Double Portion of Miracles

My Warren hoe waits while I rest
The patio chairs nearby tempted me to sit a spell. My overworked muscles thought it a good idea.
           As our younger neighbor Peg observed earlier that day, “Tim and I are slowing down. We can’t accomplish half of what we did in a day five years ago.”
           I rested my hoe against a chair (so I wouldn’t forget my task at hand), sat, and took a long drink of cool water. In lifting my head facing west, I spied a wisp of cloud moving south in the patch of blue between pines. In a matter of lazy seconds, the dry atmosphere consumed the cloud.
           Mesmerized, I lingered, hoped for another vanishing act. It’s a miracle, I mused, when a white, gauzy blotch drifted and disappeared.
           Justifiably, I know our land—its flowers, food, and thistles—more intimately than I do the sky. Earthbound with eyes fixed on soil conditions throughout successive growing seasons, I’ve neglected the heavens above.
           Revived and diverted, I slowed my pace, paused my hoe and sought another cloud, and another, until my soul was satisfied with a double portion of miracles.
The first Larkspur to bloom in my gardens

           That evening after a homegrown asparagus dinner, my husband found his place on the living room sofa. I returned to my study.
“Listen to this,” he said from his supine position.
“Is it bad news?” I replied.
“No. Wendell Berry.”
Safe enough. “One of his essays?”
“Yes. The Work of Local Culture.
I left my reading. “One of my favorites.”
My other half read aloud the opening of Berry’s essay published in 1988.
For many years, my walks have taken me down an old fencerow in a wooded hollow on what was once my grandfather’s farm. A battered galvanized bucket is hanging on a fence post near the head of the hollow, and I never go by it without stopping to look inside. For what is going on in that bucket is the most momentous thing I know, the greatest miracle that I have ever heard of: it is making earth.
Mel continued to list the dead and decaying matter the Kentucky poet and farmer saw in the bucket that created soil. We've witnessed this “momentous thing” on our little homestead in the most surprising places.
He read a story from Berry’s childhood about farmhands boiling eggs in the bucket, and that it remains on the fence post as a significant “sign” that reminds him of that story and his community’s culture.
Meanwhile, in my mind, the greatest miracle Berry ever heard of hung in a bucket on a fence post below the miracle of evaporating clouds. For we survive and thrive on the wonder of making soil. And this requires rain, wind, and sun.
Separate and harmonious, these miracles endure to sustain life as they have for unknown ages.
Dear Reader, consider this: God’s hand never wearies. From season to season, as Berry says, making earth “is the chief work of the world.”
The inventor of my Warren hoe understood this.

A Misfit Skips Kindergarten

Iris and her younger sister Libby, summer 1955

After lunch, Mom and Libby kissed me good-bye for kindergarten. I walked down the front porch steps in my dress, anklets, and saddle shoes.
Fresh from Appalachia, I had endured my first winter in Detroit when this warm, blue sky filled with birdsong and leafy branches blew in. All the more, I missed our green apple trees back home in Kentucky—my faithful hiding place.
I dreaded passing Seven Mile Road’s noisy traffic on my walk to school. When my teacher first opened the windows to springtime, those three hours at my desk seemed an eternity.
My classroom couldn’t supply what my soul needed most that June day. Of course I was too young to see the plain truth. My parents, teacher, and principal didn’t see it either.
Mom’s voice echoed in my mind. “Now don’t dilly-dally, Iris. And don’t come back home again.”
No, Mom was a grownup and couldn’t see I was a misfit. She was preoccupied settling into a new neighborhood with Dad and my two sisters and me. I was in the middle.
My older sister Linda went to the special Open Window classroom all day because she had asthma. She and her fellow students took naps in reclining wooden chairs. I preferred recess to naps.
In broad daylight, there wasn’t one person outside on Yacama Street, on their porch or in their yard. Even the young lady kitty-corner from our house didn’t sit on her front porch steps with a mug in one hand and cigarette in the other. I had asked Mom why our neighbor wore her robe in the middle of the day.
“Because she works the night shift.”
My older cousin Jan moved from Kentucky to work the night shift for Michigan Bell Telephone Company as an operator. Perhaps that’s where the neighbor lady worked.
I stopped on the sidewalk and turned back, homesick for who and what I knew, loved, and left in the McCoy Bottom—for who and what knew and loved me. I longed to hug Old Shep’s neck, and run the dirt path past the old red barn to watch Uncle Hermie’s chickens peck and scratch.
The desire for familiar adventure led me to the tall, wide tree in front of our house. I sat with my back to the rough bark and faced the street to hide from Mom. When Linda returned from school, we’d walk up the steps together.
My plan might’ve worked if I hadn’t dozed off and awoke with bird doo-doo splattered on my head. I hadn’t considered that consequence.
Mom gasped at my unexpected appearance. With pursed lips, she placed my head under the bathtub spigot and scrubbed my hair and scalp with aggressive retribution.
“Don’t ever come back home from school again unless you’re sick,” she ordered.
The one who knew and loved me most hovered over me, determined I at last learn my lesson.
I did, dear Reader. I learned homesickness was not an excused absence, so I took to earaches. That’s the plain truth.

Letter to My Muse Regarding Jules Michelet (1798-1874)

Edwin Blashfield's Prose Mural under the barrel-vaulted ceiling of the Detroit Public Library
My Dear Heavenly Muse,
When I consider whom you’ve inspired throughout your Chronicles of Time—Moses on Mt. Sinai, Michelangelo under the Sistine Chapel—I imagine your hand upon Edwin Blashfield’s shoulder while he stood on the balustrade of the Detroit Public Library. Thank you for whispering Jules Michelet into his ear. I may never have met him otherwise.
It’s a pleasant surprise to become acquainted with a French writer who cherished his country’s history and wasn’t a womanizer. Also, I’d never heard the term “Huguenot” which describes the religious traditions of Michelet’s family tied to 1517 in Wittenberg, Germany. Yes, the place you inspired Martin Luther to nail his Ninety-Five Theses to the church door. There, he offered Christians another manner to worship within the Protestant Reformation.
John Calvin (1509-1564), a Frenchman and Huguenot, supported the Reformation. Calvin influenced his kinsmen to leave the Roman Catholic Church and embrace Christian worship from Biblical texts in a more personal relationship with God.
Unlike many Huguenots of that period who fled the violence of French Catholics and kings for refuge in the New World, the Michelets remained in France. Over a hundred years later, Jules was born in Paris in August 1798. His father was a printer of meager means who kept his son in school with high expectations. 
Michelet published his Introduction à l'histoire universelle in 1831. In 1838 he was appointed professor at the Collège de France where he held the chair of History and Ethics. His "peculiar romantic and visionary qualities" made him one the most stimulating of all historians.
His account "featured his tendency to indulge in historical suggestions which, although associated with solid facts, are not always trustworthy. The Introduction à l'histoire universelle was in fact partly inspired by the anti-rationalist approach of the philosopher Vico who had proclaimed the triumph of the imagination over analysis."
  Michelet completed his study Histoire de France in 1867, one hundred years before I graduated from high school. The work contains over 19 volumes. And that's without a word processor. Most authorities say Michelet was perhaps the first historian to imagine anything like "a picturesque history of the middle ages." They say his account is "still the most vivid that exists." 
Michelet's "style, emotional strength, and powerful evocation make Histoire de France a masterpiece of French literature." He "traced the biography of the nation as a whole, instead of concentrating on persons or groups of persons.”
Hmmm…I like that word “traced”, Muse. I trace my history and the Protestant tradition of my ancestors. It all began with Luther. I am part of the whole from Germany, Ireland, Scotland, and Appalachia.  
Who knows (other than you), with 90% DNA Northern European, I could be related to Michelet. That would explain my passion for history. What do you think? Just what do you have in mind for my history and stories? 
I write and wait patiently for your reply.
Sincerely,

Iris Lee Underwood

Volunteers of Various Varieties

I’m happy to announce our six itty-bitty redbud transplants have survived my shovel and winter. Momma Redbud is beside herself, her blooming branches spread in praise of her offspring.
There’s nothing more entertaining and economical for a gardener than plant reproduction right under her nose. Spring—the fecund season when trees, shrubs, and perennial flowers yield more than enough sprouts to share with like minds and trowels.
Volunteer is a common name garden folk give this abundance when a guest drools over a flower and asks something like this: “What’s the name of that beautiful orange blossom in your gardens?”
“Columbine,” the gardener replies, “volunteers from a plant I rescued along the DTE easement years ago.”
This kind of conversation begins with the first sighting of skunk cabbage in March, revs up in April when the white bloodroot blooms, and peaks with white and red trillium in honor of Mother’s Day.
May—flower fever month when perennial exchanges flourish throughout subdivisions and garden clubs. Yesterday morning, for instance, in a brief spell of congeniality the sun accommodated plant enthusiasts who were glad to swap their wealth with a neighbor’s.
My friend Kim dug up hostas from her yard and hauled them to the Troy Garden Club Perennial Exchange. “The weather was perfect, cool and sunny. I thought, who would want these roots?” she said and laughed. “People lined up for them!”
One gardener’s stone is another’s emerald.
Yet, swapper beware. There’s a plethora of hosta varieties from variegated to giant, some 70 inches wide. It’s a good idea to know what variety you’re adopting.
 All volunteers are not created equal. Horticulture plays by its own rules. Like hostas and bleeding hearts, some flower species know boundaries, others don’t. Plant Lily of the Valley and Solomon Seal in the same bed with your hybrid tea roses and you’ll gnash your teeth some fine day in May. Those lilies are eating alive my white rosa rogusa, a rather hardy bush.
I lift up my shovel and declare, “All’s fair in love and war!”
Invasive—a term I’ve learned after a good neighbor offered me liberty to dig up pink and white Lily of the Valley from her hillside. Naturalized is a kinder word for the lily condition that plagues my rosa rogusa, yet describes the perfect ground cover under my mother’s lilacs which are in full bloom.
Intoxicating.
As in any pursuit, learning is in doing. Making mistakes and correcting them. I cede. A lily must behave like a lily. A rose, a rose.
What about the deer, the damage to our gardens and trees? Is all my labor in vain? 
Hallelujah! I think Uncle Luke’s Feed Store in Troy has provided a natural remedy. DEER SCRAM. Yepper!
And me, dear Reader, an Appalachian offspring transplanted in Michigan?
I am a volunteer, a blow-in from Irish ancestors who must dig, plant, and bloom where I am rooted.
By the way, I found three Redbud volunteers while weeding my perennial island today. I’m beside myself. Shall I swap or keep?

Eyes to See

Our neighbor, Ron White, tills the soil for planting native grasses and wildflowers
Rained out, I hustled my electric hedge trimmers and extension cords downhill under the pavilion. Darn, all I needed was thirty more minutes to prune my last three rows of lavender shrubs.
I was much younger when we planted that west plot in 2008. What glorious work and fun it was to break new ground—to make a vision happen with tribes of women who helped develop my lavender farm.
Now my hinges hurt when I bend. And the old lavender plants aren’t as supple, either. They’ve grown woody and brittle, succumbed to neglect, Queen Anne’s Lace and other native seeds.
But I see signs of life, empathize with green leaflets in the shrubs’ crown, so I’ll give them another season in hopes they bloom.
For bees love lavandula angustafolia, commonly known as English lavender. My new bees will appreciate lavandula’s flowers come July. Talk about nectar flow.
I ordered only one bee package this year. After beekeeping three hives last summer and fall, I’ll avoid losing numerous hives again in one swoop.
I’ve learned it’s best to let go something you love in small portions, like we do belongings of a departed loved one. Sue, a good friend, lost a toddler son, then years later a teenaged daughter. A few weeks ago when I visited Sue, she led me upstairs to her daughter’s bedroom, freshly painted and decorated with new and old things left behind.
We stood on hallowed ground alive with memories, love, and courage. And profound sorrow.  
Every parent, pet owner, and grower of plants and food knows the disappointment in losing what we’ve nurtured with all our mind, strength, and spirit. Yet, we realize everything has a lifespan.
Iris waters Hidcote, 2008, now both older girls
In my neck of the woods, lavender seldom celebrates a tenth birthday. Of the three lavender fields we planted, only two partial plots remain.
After dinner featuring our fresh asparagus with cashews, I determined to finish those last three rows, rain or shine.
 Walking up the hill I waved to our neighbor Ron. His tractor clanked away tilling the soil where he had removed hundreds of Grosso shrubs a few days prior.  Yep, Grosso means “big”, so we hired a pro for the job.
Ron’s lost two sons, “boys” who worked by his side in their landscape business. I imagine he misses them most this time of year.
At the sight and scent of turned soil I envisioned a new field of Big Blue Stem and Indian Grass swaying in the wind—less maintenance in the long haul. That’s the plan.
Yet, one never knows what the future holds. As one dream is fulfilled and fades, another steps on stage in passing.

Dear Reader, the rain held off until the old girls stood shorn and delivered of dead wood. I have a feeling this is their last summer with us. I see Big Blue Stem and Indian Grass instead.
This I believe: for every loss there is a gain. God, grant us grace and eyes to see it.

For the Beauty of All the Earth

Magnolia tree at Yule Love It after a wind storm
I hear the drone of distant traffic before dawn, 18-wheelers shifting gears to birdsong.
The first ray of sun illuminates the dew and green earth freckled with dandelions. Our flowering magnolia tree stands as pink as it can be in a moment of glory.
After a good night’s rest, I’m refreshed enough to sense the blessedness of a new day, allow memory to carry me where it will—Aunt June and Uncle Lou, childhood neighbors, for instance.
My sisters and I adopted the childless couple in recompense to their multitude of invitations to their backyard picnic table. They also welcomed the kids on our end and side of the block on Wagner Street.
On our knees weeding her spacious gardens one day, Aunt June introduced me to Jack in the Pulpit. Since I loved playing in dirt, I asked Mom if Aunt June could adopt me every once in a while. There wasn’t one flowering shrub or blade of grass to clothe our new, naked home.

Jack in the Pulpit
        I would pedal my blue bike past Aunt June’s porch in hopes to see her outside. If I spied her sleeveless white shirt and dark shorts, I’d brake for conversation and gardening. One summer day she popped us corn in her kitchen. Just Aunt June and me.
When Dad’s lawn grew in, he built a kite and a reel for string and launched his kite-flying hobby. I preferred racing my bike up and down the smooth sidewalk with my playmates.
For relaxation and good luck, my Irish father hunted four-leaf clovers in our front and backyard. In all earnest, he displayed his harvest on the mirror behind his barber chair for his customer’s commentaries. He believed in those clovers.
He’d roll his manpowered lawnmower out of the garage and give his turf a haircut. Once, while removing wet clumps of grass from the blades, he accidentally cut his fingers. I remember blood pouring from the wounds. He refused stitches and barbered with a bandaged hand.

 As robins gather scraps from my gardens for nests, I reminisce opening track season, freezing fourteen springs in bleachers with other parents. June of 1987, the year our firstborn won the 200 Meter Championship in Class D, seems like yesterday. And a century ago.
I traverse the perennial geography of memory and know this peace is fleeting. Soon, machines of various styles of man’s invention will emerge from garages and barns, lubed and tuned to tackle soil, shrubs, and trees.
Dear Reader, long before gas powered lawnmowers and electric hedge trimmers appeared on our American scene, a young Englishman named Folliot S. Pierpoint wrote a hymn that sums up my sentiments.

For the beauty of the hour
Of the day and of the night
Hill and vale and tree and flower
Sun and moon and stars of light

For the joy of human love
Brother, sister, parent, child
Friends on earth and friends above
For all gentle thoughts and mild
For all gentle thoughts and mild

Lord of all, to thee we raise
This our joyful hymn of praise

Spooning Up Surprises

Uncle Tab and I make breakfast in his new home
Before we left for the Smokies, I baked a batch of currant lemon lavender scones for Uncle Tab. He’s fond of bread and coffee in the morning. I hoped the scones would comfort his broken heart for his late and beloved bride of sixty-six years.
           “Come out of the rain!” he hollered from his front porch in Lexington, Kentucky.
He served us a delicious salad. “Do you like it?”
            “Very good,” Mel said.
I nodded with my mouth full and noticed a stack of opened envelopes on the table. Sympathy cards, I supposed.
           After a good night’s rest, we lingered at the breakfast table. My uncle read his mail again and wept at the tender words for his loss. Never was it harder to leave him.
           “Don’t forget your scones in the freezer,” I repeated.
“I won’t. Stop by on your way back.”
           Regretting every word, I explained our schedule didn’t allow it. Truly, “stop by” to my southern uncles translates “stay the night.”
           The trees greened and Redbuds bloomed as we drove south to Berea in search of Boone Tavern. For years, my aunt and uncle raved about the historic hotel’s food and service.
           No weary traveler could miss the white pillars two stories high and the America flag waving before Berea College Square.   



           A sign with a semblance of 
Daniel Boone, a dog, and scout pointed to the tavern. I remembered Mom’s legend of this American explorer who marked the timber of the Cumberland Gap on his way to the western frontier.
“Dan’el Boone killed a bear on this tree,” she’d say as if the hero had walked her McCoy mountain.
An oil painting of the woodsman dressed in buckskin hung in the entrance to the dining room, a spacious hall fitted with chandeliers, linen tablecloths, and Chippendale chairs. No wonder Uncle Tab and Aunt Alma Leigh dined there. The rustic and elegant have held an appealing balance of southern hospitality since Berea College built the hotel in 1909.
Mel and I hightailed it to their Sunday brunch buffet. I resisted the biscuits and gravy in preference to the salad bar. When we returned to our table, my self-control caved at the sight of bready lumps on plates.  
Wide-eyed, I lifted my fork to Mel. “Taste this.”
“Mmmm…”


A waitress carried a pan and spoon around the dining room. She stopped by our table. “Would you like more spoonbread?”
“That’s what you call it?” I asked.
“Yes, ma’am, a Tavern tradition.”
Well, dear Reader, why had I, a cornbread lover, never laid eyes on spoonbread before?
Because my granny, mother, and other kinfolk preferred cornbread and gritty bread.
Commonly called Awendaw by Native Americans, the Cherokee introduced spoonbread to Appalachia. I imagine Daniel Boone found the dish steaming over Cherokee fires he befriended during his explorations.
Next time we stop by Uncle Tab’s, think I’ll surprise him with a batch of spoonbread. I’d like to celebrate our 1% Cherokee DNA with him.



Spoonbread 

1 ¼ cups cornmeal
3 eggs
2 tablespoons butter
1 ¾ teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
3 cups milk

Stir meal into rapidly boiling milk. Cook until very thick, stirring constantly. Remove from heat and allow to cool. The mixture will be very stiff. Add well-beaten eggs, salt, baking powder, and melted butter. Beat with electric mixer for 15 minutes (not a minute less). 

Pour into well-greased pan and bake for 20-30 minutes at 375 degrees. Serve from pan by spoonful with butter. Delicious with honey.