Archive for May, 2013

My backyard skin

Are we inexorably drawn to the things we knew deeply and warmly when we were little?

arialIn Maji, Ethiopia, my backyard wasn’t neat or cozy.  It was full of frogs and bugs and plants that we pulled apart and stitched together in our games.  It stretched outward to that path that led to a waterfall, the one my sisters and I ran up and down telling stories abut the curled fern tips we called our water babies.  We were outside all the time.

1 bek751All too soon, my kids were young gardeners and our back yard had a big vegetable garden that gobbled up hours of spring and summer.

1 weeds (1)When I moved to Portland, I was less interested in a big vegetable garden than in plant choices that would support the lives of bees and butterflies and birds. I turned a patch of grass in front into ground cover and started looking around the scruffy back yard and trying to identify weeds.  This one, I thought, was a charmer.  That was before it started sending its roots crawling and its seeds flinging everywhere.  Oops!

(I must say I haven’t given up vegetables completely.  I’ve grown tomatoes and lettuce and rhubarb and some champion kale here.  This year it’s flowering–still good to eat.)


Last year, I was a weed dabbler.  This year, I’m obsessed.

In my quest to identify the Big Bad Bully weeds, I found a form on the web and filled it out.  This week, the Columbia Land Trust and Portland Audubon Society will send a volunteer to look at my back yard, help me identify the worst invaders, and come up with a plan for better backyard habitat.

???????????????????????????????I do already have BETTER backyard habitat than I once did.  But one of the big offenders–ivy–sprawls over the fence between our neighbors and us and climbs the neighbor’s trees.  I’d have to take care of that to even have a Silver Certified Backyard Habitat.  A Gold or Platinum means people have “taken heroic measures to remove invasive weeds, increased stormwater management on-site, and created beautiful habitat for local wildlife.”

???????????????????????????????(What is this weed??  I’ll find out!)

I am YEARS from silver.  Now I know Lanie was probably years from silver, too, even if I did give her a great yard.  But my outside genes pull me into the back yard almost every day identifying all kinds of weeds–and looking at them in my neighbors’ yards, too.  Alas.

???????????????????????????????I now know bindweed and toadflax (sigh…I thought it was snapdragon and had welcomed it) and pokeweed (can’t believe we let two specimens get HUGE and grow fat, fleshy roots), and weedy fennel (I proudly asked a master gardener at the farmers’ market what this aromatic herb was) and henbane and chickweed and a bunch of others.

???????????????????????????????And here’s the hopeful thing.  I spaded up a bunch of crabgrass and other scruff in this spot by the street and planted a few steppables last year.  (Have I said how much I love steppables??)

???????????????????????????????A year later, it already looks like this.  Friends of Trees also planted that tree, by the way.

maji514The best thing is that I feel like that shirtless kid again, loving the feel of the earth on my skin.


Brave mothers

Long plane trips between continents…learning how to manage life in Addis Ababa and then in the countryside where (at first) water arrived at our house on the backs of donkeys and cooking was done on and in a wood-burning stove…landing on the hot savannah and standing under the wing of an airplane for shade…creeping up the mountain road squashed together in a lumpy, bumpy Jeep…creating school in a bedroom…like all kids, I never questioned the elements of my childhood.  These things were what families did.  They were what MY family did.

1 airplane748

It wasn’t until much later, when I was working on my book JANE KURTZ AND YOU, that I even thought to ask my mom how all of those adventures felt to her.

small JK&U“What was that first trip like?” I asked.  “You’d never even been outside the country before and here you were with a four-year-old, a two-year-old, and a one-year-old taking a ship and then airplanes all the way to Ethiopia.”

She said that the airlines gave her a questionnaire to fill out because they wanted to encourage more families to travel.  What did she suggest?  “A bigger size of diaper.”

She handled each adventure with calm practicality–living in a house with a grass roof and a pole in the middle of the living room–having more babies–figuring out how to bake bread with flour milled down the path at the waterfall.  Adventure after adventure.  She wrestled solutions out and never stopped making puns and wry, truthful comments along the way.


But why not?  She grew up in a world of clothes made from feed sacks and unending hard work and poverty.  She left home at fourteen so she could finish high school and eventually go to college.  She always knew life wasn’t going to hand her any smooth, clean solutions to any of her dilemmas.   Her younger sister in this photo looks dreamy.  My mom looks wary–and ready for anything.  Not easily swayed.  Not easily bowled over.

Mom with Ruth

She passed on that tough survivor spirit and gave her children lives of adventure, conversation, laughter, and books.


I’m surrounded these days by more moms making tough, practical choices, including my students in the Vermont College MFA program determined to have artistic lives in the middle of domestic demands or including the moms out there raising money for Ethiopia Reads so that all mothers’ kids will have a shot at education and dreams, including the Ethiopian moms I’ve seen–like this one–determined and hopeful in spite of tough and terrible odds.

kindergarten Feruza at home

Thanks, Mom.  Happy Mother’s Day.

Harold and Polly

Beauty and the Beast

DSC04039Home from travels and thinking, again, about weeds.  Ah…weeds.

One of my stops was in Kansas, a visit organized by LeAnn Clark–astounding volunteer for Ethiopia Reads who has gathered and sorted and figured out how to ship about 300,000 gently used children’s books to Ethiopia.  She was impressed with how much more I know about plants and flowers now .  LeAnn and I did two events to raise money for Ethiopia Reads, events centered around my Lanie books.  At one of the stations, kids planted flowers in cups and mugs that LeAnn and I bought at the thrift shop for 10 and 25 cents.  (Local nurseries donated the plants.)

What thralldom…to think about actual seeds and also the reading seeds we’re planting.

???????????????????????????????Back in Portland, I’ve had a few days to mull my garden again.  Some plants clearly don’t take much patience.

We stuck these azalea bushes in the ground last year, for instance, and did what we could to make the earth acidic and–wowee!  I came home from Kansas this spring to find them turned into princess-ey wonders, fluffing their pink around them.

Some plants take mucho patience.  Last year, my sister Caroline gave me a few transplants from her garden and one looked like…um…a STICK most of the spring and summer season.  I had to put rocks in a circle around it to keep from accidentally stepping on it.

It didn’t go away all rainy winter and now it has buds on it for the first time.

DSC04093Last spring, I also planted some oooold wildflowers seeds I’d had around for years and wasn’t even sure what the baby plants were going to look like.  I kept asking my sister Cathy, “Do you think that’s a plant or a weed?”  Finally, I was convinced I was seeing feathery teeny plants that were NOT weeds.  But they never flowered.

This year they did!

DSC04100I even learned from a book LeAnn handed me that they are perennial.  Maybe I’ll have poppies in my garden from now on.

This spring, with the front gardens in pretty awesome shape, I’ve been looking at the back yard for the first time.  A neglected back yard that had dogs running around it before and (thus) some big bare spots.  I’ve read and read about aggressive, noxious, invasive, nuisance weeds–and I finally found a website where I think I’ve signed up with someone from the Audubon Society in Portland to come tell me about my weeds and how to create better habitat in my yard, a la Lanie.

And you know what?  I think Ma Nature did give me ONE good, native weed.

DSC04095I think this is fringecup, a lot like but NOT garlic mustard, which I believe I can now identify and have been pulling and pulling and pulling.  Yesterday, I transplanted it from this corner spot into my back yard where I hope it will flourish and spread.

In Maji, Ethiopia, I learned to love the smell of earth and weeds and grass–and now I’m coming around to a whole new world of weeds and grass and earth.  Some of this is HARD.  Some is vastly fun.

Stay tuned for whether I think there is ANY hope for a Backyard Habitat Certificate somewhere down the road!