the porch in the rockers and enjoyed the breeze. It was about ten degrees cooler! My daughter-in-law arrived home from work and we surveyed the damage: broken dining room window, huge branch out of the crab apple tree. It was a little like that game you play, where you try to figure out what is different between two pictures. Was this here, was that broken before? A pillow from my bed we find in the side yard. There is a mysterious pile of slate shards that wasn't there before. You can see where the wind ripped the ridge cap off the metal roof, and left it flapping. Upstairs my bed is soaked - I didn't have time to close the windows. There are piles of leaves in the hallway. A bedroom window broken. Some shutters hanging by their hinges. All in all, not too bad for a 150 year old house.

We pile in the car and go on the destruction tour, waving at our neighbors who are out on their lawns or controlling traffic in orange vests. We lose count of the number of trees down, or the miles of cable hanging from broken poles. On our cellphones, we call everyone we know and compare stories. We drive over to check on my daughter-in-law's parents who live about two miles away. They have some trees down, no power and some war stories of their own.

Over and over we say, Nothing that can't be fixed. It's a feeling of a bullet whizzing by your head. And if this hadn't happened, how exactly would I know, so completely, that my grandsons are tough as nails? And knowing that is a gift to me. The kids are alright.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Blue Sky Farm Summer Bouquet


I've been pushing it this year since April, which makes me feel guilty, because I completely devalued Spring. In my defense, Spring was a hurried affair this year, barely here for two weeks after the last cold rains of winter dissolved the remnants of the blizzards, grey and dreary in the pasture, and a heat wave arrived tempting us to wear white before Memorial Day and break out our Lawn MuMus. Lawn MuMus are big baggy brightly colored dresses that we wear in Honey Brook when we go commando and wander around weeding or staring at livestock. If bears emerging from hibernation wore clothes, this is what they would choose.

But now, joining the Barn Swallows and the Lightning Bugs, it's no longer ME deciding that Summer has arrived. There is a bouquet on the table that announces it with the exuberance of debutantes arriving back to the Sorority House.

Blue Hydrangeas and Orange Daylilies, or Mophead and Fulva, as we call them here.

Everyone who reads this is a better gardener than I. We don't even have to have a score card. It's not even going to be a contest. I concede. I grew up in a family where all aggression, competition and judgment is channeled into gardening. I gave up long ago in the race to drop Latin Names for species and have the first tomato of the season. I don't even CARE about heirloom seeds and grafting. I am much better with things that follow me and beg to be fed than I am with things that soundlessly wither and die without water. That leads me to Mophead and Fulva which you can't apparently neglect to death.

In addition to their ability to live through my inattention, they fill up vast amounts of space in the garden if you let them, so you don't have to plant anything else. When they are not blooming with mania, they are green and verdant enough to fill visual expectations of 'landscaping.' They can also withstand assaults by bulldozers and careless roofers: the hydrangeas and daylillies survived our three year construction phase and will provide the foundation for new gardens we will put in, someday. Also, for some reason, the chickens don't eat them or destroy them.

You can do a lot with hydrangeas if you really want to. You can change their color by changing the PH of the soil, you can get hundreds of different varieties from GI-normous to petite. I justlove my big blue blooms. Once a guy stopped and asked if he could buy some of mine for his wedding!!! I try to pull the wild grape vines out of mine once a year. It's the least (yes, actually it is) I can do for them.

There are lots of people who spend their time hybridizing daylilies. In the Eureka Daylily guide, you will find a Daphne Dore Daylily. For her 80th birthday, I found a hybridizer who would name one of his plants for my Mom. In my part of Pennsylvania, the orange variety (Fulva) bloom almost all summer along our roads. In the breeze, they wildly wave to tourists and residents alike, always happy to see you.

I prefer barn swallows to bluebirds and daylilies to dainty roses: the utility, predictability and toughness of my favorites is what endears them to me. I kind of hope that these qualities endear me to my loved ones, too.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

The Light

A couple years ago, on a summer evening, we were entertaining my cousins from Australia out on our deck. This is a blue moon, snow in July, extremely rare occurrence. The last occasion that we were all together was in 1959.

At some point in the evening, there was a pause in the conversation and I realized that my cousin's daughter had slipped off the deck in the darkness and was wandering around the yard with her camera. I asked her what she was doing and she said, "I just must have a snap of these fairy lights!"

Can you imagine suddenly seeing, for the first time, the thousands of sparkling, blinking, frantic tiny lights that are my lightning bugs, in the trees, bushes, grass?

Our farm has a completely amazing population of lightning bugs. Down at the bottom of the pasture, at dusk, they rise out of the ground, swirling, twirling glimmering dots of palest yellow, neon green and blue white, the exact opposite of the blanket of dark. I like to watch as they blink, then disappear, to reappear several feet away. To catch them, you have to guess what direction they go, or be fast enough to snatch them with your hand while they are lit. I think I used to be good at this, because I remember filling mason jars with grass and a twig and then using it as a temporary home for dozens of bugs. As long as I left the lid on the jar, I was allowed to have the jar in my room on my nightstand. I would fall asleep to the glowing semaphore they sent. I hope they found love, if briefly, inside the jar.

Because that is what that light is about. Love.

I took my grandsons down to the display in the pasture one evening. In my best National Geographic Documentary Voice, I explained that the light was a signal, that all the bugs were looking for love. "So," my eldest grandson said, "At some point in evolution, a bug said HEY, I bet if I slap a honking huge light on my ass, the girls will love it?"

He's seventeen.

The stuff that makes a lightning bug light up is called Luciferous, after yes, the Doomed Angel Lucifer, whose name means "Light Bringing." A google search of luciferous reveals that scientists inject this into mice and potatoes. I wanted to see this, so I search for images of glowing mice and blinking french fries but sadly, the pictures of the mice are all about breast cancer and the blinking fries do not exist. But should. I do find pictures of glowing Christmas trees that have been genetically adjusted to have luminescence (I want one) and even someone reading on a park bench at night, lit from above by a glimmering genetically altered mimosa tree. Instead of street lights!

When mixed with oxidizing agent Luminol, the same substance is used at crime scenes. It glows blue in reaction to the iron in blood, revealing trace evidence and sometimes, I guess, speaking for those who can't speak for themselves in the pursuit of truth and justice.

And I wonder...do people glow?

Of course they do! and Don't! How many times have you heard people say that a bride was glowing, or that an evil person had no light in their eyes? Is this just a figure of speech? Not according to Japanese researchers Masaki Kobayashi and Daisuke Kikuchi from the Tohoku Institute of Technology, who, along with Hitoshi Okamurain, "imaged the diurnal change of this ultraweak photon emission with an improved highly sensitive imaging system using cryogenic charge-coupled device (CCD) camera" and took DOZENS of pictures of a glimmering light coming from a human that was 1000 times weaker than our naked eye can see. They postulate that what they captured are metabolic changes that pulse and rhythmically emit light. This light, like the light on a lightning bug, emits no heat, and thermographic images of the same human, taken at the same time, are completely different.

So, no happy glowing mice, no radiant french fries, but there are pictures of glowing humans. I wonder if I have a highly sensitive imaging device inside of me that does see the glow in others at times, but if I have lost the ability through evolution or something similar to the scratches I get on the lenses of my glasses which prevents me from seeing the glow in others always. I am wondering if I can will this ability to the forefront of my life and use it to change my attitude (I will admit to being a judger at times). I experiment with this on the way into work. Instead of feeling anger against the slow moving, enormous SUV meandering down the road like a lost elephant in front of me, causing me to miss the opportunity to speed through three stoplights, I try to visualize the happy vacationing family inside. I fail miserably, succumbing to self serving mini-rage. But I get my point. It's going to require more work to recharge my camera.

Of course, this is not a totally original thought, that people have an energy or a glow that we sense more than see. When the Beatles went on their Magical Mystery Tour, they were looking for 'enlightenment.' Think of the thousands of images from hundreds of religions that show deities and average folks, radiating. I know this, but somehow, I suspect those who talk about it. A further search on the internet shows lots of sites willing to help me see the light, for a price. There's the rub. I just don't like mixing enlightenment with something concrete, like money.

On one web page I find a picture of a mason jar of shining bugs and grass, just like I used to make. And below it, is the etymology of the word blessing. Apparently, in Hebrew, blessing means "go forward.'Hmm. Go forward. Into the light. Where have I heard that before?

It's a smack me into the sunshine and call me Shirley moment. Looking for light, I found a blessing.

I don't know how my cousin's pictures of the fairy lights turned out- that was before digital and phones with cameras. But tonight, if it's still and the fireflies are out, I am going down into the field with my camera to see what I can see. And today, I am going to try to see the light in you.