Monday, May 28, 2012

Leaves of 3, Let Them Be; Friends and Kin, Let Them In

by Zinta Aistars

One of the greatest joys of owning Z Acres is sharing this place of beauty and peace with my beloveds. Time is sparse when you suddenly have ten acres to care for (and a new job, and a literary magazine to manage, and a list of freelance assignments to complete, and a stack of books to review, and ...), but I've been working in a schedule of visits from family and friends to add to their pleasure and mine.

My sister Daina was among the first on my list. I couldn't wait to have her come out from Chicago to my little corner of heaven.

We both share a deep love for Michigan's Upper Peninsula, and while I had spent three years hunting for a small wilderness property where I might someday enjoy log cabin living, she and her husband had already purchased five wooded acres on a lake where they hope to build a retirement retreat.

Instead, I found my dream property in southwest Michigan, trading a dream of wilderness living for country living, and my sister is deeply entrenched in running a business outside of Chicago that has been pushing out their retirement plans a little further, a little further still.

I'm less patient. I had had enough of suburbia. I'd lived in my little blue house in a residential neighborhood, walking distance from shops and stores and facilities and schools, for more years than I'd ever expected. I am still (oh too many) years from retirement, if ever I get there, but I wanted to enjoy that country oasis already. If I spend my days at an office, why not my evenings and weekends in that green place away?

And so I bought Z Acres and moved in this past March.

My old chow pup, Guinnez, went running up the wood stairs, all the way up the hillside to the long drive above as my sister's van pulled in. Like the good host he is, he walked Daina down the hill to my little red farmhouse tucked into its side where I awaited her.

"I love it!" she squealed, and I gave a little hop of joy and hugged her and squealed in reply. Okay, so we are girls, after all...

The weekend was humid and hot, and my more than century-old farmhouse does not have air conditioning, just a lazy ceiling fan, but I had already found out, to my great satisfaction, that even on days that were hazy and near hundred degrees Fahrenheit, the place remained amazingly cool, if not downright chilly. While in cemented suburbia, I had had to install central air conditioning to stay cool, living in the middle of shady woods, on the downside of an insulating hillside, I was keeping it cool without any artificial help.

I invited Daina in, her grin stayed in place, even stretched a little, and we brought her suitcase up to my upstairs bedroom. I gave her the grand tour, inside and then out.

"Oh, I can see why you fell in love with this place," she acknowledged. "Photos don't do it justice. Nothing like being here."

Being here and digging in. Part of our weekend became a visit to area greenhouses and nurseries, as my sister, just like our mother, is an avid gardener. She was hunting for new perennials to add to her gorgeous flower garden at her home, while I was hunting for plants to produce more edibles on my property. Her van quickly filled up with flowers, shrubs, plants. For me, there were two blueberry bushes and a red grape vine. I also added in a couple hanging plants for my screened in patio, where I enjoy sitting in evenings with a book, a glass of wine, and lit candles ... or a cup of coffee in the morning as I woke slowly to the day.

Daina was only too happy to help me add my new greenery to my garden at Z Acres. We found perfect spots for my blueberry bushes--next to a row of red currents and a raspberry bush. My little berry patch, we agreed. The red grape vine would curl up a little wooden trellis leaning against my toolshed at the back corner of my yard.
While Daina enthusiastically cleared the chosen spots, ripping out weeds with both hands, I brought out the garden hose and bags of composted soil to give the plants a good start. These additions to Z Acres, I knew, would hold special meaning to me as I would always remember by who and how they were planted. I would think of my sister and our visit every time I popped a sweet blueberry in my mouth over coming summers.

I would also remember a terrible, itchy, blistery rash.

I sighed when I got the text from my sister a couple of days after she had returned to her home in Chicago. "LOVE your place! HATE your poison ivy!"

Oh dear.

I walked my gardens looking for the offending weed. Where had it touched her? I needed to find it and eradicate it. How is one to find this three-leaf plant on ten acres of woods and fields? No doubt it grew in more than one spot, but I had to be sure it was gone at least from the gardens surrounding the farmhouse.

It was my dear farmer-poet friend Amy who helped me find the villain. Our visit started on the following weekend over shared cups of tea and latte, topped with real whipped cream, streaked with chocolate. I hummed in pleasure at every sip. Amy introduced me to Daily Brews coffee shop in Wayland, a good spot for us to meet between her farm and mine.

Amy is one of two owners and seeding founders of Harvest of Joy Farm in Shelbyville, Michigan. I had learned much from being a shareholder in her CSA, a community-shared agriculture venture last summer. Once a week, I had stopped by her lush farm to collect bags of garden-fresh vegetables, organically and sustainably grown, and had eaten them all summer, fall and even through the winter, from what I had diced and sliced up and frozen for months of delicious enjoyment.

By spring, now a rookie farmer myself, I was ready to start my own vegetable garden. Not like I haven't gardened before. I'd been a successful gardener many summers, although many summers ago, and admittedly in a state of "ignorance is bliss." I tossed seeds into the ground, did a little weeding, watered, and harvested.

By now, I had learned a little this and that, just enough to get me a little intimidated. PH balances in the soil? Blood meal and nitrogen levels? Raised beds? Compatible and incompatible crops? Desirable temperatures in compost piles? Uh boy.

Did I know what I was doing? No. Just enough to be ... well, not dangerous, but enough to know that I could do much better. Amy was the expert to whom I went for gardening advice.

And, as it happened on this Saturday, for equipment. The spot where I wanted to start my new vegetable garden had been gardened before. From the many seeds in the greenhouse, the left behind (thank you!) gardening tools in the toolshed, the gorgeous perennials I had enjoyed all spring, I knew the woman who had owned Z Acres prior to me was an expert gardener. I would dig up the dirt in the spot I could tell she had used, thinking the soil would have already been worked well, surely composted and mulched in previous summers, if perhaps not this last one.

So, with our cups drained, Amy and I headed to her farm in Shelbyville. There, we borrowed a pickup from her farmer father, who lived in the historic farmhouse next door, in the family for more than a century (I am in awe of such history, and the more I learn about farming, the more I admire and respect and support the small family farmer), and loaded up a good-sized old rototiller into its bed, using an old door for a ramp.

Then on to Z Acres. Amy brought her dog Buddy, and Guinnez was only too thrilled to see his dog pal. The two went off running across the fields, forward and back, and finally circling around us. Amy had started to till up the future garden patch.

Weeds and the sparse grass had managed to get tall enough that we had our work cut out for us. Seeing what work this was to clear, I soon let Amy know that garden didn't have to be quite as large as I had first planned ... smaller would be fine for my first summer here of digging in. Space next to the garden would be good for dumping compost and grass clippings to form mulch for the garden.

I pulled up grass and weeds as Amy tilled back and forth, back and forth, and then I took a turn. Great old machine! I loved the feel of slicing through the soil, preparing the ground for growing food. I put a tiller, a smaller one for my own uses, on my wish list for future purchases. It would make good sense to have one of these machines for use on this acreage, as trying to dig all this land up with a spade was, well, absurd. As my expertise will surely grow, I liked the idea of slow expansion across my acreage to grow more, enjoy an ever more sustainable lifestyle.

I battered my friend with gardening questions as she worked, and tried to retain all the good advice and information she was giving me. We talked about creating raised beds, how to avoid compacting soil, and how I would order my vegetables, including the transplants she had given me, left over from her own garden--many varieties of heirloom tomatoes, surely my favorite summer fruit, and beans and red cabbages to add to my own transplants in the greenhouse.

Garden patch upturned, Amy was on her knees at its edge and dug her hands in, letting the soil crumble between her fingers and holding it up to her nose.

"Just smell that!" she said. She was right, the earth smelled sweet and good. "Loamy," she said. "This is good earth."

I grinned. Hard work ahead, I knew, and no doubt mistakes and failures, too, but Amy assured me that this was all part of the learning process, and that after a lifetime of farming and gardening, she was still learning. It was a lifelong education, working with the earth, challenging but always satisfying.

We strolled around the yard then, and I showed her where my sister had recently planted the little red grape vine, then took her up to my berry patch.

"Aren't they sweet?" I pointed to the two blueberry bushes Daina had planted. "Look, already tiny blueberries ... "

"Careful," Amy pointed. "That's poison ivy growing right next to it! Leaves of three, let it be."

I stepped back quickly. Oh. So THERE it is. The nasty and poisonous weed that had caused a rash on my poor sister ... and first red spots to surface on my own arms and upper chest and neck. I scratched and then remembered not to.

"Oh heck."

Amy gave me lessons on poison ivy, stinging nettles (yes, have some of those, too, over by the little spring feeding my pond, as nettles enjoy moist ground), and tips on avoiding and ridding my berry patch of these weeds.

Oh, the value of an informed friend! And an itchy sister who still loved my Z Acres and looked forward to her next visit.

By then, I hoped to have garden fresh vegetables to serve to my beloveds. They were my best and most valuable harvest here. Good hearts, sharp minds, willing hands, all adding to the wonder of this beautiful corner of earth, mine, even if it does itch a bit to live here.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012


by Zinta Aistars

When beekeeper Jonathan Noble stops by Z Acres on a warm evening to talk bees, I'm all ears. I am fascinated to learn all he cares to share about keeping bees and helping bees thrive when we are hearing so much these days about "colony collapse." Colony collapse is a term that speaks to sudden death of entire bee colonies. Scientists are yet working to determine the reasons. Could be mites or other pests, could be disease, could be the use of pesticides, could be manipulation of the natural processes of a bee's life. Or all of the above.

Jonathan has been installing bee hives around area farms for some years, including on my own Z Acres, working with the previous owner. I am most agreeable to continue this barter of land in exchange for honey.

On Monday night, at the late hour of 11 p.m., I hear the distant whir of a machine at the back border of my ten acres. Living in the country means very dark nights, as there are no street lights of any kind, so the row of small golden headlights on Jonathan's fork lift gleam in the distance like something alien.

I pull on a jacket and walk out into the night to watch from a distance. I see the shadow of the fork lift move back and forth, back and forth, placing four large pallets of hives along the tree line at the border. I am most curious ...

If Jonathan installs the hives at night because the bees are sleepy at that time and not inclined to sting, I wake at dawn to take a closer look for the same reason. I'm sleepy and so are the bees--but I'm more curious than sleepy.

It's dawn, the sun just coming up, and the ground is soaked with dew. My jeans are soaked to the shins from walking over the fields of tall grass and last summer's corn stalk stubs.

And there they are: the hives. Large boxes, still silent. No, wait. I hear them, just barely. I lean in closer to listen to the slowly waking hum of honeybees inside. My old chow pup, Guinnez, sniffs around the edges of the hives and seems to sense something ever so slightly ominous. Buzzzzzz ....

We circle around as the sun comes up and decide to get a move on before the hives get too warm with waking life. But oh, I'm excited! I've already been enjoying a bottle of Noble Honey with my hot tea--it's the sweet nectar of honeybees and local flowers. I feel good about being a small contributor to giving the bees a new place to thrive. I want to learn more ...

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Simple Pleasures, Little Pleasures

by Zinta Aistars

And now that the first weeks have gone by, the big tasks done, the smaller and simpler pleasures have a chance to rise and take their moment in the sun.

A friend who came by to visit recently remarked that this is not the kind of place that one tires of in a short time. That it will grow on me. As the years go by, Z Acres and I will be rooted in each other. And so it is. Not a passing grin, or a shallow distraction, but a beautiful piece of land that gives back to me all that I put into it.

It's hard work mowing that much lawn. Not that I mow all ten acres, hardly, but even the couple acres or so around the little red farmhouse are quite the job. Take into consideration that I do it with a push mower, and you'll know why I have no need for a gym membership.

Most times, I do the lawn in sections. End of the work day, I may go out to do one corner, next day another, third day, over there, on the far side of the pond. Give it a day or two rest and start again. But when I finish ... that is one of those simple pleasures that warms me through.

Guinnez sprawls on the deck when I finish, as if the hard work had been his. Granted, he does circle around me when I mow. One of the many things I like about the push mower is that it makes no noise, has no scary engine, and the dog is not frightened by it. If I run near a toad in the grass or a rabbit in the bush or a bird nesting in the field grass, flushed from its nest, no harm done.

Having gotten in his exercise, too, old chow pup settles for a nap on the deck while I put my feet up on the lounge chair and sip a glass of cold water, fresh from the well, and let my eye wander in pleasure over the backyard. No, my friend is right, this will never get old. Only better.

Each day, I walk morning and evening around the property, pulled to connect again in some way. I check on plants and trees. I watch the changes the progression of seasons bring. Spring blossoms are almost all gone now, and on the apple tree, pink frilly blossoms have dropped away to reveal the tiniest little green buds of fruit. I think I see apple pie growing ...

In my greenhouse, seeds are sprouting, gaining growth enough to soon be transferred to a garden outside. Salad greens are big enough to eat. Dill is coming up, as is parsley, marjoram, green onions. Cherry and beefsteak tomatoes are unfurling tidy little green leaves.

And look! how easy! Another friend had told me about planting into the soil the heart of celery after I have cut away all the stalks to eat. Could it really be that simple? It is. I pushed the base of the celery into the soil, watered it, and presto. Within a week, first shoots of new celery stalks start to come up. Tiny, tender green leaves unfurl from the heart.

The strawberry plant, too, has offered up its first sweet berry. I pluck it from the vine and pop it right there and then into my mouth. How sweet! Like candy, only better, much better. Home grown.

As I mow the next section of grass, someone drives down my long drive. Guinnez sends a roar of warning. Good dog ...

But it's Jonathan. The beekeeper. He's come by to talk about setting up his beehives on the back border of my property. He worked with Cynthia, the previous owner of this property, and now he has come by to see if I might agree, too. And I do! I am fascinated to see this process of beekeeping. We arrange for him to come by on a night next week, as the hives must be moved at sleepy time for the bees, and set them all up. My payment? Twenty pounds of honey.


I like the idea of providing a safe place for honey bees, even as I have been learning about colony collapse, a dark phenomena of entire colonies of bees dying off from either pests or pesticides, or a combination of both, along with artificial ways of manipulating hives. I want to learn more, and I want to be a part of the solution. I am happy to provide Z Acres, and I think about talking to another neighboring farmer about helping me seed clover over the back five acres where the cornfields used to grow.

The simple pleasures pile up: the pleasure of caring for my land while improving my own health. The pleasure of learning new, sustainable ways of producing food. The pleasure of watching things grow: apples, strawberries, vegetables. The pleasure of picking a strawberry from the vine and popping it into my mouth like candy.

Life is good like this.

And there's more to come. I'm just getting started. My roots are growing deep, and Z Acres is pushing new strength up through me. It's a bond.

Sunday, May 06, 2012

Sunday Stroll and the Sacred

by Zinta Aistars

Sunday morning dawns peaceful and cool. Aside from mowing another patch of green later, no tasks are pressing. I can move at a calm pace, at last. The last weeks since moving to Z Acres have been hectic, adjusting to being a caretaker of ten acres, a landlord of my previous home, and learning the ins and outs of a new job.

At last, I can feel a rhythm settling in. Sunday morning brings serenity. The old chow pup, Guinnez, stirs at the foot of the bed as I stir. He rises and comes around to the side of the bed for a nuzzle, making me smile. He knows our new routine, and he likes it just fine.

We move slowly. Slow and easy. So I putter downstairs to the kitchen and put on a pot of coffee. I feed the dog and the cat, I feed myself -- eggs scrambled with mushrooms, green onions, peppers with a fold of thin Nan bread, warmed for a moment in the pan.

Coffee mug in hand and steaming, Guinnez and I go out for our daily wander. I never did this when I lived in suburbia. There, our routine was a morning and evening walk around the neighborhood, winding between blocks lined by houses. Here, our routine is much different, and whereas the other left me with blood pumping and adrenalized, here I feel soothed, refreshed by the beauty around me, and calmed.

We wander a different way most every day. Every time we walk these ten acres, we find something new. And there's a comfort in seeing other things again and again as we learn the land.

As seasons turn from spring into late spring toward summer, I see different flowers come and go. Some I know, some I don't. I've been eager to learn the ones I don't know, and gradually the names collect ... wild yellow primroses, anemones, columbine, money plant, painted trillium, bleeding heart, peonies, lily of the valley.

Little by little, Z Acres is threading into me, and I am blending into this land. Warming my hands around my coffee mug, I head toward the pond in front of the little red farmhouse, and Guinnez and I circle it. I grin at the dog's antics, dipping a paw into the water, frightening rows of frogs, peepers, to leap one by one, or line by line, into the water.

I watch koi fish swim around the pond, some surfacing to nab an unseen bug. I see one floater, a fish passed on to some other fish heaven, and I move him out of the water with a long stick and into the grass. He is beautiful. Like a goldfish, only six inches long. I admire him for a while in the grass, his rich color and flash of silver glinting off his scales in the morning light, then flip him across the grassy path into the stream that bubbles out of the pond to the other side.

We stroll on. I watch Guinnez wander in and among the trees, come out again, stand among the wildflowers and gaze at the horizon. His eyes close for a moment. He looks like he is saying a silent prayer: "Thank you for this wanderland ..."

It brings my heart joy to watch him wander like this. All his life, he's been on a leash. Suburbia made him barky and anxious, skittery. Here, he almost never makes a sound. If he barks, I know he has reason. He has spotted a deer, wild turkey, or a racoon peeking out of the bush. Or, rarely, someone is coming down my long drive, a propane delivery man, perhaps, or the occasional dinner guest he soon welcomes.

At about a dozen years of age, I see the old chow pup come into his own. Every living thing should know freedom, and now he has his. Yet he always keeps an eye on my movements, and when I call, he comes. We walk together, old friends.

It's a long walk here to my mailbox, and we both enjoy it. From the pond, we wind up through woods, passing an old swing hanging from a tree -- and I give it a go for a while as the dog watches me in what appears to be amusement, his lip curling at the corner. We walk down the long drive, trees forming a canopy over us, and at last emerge into the sun at the very end, on the dirt road, and where the local paper hangs in a bag from the mailbox flag.

The Penasee Globe: a small and slim paper of a few pages covering a long list of tiny towns and villages in southwest Michigan. In this day and age when so few newspapers survive, the reading public turning to the Internet for its news, I enjoy this little local rag with its homey stories.

Guinnez and I take another path, uphill this time, up through the woods and toward the cottage on the hill. A week goes by sometimes that I don't visit the cottage. On Sundays, I can wander up the hill and ponder its still silent spirit. How will I use it? It's an enchanting space, hand-hewn by some previous owner, and quite obviously with love. And with a sense of humor. It makes me think of a place I'd see in a Dr. Seuss children's book, with its array of unmatched windows, not one of them aligned with another, and the second floor jutting out like a ship helm, and one door up front, one door out back, and that last one stepping out into mid-sky. Yet it's solid and strong, every board neatly finished, and when I go inside, it feels warm and cozy. A broom by the door gets me sweeping the wooden floor, and then I sit in one of the three chairs left behind with newspaper in hand. Guinnez walks a circle around the cottage room, then steps outside again to lie in the grass and watch and wait.

I read the paper, occasionally looking up and around. What should this cottage be? Shall I make it into a little guest house, suitable for summer guests? It is wired with electricity, lights upstairs and down. Bring a bed up here and place it by the window, add some curtains, a counter for books and bowls ... the upstairs already has a desk for writing and two more chairs, an empty bookshelf waiting. A writer's cottage ...

Paper read and tucked back under my arm, coffee mug by now empty, Guinnez and I take another path down the hill toward the barn. The patch of grass on the south side of the barn hasn't been mowed ... with my push mower, I have covered an acre and a half, but left this for when the two flat tires on the riding mower are plump again. The long grass is wet with morning dew and slaps against my shins. Dandelions gone to puff scatter seed as I walk through. The big old apple tree spurts a bird our passage has frightened into leaving its nest. There are many bird nests around here, in most every other tree, and I have come to recognize the two hawks that live in the highest tree tops on my southern boundary line, and the crane that occasionally flies across the field.

They say country is quiet. It is. I don't miss the constant sirens I used to hear in my previous house back in town. They were relentless, and although a mile or more away, at night I could hear the hum of the Interstate. I could hear the neighbors come and go, pulling in and out of their driveways. I could hear lawnmowers and neighborhood parties and those times the couple in the house out back had a spat.

Yet it isn't quiet here either. It's a different kind of music, a different pace, a different rhythm. The chorus changes with time of day, but there is a choir of birds. I can't name them all yet either, no more than all these wildflowers, but I listen to them and have come to expect their song. The catbird that lives in the bush on my north side had me so convinced one evening that it was indeed a lost cat, that I went looking for kitty, kitty, here kitty. Until kitty flapped its wings and flew away.

I hear the raucous call of the wild turkey. I hear the finches, the robins and redwing blackbirds, the jays, and a thousand other birds I can't name. I listen to them, I listen for them, and they serenade me from one day into the next. At night, the peepers by the pond astound me with their perfect rhythm, starting up as one, stopping in unison, starting up again with one voice.

It's never quiet here, but it is almost always peaceful. I've never known such peace. By the time Guinnez and I finish our rounds, back at the little red farmhouse, we've had a good long walk, an hour or more, and we sit down side by side on the edge of the back deck to look out over it all, reluctant still to go in.

I wonder sometimes what my life might have been like had I always lived this way. But perhaps I needed to live other ways, in other surroundings, to truly appreciate these surroundings. I can't imagine living in more beauty, and even now, more than a month here, each and every time I look around, I am amazed, awed by the blessings I have received. All my roads taken, all my paths traveled, have all come together and led me here. Home. To stay.

Guinnez rests his soft whitening muzzle on my knee. I sense the same gratitude in him. We both feel it: prayer answered, blessing bestowed, harvest gathered for all the work of so many years. On a Sunday morning, each in our own way, we say thanks.