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March

Intermediate month. I have had much more energy because of the longer days (we go to summer time on the 29th, but already have +4 hours of daylight since the winter solstice). Planted seeds and transplanted seedlings. Polytunnel frame up. New printer bought; the eight-year-old workhorse finally gave up. Outbuilding cleared and cleaned (round one, surely more to come), in preparation for artists to use while in residence. But we are between things here: plans set (the house is booked from June to November) but not happening yet.

March 2015

Forsythia has emerged over the past week. First just the intimation of yellow on the branches; now fully out. I associate it with the architecture department at the U of M, which was the first place I found (and stole) it.

March 2015

The pheasant is here daily. I think he would come inside if we left the door open. He sits on the ledge for hours (he is there as I type this) but leaves if we go outside. In the mornings sometimes he comes and knocks on the bedroom window.

March 2015

Those tomatoes. Jonathan was enthusiastic and sowed many more than we will be able to fit in the polytunnel. But that’s ok: we can give them away. (If you are reading this, and are in Belgium, and want some tomato plants, let me know.) When I water them, they smell like summer. It’s not too warm yet (8-10° C) but when the sun is out it is more than pleasant to work outside.

March 2015

The peach tree has buds. I realized recently how little I send writing out. I often feel so far from a writing community and so unsure of the things I am working on that sending out falls lower and lower on the list of things to do. And then I observe my friends and peers publishing everywhere (or just talking about sending out, which is, after all, what one has to do if one is going to be published) and I feel so bewildered. I have no idea, at the moment, where to start. I feel I’ve built an iceberg of stuff (I have: I have dozens of essays and stories, probably several hundred poems) that is now trailing along behind me in the ocean. In the fall, I hardly wrote (a few poems, not much else) because of teaching. Winter felt very dormant, but since the light began coming back I have been writing a great deal again. But what to do with it all?

March 2015

Muscaria brought with us when we moved from England. The more traditional purpley blue. I also bought these ‘Cupido‘ variety (below) from Peter Nyssen. They are beginning to come up around the tree where we planted them, a promising cerulean.

March 2015

I’m listening to Sufjan Stevens’ new album Carrie & Lowell on repeat today. I think he has hit it out of the park with this one. Narrative and image. It speaks to much I have been thinking about over the past year: family and faith, ellipsis, death, resonance, melody. It’s also just plain beautiful to listen to. It should be available via NPR First Listen (linked above) for a week or so.
March 2015

The garlic planted in November is high, and the ones planted in late February are coming up. Joe’s boxes are holding up beautifully. We cleaned out the garage, partly. It’s all ongoing and labor-intensive. Actually, it feels like the work here will never end. We’ve had some good company for some of it, which makes it go faster and easier, and gives me a reason to make donuts and chocolate cake. I’ve found a way to make a perfect ‘birthday cake’-style chocolate cake, with a chocolate glaze. I will write that up one of these days. I want to attempt a marshmallow frosting next, but suspect that needs time and a consuming public.

March 2015

New leaves coming on the hydrangea. Last summer we tried pouring all our coffee grounds on them to change the color of the flowers from pinkish to blue, but it didn’t work. Maybe this variety aren’t susceptible to acidic soil? Or does anyone have a tip?

March 2015

Scilla, my favorite, favorite spring flower. We planted 100 bulbs. I think three have bloomed so far. Hoping for more. Will plant more this fall, too. These are also supposed to naturalize, so maybe one day this side of the yard (under the oak and chestnut trees) will be carpeted in scilla.

March 2015

The ponies still have their winter coats. They don’t ever seem to mind the rain (or snow); they just stand out in it. They’ve moved and are now in the front, where there are also two visiting sheep. At first the white pony bullied the sheep a bit but things seem calmer now. Before the ponies begin shedding I want to cut their manes and tails and make those paintbrushes I’ve been talking about for months.

March 2015

Coming to see if I have food. Sorry, girls.

March 2015

And running away after a look from the white pony. Okay, maybe not all is utopian among the four-legged mammals here. (Nor among the two-legged, just so we’re clear: it might look like an idyll, but there is garbage to take out and there are dishes to do and we have arguments and anxieties and no idea what we’re doing with all of this, most of the time, just learning and paying attention and hoping we’re doing it right.)

March 2015

Currant and raspberry bushes have new growth. Maytime work includes building a fruit cage. I hope we can get a lot of berries and make some jam/jelly. Also looking forward to multiple days canning tomatoes. I hope I hope.

March 2015

The willows still look very sad after their seven-year trim. Another thing to hope for: that they grow back for this summer. They should, says the arborist.

March 2015

Dark blue delphinium, bought in Ghent to remind me of Beeston, is coming back, too. Ashes for nourishment. Planted a peony corm in the garden in front of the house and crocosmia next to the door. Crocosmia remind me of Beeston, too, and peonies remind me of home and the U of M again. I have been working on an essay (loosely taking its form from Mary Ruefle’s “I Remember, I Remember”) about flowers and memory, and just here have found three more to write about.

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and your very flesh shall be a great poem

Delaware and Philadelphia | Her Book tour 2013 | August“This is what you shall do: love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labour to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence towards the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown, or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons, and with the young, and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school, or church, or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul; and your very flesh shall be a great poem, and have the richest fluency, not only in its words, but in the silent lines of its lips and face, and between the lashes of your eyes, and in every motion and joint of your body.”

— Walt Whitman, 1855 Preface to Leaves of Grass

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winter-spring

winter turning to spring at Dickinson House

We wanted to find hellebores for you for our class present, she said. But there weren’t any in the shops then. So here is one from my garden. This is how February began: with the arrival of winter flowers in a pot. We had a big fire in the fireplace that day. Earlier that week it had snown and the arborist had come to cut the knotwilgen. He stood in the trees and the branches fell around them, and at the end of the day it looked like straight-line winds had come through. Apparently the trees will regrow by summer already, so it won’t look so bare.

winter turning to spring at Dickinson House

Now we are busy with cleaning up the branches, chopping the large pieces into logs for the fire after they cure. The small branches will be kindling or mulch. Jonathan also trimmed the shrubs around the perimeter of the land, and the trimmings will be mulch, too.

winter turning to spring at Dickinson House

One Saturday, he built this raised bed. We will plant squashes and pumpkins in it and let them run around. It has sun all day long. Next to it is an apple tree that Harumi and Jon helped us plant in November, and a pile of logs waiting to be split and stacked.

winter turning to spring at Dickinson House

There is a male pheasant here who has gotten very comfortable with us. He walks up and sits by the window for long periods, or even comes over to see what’s going on when we work outside. No pictures here, but it is really a pleasure to get to see him all the time. I came across the female once when I was walking through the meadows, and she was not happy about that. So I’ve been staying out of them and hoping that they will nest here (but maybe not in the meadows, which have to be cleared and planted soon).

winter turning to spring at Dickinson House

The ponies are out of the paddock, eating the grass, which is starting to grow. The winter was colder here this year than last (a good number of days with hard freezes; a few days with snow, although never with significant accumulation), but it’s still a maritime-ish climate.

spring is coming (?)

Also starting to grow: snowdrops (first one spotted in early February), other bulbs (volunteer tulips; daffodils planted by Jon and others by us; scilla). A few daffodils are quite high already, but most are just an inch or two out of the ground. When I was first in England I was so amazed by the swathes of daffodils, snowdrops, and other bulbs that bloomed in late February/into March. I think I will always associate these plants with living there, and in particular with walking from Albion House along the canal to Sainsbury’s during the first visit I made there.

winter turning to spring at Dickinson House

Some of the snowdrops have a green mark on their interior petals.

winter turning to spring at Dickinson House

Today I dragged brush into piles and then began outlining the flower garden in front of the house with old bricks taken from Jonathan’s maternal grandparents’ farm. It felt so good to move and be outside. The sun was truly warm. We will build some coldframes soon with more bricks. We already began growing tomato, pepper, and cauliflower plants, and the tiny sprouts are in black boxes in the kitchen (for now). March plans also include a hoop house.

winter turning to spring at Dickinson House

Garlic planted in November is coming up now. Fast. Like the tomato sprouts, it seems like you can see it grow. I will plant more soon, so that it matures after the original planting. This weekend we will get chicken wire and build a fence around the place with the raised beds that Joe built. The cats discovered one bed which had no winter plantings and used it as a litter box, dammit. So that will have to be cleaned out, and then we will hope that the wire keeps the cats away.

winter turning to spring at Dickinson House

Jonathan’s aunt gave us artichoke plants and current and raspberry bushes. I forgot to trim these back. They remind me of William Morris textiles.

winter turning to spring at Dickinson House

Cherry tree and neighbors’ barn. A lot of all this is trusting things will happen if you set them in motion. Like planting bulbs, garlic, fruit trees, and berry bushes in November. Just wait and see. (Or like deciding to open a writers’/artists’ residency. And then doing the work, getting the word out, and waiting to see if anyone will show up.) I hope we will have a few blossoms on the fruit trees this spring, although maybe not because they were moved in the fall. But maybe.

winter turning to spring at Dickinson House

Seeing this, and the green at the base of the Japanese anemones and of the delphiniums, it becomes possible to believe that last summer was real, and that it will happen again.

winter turning to spring at Dickinson House

Article

almond meringue cake with cherries and chocolate

cake making

Laressa came to visit and she loves cake. Every time I see her she wants me to make cakes. (Cake-making is one of my favorite things, actually, and definitely my favorite kind of baking.) This time she showed up during a snowy-cold-rainy-sleety week. Early February. I am getting tired of winter cakes—cinnamony, brown-sugary cakes. All through the winter I made banana breads with brown sugar (not much; I don’t like cakes that are super sweet) and almond paste I made; with chocolate chips; with blueberries picked and frozen last summer. I wanted a springtime cake.

cake making

Really this cake is a summer cake: a cake to make when the cherry trees are full of ripe fruit. Pit the cherries, then soak them in something fragrant and rich. You could use a clear alcohol with sugar and vanilla beans, or some almond extract in a brandy, or rum. You could also soak them in lemon juice with some vanilla or almond extract added.  Or just the juice. These are cherries J. picked last summer from his brother’s tree, then pitted and froze.

Heat your oven to about 180°C. Grease and flour a bundt or springform pan, about 8-9″ in diameter (if you’re using a bundt pan, it can be a bit smaller). Measure out your dry ingredients first. I used about 1.5 cups almond meal (if you are in Belgium or the Netherlands, Pit en Pit have it at a good price for a big jar). and about 1/3 cup of plain (not self-raising) white flour. Keep the almond meal separate, but into the flour, mix 1 tsp. baking powder, a pinch of salt (maybe 1/4 tsp.). You could probably make this cake without the flour at all. Then you might use a bit more almond meal.

Set aside 1/2 cup or so of chocolate chips (fewer is ok, and more is ok. This depends on your taste). Also you might want to set aside in its own bowl a small amount of a neutral-tasting oil, about 1/4 cup. I had canola oil on hand, but I have made a variation on this cake with olive oil (then no cherries or chocolate, but lemon and thyme). For this version probably something plain is best.

cake making

You take maybe 3/4 cup of white sugar and three eggs, and beat them together for about five minutes with a mixer at a medium-high speed. If you do this by hand, it will take a long time but it’s not impossible. You want the mixture to be opaque, a pale yellow, and holding soft peaks. When it is ready, add the oil, mix in quickly with a fork (you could also add some vanilla extract at this point, if you wanted), then add the almond meal and beat together with the mixer briefly, just to combine and keep air in the mixture. Then add the other dry ingredients and a half-cup of chocolate chips and mix with your fork just to combine.

Quickly pour the batter into your pan, then drain the cherries. Set them one by one on the top of the batter, pushing them down a little so they are almost covered. It’s ok if there is a little liquid around them or if they sink (they will sink anyway). Then put the cake in the oven. After about ten minutes, turn the heat down to 160°. Our oven cooks very hot and fast, so I actually turned it down a bit farther. The cake is done when it is high and light and crunchy-looking, and a knife inserted in the center comes out clean. If you used a bundt pan, and want to avoid the top of the cake sticking in the pan (if you didn’t grease/flour enough), try these tips.

Caveats: I did not use a recipe, and all my measurements are approximate. This should be a light batter, but not runny. Use your judgment, experiment, and trust that sugar + almonds + eggs + fat + cherries + chocolate will make something good pretty much no matter how it comes out exactly.

This cake would be nice with a dry green tea, or maybe with some champagne for a party.

While you are waiting for the cake to cool, you can make yourself some coasters like the pretty ones Laressa made. Or you can come stay at Dickinson House, where one of these coasters now lives, and have cakes like this nearly every day during your residency.

cake making