Tag Archives: birding

Spring Spinach With the Birds


This afternoon I’m hosting our local women’s group for an appetizer potluck and reading of A Bushel’s Worth. I’m roasting mushrooms with Greek salad stuffing, which means walking out to the garden to pick baby spinach. Our farm season opens in three weeks and the spinach will be much bigger by then. For now, I’m content with smaller leaves, but it does take longer than one would expect to fill a whole bag.

Seems like the bag stays only half-full for quite some time, but I don’t mind. I’m listening to two Western meadowlarks trilling back and forth from the giant cottonwoods along the irrigation ditch. You can listen to one of a Western Meadowlark’s songs here.

I’m originally from North Dakota, whose state bird is the Eastern Meadowlark. My grandmother often noted in her diary when she heard the first meadowlark’s call:

“Wed, April 6, 1983: We walked to the creek and found mayflowers and heard a meadowlark sing.

It took me many years to get used to the Western Meadowlark’s song with its notes ascending and descending in a different order than that of North Dakota’s state bird. But both birds share the complex musicality of their song, more lyrical than many a bird’s call.

As I listen to the meadowlarks’ duet in stereo near the spinach bed, I also hear a pair of Red Tailed Hawks shrieking high above me. I can see them, too, as they circle our west field on the other side of the ditch. But I can’t see the meadowlarks, even when I walk near the trees from which they’re clearly singing. I’m surprised not to find them with their bright yellow breasts. Today, they’re camouflaged by the new green leaves of willows and cottonwoods breaking from winter rest.

On the way back to the house with my bag of spinach, I spot a Downy Woodpecker near the knot in our old crabapple tree. No mistaking this bird’s red head and black and white body. I wish I had my camera as the bird senses my approach and flits off to a higher elm.

Spring has been slow to arrive this year. We transplanted 10,000 onion and leek starts last Saturday, a week later than the previous two years. The next day, a wet spring snow watered in the grass-like shoots. We love our alliums at this farm, depending on them all season and even through the long winter. In three weeks, we’ll harvest walking Egyptian onions for our members, followed by green garlic, garlic scapes, early garlic, and green onions, until the full-sized garlic, onions, leeks, and shallots are ready mid-summer.


Today, I’ll use the last of the stored shallots in the mushrooms I’m stuffing. You can find the recipe here on our website. I’m looking forward to sharing A Bushel’s Worth with women in our community tonight. I joked that I’m going to read the romantic parts, but, in fact, I’ve decided I will. John and I met in the spring; on our first farm date, we made our first salad together from newborn herbs and greens. Seems fitting to share that memory on this sparkling spring day.


If you can’t join us tonight, you can view a farm reading of A Bushel’s Worth here, along with great music from Joe Kuckla and Alex Johnstone. Happy spring!



Filed under ecobiography, sustainable agriculture

And a new one just begun

“Do you have any words to share before I pitch the yeast?” John asks as I pour the last of the honey into the five-gallon bucket in our sink. We’re making our annual batch of mead, the fermented honey wine that we brew from our own Stonebridge honey. Mead is the ancient beverage from which the word “honeymoon” derived, for weddings were once accompanied by a celebratory “moon”—or month—of revelry and mead-drinking.

“To 2014,” I say simply. “A year without pestilence, flood, fire, plague . . . .”

“Or war,” John finishes.

“Definitely, without war,” we agree.

2013 is a good one to put behind us. Damages from the flood that ravaged our area are still apparent in the people displaced, homes lost, and businesses closed. Still, so much work has been accomplished in re-establishing infrastructure that it’s easy to forget how ruptured our lives were for weeks following the flood. Just driving into town on repaired roads without checkpoints or heavy machinery blocking lanes has brought a sense of normalcy back to our lives.

And the flood was the capper on a difficult year, one with freezing temperatures in April that killed emerging fruit blossoms; heavy hail in June that damaged tomatoes and grapes; drought in July and August that delayed fall crops; and then flood and its chaotic aftermath as our community was evacuated and our members relocated for weeks, with some still to return.

We are glad to put those times behind us as we rebuild and plan for the year ahead. But 2013 also had its gifts, both personal and public, like the publication of my book, A Bushel’s Worth: An Ecobiography, and the growth of new neighborhood and community bonds as we all worked together to survive.

I’m a little superstitious when it comes to the first day of the year. I like to fill the day with positive acts that portend the way we’ll spend the next 364 days, hence making a new batch of mead that we’ll enjoy this summer (and which we’ll keep in vintage bottles and label “New Year’s Straight,” since we brewed with straight honey rather than adding spices or fruit). Another new year’s ritual is taking a walk around the farm, so after the new batch of mead was stored in the basement brew room to ferment for a couple days, John and I headed outside to survey the land and visualize the coming year, me wearing the lacy knit scarf he’d given me for the solstice and he in the down vest that had been my gift to him.


We stop to watch the water flowing through the upper ditch on the east edge of our farm. Even though we don’t own shares in the Highland, the return of water to this ditch is a welcome sight. The majority of irrigation ditches in our area suffered some damage during the flood. Even though our ditch—the Palmerton—didn’t overflow on our farm, it did breach on land before and after ours, and the headgate is now many feet above the new level of the river. We’ll learn more about the fate of our own ditch at a meeting later this month, but we’ve been told we’ll have water to irrigate this season and the winter water in the Highland is a hopeful sign for ours.


Yesterday, I’d seen a bald eagle flying above a former cornfield across the highway from Birch Lake east of Stonebridge, perhaps the same eagle we’d seen two weeks earlier perched in a tree at the edge of Hygiene nearby, so today I watched for birds and nests as we made our way to our north fields. A bald eagle in flight is stunning in size and strength; this one seemed to ride the breeze like a boat rides the waves, for I never saw it flap its wings as its prone body soared parallel to the ground, looking for small prey, its white head the telltale sign of its reign.


We’re always happy to see the balds in our area, especially this frigid winter. I wonder how the flood has changed their habitat, since so many of the huge trees along the St Vrain were torn away by the surging water or have been cut down in the clean-up along the banks. I’ve noticed, too, that the red-tailed hawks are fluffier this year than I’ve observed previously, a sign, I think, of the frigid weather we’ve had so far—and probably of more cold to come.


Since we’d just made mead from the past season’s honey, I wanted to check the beehives to see if any bees were buzzing in and out of the openings on this cold day. I didn’t see a single bee outside the hives, which are snuggled up for the winter, but I did startle a great-horned owl from a tree on the other side of the ditch.  John and I are always on the look-out for “our” owls, the pair that have lived at Stonebridge for over a decade now, but we haven’t seen much of them this year. Today’s sighting seems a magnificent omen for the year to come—and we’ll take every propitious omen we can get.

With the mead brewing in the basement and the owls and eagles flying overhead, I feel more confident about the future than I have for quite a while. Looking back at 2013, we can say, “We came through that and we’re stronger for it,” but the strength came at too high a cost. Let’s hope for peace in the new year, for homes rebullt and families resettled, for cooperation among our policy makers, and for the extension of the ethic of sharing from our small community to the wider world, an ethic that promotes prosperity not just for a few, but for all.



Filed under ecobiography, sustainable agriculture

Natural Neighbors

As a photographer, sometimes I worry about crossing the line. I don’t believe the whole world is my subject or that it’s my right to shoot photographs of everything in front of my camera. I try to respect other people’s privacy, even in public places.

But I also find myself unable to resist a kind of rationalization to get a shot I like. For example, if I take pictures of strangers without their permission, I try to shoot their faces in positions that aren’t recognizable, like from the side or behind. I know I feel funny about people using my face—my image—without my permission and I appreciate the photographers I know who ask before shooting. Sometimes, though, asking permission isn’t possible so I have to evaluate what I’m actually “taking” with each shot. What I don’t want to do is take away someone’s dignity or agency. My hesitancy limits the kinds of photos I shoot but also, I like to think, makes me more inventive in the images I create.

I’m also careful about images of other living creatures but in a different way. I don’t hesitate for privacy reasons as I do with humans, but I don’t want to compromise other beings’ habitats or safety. The issue here is my presence, more than my camera and the images I make.

I often say that a farm is a cultivated space on a continuum between wilderness (at least the little bit left of it) and human inhabited areas thought of as “civilization” or urbanization. As an intermediary between these types of spaces, cultivation means not only that the natural world is used in an agricultural way but also that an attempt is made to work in collaboration with the natural systems found there. In cultivated spaces, humans and animals must co-exist, sometimes in managed ways, such as livestock, sometimes as neighbors. And as with human neighbors, sometimes the co-existence isn’t easy, such as when wildlife damage crops.

Here at Stonebridge, we try for neighborly co-existence with the other living creatures who live or travel through this land. We try to take the precautions necessary to protect our crops or our beehives or our chickens from creatures who are natural predators of what we’re raising here. We don’t blame bears for wanting to devour our beehives but we will put up an electric fence to protect the bees—and our honey.

This time of year, some of our natural neighbors are busy raising their babies in nests all over the farm. We hang a few birdhouses around, but we don’t usually get to choose where birds make their homes. Right now, we’ve got starlings nesting in one wall of our Sunflower Community room and wrens nesting in another. They seem to trust that we won’t disturb them as they fly in and out with food for the babies that we can hear chirping in the walls and we trust that the birds will leave as soon as they are able.

The most neighborly birds on the farm are the robins because they build their nests right in the midst of our work, in places we could never imagine nest-worthy, even precarious places that wouldn’t seem safe from our human perspective. I like to think that robins are trusting rather than vacuous but maybe the difference doesn’t matter. Either way, we’ve been entertained by robins’ nesting habits for many years.

The most amazing nest was built several years ago next to the outer wall of the Sunflower Room. John had noticed a flicker trying to drill a hole in the wood so he’d propped the tip of a pushbroom on the edge of a bucket on top of an old desk chair so that the broom’s long bristled end covered the hole. Stopped the flicker, all right, but a robin thought that bristled ledge would make a perfect nesting place.

We couldn’t believe that the nest could balance on that broom, itself so precariously crutched on the bucket. We figured the mud must stucco the nest onto the wall, lending support to the entire nesting structure. But once the babies had fledged and the family flown away, we took down the nest and could see that nothing but the grace of exquisite balance kept that nest in place.

This year a robin has built a nest right on top of a tool shelf—right, in fact, on top of the tools. The shelf is on the side of a tool hut built by a friend from corrugated metal with an old satellite dish for the roof. (It’s the sibling of another disk-roofed building in which we dry herbs and store wood). We have to get tools from the hut so we have to disturb the robin’s nesting. Before the baby birds were hatched, the mother would fly to another branch when we’d come close, but now she’ll just sit immobile on the nest in the hope that we won’t notice her.

Before the fledglings hatched, I wanted to see what was in the nest, but since I’m not tall enough to peer into it, I took my camera and held it up over the nest to shoot. I had to count on my shortest-range lens focusing itself and took many pictures to get a few I like. The photos showed three blue eggs of a color seen only in turquoise stones or the ocean, a rare color in nature that seems odd for eggs. Why such a vibrant color for something that must be protected from predators? I’m sure naturalists have posited a theory about that one.

But should I have taken those photographs at all? The mother bird wasn’t happy with me, I know, because she sat on a nearby branch and trilled her scolding. I worried that those few minutes off the nest might cool the eggs or make them more vulnerable to breaking. I’m not even sure yet whether all of them have hatched because I haven’t used my camera to sneak shots of the babies like I did of the eggs. I don’t want to scare them by getting too close but I will try to get their picture with my longest telephoto lens once their little heads pop up over the rim of the nest.

I’m just trying to be neighborly here, not too nosy but curious enough to care. Perhaps that’s a good rule for photography too.

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Filed under ecobiography, sustainable agriculture