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Life Lessons from the Garden: The Bluebird of Happiness

by OCMGA Master Gardener Tammy Borden

 

 

bluebird-house-good-58a6d4f55f9b58a3c90cf93fIt had been more than two weeks since the bluebirds hatched. The pale blue eggs that once held them seemed so tiny and impossible to produce the little fuzz balls of life that were now ready to go out into the big world. For many days the parents were lovingly caring for them, bringing them food, and keeping them warm on chilly nights. But now the time had come for them to leave the next. I was outside working in the garden when I noticed two babies fly from the box. I stood watching, thinking the third one would be close behind. But the daylight soon faded into night and the little bluebird still sat inside his box. I saw him again the next morning, peeking his head out of the hole. He’d come almost all the way out, to where I thought he’d just fall. He’d quickly go back inside, only to peek out again a few minutes later.

If only that little bird knew how wonderful the world was outside his little box. If only he knew the freedom that awaits him. He could touch the sky with his little blue wings and catch tasty bugs, and let the summer sun glisten off it’s newly formed feathers. But he seemed to be more content staying inside the little box. After all, it was familiar and safe. Besides, it wasn’t so bad inside the box, he thought. The world of the unknown just seemed so big and scary. Although, the urge to fly was becoming overwhelming.

The little bluebird stayed snuggly in his little box for another night. The next morning mama and papa bird once again tried to coax the little bluebird out of his box. “I’m content to stay in this box!” said little bluebird. “Although, I am getting hungry. Mama has hardly given me any food at all” Still, the little bluebird remained in his box another day, only peering out on occasion to see the big world outside.

The little bluebird began to get restless. It was getting lonely inside the box. He once again peered out the hole and noticed his brother and sister sitting in a tree. They flew from one branch to another, chirping happily. There were other birds too; ones that didn’t look at all like mama and papa. Some of them were big and scary and some were very pretty. But mama and papa were still there to show them where to go and how to avoid danger. Just then papa flew in the air and caught a big bug and fed it to his sister.

 

The urge to leave his box suddenly became overwhelming. The box which once seemed so comfortable suddenly seemed more like a prison than a sanctuary. “What kind of life will I have if I stay inside this box? It looks like real life is waiting out there” thought the little bluebird. But the little bluebird knew that once he left the box he could never return. “What if I don’t like it out there? What ifit’s not safe?” said the little bluebird. His papa noticed the little bluebird and flew near the box. “Little bluebird,” he chirped. “Of course it’s not safe.” The little bluebird seemed startled. He wanted words of comfort and encouragement. But his papa continued, “It’s not safe…but it’s good. You were created to soar. Yes, the box is safe and familiar, but abundant life cannot be found inside the box. Spread your wings and fly into the unpredictable, yet beautiful adventure called life.”

At that the little bluebird perched on the edge of his hole. Looking back he said, “So long box. You can’t hold me any longer. It’s time for me to fly.” He leaned forward and jumped. For a moment fear gripped his little heart and he began to flap his tiny wings frantically. “What have I done,” he thought. “I knew I should have stayed in my box!” Just then he felt a soft breeze gently lift him upward. His tiny wings beat in rhythm with the wind, and he began to fly. “I’m flying! I’m Flying!” He chirped to his mama and papa. They smiled in delight as he perched on a nearby branch where they flew to meet him. “I didn’t think I could fly, papa, but the wind helped me!” said little bluebird. “To think I was willing to stay in that little box all alone when I could have chosen to be free. But I thought I would be safer there.” “Yes,” said papa. “Sometimes we just need to jump and trust that we will be carried from there.”

Like the bluebird, each of us has areas of our lives where we are afraid to step outside our comfort zone. What is your box? To step outside might mean being vulnerable and exposed, yet true freedom and a life filled with delight cannot be found in safety. Be willing to leave your box and trust that you’ll be carried from there as you remember the words reminiscent of C.S. Lewis … “Safe? Of course it isn’t safe…but it’s good.

 

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Nostalgic Roots – the Flowers from Buffum Street

by OCMGA Master Gardener Tammy Borden

They’re not the latest fancy hybridized variety and you won’t find them featured on the cover of the latest gardening magazine. But there is a patch of flowers that holds a special place in my heart because they came from someone who holds a special place in my heart.

My parents emigrated from Germany after facing the ravages of World War II and the difficult times that came afterwards. After a long journey on a retired navy ship that landed at Ellis Island in September of 1951, they settled in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, with less than $20 to their name. Through the kindness of a newfound friend, my father found a job at a manufacturing company that was willing to take a risk on a young immigrant.

atreppsol-003My parents eventually saved up enough money to buy a small house in 1954 for their family, now consisting of three children, my older siblings. That’s where the patch of flowers I have come to love has its roots. They lined the foundation of a small brick home on Buffum Street; those beautiful deep purple iris. They were offered to them by a neighbor who was also an immigrant, though he came from Armenia. He, a retired butler, and his wife, a retired maid, had acquired the iris from the finely manicured gardens of their former employer, an executive at Goodrich Tire Company. “At the time, they said they were rare,” said my mother. “Back then you could only find yellow and light lavender iris.”

My parents eventually left Milwaukee to farm the land; a passion of my father from his childhood growing up in Communist Ukraine Russia. They bought a farm near Marinette and then moved on to Bowler where I was born and first came to love the stately and fragrant blooms. My mom and dad eventually settled on the current homestead outside Bear Creek, Wisconsin. Though my father has been gone for more than twenty years, my mother still tends those same irises. Through several moves, she has always made sure to bring a small patch with her.

They remind her of the kindness and generosity of neighbors and friends. Perhaps they remind her of a simpler time. But I suspect they remind her more so of a time when life was uncertain and frightening for a young mother coming to a foreign land where she didn’t speak the language, had no family and was a stranger to everyone she met. But those beautiful flowers, now 60 years later, still stand as a testament to perseverance, faithfulness and hope. Like the blooms that return with vigor and beauty each spring, they represent a life of determination and hopeful expectation; a life that has weathered a multitude of storms, heartache and loss.

Now at more than 90 years old, my mom still tends the irises that frame the outside of her flower ring in front of her house. And a trail of these flowers remains behind at every home she’s had since 1954. She’s passed on many a clump of rhizomes to friends and family through the years as well. Their beauty multiplies and blesses more and more people with each passing season, much like my mom.

A Perennial Life – Life Lessons from the Garden

by OCMGA Master Gardener Tammy Borden

51qZttaFqmLI love annual flowers. They’re quite impressive, blooming continuously throughout summer, providing lots of color and garden interest. They grow quickly, mature fast and provide nearly instant gratification. They’re attractive, eye-catching and beautiful. However, they are fragile. Annuals will perish easily at autumn’s first frost. They’re also more high maintenance, preferring lots of water, care and fertilizer to perform best.

Perennials, on the other hand, are unfazed by harsh winters and months of lying dormant beneath a blanket of snow. Many can tolerate drought, prairie fires, withstand storms, heat, wind, cold and other environmental abuses. The ups and downs of life make them stronger and they persevere. They aren’t concerned with a momentary display of beauty to impress passers by; they’re concerned with sustaining a life that’s in it for the long haul.

I want a perennial life. I want to live a life that withstands the harsh realities, the cold winters, the storms, the droughts, the abuses of this world. I want my roots to go down deep and to hold on tightly to a foundation that can sustain me through tough times. I want to live my life so that its impact continues on for generations, not just for a season. I want to be reliable, strong, determined, unfazed by death or darkness.

I don’t want to be like an annual; a flash in the pan, a brilliant display for a moment in time, high maintenance. I don’t want to merely impress with my outward appearance, knowing that it will all fade away at the first sign of opposition or hardship. I don’t want to be constantly screaming for more – more nourishment, more water, more attention. More, more, more!

But here’s the problem … I want the results of a perennial life, but I don’t want to endure the painful, tedious and difficult process. I would just as soon not go through all the hardships. I’d much prefer an easier life, a prettier life. Admittedly, my human nature wants to be known as beautiful, alluring and desirable, and for people to not notice my character flaws and selfish ambitions. My human nature wants be impressive, colorful and noticed. See me. Notice me. Tell me what I want to hear. But an annual life is a selfish life.

But there’s another side of me … a side that longs to put aside and not care what other people think of me. I long to be known as a person of integrity, reliability, humble confidence and unwavering character. I want to be known as someone whose life impacts future generations and the world. Even more than just to be known as those things … I want to be those things. I don’t want to exist just for my own selfish ambition or glorification … for more, more, more, shriveling when opposition comes my way. I prefer a perennial life, lived one painful season at a time.

Spring Has Just Begun – Life Lessons from the Garden

by OCMGA Master Gardener Tammy Borden

This article originally appeared in the winter 2009 OCMGA newsletter 

In summer, the trees in front of my home shelter me from the view of the road, and I don’t even notice the cars passing by. But now, only a few stubborn leaves remain tethered to a maze of branches and twigs. Not only can I see the road, but I can see beyond the hay field across the street, all the way to the neighbor’s house a half mile away, a neighbor I’ve never even met. The dark silhouettes of tree trunks are a stark contrast against the gray winter sky beyond. It leaves me feeling somewhat exposed to the outside world. I much prefer my sanctuary in the heat of summer when passers-by have a difficult time even realizing a house exists beyond the expanse of maple, hickory and oak trees.

The long afternoon strolls through my yard have long since been a thing of the past. From my window I can see that the once glorious bed of hostas and Japanese painted ferns has faded into the landscape, now covered with a thick layer of fallen leaves. The only sign of a garden ever existing there are the random plant markers that occasionally pop up through the leaves, but those will soon be covered up by snow. Next to my driveway, I’ve cleared away the beautiful zinnias that drew so many compliments from visitors only a few months ago. All that remains is plain earth with a smattering of mulch.

Winter is here; another season has passed. All that once seemed so vibrant and full of life feels only like a memory now. The earth seems to have fallen asleep. As winter continues, I know I’ll start to forget what green grass even looks like, or what the scent of a fresh rain smells like. I must confess that as autumn turns to winter I feel a sense of loss, almost mourning and grieving the beauty that no longer can be seen. All I can feel is an absence of what used to fill my life with so much joy. Winter reminds me that things of this earth are only temporary. Life is temporary. Or is it? It seems that way, doesn’t it, and especially in the midst of winter when everything is still and a shroud of darkness covers the earth? But we know that in the natural world there are seasons, and we’ve come to trust that there will always be spring, and that with it will come new life, and that life will be more beautiful and more magnificent than the season before. Despite the struggle to watch those things we love fade away and die… there’s hope. It’s that hope that sustains us through winter. But there’s not only hope, but a belief and trust that when spring arrives, we’ll see life again, and it will be more beautiful than before.

It is winter, not only in the garden, but in many hearts that have experienced the loss of someone they love. Our hearts mourn what once was, and as time passes, we try to not forget the memories. But all too soon, we forget the sound of their laugh or the smell of their hair. The little quirks that once annoyed us are now what we sometimes miss the most, and we wish they were here to experience them together again with renewed appreciation and affection. But like watching a garden fade away, all we can feel is an absence of what used to fill our lives with so much joy. Our hearts feel exposed to the outside world that passes by, unaware of the ache inside our soul.

Winter seems to come early for some, as it did for our friend, Sally, who served faithfully as an Outagamie County Master Gardener volunteer for so many years. Sally’s winter came when she succumbed to Leukemia in early October at the age of 53. She brought joy to so many with her serving heart, her unending zeal for life and a beauty that went beyond what anyone could see on the outside. But I believe that in the midst of such sadness there is still hope. You see, I believe that for those who remain, the winter will pass and there will be a spring, and we will get to see those we love again, more beautiful than before. Let that hope sustain you through the winter. The time in between is difficult; waiting and wondering what the next season will bring. We will still go through the mourning and grieving that winter brings.

Meanwhile, we’ll wait with hope, trust and a belief that one day soon, our paths will cross again and we’ll enjoy new life together. But for me, I believe that for those who have gone on, a season of new life has already begun. Hmmm… maybe winter didn’t come early for Sally after all; maybe her spring has just begun.

Written in Loving Memory of Sally Jaeger-Altekruse

December 2009

Straight Scoop: A Clean Driveway is a Joy Forever

by OCMGA Master Gardener Lynne Finch

Hardly has the last leaf tumbled from the trees when my husband starts waiting for the snows. That wouldn’t be surprising if he liked skiing or other snow sports. It wouldn’t be surprising either if he owned a winter resort, a plowing business or a tow truck. Or even a riding snowblower. What he does have is a long driveway, a lot of sidewalk and an obsession with keeping them immaculate. His only tools are a batch of shovels and some strange inner drive that makes him glow with pride when he finally leans on the handle to survey his cleared domain.

After a recent blizzard, as we both leaned on our shovels, he turned to me and said, “There’s nothing like a shoveled driveway.” He swung his arm to include all the snow-blown driveways along the street. “Notice how a snowblower leaves an untidy surface.” He gazed dreamily down the 100-foot drive leading to our garage, “But a shoveled driveway is neat and clean. Definitely a thing of beauty, wouldn’t you say?” I failed to appreciate the esthetics of shoveling. I was glad it was done–he was glad it was beautiful.

In all other respects he’s quite a normal fellow. He growls in the morning, fusses about taking out the garbage, and complains that there are never enough apple pies in the house. He refuses to wash the ceiling and does windows only under protest. It’s when Mother Nature plays the flip side of summer that he goes berserk. I began to suspect something when he gently caressed the handle of our first snow shovel and leered at its broad, steel-reinforced edge. From there his habit progressed to pushers, then on to chippers and brooms.

The path to our door was always immaculate. When we lived in apartments, he cleared whole parking lots, single-shoveled. Now he commands a motley collection of snow equipment that includes a hand-made wooden pusher, a grain scoop and a manure scraper. The steel-edged pusher that came with our old house scrapes a path as wide as the sidewalk. The grain scoop is lightweight and swoops easily through deep snow at amazing speeds down our 100-foot driveway and 130 feet of sidewalk.

My husband also is not one to let a puddle lie. He disperses them quickly with a broom; if one freezes he approaches it, ice chipper in hand, and smashes it to bits. He works carefully, never overexerting himself. Before shoveling he does warm-up exercises in the house. His shoveling form is flawless. A perfected swing and follow-through produce a smooth, steady rhythm of lift and toss. Knees bent to a precise angle relieve stress on his back. When he returns to the house, he is refreshed of body and spirit, glowing with accomplishment.

He is not one to wait out a storm before swinging into action. While other driveways may wait quietly beneath eight inches of fresh snow, ours may have already undergone two or even three strippings. Sometimes he even shovels in the dark of night, tossing snow that reflects the silvery moonlight. As the snowy walls grow taller, he treats them to occasional trimmings, much as a summer man shapes leafy hedges. But eventually they begin to shrink and the snow he so valiantly conquered sneaks into the ground or runs down the street. After all is said and shoveled, he’s a handy man to have around in the winter. He doesn’t need gas and never has been delayed at the repair shop.

Now if I could only convince him that a well-kept yard is a beautiful as a shoveled driveway, I’d have it made in the shade.

– Reprinted with permission. Copyright Lynne L. Finch.

 

 

My Small Corner of the World – Life Lessons from the Garden

by OCMGA Master Gardener Tammy Borden

It was a perfect fall day in mid-November with a sunny sky and unusually high temperatures approaching 60 degrees. I walked along a road with majestic oaks bordering one side and a glassy lake on the other. It felt like I had the serene world to myself with only an occasional car passing by. As I continued on I came upon an older gentleman with pitch fork in hand standing near a pile of leaves that stretched to the edge of the woods. As I approached more closely I saw smoke rising from the dry leaves. He had set them on fire.

downloadSomewhat concerned, I stopped and exchanged pleasantries, then casually asked, “How will you keep it from spreading into the woods?” “I want it to go into the woods,” he said. Surprised, I asked why. His response: “Buckthorn. ” I had noticed the abundance of this invasive non-native plant and how it covered the entire forest understory. I had walked several miles on the trails of this particular property and it had clearly taken over. It was everywhere.

The gentleman began explaining how he had begun burning the forest edges and portions within the woods last year and had seen a marked improvement already. “It kills the young saplings and destroys some of the seeds and fruit,” he said. “Each year we’ll do a little more and hopefully one day we’ll get it under control. I suppose we’ll never get rid of it all, but that won’t stop me from trying. ” It seemed pretty overwhelming to me. The day I was there it looked like he had only burned a little less than an acre, and it bordered more than 500 acres beyond that.

It didn’t stop there; I had noticed on my drive to this little retreat that the unwanted undergrowth lined the forest edges for miles around. Appearing to be in his late 50’s, I imagined the day of no more buckthorn might not even happen in his lifetime at the rate he was going. Even if he could one day get a handle on his little corner of the world, the bordering landscape would continually press in and encroach on this beautiful place. Yet, as he plaintively leaned against his pitch fork watching the smoldering flames like a mesmerizing campfire, he spoke with a sense of hope and ambition. I admired him. He faced an impossible mission, yet he wasn’t discouraged or defeated. He wasn’t going to give up. He was determined to do what he could to impact his little part of the world.

I think of the times when I’ve faced what seemed like an impossibility in my own life and have been tempted to give up. Sometimes, without invitation, the outside world invades mine and I feel overwhelmed to do anything about it. There have been seasons when I’ve let things get too far out of control to the point of choking out all that’s good. And at other times when I’m faced with the needs and injustice in the world, I feel too insignificant to make an impact. This man’s determination reminded me that no matter how overwhelming a circumstance may seem, there’s always hope. I suppose I’ll never get rid of all the injustice in the world, but that won’t stop me from trying. I may not be able to change the whole world, but I can change the small part I call home. And maybe, just maybe … someone may stroll along someday and see me fanning the flames, only to realize they can change theirs too.

Pruning Isn’t Always Pretty – Life Lessons from the Garden

by OCMGA Master Gardener Tammy Borden

When my husband and I bought our first home, it needed some attention in the landscaping department. Among the items that needed particular help was an old grape vine that grew behind the garage. Needless to say, it had been neglected by the previous owners and was terribly overgrown. Next to the garage was a tall pine tree and the vine had actually began climbing the tree and had grown to the very top, nearly 50 feet in the air. From the earth below you could see one or two clusters of grapes way up in the tip of the tree. For all appearances, the vine looked really healthy and lush and it obviously was very vigorous. But for all practical purposes, it was useless. It wasn’t fulfilling the purpose for which it was created: to produce fruit.

Each of us has a purpose, but like that grapevine, sometimes our lives become too far reaching. We spread ourselves too thin, filling our schedules with more than we can handle, reaching for heights in a career that may very well take us to the top, but leave us unfulfilled. Or maybe we look impressive from a distance, but when someone gets close, they struggle to find the fruit and purpose. Maybe it’s time for some pruning.

Pruning isn’t always pretty, and it’s not pretty in our lives either. Have you ever seen a freshly pruned grape vine? It’s bare and exposed, with only a few stems left to hold on. But it’s the only way you’ll get a full harvest of fruit. Pruning is a very painstaking and traumatic experience, requiring the removal of most of the growth and just leaving the best canes to focus their energy on fruit production. Bottom line: without proper pruning, you won’t get much fruit.

If we want to produce fruit in our lives, to truly have a life of purpose, of meaning beyond ourselves, beyond the outward appearance that may look good from a distance, we may need to be willing to allow things to get ugly too; to have those unnecessary things in our lives that we cling to be stripped away and be exposed for who we truly are underneath. We may need to cut away the branches so that the vine of our lives can spend its energy doing what it was created to do… to produce fruit and have a life of purpose and meaning. Often we think of the big things that need to be pruned… Maybe a violent temper, addictions, or overt stuff like stealing or cheating on your spouse. Yes, those things should be pruned away. But those are just behaviors, the symptoms of deeper underlying issues. To experience real life change, it requires deeper pruning of the stem of those problems. Maybe it’s a heart of resentment or pride, unforgiveness or a victim mentality. It could be any host of issues, but there’s only one solution to them all. Pruning.

Pruning is painful. It hurts. It exposes. It can shock us. But when things are cut away, take heart, because there’s still a foundation that’s deeply grounded that can carry us through and be the source of new life. I struggled with hatred and resentment for past offenses in my own life, and it left me reaching for more and more, yet feeling more and more empty and unfulfilled. I tried pruning away the dead wood and unproductive showy growth on my own, but always fell short. I couldn’t remove the hatred on my own. I couldn’t forgive on my own. I needed the help of others and a power greater than mine to do it with me. And I wish I could say that pruning is a one-time deal. But it’s not. With each season, it seems like something new crops up and needs attention once again.

But when we produce fruit for a purpose greater than our own, a life that impacts others and isn’t just in it to impress others with a showy display, we find that the pain of pruning… it’s worth it after all.