Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Everyday Hollyhocks

When my sister and I were little girls, my grandmother showed us how to make dolls from hollyhocks. Often we placed two blossoms end to end to make a bodice and skirt and then placed a bud on top for a head. On others we added a second toothpick and used more buds for arms. A few dolls rated tiered skirts of several blossoms. We didn't play with the dolls but occasionally we put them in a bowl of water and used them as a centerpiece. Like many childhood amusements, the fun of hollyhock dolls was in the making as well as spending time with Gram.

Gram, who was quite particular about things like popsicle juice on the front porch and the finish of her hand sewn garments, was generous with hollyhock blossoms and buds. She never fussed about the flowers we cut from tall stalks growing between the gravel driveway and the house. She grew up in Omaha in the early 1900's so perhaps hollyhocks were everyday flowers to her. Indeed they often grow without much care in alleys and along fences.

Hollyhocks are part of the hearty mallow family. The word mallow is derived from the Greek, althea, which comes from altheo, meaning to cure. Historically, parts of the plant were used for medicinal purposes. The plant is native to Turkey and other parts of Asia but came to Britain in 1573 from China by way of Palestine. Crusaders may have brought back the plant with them because it soothed horses' hooves. (landreth seeds)

The word hollyhock may be derived from the Anglo-Saxon terms holy (holly) and hoc (hock.) Hock might be a reference to horses' hooves or it might come from the term ad hoc, hoc meaning place. Thus the name hollyhocks could be interpreted to mean a holy place because they originally came from Palestine.  Regardless of how the flower came to be called hollyhock, I enjoy the reminder to find the sacred in ordinary flowers as well as ordinary days. (Hollyhocks: Dancing Ladies)

Gram probably had none of this in mind as she entertained two little girls on hot summer days. When I see hollyhocks in city alleys, small towns or in farmyards, I think about the women who plant and tend flower gardens which include hollyhocks, zinnias, and cosmos. I wish them joy and beauty in their ordinary days.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Garden Work

After I read about several local yard and garden tours, I began to write a poem about my ordinary garden. As I muddled around in the poem, I thought about my frugal approach to gardening. I grow vegetables, herbs, and perennials that do well in southeast Nebraska. I observe my yard for differences in sun, wind, shade, and water and then plant accordingly. Sometimes when plants don't thrive, I move them to a better location. If they die, I replace them by dividing a perennial that already grows in my yard. This year I tucked rosemary and tarragon in the bed along the fence because the location is sunny and protected from the wind. I plant basil near the tomatoes so both can be watered with the same drip hose. I water new plants to get them established but choose hardy herbs and flowers that withstand heat and wind. I conserve water and keep down weeds by mulching with grass and leaf clippings from the top of my compost bins.

About every two years, I get a good amount of rich composted soil from two large wire bins. This year, we added a covered tumbling bin so the table scraps won't attract possums and raccoons. Turning the compost in the bins makes my back ache so I hoped the ease of flipping the new bin would speed decomposition. Unfortunately, that hasn't happened. Like other worthwhile work, transforming raw materials into compost takes time.

All of this brings me back to the unfinished garden poem. After working on the poem several mornings in a row, I put the rough draft and notes in a folder to wait for work on another day. Will the poem be a tour of my garden, a comment about conservation, a story of my connections with plants like the rhubarb that comes from my grandparents' garden, or something else entirely? Often words and ideas or leaves and scraps make a fine risotto. Other times, the transformation requires a change in the ingredients and more time. Both benefit from stirring. While poems and compost brew, I am going out to pull weeds, dig black gold back into the ground, and enjoy the green colors. I plan to leave electronic devices indoors.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Necessary Shawls

In this crazy world, I find wrapping a soft knitted shawl around my neck and shoulders is necessary. Old lady-ish or not, I have a few stalwart shawls that I wear around the house for warmth on cool evenings or mornings. I let the shawl rest on my shoulders and tie the ends into a loose knot. If the weather is very cold, I wrap up in a larger shawl and toss the ends over my shoulders. Comfort, not fashion, is my goal.  

Recently I finished knitting two warm weather shawls. Although they have a shade of plum in common, the patterns were quite different. Zephyr Cove by Rosemary Hill begins with a small leaf knit at one end of the shawl and ends with a simple lace pattern in a second color. Garter stitch short rows shape the shawl into a long boomerang. While the construction was interesting, it was the name of the pattern and the leaf drew me to the design. Hill named the pattern after a cove in Lake Tahoe and knit the original in teal blue and forest green. I'm not sure I'll knit a shawl with such an elongated shape again but the ends will wrap twice around my shoulders. I knit this shawl in fingering weight yarn, Tosh Merino Light.

The Red Robin Shawl by Helen Stewart is knit from Blue Sky Alpaca Silk. Stewart's pattern made a simple but elegant shawl. Her meticulous design includes an ingenious beginning which eliminates the pesky little point that sometimes happens at the beginning of triangular shawls. She also added a stitch to the edges that eliminates the awkward increases next to purl stitches. I had a few wobbly looking rows in the stockinette section of the shawl but blocking smoothed them out. I will probably knit this pattern again.

Shawl knitting offers a wide variety of designs. Some shawls come with intricate lace patterns while other create simple lines with stockinette or garter stitch. Shawls can be shaped in a crescent, rectangle (stole), large circle, triangle, or some variation of a shape. I happen to prefer a triangular shaped shawl for the straight forward construction and ease in wearing.  Summer is a great time for knitting a lightweight shawl, as the garment requires less attention to fit and finishing. Matching the pattern to yarn is a delightful process.  My advice for the summer is to choose a design, choose a yarn, knit, and enjoy. Then wrap up in your shawl and a book from your reading list.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Spring News

After several rains, the trees and yards in my neighborhood are a glorious green. One yellow iris is blooming while others are growing lavender buds. Last week a Baltimore Oriole stopped for nectar in the neighbor's apple tree. Yesterday morning I was doing breakfast dishes when an unfamiliar bird caught my eye. I knew from his slender shape he was different from a robin so I studied him through binoculars and identified a brown thrasher. His rust-red colored back, cream and brown streaked breast, and yellow eye were striking. His long tail and curved beak also made him stand out from other birds that frequent my yard. Since this thrasher prefers a wooded area tangled with undergrowth, I wondered if Sunday's strong storm blew him off course. He was only in the yard for a few hours and I haven't seen him since. Hopefully he found his way back to more familiar territory.

The last few summers, my large perennial flower bed has grown wild and weedy. Taking advantage of cooler Spring days, I spaded up a strip four feet wide along the fence and in front of the shed. I dug out weeds and ruthlessly thinned and moved perennials that grow well in the space. I added tarragon, rosemary, and three gaillardia because they will grow if bindweed and larkspur don't choke them out. I potted some lemon balm for the patio and plan to share a few leftover plants with friends. Now I'm trying to decide whether to mulch. The bed gets a fair amount of hot Nebraska sun so mulch would keep moisture in the ground. If I mulch, I prefer using leaf and grass clippings mixed with a little dirt or compost over newspaper because the mixture will eventually break down and contribute to the soil. However anything I use will have to be anchored against the wind.

Inside on wet or rainy days, I used these two books as references, Cover to Cover and Book Craft, and made several small books of my essays. First, I manually formatted the essays into landscape orientation and made a mock-up for the book. I folded and assembled pages into three signatures (sections) before sewing and glueing them together. In separate steps, I glued end papers to the book block and a piece of mesh fabric to the spine. Determining the correct size and spacing for the spine was tricky as it required measuring spaces to 1/16th of an inch. Making the cover reminded me of covering school text books with grocery sacks on my parents' kitchen table.

Nothing made by hand is perfect and these four little books are no exception. Although I revised and edited the copy many times, I found two typographical errors. Two of the books have spines that are a little too wide. I did manage to make two copies in which the the book block sits remarkably well inside the cover. The notion of handcrafting a container for my writing appeals to me. I have also learned a book is worth the price on its cover.   

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Knitting into Spring

Last winter I ripped out several knitting projects and reknit the yarn into wearable objects. This winter, I knit one pair of socks, several pairs of fingerless mitts, and washcloths to give as gifts. I combined leftover yarns into a Downtown Cowl and knit a Zilver shawl using the last skein purchased on a trip to the Wisconsin Wool Festival, September 2011. Then I finished a sweater. I am always a bit surprised when I knit a sweater that fits. My Current sweater is a success.

 In August 2013, I cast on the sweater in Breathless yarn, a merino/cashmere/nylon blend I had previously purchased for a large shawl. The yarn is a shade of sage green which reminds me of prairie grass being rippled by the wind. Shalimar Yarns named the color Limerick. The yoke and fronts of the sweater are trimmed in a checkerboard rib which includes a small cable twist reminiscent of a current of water meandering around the sweater.

As I knit, I thought about currents of all kinds. In rivers and streams, currents are diverted by sandbars, dead trees, and plants at the water's edge. Eventually the current creates a path by following gravity to lower elevations. If one watches long enough, patterns emerge. Moreover currents keep bodies of water from becoming stagnant. Water remains healthy when it circulates. Although currents of sound evaporate, they have a rhythm much like the rhyme in a limerick or sonnet. Ancient epic poems often acquired a rhythm as they were recited because rhythm helped storytellers  memorize and recall stories. The rhythm of poetry is part of its beauty. Currents of wind and air affect weather. Wind currents blow across grasses, through trees, neighborhoods, and open country. They leave evidence on rocks, mountains, lake surfaces, snow in ditches, and leaves against my garden fence. They shape trees in many places, including Interstate 80 through Nebraska. As the wind blew through autumn and winter, I knit on this sweater. I finished it about the time of the spring equinox. The lighter weight yarn makes this a good sweater for Spring.

Right now, I have three projects on my needles, a yellow sweater for a toddler, a pair of socks in a bright yarn variegated with yellow and blue, and a pair of fingerless mitts, also a soft yellow. I do believe I have put away the blue and gray yarns of winter. However, blue will be back in my knitting rotation come summer.

Nine months into retirement, I enjoy the changed pace in my life. For years I have wanted to savor Spring's arrival and now I can do that without being distracted by the end of the school year tasks. Late last summer I was diverted by a chickadee hanging upside down on a deck chair. In February, I watched the gradual change in light foreshadowing Spring. This week, despite Sunday's snow, buds are forming on the birch outside my window. The wind is blowing and I hope the prevailing current is toward Spring.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Making My Own

Recently on an early March afternoon, I read one of my favorite Margaret Wise Brown books, "A Home for a Bunny" to my grandson. "Spring said the robin. Spring said the frog. Spring said the bunny." I don't know anyone who isn't happy to see Spring. All winter I knit with gray, sage green, and shades of blue, so while winter lingered in my neighborhood, I ordered one skein of brightly dyed yarn to knit some cheerful socks. Sometimes you just have to make your own Spring color.

A few days later, I went to the grocery store for a few items, including a lemon. The bright yellow fruit was so inviting, I bought enough to fill a small glass bowl. I made lemon muffins and some lemon flavored simple syrup for lemonade. On one warm afternoon, I made some fresh lemonade and enjoyed it on the deck in the sunshine.

Indoors, I am learning to make books. I checked out some references from the public library and then searched the internet. At Christmas, my daughter gave me a book on bookmaking and I was off on a new adventure. I began by making two small books with blank pages. In the first project, I used the cover of a book I bought at an antique mall for seventy cents. I also improvised some bookmaking supplies from my embroidery, sewing, and quilting days. Instead of ordering book binding tape, I reinforced the spine with a piece of fabric backed with iron-on interfacing. When I made the second book, I cut the cover and spine from cardboard leftover from framing a piece of embroidery. I covered the board with cotton quilting fabric. I substituted a strip of linen left over from an embroidered sampler for mull, the speciality fabric glued to the spine of folded papers before they are attached to the cover.

Next, I made two chap books of my poems. I purchased some watercolor paper for covers. I used pearl cotton embroidery floss and a tapestry needle to sew the books together with the pamphlet stitch. One of my daughter's photos became the cover art. I finished the book with a contrasting strip of 1/8 inch ribbon. The book contains a title page, a dedication, the poems, and a copyright statement, all exactly the way I want them to look. While publishing and marketing my writing is intimidating, making my own books intrigues me. After all there was a time when books were made one at a time by hand.

Whether the subject is books, socks, lemonade, or spring, sometimes you just have to make your own.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

February Color and Light

January and February is a good time for comfort knitting. I knit a scarf from Shepherd's Wool in a pattern called Danger. While I knitted, temperatures dipped below freezing and remained bitterly cold. In fact, the weather was so cold, I completed the bind-off, wove in the beginning and ending ends, and wore the scarf without washing and blocking. For some reason, the name "Danger" reminds me of the "here be dragons" phrase cartographers of the early 1500's used to indicate danger. As I walked on bitter cold days with the scarf wrapped around my face, I thought, "here be danger." Still on those cold days, the neighborhood is quiet and there is a certain kind of beauty in the contrast of snow and bare tree trunks. As I came home to soup bubbling in the crock pot or carrots and squash roasting in the oven, I savored the peace of winter days. Soon enough lawnmowers and other power tools will disturb the quiet.    

Yesterday was unseasonably warm so I drove out to a trail bordering a wooded area for a walk. Even though I walked in a fleece jacket without hat or scarf, the grasses and adjacent wooded area looked like winter. Songbirds were not visible. Instead I saw only a hawk riding thermals in the wind and two big crows perched in tall elms. On the last leg of my walk, I found this wispy feather attached to the twig of a bush. I wish I knew what kind of bird shed this tiny feather with the splotch of gray along the shaft. After a walk through a monochromatic landscape, the feather made me smile.

February marks the month when the light begins to increase. The change is quite subtle, nevertheless the color of the sunny sky seems different to me. The days of slightly increasing light offer the hope of Spring. I hear more bird song too. I recently read that birds don't migrate based on temperatures but on the changes in light.

Last night I put another inch on the "Current" cardigan I cast on last summer. The yarn is a soft sage green. Knitting an adult sweater from fingering yarn with miles of stockinette stitches is a bit like slugging through winter. I wanted to make sure the sweater was worth my time so I put the body stitches on waste yarn, tried it on, and decided I like the fit. Tomorrow the forecast is for cold and snow but yesterday after my walk, I planted basil and chamomile seeds. The basil seeds came free in the mail. I don't know if they will germinate but I decided to plant them in pots and tend them from the kitchen counter. Any extra green color is welcome. I wish you enough color and light to see your way through the remaining days of February.