“Habits” interview on A Nun’s Life

Habits front coverThis interview is almost two years old, but I didn’t realize it was available as a podcast. I had so much fun doing this interview with Sister Julie Viera and Sister Maxine Kollasch.

For those who would like to hear more about the process of writing Habits, here you go.

To purchase the book, visit the book page on this site.

To read some of the coverage and for links to some of the pieces, click here.


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More Spring

wetland burn 4-2015
I went to Chicago for four days and this happened. I’m so sad I missed it– the fire to beat all fires, burning the wetlands. The green parts of the prairie were burned two weeks ago, and as you can see they’re already greening up nicely. The fescue paths are behind schedule, so there’s this wonderful palette right now of yellow, green and black.

The wetlands used to be a wild snarl of Reed Canary Grass, buckthorn, thistles, scrubby trees, cattails, and other stuff. It was a dramatic burn. In the description Steve talked about large trees “torching— or no, they call it candling.” Well, I can imagine what those words describe. Because there have been a few fires that got away from people in recent weeks, Steve was extra careful afterwards, and he and Jeff cut down some of the dead trees that were still smoldering inside.

My biggest fear was for the sandhill cranes. But one flew over even as I was photographing.

sand hill crane flying

I am wondering if they have relocated to a more guarded area by the large pond. They are wonderful hiders, though, and there is still that patch of grass around the open water. The frogs submerged until after the fire moved through and within 15 minutes they were singing their courting songs again.

wetland burn closeup 4-2015This time of year I wish I knew more about foraging. I look at some of the raised beds that are filling with weeds, and think with different eyes I would be able to see the edible greens. I have a book ordered, Midwest Foraging by Lisa Rose of Grand Rapids, Michigan, but it won’t be out until June.

green cover in bedsIt’s OK, because over these four days the greens and radishes in the cold frame did a lot of growing. In a couple weeks– before May 1st!– I’ll have some fancy greens and a crop of radishes.

cold frame greens 4-19-15It’s going to be a cold week, so I’m not moving the brassicas out of their pots and into a bed yet. But today, Steve is clearing ground behind the garden for the chicken coop and pen. Because the burn extended along the fence line behind my garden, things are looking  clear and nearly civilized back there. The barrier is gone between my garden and the large farm field next to our property.

garden line burnAnd I’m happy to report that even the chickens are happier. They love the new cage that the can see through. They spend the whole day jumping and chasing each other from one side to the other. Making me ask that age old question, “Why did the chicken cross the cage?” They really do seem to have no rhyme or reason. They are also looking much more grown up even after four days.

chickens 4-19-15I had a really great time in Chicago these past four days. A particular highlight was visiting the three fifth grade writing classes at Coonley School. I talked to the kids about poetry– and they shared with me what they already knew, which was QUITE a lot, I’m happy to say. And we wrote together, which was very fun, too. I’ve come back and already started looking for other fifth graders! That was my favorite time in school (4-6 grade), and it’s quite heartening to be with a group of lively kids who get so excited to write poems.

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Humans and Chickens

chickens april 10Today is going to be a fun day. The weather will be warm(ish), and the garden bed will get tilled. Time to plant some onions and potatoes! Time to plant beets!

Also time to move the chickens into a different domicile. They aren’t ready to move to their coop, but the box seems cramped and unfriendly. Steve says he has some chicken cages, that will let them look around and maybe not feel quite so trapped.

Or, you know, from a chicken windowless interrogation room to a chicken jail.

I didn’t expect to feel like such a jailer in this human/chicken relationship. I thought it would be so mutually beneficial. They give me eggs and I give them a lovely place to live, food and water. They’d be independent and entertaining. You know, like cats!

This morning on the Knopf Doubleday “poem of the day” post which I get every National Poetry Month, was a poem by the Chinese Tang Dynasty poet Du Fu that captures this relationship– more closely tied to the food chain than the peaceable kingdom!



I’ve been working on my own little chicken poem. I figure I’ll add stanzas as the “relationship” develops. I hope it has a happy ending!

The baby chicks
cheep cheep cheep
and huddle beneath
their new mother lamp.

They shudder in my hand
as I stroke their downy backs.
I coo and try to soothe.
In response, they poop.

The adolescent chicks
jump and thump the lid
of the box, protest captivity
but don’t want to be picked up.

Always they protest me,
the hand that feeds them,
that moves them to clean the box,
with evil eye and defiant beak.

To get a poem-a-day delivered to your e-mail inbox during April, visit this site at Knopf. Here is the link to the Du Fu broadside.

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Starting Inside

photo-41Note to self: don’t put any plants outside when it’s maple syrup season.

This “when the soil can be worked” business seems to me a cruel joke. I have been all optimistic and got a crushing blow from the weather this past week. When the temperature soared to 70 on April 2, I didn’t go completely crazy. I looked at the 10-day weather forecast and saw that it called for temperatures of 30 and above overnight.

Ten days would bring us close to mid-April, close enough that I had hope things wouldn’t drop down below 30 again. I prepared the first bed and took the time to plant the leeks that have been growing on the windowsill since late February. Like blades of grass, but with good root systems, I gave them room to develop by September (they take six months to mature) into thick, sweet, stalks. I watered them.

photo-42I also moved out the broccoli and cauliflower in their pots and put them in the cold frame, where they will get better sunlight and “harden off.” I put out some kale and spinach plants and covered them with row cover next to the leeks. They had leaves and so I thought they might be a bit more delicate.

That night the temperature dropped to 14 degrees. When I went out the next morning, the ground around the leeks was frozen solid. The ground under the row cover seemed OK, but the wind had blown the row cover against the leaves and they were blanched white.

photo-39I came inside and planted more leek seeds, wishing I lived in Iowa. Cursing weather.com. Happy for the health of the broccoli and the cauliflower, and even a few kale plants that survived well in the cold frame.

Saturday walking through the maple syrup operation at Saint John’s University, I made the connection. The sap runs in the trees when there are freezing temperatures overnight and temps above freezing during the day. I don’t know why I hadn’t thought this through before moving those leeks outside. Of course it was likely to go below that manageable overnight temperature of 28 degrees. On the bright side, SJU is having a fantastic syruping season this year!


Today I started a motherlode of tomatoes and peppers. Inside. I have two warming mats below the trays to help with propagation. I also planted tomatillos, eggplant, cabbage and celery.

I planted enough tomatoes and peppers to seriously increase my yield. The hope is that the greenhouse, even if not completed, will have raised beds in it where I can transfer these on June 1st. Even without walls, if there is access to water and good soil, they will do fine. That is after the last frost date and also after the winds of  May. The greenhouse is in a gentle space, buffered (but not shaded) by groves of pines. Though one can put out the tomatoes May 15, when I look over my past “notes to self,” I see very clearly written: “Don’t put the tomatoes out until JUNE.”

photo-40The chickens are adolescents now, after only 2 1/2 weeks. They are not as cute (the awkward phase between down and feathers). They hate me of course (maybe it’s because I let children pick them up on Easter). They’ve taken to flying up– at some point they’re going to clear the box and be running around the basement if I’m not careful about closing the lid.

It was fun to plant with them in the room. At one point they took a little nap, nestled in a circle, butts toward the center. When I went for my camera, they of course woke up. They actually don’t seem to like each other much either. I mark it up to sibling rivalry.


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Prairie Time

burn with c h and steve
Last night we had dinner on the screen porch for the first time this season. Gone were the winter coats and hats from the burn a few nights before, as the temperature shot up to 70 degrees. We remarked again how amazing it is when the place goes from the deep silence of winter right to bird mating season– pheasants, red-winged blackbirds, robins, sand hill cranes, geese, ducks, sparrows, everyone is cheeping and squawking! (There’s even a little of that in the basement, as the chickens graduated from their heat lamp today and aren’t quite sure what to make of it.)

We are very lucky to have Jeff Evander on our prairie team. He also has come out of a deep winter silence and every day for a week he’s been out on our prairie. Jeff is our resident prairie savant. He can recognize and name any tree (even hybrids), dead or alive, at 30 yards. He’s the one who told us about Indian Marker Trees. I’ve been with him in a newly planted prairie where he’ll point out dozens of the tiniest sprouts of green plants and name them all.

Thanks to Jeff, and to Steve’s willingness to embrace the largest and most expansive plan possible in any situation, there are burn permits and extensive fire breaks in place to burn the wetlands and most of the scrubby acres of our property in the next week. Hopefully we’ll have the right winds and weather tomorrow to burn the wetlands.

sand hill cranes in fall 2013

sand hill cranes in fall 2013

I’ve been the chief advocate for the sand hill cranes on this one. Turns out they love it after a burn because they prefer open spaces. It is true that they hang out in the burned areas of the prairie whenever they’re available. They are quite adaptable and even if they have a nest there now, they’ll quickly rebuild after the fire. They haven’t performed their mating dance yet, so there are no eggs (though they’re even known to lay new eggs if they’re damaged this early in the season by fire).

It’s possible we’ll have the right conditions to burn “the whole enchilada” as Jeff calls it. I have to admit, nervous Nellie that I am, the idea of the whole enchilada in one big fire frightens me a bit. But my parents will be here and I’d love to share that experience with them!

jeff planting blazing starsYesterday, Jeff was out here planting blazing stars. He just showed up, with a shovel and his large white bags of seed. Here and there throughout the prairie he knelt down and started digging and planting. I went out to see what he was up to.

August 2013 blazing star

August 2013 blazing star

Blazing stars are really the glory of the prairie. We have a few here and there, but Jeff explained that they will spread and grow in huge clusters, up to 100 plants in a place. He was “seeding colonies.” He dug up a bunch of blazing star “bulbs” last fall from large plots of old prairie and covered them with leaves in bags in his yard over the winter, and brought them to us.

jeff with rabbit blazing starJeff has names for everything, and he calls the bulbs with their clusters of leaves “rabbits.” Digging in the bag, he said, “Let me see if I have any rabbits for you.” We settled for a reconstructed rabbit.

The bulbs themselves are like onion bulbs (but blazing stars are not in the allium family). Jeff explained they are unique in that they send out long new roots every year, looking for nourishment, unlike many perennials that wait for the nourishment to reach them. The roots die back when they become dormant.

planting blazing starsYou plant them like onions. Find a place in the prairie where there aren’t thick clumps of grasses, slash into the soil a bit, dig in with your fingers and plant them, roots down and pointy side up, the little piece of stalk up through the ground.

blazing star and grasses burnedOn the way out of the prairie he showed me a dormant, dead blazing star that survived the recent burn. One more look at the mature prairie. The dark clumps are our grasses, and soon the perennials will be popping up through the empty spaces.

If that major prairie burn happens, I’ll have my camera handy and check back in… otherwise, have a blessed Triduum and Easter!

burn at sunset

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Bright Sun, Howling Wind

windowsill lettuces 3-28-15I have been reading through old pieces of writing trying to find poems and seeds of poems to develop for a manuscript I’m putting together. I found a draft written in late April that talked about wanting to plant out in the raised beds– and harvesting rhubarb. I remember those old days when I thought I couldn’t plant outside until after the last frost date– which in these parts is May 15. And I remember the look on my friend Connie’s face when she realized I was waiting so long, and how I then learned the meaning of “when the soil can be worked.”

Today I’m all about the windowsill and the micro-climate. Things are starting to germinate out in the cold frame, where it is nice and toasty even though it’s cold and windy outside. It’s maple syrup time right now, when the freezing night/thawing day cycle is in full swing and the sap is flowing and if it was only warm for a few days at a time I’d start hardening off the kale and spinach for transplant. If it would get even in the high 20s at night I’d go ahead and put the spinach out in the cold frame.

But I’m holding off. It’s only late March– and March is going out like a lion this year. One can start planting seeds, maybe, but moving delicate seedlings? Not quite yet. I even got myself to hold off planting the tomatoes and peppers, since next week after Easter will be plenty fine. I ruthlessly thinned the kale and herb pots (only one kale plant or basil plant per small pot now).

To console myself, I’m growing a tray of sunflower sprouts. So, so fantastic. After only three days, they look like this:

sunflower sprouts 3-28-15

With luck, in another four days, they’ll look like this:

sunflower sprouts

And speaking of killing young kale plants that have struggled valiantly to grow under a light, these chicks are making me feel like an evil chicken trafficker. When I stick my arm in to check the water or add more food, they run under their lamp and chirp in fear. If I reach for one of them, they complain loudly and try to climb the box. Their reaction to me, even when I’m speaking in my most soothing voice and even though I’m such a benevolent overlord, is straight up panic. I need to detach.

chicks Apr 28 15 2

Of course, there is also the situation with Fred.

My niece has suggested I name them Eenie, Meenie, Miney, Moe… and Fred. I knew right away which one was Fred, because there is one who gets pushed out away from the lamp more often. Well, Fred had a big piece of poop stuck to his butt yesterday. I cleaned the box, put in fresh straw and water and a better feeder that they won’t be able to poop in, and picked up Fred to remove the poop. It was really stuck on there. So now, I’m afraid, Fred has a bald butt.

Which makes it easier to tell which one is Fred. But also probably is a good reason for them to fear me. (Fred is in the back in this picture, with his butt keeping warm under the lamp. See how he’s giving me the evil eye?)

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Arrival of the Chickens

One of Steve’s favorite stories about his daughter Julia is about getting chickens. They drove out to the hatchery one spring morning and picked up a small box packed with baby chicks. A few years at the beginning they got as many as 50 chicks a season.

Steve remembers coming up the drive and Julia spotting her cousin Paul and leaning out the car window yelling: “Paul! We got the chickens!

I feel every bit asUnknown excited as Julia with my first chickens. I went to the Cold Spring Country Store as soon as the coop was built and ordered them to arrive today. Four for me and four for our family farm neighbors Annie and Tim. I read the descriptions in the booklet and chose Silver Laced Wyandotte. One, they are beautiful. Two, they are good layers. They will lay brown eggs, which to my mind is better than white but not quite as good as blue. The blue and green eggs tend to be smaller.

IMG_9603They are in the basement in a box lined with hay and hopefully will figure out the water and food situation soon. They have a warm light and that’s made them settle down and stop cheeping quite a bit.

Saturday we had a burn of the prairie. It was very well attended, as burns go. The ground is still frozen but it was still and the foliage is dry so the burn went well. It was like a mobile bonfire, with people walking around on the edge where it was warm. There were a few areas that they didn’t get to before full dark. Last night it snowed, so now we wait for it to dry out and get another permit and hopefully have another window for burning the rest.

Although it’s cold and we’re mostly feeling out of sorts, waiting and waiting to get on with things, there is no question that spring will be here soon. And when it does, there will be chickens.

garden coop close



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