Spring Happenings at the Rookery


Understated. New nest in progress.

Last year we visited the local rookery in May, when the leaves were out, the nests were plentiful, the toads were singing, and mushrooms were shiny with moisture. I believe we counted about 35 nests with approximately 60 birds. This year, I decided to go check out the herons a bit earlier, hoping to observe the nest building process. In northern Illinois, great blue herons lay their eggs in late March to April, so the nest building was in progress now. Just about 15 nests were up in the trees so far. Babies hatch in May, and by August they leave the nests to feed with the grownups.

These birds are 40 feet high up in the dead trees, our first Spring morning was quite grey, and I tried not to disturb their peace, so pardon the photos for the lack of detail. These majestic birds stand 4 feet tall and have a 6 foot wing span. They captivate with their beauty, ability to switch shapes between a curled up ball and a graceful long flyer, and their concentrated demeanor, sitting there patiently like frozen Buddhas on their stick pillows. Here, a male blue heron is disassembling an older nest and flying the twigs over to his female companion. The female then weaves the sticks into a new nest, which can range from 20 inches to a few feet wide.



The couple on an old nest that is being taken apart

I noticed that one of the herons was not fitting into his sleepy crowd. He curiously kept looking around at the noisy geese down below in the bog, checking out the ducks quacking a distance away. After a while, he flew closer to the ladies (I assume?)  who were perched on brand new nests. One of them protested with a puff of feathers and a loud trumpeted bark. The curious gentleman then began his grooming procedure fluffing the chest feathers, periodically checking in with the upset lady: “How is it looking now, honey?” The feathers on the chest of the great blue heron are highly specialized and will continually grow and fray, kind of like a powdery down. Herons use their chest feathers to remove slime and oils from their other feathers as they preen. I was grateful for this entertaining bit, for my hands began freezing holding the camera. A good twenty minutes of grooming did not impress the grumpy lady, so he spotted another heron flying off, and with some trumpeting calls, he took off right behind.


Trying to impress



Posted in Nature, Photography | Tagged , , , , | 25 Comments

Sides of Fathers


“You are just like your father!”
My mother used to say
(insert a dab of guilt soaked
Oy Vey Eastern European
coloration here).

“You have this side
your father has,”
she would sigh in a colossal disappointment.
And I would walk around for days
and wonder just which side she meant.
Was it the side that would explode my father
into some random whistling outbursts,
which would silence him at our evening beds
So we could tell our stories, uninterrupted,
which would inspire him to compose poems about flowers
as he tracked the 149 types of tulips
in his gardens.

Or was it that other side which my mother
could barely stand,
the side which nastily possessed him
to lay the bathroom tile all crooked
for the seventh time
and then wear the wrong shirt for the family reunion,
or be blinded to the dirty socks
deviantly rolling on the floor.

So I would lay there
before sleep
(as I still do)
I close one eye at a time,
look at the profile of my nose
to check which side looks
like my father.
To figure out which is my good side.

This looking at the sides
is curious indeed.
One side of my nose does look
quite like my father’s.
The other — like my mother’s.
Which probably makes me same as you.


Posted in Family, Poetry | Tagged , , | 28 Comments

Simple Questions


Dear Grandma,
My children now ask so many questions:
Does a gazillion have a gazillion zeros?
Do skunks make soup from skunk cabbage?
Do potatoes have so many eyes
to see better in the dark?
Fish sharing food with friends,
is that a feeding friendzy?

Why not, I reply. Why not.

Some days, like a child,
I have more questions than answers.

Did Sebastião Salgado
Plant two million trees
On the hillsides of Brazil
To house the souls
Of two million perished
He witnessed in Rwanda?

If we dropped the guns off our shoulders,
Would we have enough strength
To carry an owl, a book, and a shovel
For planting an orchard,
For building a park,
For laughing with children?

If radiation in Fukushima
Can be so strong as to pulverize
Steel robots into non-existence…
Can Love transmit super particles
That vaporize hate and fear
Around us?

Dear Grandma,
When Google and Quora
When YouTube and Big Tube
Fail with the answers…
Will you know? Will you show us?

Why not, she replies. Why not.


Posted in Human Condition, Poetry | Tagged , , , , , | 14 Comments

Love is Everywhere


Thousands of green hearts on the snowdrops


Millions of mommas cleaning their babies


Hundreds of brothers sharing sunny spots


Every tree and every little child melting hearts with sweetness


Posted in Inspiration, Nature, Photography | Tagged , , , | 23 Comments

Happy Springing


Happy Meteorological Spring! Photos above from last April in northern Illinois.


Posted in Nature, Photography | Tagged , , | 13 Comments



Rendering lard at Volkening Farm, November 2015

The sun is climbing one fingerbreadth higher every day and the baking has started. The earth thawing out and smelling like a fresh baked bread, steaming over the prairies and bubbling on the brooks. This spring energy like some magical juice is flowing through our veins, and we are outside, again, sunrise to sunset, in the woods, and the grasslands. My little girl has planned out her wilderness classes and wildflower walks with a naturalist at the Arboretum, and my CSA friends are excited about the new orchard planting, farmer Ron will have baby buffalo roaming his hilly pastures of Wisconsin. Life is exploding in every visible and invisible dimension. We are brimming with this energy of transformation, waiting for our robins to come back to nest here by the window, and the baby owls to fluff their feathers, and those 50 nests at the great blue heron rookery to be filled with life. Kids will soon be donning mayaple umbrellas on their heads and licking their mulberry stained fingers. We will lounge on the Big Rock under the oaks soaking up the sun, intoxicated by the gentle spring breeze. Most of all, it is the dirt and the food I cannot wait to sink my hands into. I am starting to smell all this delicious goodness even while sleeping.

We went on a documentary watching spree these last few long days of winter. This week, we watched four 50 minute episodes of Michael Pollan’s new documentary “Cooked”, based on his newest book “Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation”. If you are as much a real food lover as I am, I highly recommend the film. It’s a beautiful tribute to food, vegetation, beasts, the spirit of the air, even the fungi, the decay and death, and most of all, it is an inspiring visual feast calling to slow down and embrace our senses and our communities. To embrace doing. To cherish unitasking. To love life. “Cooked” is divided into four episodes: Fire (Meat/Barbecue), Water (Soup/Braising), Air (Bread/Baking), and Earth (Cheese/Fermentation). The series just came out on Netflix. In it, Pollan takes on both vegetarian and gluten free movements and of course the usual industrial food production and advertising culprits. But the film is not overly critical, nor will you learn many new facts if you already ferment and bake. It is, however, a most beautiful expose of what we lose, the soul and the touch of the magic, the alchemy of transformation, the connection to and appreciation of all around us, we lose, we outsource our senses and souls when we outsource the growing, the roasting, mashing and cooking.

At the cheese class I was taking, I mentioned that my grandma would make cheese without any cultures involved, allowing milk to ferment in the old clay pots which she never washed, just gently rinsed. The instructor exclaimed: That almost sounds like sister Noella’s method! This lead me to “The Cheese Nun” (2006), a PBS documentary, in which sister Noella Marcellino, a Benedictine nun from Connecticut, (with a doctorate in microbiology no less!) travels to France to study the secrets of cheese making and the caves filled with fungi. Pollan devotes a large part of “Cooked” to sister Noella and her cheeses.

Since we just could not get enough food for soul, we also watched Pollan’s “Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World”, another excellent work, after which you will never look at a potato the same way. Few other worthwhile mentions: “Know your Mushrooms”(2008), a quirky little documentary which follows two wild mushroom enthusiasts,  Larry Evans and Gary Lincoff in their fungi explorations, which is indeed a nice tie in to sister Noella’s cheeses covered in that fungi wonderland.  “The Seer” (2016), a new documentary on Barry Wendell is premiering in March. I also have on order “Inhabit: A Permaculture Perspective” (2015), which is promising to be a rewarding watch.

And now, my friends, I am leaving you, for my morning scones are calling to be kneaded, patted and shaped into warm little hearts which we will carry today, over the creek and into the woods, listening to the maple sap dripping into the old metal buckets, and farmer Dennis will be boiling it down across the cow pasture, and we will watch the smoke rise as high as our spirits dipping our scones into the warm maple syrup and sharing them with people around the fire. A bit of air, fire, earth, and water, mixed up in indescribable magic.



Posted in Film, food, Nature | Tagged , , , , , , | 18 Comments

What we learned in business school


Marveling at children stringing seeds
for the birds, today, I thought of Farid.
Farid sat next to me in Accounting class.
And in Project Management,
we ran a fictitious company together,
(sounds like headline news, doesn’t it?)
The three of us:
Farid, the Lebanese, with prayer beads,
the girl with prosthetic leg and a crutch,
and me, shaky hands holding on to cheat sheets,
Every one of us grasping for our safety net.

During breaks, there was chatter about
kids, dogs, jobs, and stock market.
Farid sat with prayer beads, silent.
I asked him what he was doing.
Contemplating, he said.
Contemp… what?? I raised my eyebrows,
as broken as my broken English.
One needs silent time.
One needs to mull things over, he clarified.

Farid reminded me of my grandmother
who would slice out nice fat chunk
between the day and the night
to sit on the sunk edge of her bed,
her bare feet planted on the rag rug solidly.
She whispered nightly prayers,
rosary beads, slipping through her fingers
like dew drops: drip, drip drip,
the sound that put me to sleep.
Her rosary was my first abacus.

I never did master the math of Hail Marys
and Our Fathers on grandma’s worn rosary beads,
and then completely failed inflation,
return on investment, and supply and demand.
But we hang the seed beads for the birds today
on the snow-dusted crab apple trees,
and suddenly it becomes possible
to feed what is here in infinite supplies.


Posted in Poetry | Tagged , , , , | 23 Comments

Snowy Daze






Posted in Nature, Photography | Tagged , , | 18 Comments

Ways we held the sky


You wrote me a letter about things
we lose in forgetfulness pockets, but hold.
Like back when I laid
in the tall summer grass,
praying mantis on my eyelashes
holding up blue sky.

And when grandma sheered the sheep,
soft wool on her lap buried all troubles,
mixed with soot and lard stains of her apron.
That eye of the patient sheep
held the cloudy day sky.

Or when we took grandpa
on his last journey,
and the sandy road,
which all summer was scarred
by our bicycle tires,
now flooded smooth in February melt,
water four feet deep and rising.
Little boats carried us all,
peace by peace,
over to the hill of pines and graves
and we held the teary sky on our ores.

And when we rang the bells of Cathedrals
in cities across Europe,
ascending spiral staircases, dizzy,
from search of unseen rainbows,
plotting escapes, mapping adventures,
stuffing the sky in between travel
books and sandwiches half-eaten
at the hitchhiked roadsides,
holding the starry sky in our backpacks.

Now, I find us sitting,
fire flickering on the metal
knitting sticks and our tongues.
Sometimes we talk of our
rough hands, rough from holding so much.
We talk about sugar scrubs.
Ladies say use much oil and sugar,
The fancied kind, Turbinado, Coconut, imported,
then the slough comes off, and we head
outside into the fresh falling snow,
gleaming like freshborn children:
This is how it feels to hold the sky on our faces!



Photo by R. Cicenas of my childhood farm


Posted in Poetry | Tagged , , , , | 41 Comments

Unfortunately, befriended


They were playing a game of opposition
plastic animals arranged neatly on two sides, marching.

Fortunately, they followed vague chess rules,
counting their moves, giggling, chanting.

Unfortunately, he decided to create super killers
wiping out half of her brown cow stock.

Fortunately, she thought of healers,
who nurse dead back to life.

Unfortunately, his super-powered chickens
bulldozed down fearless healers.

Fortunately, she said, healers are immortal,
they heal themselves first, then others.

Unfortunately, I smelled dinner burning
as I sat here engulfed in their fiery game.

Fortunately, the Unfortunately was in the kitchen
taking the roast out of the oven, smiling.

Unfortunately clapped hands loudly and greeted
gleefully: Fortunately you are here!

Fortunately, we befriended Unfortunately,
while bickering who’d clean up scattered plastic animals.


Inspired by wise young people and the game Fortunately/Unfortunately.


Posted in Kids, Poetry | Tagged , , , , | 16 Comments