Category Archives: Sustain

The Tale of Bunnykins Rabbit and Ms. McMiddleton’s Garden

Carding Mill (a David Austin English rose) sat out 2020 in a pot but is happy to be in the ground this year. It greeted us in full bloom upon our return from Georgia.

I call him Bunnykins. Which is ridiculous on many levels, I know. Why come up with an endearing nickname for a creature who is singlehandedly destroying your vegetable garden? And if you’re going to call him something, a sappy name doesn’t seem quite appropriate. Peter would be a more suitable moniker, since our resident rogue rabbit has taken a page straight out of Beatrix Potter’s famous tale, a copy of which I happen to keep on my shelves. (Apparently bunny – and human – behavior hasn’t changed much in 100 years.)

But look, Bunnykins and I get to talking most evenings, and I have to call him something. He’s a little guy, so that’s the name that came out of my mouth when he and I first found ourselves in the garden together — with the gate closed. (He was as surprised as I was and began to bounce off the fence in every direction, looking for an exit, any exit, the likes of which he seemed to have forgotten after his feast of lettuces and French beans. Just like Peter.)

How did Bunnykins get in?

Earlier in the week I came home from Georgia to many beautiful surprises – roses and other flowers in bloom, dozens of peas to harvest, garlic scapes curling, tiny green tomatoes forming on the vine – and one unpleasant surprise that took awhile to completely reveal itself.

First I noticed the tops of my baby bush bean plants had been lopped off. My struggling little snapdragons were beheaded too. Birds, I thought, those damn crows!

Then I noticed a whole row of lettuce, heads nibbled neatly all the way around into jolly rosettes – rather pretty if you didn’t actually care about eating your lettuce.

Maybe not birds, I thought.

Worst and last: I noticed some of the pea vines were withered. I followed the clues right down to the base of the plants and found them cut off at the knees (so to speak) – completely untethered from their roots, ripped in half by some jagged teeth. I looked up at all the beautiful pea blossoms and newly forming peas at the top of the plants and thought this was just not going to be a good thing if the vines continued to be chewed. I’d lose dozens, maybe hundreds of peas.

Still there was one reason to hope – the vines were clinging to the back fence and it looked like whatever (whomever) was gnawing the bottom of the vines was doing it from outside the garden, grabbing the vulnerable vines that had meandered outside the fence.

However, the very next night I found severed pea vines inside the garden, parts lying around like Lincoln Logs in the path in front of the bed. Not an outside job. Critter (please, please, don’t be a rat) was working on the inside, under the cover of darkness.

Critter had found an easy way into the fenced garden, so I began to scour the fence. I was worried because I knew our fence was not as secure as it should have been. We’d had to leave for Georgia in the midst of a garden expansion project. (Thanks to a small retaining wall and some fill, we have been able to nearly double the size of our little vegetable garden to make room for my cut flowers.) We’d quickly erected the deer fencing but hadn’t added the chicken wire around the bottom. I soon discovered that our critter had taken advantage of this and simply chewed through the plastic deer fencing in a few places. I’d certainly seen that before back on the farm – and it was almost always the work of a wily wabbit.   

It’s not like I hadn’t already noticed Bunnykins in our yard. He – and his appetite – were quite evident in the perennial garden. I often saw him out around dusk, and in the morning the coneflowers were another inch shorter. (I’ve tried really hard to plant deer- and rabbit-proof perennials, but apparently I was asleep at the wheel when I added multiple echinacea to our beds.) 

The night Bunnykins and I met face to face in the garden was the night after I began a harried effort (this was during the work week – the real work would have to wait for the weekend) to run as much chicken wire along the bottom of the fence as I could, and to barricade the rest with bags of mulch and bricks.

I thought I’d done a pretty good job, but now here I was inside the garden, and who should I meet? I caught him right in the pea bed. The only good news was that now I could be 100 percent sure I wasn’t dealing with a rat. 

I can’t say that I really chased Bunnykins with a rake like Mr. McGregor chased Peter, but I was anxiously following him as he rushed around looking for an exit – I wanted to know if he was going to find a secret spot to get out. Darn if he didn’t disappear, squeezing between the raised tomato bed and the back fence into a space I never really would have thought of as wide enough for anything other than a slug to transgress.

By this time, both my partner and Farmer were on the scene. Thinking Bunnykins was hiding – that there was no way he could have gotten out – we shined the flashlight in all the nooks and crannies. Honestly, it was like the final scene in The Sound of Music when the Von Trapps hide in the Abbey cemetery. I pictured Bunnykins with his back up, trying to be vewy vewy quiet and not move a muscle as the flashlight flooded back and forth.

In searching we found that, in truth, the narrow space between the raised beds and the back fence , obscured by clumps of grass, was actually a perfectly fine little rabbit tunnel. A great place to hide or move around under cover (but not escape, since this older part of the fence was locked in with chicken wire). But Bunnykins was not in the grassy tunnel, not anywhere. He’d found a way out. We left, shutting the gate, and I went back again before bed with the flashlight to make sure he wasn’t inside.

It was only in the morning when I scoured the fence again and looked for places just big enough for him to squeeze through (remember, he’s pretty small), that my eyes settled on the entrance gate, not the fence. It’s the only gate into the garden, an old baby gate turned on its side, covered with plastic hardware cloth. The baby gate has 2-inch openings. The plastic hardware cloth has only ½-inch openings and is plenty sturdy enough to withstand chewing. But that morning I noticed we’d never completely attached it to the bottom rail of the gate. Essentially, I could see now by lifting the hardware cloth up, it could act as a kind of bunny door (a flap, like a cat door) if you ran through it from the inside. (Though I don’t think a bunny could lift it to enter from the outside!)

I’m pretty sure that’s how Bunnykins got out that night we were tailing him, as the end of the little tunnel along the back fence brings you (if you’re a little rabbit) right to the gate. I think he got IN to the garden that evening when I was working in there with the gate open.

I quickly devised an instant temporary solution to the gate problem by jamming a roll of chicken wire against the bottom of the gate when I left. (Yes, you could call me Ms. MacGyver rather than Ms. McMiddleton. No one ever said I was the queen of infrastructure, and luckily I have help from my partner with the real work.)

The last two nights, I’ve greeted Bunnykins outside of the garden. He’s been hanging out up on the hill where the garden is, near or under the garage steps (a favorite hidden lookout spot for him), clearly baffled by the newly fortified fortress. Inside the garden, there’s been no pea damage and the lettuce is growing back. And we set to work on finishing the fence this weekend. 

Perhaps Mrs. Rabbit (Bunnykins’ mother) will put him to bed with some chamomile tea, reassuring him that another day will come, another human error will occur, and by then the carrots will be ready for digging.

P.S. You may wonder why I’m so sure that Bunnykins is one rabbit and not one of many. Well, I have no doubt that it’s a virtual Watership Down around here, but most of the rabbits we see out in the field in front of our house are large, mature rabbits that would have trouble getting through small holes. Bunnykins is not a baby, but he is small enough (a teenager?) to be distinctive, and tends to favor a particular schedule and favorite grazing spots. Alas, removing Bunnykins from the premises, as some have suggested we do, wouldn’t solve much. I’m sure there are more Bunnykins in Mrs. Rabbit’s warren.

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A Tree Grows in Georgia

PLUCKED OUT of my normal routine and my familiar landscape and plopped into the middle of a family reunion (of family other than my own) in coastal Georgia, I am finding my equilibrium in the trees.

Not that I’m climbing them or anything (way too tall for that), but walking among the live oaks, with their gauzy curtains of Spanish moss, and under the towering pines that punctuate the blue (sometimes thunderstorm-black) sky is both soothing and awe-inspiring.

Crepe myrtles and evergreen magnolias are instant reminders that I’m not in New England anymore.

Miles of majestic marshland define these Georgia islands. Though much grander than the marshy coastline of Delaware where my family is from, this, too, is comforting and calming.

Also, just sayin’ – I’m not really an air-conditioning person and it is eternally chilly indoors. The thick, sticky humidity seems somehow more tangible to me, and definitely familiar, a part of my childhood DNA never to be erased. Along with the high heat index, I feel like I’m in a sauna sweating out the long Vineyard winter. 

But the trees are something else. Some are hundreds of years old: Quercus virginiana, the southern live oak, can live for 500 years; Pinus palustris, longleaf pine, almost as many (or so I read!). Many are over a hundred feet tall or wide, with lateral roots extending even farther. They are older, bigger, and I think wiser than us, with survival instincts and subtle communication systems we will never know.

My fascination with trees is partly just a new interest (I’m going to ask for The Tree Book by Michael A. Dirr and Keith S. Warren for my birthday!). But also it’s not lost on me why I’m focused on them here, where I’m experiencing a (gentle) growth spurt in my role as a new limb on an old family tree, a tree that has lost the last of a generation.

We are here to celebrate the life of my partner’s mother (she was the youngest of 11 children), but just as importantly to acknowledge the strength and connection of the remaining branches – the four siblings, the grandchildren, and the people they love and call family.

Branches (like people) grow in different directions, depending on their environment – some get twisted and then straighten out, some spring out ahead of the others, only to get knocked back in a hurricane, some stay safely low and close to the trunk. But all are part of the same tree, with roots going deep and wide.

Occasionally an old branch grows a new limb, which leafs out and gathers sunlight and food for the tree, signaling it to send down new roots to bring water back to sustain the new growth – and the old. Trees are pretty smart, aren’t they?


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The Mole and the Fox, The Dog and the Pig

FARMER AND PIGGY and I spent the afternoon in the garden yesterday. It was lovely. Piggy has a habit of moving around when I am not looking and today I found him hiding in the lamb’s ears and later peeking out of a forest of bee balm. By late afternoon he was over by the rose trellis sniffing the hardy geranium that’s about to bloom. Honestly, Piggy.

Farmer loves gardening. He lies in the grass, baking in the sun until his black fur is as warm as beach sand on a hot July day. Then and only then does he move into the shade. Occasionally he gets up and wanders over to a mossy patch under the oaks where he immediately dives on to his back and does a roly-poly, squirming with glee as he scratches his back.

He’s a big help.

Today’s project was planting up containers and pots with annuals and herbs. It was a total immersion in dirt. The driveway was a disheveled disaster zone, pots upturned everywhere, bags of potting soil spilling in the gravel, various plants in various stages of undress waiting for new homes. Whenever I am covered in dirt, I think back (way back) to making mudpies with my best friend Eliza. This makes me happy. Dirt makes me happy.

My joy at being outside with Farmer and Piggy (yes, I realize that one of these two is an inanimate object) was coupled with relief, having powered through practically nonstop from Sunday midday to Thursday evening on a series of deadlines.  

I was so tired Thursday night that I couldn’t even read. I settled myself in my comfy chair, surrounded by stacks of books and magazines, thinking I’d be dipping in and out of any number of things.

Sadly, I was exhausted. Disappointed, I yawned and thought to make tracks for bed. But I hesitated, looking at the book on the top of the pile and thinking I had just enough energy to page through it. Again. It’s a book so charming as to make you weepy with gratitude. 

The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and The Horse, by Charlie Mackesy, arrived earlier in the week, a gift unbidden from a friend, a kind and thoughtful friend who also happens to be a sober friend. She shared the book with me in part because it is so darn beautiful and sweet (and we already know that receiving wisdom from animals is actually my preferred wisdom-delivery form) but also because it is an affirmation of all the self-knowledge we’ve gained in recovery, the painful scraping away of the superfluous junk to arrive at the truth of who we are and what really matters in this life.

Wisdom delivery is a very tricky thing. No one really wants it thrown at them in a neat little package. But what is it about young children (in this case a boy), animals that talk, and a mythical land, that turns a story into a fable and creates a safe place to have honest thoughts and to express love?

In the book (which Mackesy hand-wrote in pen and ink and illustrated with sketches of the four unlikely friends on a journey through the wild to what may or may not be home), there is a moment when the boy — who was lonely before he met the mole, and they met the fox, and they all ran into the horse — is looking at his reflection in a pond.

“Isn’t it odd? We can only see our outsides, but nearly everything happens on the inside.”

So true. One of the first things I learned in early sobriety was to look past the outsides of people and to imagine a person as a struggling, yearning, vulnerable soul, someone just like me. (In the world I grew up in, appearances were valued above all else, so I had to unlearn this. In the book, the boy asks, “I wonder if there is a school of unlearning?” Don’t we wish!)

A wise person taught me to practice stripping away a person’s trappings and circumstances and to try to feel compassion. Not saying I’ve mastered this, but forced humility (in the form of realizing you are an addict who is unable to recover on her own) helped. And I clearly remember a moment when being judgmental suddenly felt less comfortable as a prop. I was listening to a woman talk who had recently been released from prison. Mind you, this was early on and I was still in a fog. I immediately began to judge her … until I began to truly hear her story. She had gone to prison for killing an elderly couple in a car accident by driving through an intersection while in a blackout. While I wasn’t prone to blackouts, there were certainly many nights when I had to drive with one eye closed to keep the yellow line in focus. But for the grace of God, there go I.

Later on in The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and The Horse, the mole asks the boy, “Is your glass half-empty or half-full?” And the boy replies, “I think I’m just happy to have a glass.”

I love that! I know I sure am happy to have a glass, and even though some days it is three-quarters empty, it is still sturdy enough to hold the few tablespoons of (non-alcoholic!) hydration I need to get through the day.

And if it is truly drained dry, I know (now) what to do. It’s something the boy learns from the horse, who is the most wise of all the creatures. 

“What is the bravest thing you’ve ever said?” the boy asks the horse.

“Help,” said the horse.

It gives me goosebumps to think about how life-changing that plea can be. I know that I can pinpoint the exact moment my life began to change course – and it happened the day I said out loud, “I can’t do this myself.”

If you know someone who needs help but is afraid to ask, perhaps a gift of this book might provide an opening. I also highly recommend at least one furry creature (real or imagined, live or inanimate) to talk to.


The Boy, the Mole, the Fox, and the Horse grew from the response British illustrator Charlie Mackesy got when posting his thoughtful drawings on Instagram. The book was published in October 2019 by HarperCollins and has become an international bestseller. Read a bit about that here. And be sure to visit his website and follow him @charliemackesy on Instagram. All illustrations pictured here are Mackesy’s, of course!



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Talking to Mr. Ed — And the Living and the Dead.

Early evidence of animal-talking propensity. Photo by Katie Hutchison, 2008.

THERE IS A HORSE in my neighborhood I am trying to get to know. I talk to him. So far, unlike Mr. Ed, he has not talked back.

I talk to Farmer a lot. He rolls over and looks at me with those big brown eyes, as if to say, “Oh, mommy, stop babbling. Just rub my tummy.”

Lately I’ve been talking to the plants in the garden. They are just coming around after a long hard winter, so it is very important to give them a pep talk. I coach the tiny rhubarb leaves and the hellebore flowers every day, give the shaggy carpet of young chives a pat, and cheer on the arugula that hunkered down and shivered through the winter under two layers of row cover. I tell the tiny sedum buds how fetching they are.

I always talk to myself out loud when I am cooking dinner, even when there are others present. This is partly because I am multitasking (who isn’t when they’re cooking dinner?) and I’m afraid I’ll forget something. Make the salad dressing. Flip the sweet potatoes. Turn the flame down. Spin the lettuce. Grate the Parmigiano. Set the table. Get out the matches. Rotate the chicken. Pour the Pellegrino. Warm the plates. Wipe up those bread crumbs. Don’t forget the nuts in the oven. I smell something burning. NUTS! Refill sea salt. All out of sea salt. Open chile crisp. Stir the shallots.

At night I talk to God. This doesn’t always go so well, because I am tired and my brain is like a Slinky flopping over itself down the stairs, tumbling from one subject to the next. But I try.

I also talk to my friend Judy, who isn’t around anymore. She died four years ago. Sometimes it is hard to remember when someone died, but I know for sure it was the winter of 2017, because one of the last things my friends and I did was gather around her hospice bed (which was set up in her living room), so that she could give me my 10-year sobriety coin (my anniversary having been Christmas Day of 2016, the day I found out Judy’s cancer had spread).

Judy meant the world to me. And to my friends who were there with me that day. And many others. She was the kind of person who made everyone feel special. I could talk with her about anything when she was alive. Lately I have been reminiscing about a picnic lunch we took at Polly Hill Arboretum, about a drive we took around the Island, about sharing her favorite chocolate cake at the Black Dog. Talking all the time, about good stuff and the difficult stuff.  

So I just keep right on talking to her.

For years I talked to my grandmother Honey after she died. I still do sometimes. 

I don’t know if you do the same thing – talk to dead people – but it can be quite cathartic. It’s also rather interesting to think about who you choose to talk to. For me it is the people I think understood me best. And people I loved for their joie de vivre, for the way they lived their life knowing the best part was right there and then.

I have no idea whether they are listening. I am always conjuring visions of the cartoonish ghosts portrayed in George Saunders’ novel, Lincoln in the Bardo. (The novel is fiction, but the fact is that President Lincoln did visit his son Willie’s grave frequently after he died, staying well into the night, presumably talking to him at length.) In the book, the ghosts in Oak Hill cemetery are those folks who, for one reason or another, are stuck in the Bardo, the in-between place between life and death. They are a motley but caring crew, and when Willie joins them, they become concerned when Lincoln’s visits seem to be keeping Willie stuck in the Bardo, when really the young child should be moving on to a better place. And they set out to do something about it.

And I have just finished re-reading Toni Morrison’s Beloved, where the ghost of a child who never moved on (from a particularly hideous in-between) manifests in the lives of her family so profoundly that she is physically present. Yikes.

I’m not sure how I got from the subject of one-way conversations (whether with an animal, a plant, a pot on the stove, or a missing person) to the subject of ghosts. It’s just that I began to wonder the other day why I do all this talking (other than my obvious verbose nature, which I am so stuck with that I’m sure I will be bringing it with me into the Bardo). Why all the talking when there’s (presumably) no one to answer?

You probably guessed already that a lot of it is a nervous habit, a way (yet another way – you can’t say I haven’t started a great list for you!) of soothing anxiety. But I think there are other reasons. There’s an urge to connect – certainly with a horse or the dog, the hope is that it isn’t really a one-way conversation but an introduction of intentions, a way to express affection. With the plants I’m growing or the dinner I’m making, again I think I want to be connected to the process in an intentional and joyful way. I want to notice what miracles are going on, what alchemy is happening, how the puzzle of getting dinner on the table can be solved in a given time frame.

With people who are no longer around, the desire for connection of course intensifies. Not only do I wish those people were still here, but I like to pretend that they actually are and that engaging with them is still possible.

Honey, Uncle Doug, and Uncle Rodney are no longer around. But Dad (in plaid) is.

But I have the great good fortune of still having someone very important to me (and very old!) alive. My father.

And the way I connect with him is by talking. On the surface of things, I talk with him because he lives hundreds of miles away, alone, and I worry he might be lonely. But I also talk with him because I enjoy talking with him. He is smart and thoughtful. I learn from him. He’s always brimming with some new bits of information — a plant he’s fallen in love with, a Julia Child recipe he’s made, a story about our family. I talk with him because I love him. And I talk with him because I can’t bear the thought of the day when the conversation will only be one way. 


Book Recs This Week

Lincoln in the Bardo, By George Saunders

Beloved, By Toni Morrison


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Following the Farm Dog to A Better Day

I picked up Farmer (aka the Farm Dog) at the Barnstable MSPCA 10 years ago.


BAD days happen. We all have them. I had one this week. 

The circumstances weren’t so very terrible; just uncomfortable enough that I wanted to crawl back in my Cancer-the-Crab shell where it would be safe. It’s a tactic I’ve turned to since childhood. You know the drill. 

My reaction bothered me more than anything. The problem was I was angry (rest assured, NOT with my beloved). I haven’t been really angry in years, and I’d forgotten what it feels like. My whole body overheated and my stomach turned on me, as if I had asked it to perform in front of a thousand people, naked. (My stomach has been known to portray my stage fright.) 

And then anger turned to hurt. Nothing like hurt feelings to reduce one to the emotional stability of a tired toddler. My eyes watered. Tears! Imagine!   

Worse, I soon realized I was on the down escalator heading for self-recrimination. Classic – turning the anger inward. This was not good! 

Fatigue, the heavy kind that comes when circuits are overloaded, crept up on me. But it was a busy work day so I powered forward on deadline, through a Zoom and on to the finish line. 

One silver lining to a job like mine is that you learn to write, edit, and package content quickly to get it out the door. You have to focus.

At the end of the day, Farmer was waiting for me at the bottom of the stairs. Having had his supper, he was ready to go – not just for a walk, but for The Walk, an adventure we discovered during the pandemic thanks to Google maps. It’s a backwoods route that takes us from our house to the water a couple miles away, to the shoreline of Tisbury Great Pond, one of the two largest ponds on the south shore of Martha’s Vineyard. It bumps up against the Atlantic Ocean with only a small barrier beach (sometimes breached) between.

I stepped out the back door and hurried to follow the blur of Farmer’s wagging black tail as he dashed through the woods behind our house.

We made our way across a dirt road, through a shallow wood, onto another dirt road and down a horse path, Farmer dragging his leash along, sidestepping like a Lipizzaner as he skipped along from sniff to sniff. 

We threaded an ancient way between more scrub oaks and pine seedlings, along the southern edge of a large hay field freshly spread with horse manure, picked up the path again, and finally reached the Short Cove trailhead, the start of a Land Bank trail that hugs the hedgerows, the hayfields, and wood lots of Flat Point Farm.

The wind whipped up on the stretch along the big field, Farmer’s nose to the wind sniffing wildly from target to target, landing on the prize of a slowly petrifying dead turkey. Geese honked, lifting off in unison. The farm’s sheep baa-baaed, perhaps in warning, from the barn far across the field where the hazy fuse of sunset blinked orange through the bare limbed oaks. 

Up and down and up again we went, the trail rising into a pine grove high above the first glimpse of the cove, a thick swath of golden grasses nearly obscuring the inky blue below. The soft bed of pine needles beneath us made treading lighter, softer on our feet and paws. 

Into view came the summer shack, surrounded by decades old blueberry bushes and a stately old rhododendron; the shack’s screen door knocking about, the windows long gone. 

And then at last a long deep gulp of water view. A heron. Two swans. And a brilliant study of evening light bouncing off the thick brush on the eastern shore.

As we covered that last bit of trail, space opened wide all around us, the low grassy plains of the Flat Point peninsula blending into the dark of the disappearing sun.

Farmer and I found the boardwalk path leading down to the lapping shore, stood and sniffed the rocky beach strewn with spent oyster shells. The roar of the ocean far across the water beyond the cut brought the sea humming back to us.

It was time to turn back, but suddenly everything was very still. And I was very still. I felt completely present and unfettered in that moment, like I had everything I would ever need. I was overwhelmed by a feeling of gratitude. 

It was the kind of gratitude that spiritual writer Cynthia Bourgeault calls a “healing force.” This is not your Hallmark-card gratitude or the stuff on your gratitude list. It doesn’t get its power from tangible things. This gratitude comes from a place inside you. It comes at strange and necessary times, but only in stillness, quiet — here, the gloaming.

Farmer and I made our way home in the cool March twilight, a chill rising from the ground now. 

Once home, I reread Cynthia Bourgeault’s words that have been with me for fourteen years, at first in my little notebook, later on the fridge when I lived alone, now on the bulletin board behind my computer. 


“Yes, it’s easy to be grateful when something good has been done for you.  But have you ever thought about gratitude not as a response but as a force in its own right; an initiating and healing energy that is not dependent on external circumstances but is rather an innate power of the human soul? When understood and wielded in this fashion, it has the power to liberate us from our self-imposed prisons of self-pity and envy and to actually change the energy fields (and hence, the outcome) of our circumstances.

In plain words, we can actually change our reality by being grateful first; not as a response but as an innate way of being.

…Gradually you will come to see that gratitude is not a response; it is a river that is always flowing through you, and that you can learn to flow with. Wherever your external circumstances may appear to be heading, it will always be carrying you inwardly toward fullness and love.”


Work in progress here.


P.S. I saw a meme on Facebook that pictured pets – cats and dogs – with the label “antidepressants” in front of them. I love that, and it reminded me of something else I keep tacked to my bulletin board.


Rules to Learn From Your Dog


Never pass up the opportunity for a joy ride.

Allow the experience of fresh air and wind to be pure ecstasy. When loved ones come home, always run to greet them. 

When it’s in your best interest, practice obedience. 

Let others know when they have invaded your territory. 

Take naps and stretch when rising. 

Run, romp, and play daily. 

Eat with gusto and enthusiasm. 

Be loyal. 

Never pretend to be something you’re not. 

If what you want lies buried, dig until you find it. 

When someone is having a bad day, be silent, sit close by and nuzzle them gently. 

Avoid biting when a single growl will do. 

Delight in the simple joy of a long walk. 

When you are happy, dance around and wag your whole body. 

No matter how often you’re scolded, don’t buy into the guilt thing and pout. Run right back and make friends.

 — Anonymous 


“With gratitude, optimism is sustainable.” 

— Michael J. Fox

WATCH this inspiring interview with Fox for this recent Martha’s Vineyard Book Festival virtual winter event, on the subject of Fox’s new book, No Time Like the Future: An Optimist Considers Mortality.




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I’ll Take an Order of Beauty and a Side of Color, Please. And a Better Night’s Sleep.

I am writing on four hours of sleep. I think I mentioned in passing that I was aiming to be honest with you, so let’s not waste any time. Here are three things not to do in the evening: Stay on your computer until 11:30 p.m. absorbing the screen’s blue light, which suppresses melatonin; eat a bowl of chocolate chips during this light show; and decide that climbing into bed and reading a riveting, gut-wrenching novel like Sadeqa Johnson’s Yellow Wife will lull you to sleep.

You might perhaps wind up like me, staying awake until 5 a.m. finishing said book.

I didn’t just stay awake; I also tip-toed downstairs to the comfy chair in the living room, where the dog was snoring on the couch and the Scotsman had turned the heat down to a level that would just barely keep pipes from freezing. At least I had a wool hat and a cheap throw. 

To improve on this situation, I then decided that drinking a cup of warm milk would be a good idea, because that’s what my grandmother Honey always did when she couldn’t sleep. But I couldn’t resist turning it into a big mug of hot cocoa (at least it was good quality cocoa!), which zeroed out any drowsy-making and put my bladder into overdrive as a bonus.  

Looking on the bright side, at least it wasn’t a nip of scotch, neat — a frequent trick during the Before Times that I used to treat sleep disturbance caused by too many evening drinks. Catch the irony there? A vicious circle.

The point is, even though I may be sane, sober, and well-intended these days, I’m still stupid. And stubborn. You?

I listened to a great podcast this week, The True Hard Work of Love and Relationships. On Being’s Krista Tippett interviewed Alain de Botton, the author of the widely read New York Times opinion piece, Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person. In it I was reminded, with relief, of the importance of realizing how imperfect we all are so that we don’t experience the chronic delusion that everyone else’s relationships are better than ours. And more importantly, so we don’t set up ridiculous expectations of our partners. We’re all crazy in some way; if we’re going to make a go of it, we’ve got to accept each other’s craziness, starting with our own. 

I bring it up because it never hurts to take a gentle look at the crazy stuff to see if it’s really working for you. And because lately I’ve been thinking that my stubbornness – or insistence on doing (or not doing) things a certain way – can sometimes actually limit my imagination (as well as affect my sleep!).

For instance, how is it that I managed to grow things outdoors for so many years, across three seasons every year, without realizing I could (more or less) recreate the experience indoors in the winter?

It took a pandemic and hibernation to snap my longing (and need) for year-round beauty into focus. In this most wintry of winters, I finally embraced the house plant. Or, more accurately, plants in the house. It started with a collection of scented geraniums I rescued from outdoors — peppermint, orange, lemon, rose — each plant with its own seductive fragrance and uniquely beautiful leaves. Some leaves as soft as bunny ears. But then I bought real houseplants, too. A fern. A jade plant. Ivy. Two fancy rosemary topiaries.

I swear I’ve done nothing more than crowd them all near southern windows and water them sporadically. And I’ve been wildly rewarded. In the breakfast room, we have a sea of soft green leaves blanketing one wall like a living mural. In the bedroom, a tabletop collection of greenery that lights up in the mid-morning sun, casting cartoon shadows on the dog basking on the carpet below. 

“Put yourself in the way of beauty,” Cheryl Strayed wrote. I have loved that ever since I read it in a little book of hers called Brave Enough. (You need that book!). But I never stopped to think about how beauty really works. What is the real reason that I love flowers and foliage so much?

Sure, nurturing plants fills a need and assuages anxieties (not inconsequential). But there’s more. It turns out there’s a connection between our vision and areas of the brain where pleasure thrives. Beauty, and its sidekick color, can actually stimulate serotonin production.

Ah ha! No wonder, for one who runs a wee bit under the optimal serotonin levels during the winter (lightbox: check, vitamin D: check, omega 3 fish oil: check), the pleasure of seeing green every morning is so rewarding. The color green supposedly reminds our brains of peaceful and pastoral settings. The color pink (my favorite) is relaxing, blue (the color of our walls) calming. And while I don’t normally lean into yellow, it’s the color of happiness — which may account for the very cheering effect of some bright yellow (and red) tulips that wandered into our house last weekend.

My suggestion? Get thee to a florist, please, and purchase a plant, some flowers, a flowering plant, or a planting flower. That’s the good kind of crazy.

Have a beauty-filled day.

P.S. Thank you to all of you who emailed me last week or commented on the blog after the reboot! So nice to be reconnected. If you feel comfortable, I want to encourage you to post your thoughts in the comments section below, so that we can share conversations with each other. 

Read last week’s post: Be the Light! Rebooting the Sixburnersue Blog

Looking for new recipes? Visit cookthevineyard.com and sign up for the free weekly newsletter. (Something I do as part of my day job.)

Writing My Way Out of a Paper Bag

Well, well, well. When I took a full-time job last spring, I didn’t really think I would stop writing my blog altogether, but what did I know? Turns out my new job at the Vineyard Gazette Media Group keeps me pretty busy, especially in the writing department. A few months into the job and I was feeling very grateful to my high school English teachers, who gave me a voice, the 5-paragraph essay, and the concept that all hypotheses should be supported with documented facts! What I learned from my college English professors was a bit more vague, partly because I was writing poetry and fiction, but also because I may not have been paying attention 100 percent of the time.

At any rate, my job is great because I get to flex all kinds of writing and editing muscles. Though I’m no reporter, I’ve wound up with a regular column in the newspaper called Off the Menu. This summer I interviewed and profiled chefs across the Island; two of my favorites were this one on the Artcliff’s Gina Stanley and this one on Ben DeForest of the Red Cat. For the winter, I’m writing a looser column, sometimes about a particular ingredient, with a recipe; sometimes about a local food event. I also write features for the magazine (Martha’s Vineyard Magazine); in the issue on newstands now is my piece on the Larder and Jefferson Munroe.

I edit a publication called the Vine, which is a color adjunct to the paper that comes out seven times a year and focuses on people and businesses in the Vineyard community who make it a special place to live. In addition to assigning and editing that content, I write at least one of the features in each issue, too. My favorite so far was this one on 800-square foot dwellings. (I take some of the photos in the Vine too, but the best part of working on this publication is collaborating with talented and energetic photographer Jeanna Petersen Shepard, who took the photo above.) I also write a weekly events newsletter called Island Time (please subscribe!).

I’m also helping my fabulous boss, Jane Seagrave, publisher of the Vineyard Gazette Media Group, with new product development and with some updates to a tourist website called MVOL.com which the company purchased earlier this year.

As far as freelance writing goes, I still contribute the occasional feature to Fine Cooking magazine, like this piece on tomato bread salads from this summer.

And Simple Green Suppers is happily sailing along. Most recently, Outside magazine chose it as one of its best cookbooks for busy adventurers. And the West Elm design blog chose it as one of its ten cookbooks to help you through the busy season. Best of all Simple Green Suppers and my friend Sarah Waldman’s Feeding a Family (both published by the most wonderful Roost Publications) were chosen by the American Booksellers Association to be highlighted in The Indie Next Holiday Gift Guide flier. Half a million copies of the flier were printed and sent out to 11,000 independent bookstores. (And only a handful of cookbooks are on this flier.) Please, please, please, if you are going to buy books for presents this year, support your local independent bookstore.

This week I’m heading to an event at Metro Bis restaurant in Simsbury, Connecticut, where chef Chris Prosperi (who I first met on the radio when I was a guest on Faith Middleton’s The Food Schmooze, which Chris appears on regularly) will cook a five-course menu highlighting recipes from Simple Green Suppers.

My little farmstand puttered along this summer. I did realize with the new job that there was only so much effort I could put into the garden this year, but it gave me the whole summer to get used to the idea that at least for now, the market gardening chapter of my life must close. I have no doubt it will reopen some day, but in the pursuit of keeping a roof over my head and some kibble in Farmer’s bowl, I have to focus on work that returns a little bit more money per hour than the market garden does.

And speaking of roofs, I have a new one to call my own—only it is not on Martha’s Vineyard, where the real estate market left me behind while I was dilly-dallying. But it is all good; I bought a little affordable house in Delaware where my father’s family is from and where I spent summers growing up, and for now my parents will live in it, as it provides them with a one-floor living situation where my Dad can more easily care for my Mom, who is frail. All of my various book collections, kitchen tools, watercolors, photographs, pottery, garden gear—all of the stuff that distinctly defines me as a non-minimalist—now has a home to call its own, and I can stop dragging it around awkwardly from rental to rental, always losing something along the way. Farmer and I will go visit our stuff and my parents every few months, and in the meantime we have moved to a lovely winter rental here on the Vineyard (summer could be interesting; I think Farmer would be okay with tent living?!) and will continue to be optimistic about the possibility of living and working here on my beloved Island for as long as we can.

I truly am grateful for this gift of writing , a skill I was taught 40 years ago that I can still use to market myself today, and hopefully for many years to come. I like to say I can write myself out of a paper bag if I have to. That isn’t a very pretty image, but the point is that it’s a skill, not a talent, and a very useful and versatile one at that.

 

 

A New Job, With Gratitude

I have a lovely bit of good news I’ve been meaning to share with you. You might not think it is the most fun or exciting thing, because it involves work. But for me, it is a game changer.

I have a new job. A full-time office job. For the first time in nine years.

Perhaps you got the slightest hint, during those nine years (many of which I was writing this blog), that self-employment was, well, exhausting. And financially…challenging.

It also was amazing and wonderful and the best decision I’ve ever made in my life (up until now!), because I took a risk—a lot of risks really—and the rewards were huge. I got to pursue a dream (that I didn’t really even know I had) of being a farmer, I got to write books, I got to manage my own schedule, I got to burrow into my new community. All while living on this Island, which has turned out to be the biggest reward of all.

 

For better or worse, I am now ridiculously attached to this place, in a visceral way. Mostly it has to do with the immediacy of nature; once you step out your door you are in it completely. The other-worldly curtain of grey fog on an emerald field, the mirage of sparkly ocean that glistens just around the bend, the clear black night sky hole-punched with infinitely luminous patterns of starlight.

That kind of attachment makes it hard to leave a place, even when you know it is time to realign with the real world.

Which is why I am so grateful to have my new job as an editor at the Vineyard Gazette Media Group, publishers of the 170-year-old award-winning Vineyard Gazette newspaper and Martha’s Vineyard magazine (where I have contributed food pieces for many years). As special projects editor, I’ve got a bunch of creative editing and writing challenges to work on, starting with editing a publication called the Vine which began as a supplement to the paper and now stands alone as something closer to a magazine. With my long career (pre freelance!) in magazine editing, it’s a good fit.

 

There are so many wonderful things about my new job, starting with my smart and friendly coworkers and my fantastic boss, but I thought for now I’d just show you some pictures of the office,  an  historic house which was added on to over the years (the newspaper presses are on the first floor), and of the neighborhood. It is pretty cool. (Top photo is the front of the office; the next photo is the side/back entrance; the  photo directly above is the view of the harbor at the end of the street; the middle photo is the plaque next to the front door of the office.)

As much as I love the rural end of the Island where I live, coming to work in the picturesque New England village of Edgartown is kind of a kick. (Or at least it has been this spring; I’m sure my attitude will change with summer traffic!) It certainly beats other office buildings I’ve inhabited.

To add to the fun, my office space is actually the archive room, so I am surrounded by bound copies of old newspapers, old books, and a treasure trove filing cabinet of newspaper clippings organized alphabetically by last name (Belushi, Clinton, Kennedy, along with Luce, Mayhew, Silva, etc.). (I also have a nice view out my window!)

You are  probably wondering, and the answer is no.

No, I am not giving up on my vegetable growing operation completely (and certainly not on cooking)—I’m far too stubborn for that. I have had a stern talk with myself though about making the farmette a much lower priority for this year. But since I built a lot of infrastructure here last year, it only makes sense to use it. So I am planting mostly tomatoes, flowers and beans, and will harvest and open the farm stand Friday-Sunday. I hope that will work out. I did say I was going to wear less hats, but I am a slow learner.

On instagram I use these hashtags: #sixburnersuecooks #sixburnersuegrows #sixburnersuewrites. We’ll just have to add a fourth one: #sixburnersuehasarealjob

The Fly-By Summer

IMG_0140IMG_0101It’s a strange summer. Slow in getting here, fast in passing. The tomatoes have barely started to ripen and already it is time to pull the onions out of the ground. The weather is confused—dripping hot one day, New England chilly the next night. It’s like summer and fall all at once. But I’m okay with that. I like fall, and I feel a bit disconnected from summer this year.

I can’t complain. Grace and magic and kindness and opportunity have conspired to give me a new farmette business with a little farm stand plunked fortuitously close to the road.

IMG_0127My fencing and irrigation and weed controls are working as planned, so everything (well, most everything) is thriving, and the whole darn thing is actually manageable.

IMG_0133The soil still needs a lot of improvement, so my yields are not what they could be. But the real conundrum is space. The 4000 square feet I carved out this year isn’t enough for the little business to really thrive. 10,000 square feet is a quarter acre, and that would be great, but I can’t necessarily get to that here. I might be able to carve out 2000 more feet, but first I’m going to figure out a way to get a small hoop house built (and hopefully a chicken coop and pen, too). Then perhaps I will lease an extra little bit of land somewhere else next year, and grow more flowers on it. All things to consider this fall!

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I did finally break down and buy a new camera, as my old one died and I’ve been borrowing from friends. I went with the cheapest DSLR I could buy and still get good quality—an older Canon Rebel T5—and I just took it out of the box yesterday.

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IMG_0145So of course the first pictures I took were of tomatoes and flowers–probably my two favorite things about the late summer garden. Fortunately, with our warm fall out here, I’ll have tomatoes and flowers until late October of even early November.

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IMG_0130But I hope I can find some good tomatoes and flowers to enter in the Fair, which is–yikes!–next week! I did say summer was flying by.

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And the last bittersweet sign of changing seasons: The President and First Family arrived for their vacation last weekend. It still thrills me to see the motorcade whiz by, and I will always be grateful that they’ve chosen to come here for their vacations. Now if they’d just stop at the farmstand…

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Building the Market Garden(s)

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This is very cool, I promise, and constitutes the best possible excuse for the delay (again!) in blog posts: We have plowed, tilled, composted, dug, fenced, planted, mulched, and irrigated 4500 square feet of market garden space in exactly two months. During that time, we’ve also harvested from the earliest plantings and even turned a few beds over. (And opened a little farmstand.) I say “we” because I’ve had help from all over in this endeavor, and I feel proud that I set this challenge for myself, made a plan, and then reached out for help at every step of the way.

If you’re interested in a brief overview of how it went, read the timeline below. But life is short, so if you’re like me and in a rush, just take a quick glimpse at the photos (which are a mixed bag, considering I’m still short a camera lens and using an old phone, too!), and you’ll get an idea of the progress.

And then, please come visit the farm stand if (or when) you’re on the Island. I’ll be open every day now, from about 8:30 am to 7:30 pm. (Self-serve.) Many folks don’t realize that I’m not at the old farm and that I’m starting up a new business, so I can use your kind word of mouth to let Islanders and visitors know of my new location. I still have mostly just greens (chard, kale, salad mix, etc.), but peas and squash (and much more) are coming.

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Directions: I’m in West Tisbury on State Road, on the left just past Island Farms Road (a little bit up the road from Vineyard Gardens) if you’re coming from Vineyard Haven. The property has a long stone wall along State Road and two driveways. Take the first driveway (if coming from VH) or the second (if coming from West Tis.). The farm stand is right behind the stone wall. You will see my chalkboard sign on the road. We don’t have a farm name yet, but you’ll see “Sixburnersue” on the farm stand!

The Timeline:

In early April, property owner Trip Barnes and I walked around and decided where the gardens would go. We chose three areas that had enough sunlight (LOTs of trees here) and that could be reached from a water source. There wasn’t just one area big enough for me, so we staked out three. All were covered with sod/grass, meaning they would need a lot of work to become garden beds. There was also a fourth, very small area, that had been a vegetable garden, which I immediately pounced on to get started since it didn’t need to be plowed.

We then set about finding a farmer who could come with a plow and turn the soil over in each of the three spots. (Farmers are pretty short on time in the springtime.)

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On April 24 and 25, farmer Andrew Woodruff of Whippoorwill Farm came out and plowed and tilled each garden area to break the sod apart and loosen the soil to a good depth. (Yay Andrew!)

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Andrew left me with two good-sized piles of compost, which I then shoveled over each garden area. Next I called my friend Jim Costello to come with his powerful rototiller and turn the soil once more. We then had soil that looked plantable. (Yay Jim!)

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The next and biggest challenge was fencing. I quickly erected some temporary fencing around the two smallest gardens so that I could get started on making beds and pathways. (And do things like get an asparagus bed started and onions in the ground!)

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Then I made my fencing plan. I wanted tall (7- to 8-foot) deer fencing around the two bigger gardens and medium-height fencing around the flower garden (the third area). And I wanted to double up on the bottom with 3-foot chicken wire buried 6 to 8 inches (rabbits and rodents).

Trying to balance time and budget (shipping heavy rolls of fencing and fence posts to the Island can get very expensive), I finally ordered the mesh fencing online from a reasonable source. (I measured about 16 times to make sure that the 330-foot rolls were going to do the trick.)

But I still needed to find 40 heavy duty fence posts—that I could afford and also manage to get in the ground. This took a while, but through another farmer friend, I found out that another farmer on the Island, Mitchell Posin, was the Island dealer for a fencing company.

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I talked to Mitch and we settled on 9-foot galvanized metal T posts. I would need to sink them 2 feet, so that would work with my 7.5-foot high deer fencing. Mitch put the order in and also told me that he’d be happy to give me some of his round wooden posts (9-footers) for the corners of my gardens. (Yay Mitch!)

The fence posts missed their first ride to the island but managed to hitch a ride in the back of Andy the Sheep Shearer’s truck the next week. (Andy comes from New Hampshire to the Island twice a year to shear most of the Island’s sheep and to do demonstrations as well.) I was sure glad to hear that he had arrived. We piled in Trip’s truck one foggy morning and ran up to Allen Sheep Farm to pick up the posts from Mitch.

Now I had posts and fencing, but I had to figure out how to build this fence (and include a gate for each garden). In the end, I wound up going back to Allen Sheep Farm and borrowing a tool called a T-post driver from Mitch. It’s a heavy metal sleeve, or tube, with handles, that you place over the stake. Then you pull (more like bang—it is very loud) the driver down on the stake several times until the stake is far enough in the ground.

Help came next from my next door neighbor, Lena (who used to have a horse farm), and a woman visiting from Canada named Elizabeth (who still lives on a horse farm). Both of these brave women helped me figure out how to get the heavy driver onto the heavy (tall) stake before raising it up, and each volunteered to hold the stake in place while I stood on the ladder and banged the darn thing in. It was exciting when the first post went in, and even more exciting when the 40th post went in—thanks to help from two more ladies, Terra, and Helen.

Helen is the young woman helping me out on the farm this summer, and I have nicknamed her Super Farm Chick, because she is one hard worker. Together we did the rest of the hard work to get those fences done. The most tedious part was digging the trench around each area to bury the chicken wire (another friend, Ann, joined us for the last of it). Actually hanging and zip-tieing the deer fencing and chicken wire went pretty smoothly. Helen and I got so good at this by the end that we decided we could hire ourselves out as fence builders (ha!). And we had fun with the fact that the fence was almost entirely built by women. (Yay girls!) (I wish I had photos of all this.)

I had wanted to do something fun for the garden gates—I had my eye on two old screen doors—but I had to improvise for the short term and make the gates (or doors) out of the fencing material, some dowels, and some bungee cords for closing. Not pretty, but functional.

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After the fencing was done, Helen and I got going on the serious planting. I had already (with help from a friend’s son, Oliver), dug the paths and raised beds for the first garden so that I could get all my greens in . (I grew a very successful crop of baby bok choy in this garden, and I was happy to sell some of it and some beautiful Japanese turnips to State Road Restaurant. I’ve been harvesting lettuce, kale, chard and spinach from that garden, too.)

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Oliver and I had also gotten the potatoes in the ground out in the biggest garden. (Yay Oliver!) I knew deer didn’t like potatoes so I wasn’t worried about planting them without the fence up. Interestingly, not long after the potatoes sprouted, we saw deer tracks right through the bed. So I knew I was doing the right thing in planning on tall fencing—especially for that garden, where the tomatoes would go.corner

But now Helen and I were staring at 75 tomato plants, 60 eggplants, 60 squash plants, 30 cuke seedlings, and untold numbers of flowers (about 300 maybe?) that needed to get in the ground. In my zeal, I had started everything (both under lights inside and in my little mini tunnel outside) about the same time I always start, not thinking about how delayed I’d be in getting everything in. So all my plants were leggy and busting out of their pots (and needing to be watered twice a day). To get those plants in, there would be more shoveling to make raised beds, a lot of weed mat barrier and plastic to staple down, stakes to pound in, and lots of drip hoses (a whole other story) to set up.

It sounds so easy to just “get the plants in the ground” but there are dozens of things that need to happen before that little hole is dug and the seedling popped out of its pot.

But now I am happy to say that as of this afternoon, it is pretty much all done.

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All but a couple random flats of seedlings (and some extra tomatoes, which have been moved to bigger pots for the farm stand) are in the ground. Weed mat barrier is down in every path in each garden. Drip hoses are down and the irrigation, though jury-rigged, is functioning. Sunflower and nasturtium and cilantro seeds planted around everywhere to attract the good bugs and bees.

Whew. Now we just have to go back to the first garden and do some weeding and thinning and turn some beds over. Bok choy out, yellow beans in.

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