Author Archives: Susan Marcus

It’s a busy day today — the second full day of Passover, Easter and April Fool’s Day — to start the first full month of spring. Looking ahead, on the 4th, Martin Luther King will have been dead 50 years. On the 15th, Abe Lincoln will have been dead 153 years. And on the 11th, Edward Wightman will have been dead 406 years. Not one of them died of natural causes. Assassins bullets, I need not say, took the first two. The last burning at the stake in England for heresy took the last, my ancestor.

The cruelest month opened with a brief shower that finished before I could get through the Times. My Easter bonnet for my daily walk down the road was not a rain hood but a grey fleece ear warmer. It may be 50 degrees, however a wind was lowering the feels-like factor quite a bit. The general direction of the wind has shifted, as is appropriate for the season, to originate in the south(west) causing a pattern of cold out, warm home that is the reverse of winter walks — a harbinger of hot out, hot home.

But before leapfrogging to summer, here’s some record keeping of late winter. On 5 March, the Red-winged Blackbirds announced their return with their welcome but harsh gurgle. Two weeks later, migratory American Robins were doing their run-run-run-stop-cock the head-peck the ground routine all over the yard. About the same time I had my first conversation of the year with a White-throated Sparrow:”Oh Sam pee peebody peebody” we took turns saying to each other several times. Down the road at 800 in a stand of spruces with an understory of green briar bramble, an Eastern Towhee scolds me whenever I pass to “drink my tea, tea, tea.” I trust my Towhee will return soon.

The Eastern Phoebes should be back, but I haven’t heard or seen them yet. The male will arrive first. When his mate gets here, they’ll take up residence somewhere in the electricity-producing infrastructure, either between the rafters and the PV panels in the folly or between the meter-that-runs-backwards and the north wall of the guest house. I don’t remove the nest I can reach because they seem willing to reuse it. The House Sparrows are here again. Is that why the Eastern Bluebird has not taken up residence in a nest box? Bluebirds have been reported elsewhere nearby for several weeks so I fear they just don’t find Kennel House homey enough.

Last season I had five pairs of Northern Cardinals but a female died (was eaten maybe but was not burned at the stake) in the fall. I have seen four males together at the feeders but not five. I might be down a pair going into the mating season.

The spring peepers (Pseudacris crucifer) are chirping from the pond as of Wednesday. (Is crucifer related to crucifixion?) The ground hog seems to have moved house from under the canoe to under the large brush compost pile. The entrance to the new house is easily accessible for a have-a-heart trap. But suppose I caught him, what then (the assassin’s bullet)?

Ground Hog hole

The crocuses and the daffodils in the lee of the house are in bloom. An Italian honey bee was taking pollen from the crocuses as I was trying to take a photo only to realize that my battery had just died. That’s likely a honey bee of mine from a generation that escaped my careless beekeeping. I popped the inner cover off one of my hives (no tool needed); the smell of honey wafted up. Clearly my hives didn’t starve, but no bees emerged to check on what I was doing. Maybe they could not rotate to the honey in the long cold.

For the record, I pruned the blueberry bushes — the cultivars — today before it SNOWS later this evening! Historical records say it can snow here until the 10th.

We abide by the laws of nature around here so come May Day, there will be other deaths, timely and otherwise, more first-of-year (FOY) bird sightings and early season plant awakenings to recount from this first full month of spring. There is the fate of the ground hog to consider as well. But if past years predict, I’ll be counting how many pups were in the litter and survived the first moth of spring.


Dear Da,

Happy one hundredth birthday! I know I’m late, but the actual day did not go unnoticed. I was birding in Colombia with 3 others. We were in an expansive wetlands watching waterbirds. “Today would have been my father’s 100th birthday had he not died at 95,” I told them — maybe somewhat out of the blue!

Last summer when preparing for a public walk through the Kennel House meadow, I came upon this picture of us. Too bad, I thought then, that it does not show the plants in the meadow except as a haze of greenery. I wanted a before-and-after kind of photo so people could see the progress in restoring the meadow. You will remember how ruthlessly we tore up the bittersweet by its roots, how relentlessly we hacked away at the stems of Japanese bamboo. We look pretty clean and relaxed in the photo. It must have been snapped as we were on our way into the field. We’d be wringing wet by the time we finished.

Now I look at the picture and I see something else: we are both wearing second-hand gardening clothes. Well, you’re hat is a Dunes Club — i.e., first hand — item. Everything else is sourced from the Jonny Cake Shop or other second-hand store. Do you remember those pink pants of mine? I had a matching pair in an equally as WASPy-golf-club-color of green. I don’t know what happened to the green pants, but after 20 or 25 years, the pink ones disintegrated.

Thank you for passing on to me that practice of buying second-hand clothes. I don’t use it for all my clothing (as Mother will be glad to hear), but it is handy for gardening wear. Since the pink pants — which more or less fit — and an awareness of the hazards of Lyme-disease-bearing ticks, I’ve been buying second-hand garden wear that pulls over regular clothing so that I can shed a top layer when I come out of the field.

I know that at age 90 or so you wanted to live to 100 You should be glad you did not. You would be horrified with the state of American politics. You often told me that the Senate was not worthy of the respectable image it tried to project. Brawling, even fist fights, were not unusual at least in the 19th century you said. Today a fist fight would look civilized next to the unfathomable cruelty and callousness of Senators. And that’s just that start of the despicable behavior of our elected officials.

You would be pleased, however, with the state of the old field. It would be folly to say that the bittersweet (note the piece wrapping it’s way along the rail of the fence) is gone. But it is no longer the dominant plant species. The same can be said of the Japanese bamboo. The two hedgerows of evergreens that I planted from pencil-sized seedlings — one along the driveway to the houses behind and the other up the rise to the road — have grown in. They work well to choke out invasives and establish the boundaries of the field. The fence I lean on in the photo rotted away years ago. The edge between the field and the lawn is now defined by garden beds and the vegetable garden fence. A rose of Sharon that Winkie dug up for me from the Great House garden serves as a post between the lawn and the meadow in the south western corner.

Thank you for your gardening tutelage while I was growing up not to mention your physical labor at the Kennel House. Shed #1 is still stocked with your tools, by the way. You live on around here.

Happy birthday! usnan salguod

It’s the 13th of March, and it’s snowing. The snow started at 1:00 am. The forecast says it will stop around dark. I’ll be ready. The weather forecast on my phone calls for 2 more days of snow next week. Imagine that I had a date with a new garden hand to start pulling bittersweet and digging multiflora rose out of the meadow tomorrow.

To while away this unseasonable  snow storm, I’ve been reading Weatherland: Writers and Artists Under English Skies. I just reached a section called “A Pause: On Freezeland Street” where the pages turned a light blue. It starts: “Sometimes, in deep winter, life seems to pause. Snow falls silently, and it muffles the usual sounds.”

This is not quite my situation as a northwest wind has been blowing tree detritus against the northern windows making a jarring clatter. And snow plows have been up and down the street way too frequently for the volume of traffic (none). I looked up from the dining room table to see a crew member of a National Grid climbing over the front wall. He was checking my meter to see whether I had power. Apparently at least some of my neighbors are without.

Back in my reading nook with Weatherland, the author, Alexandra Harris, is about to describe several Frost Fairs on the Thames from the 1600s till 1814. The many piers of the Old London Bridge impeded the river’s flow creating “a very pavement of glass” supporting an alternative world on the ice. Harris writes that visitors came in the thousands. Booths were set up in double rows from Temple Stairs to the South Bank. Since I’m about to be right there next month, this “pause” in the Weatherland tale is particularly compelling.

In 1684, poet-playwright John Dryden started work on the libretto for an opera, King Arthur, by Henry Purcell that according to Harris “would contain one of the most brilliant renderings of frost in musical history.” You can hear  a modern interpretation of “The Chorus of Cold People” here. The stuttering staccato mimics their shivering, writes Harris. (Purcell’s version is here.)

I have missed most of the storms in Rhode Island this winter. I have not lost power. i should not complain. But I saw a pair of mourning doves huddled together on the back of a wrought iron chair under the enclosed but not screened section of the porch. They were whispering “we’ve had it” to one another. I’d concur.

Back in the days of extensive house renovations, my family elected a piece of equipment for an exemplary service award each week. The shop vac was a frequent winner. We’d come home from work and school to find, despite all precautions by the crew, a layer of dust that required removal by the shop vac before we could comfortably settle in.

I don’t miss the renovations, but I miss the award practice. Although it’s an exchange with an inanimate object, the awardee benefits — in my experience — from the act of appreciation.

I want to give a lifetime award to my swimming fins.

Claudia somebody, a colleague at the World Bank not known to me to be a swimmer, insisted that I order a certain pair of fins — not the regular, flexible swimming fins but a type more commonly used by divers. She also had me buy a 10-pound weight to put on my kick board. Using both in my swimming routine would help me get a better workout, she argued. That was 1994. The weight did not make the cut as I pared down to move into retirement in 2009, but the fins were too integral to my swim routine to eliminate in this passage of aging.

In May 2016, when the fins were 22 years old, the adjustable heel strap on the right fin had frayed to the point where it threatened to let go on any kick. I had already doctored the casing that prevents the webbing from rubbing against my heel with black electricians tape. Now the needed repair would involve replacing the swiveling pin that holds the strap to the fin — not a Sally homemaker task.

From a magazine file with my most precious documents, I retrieved the literature I’d carefully saved on the fins. The person who answered the phone in Santa Barbara — without the intermediation of a receptionist or a message about listening carefully as our options have changed — was the fin designer, Bob Evans. We arranged the return and repair to coincide with a weekend and minimize my time out of the pool. Swimming without my fins apparently didn’t occur to me. I joked with Bob that I wanted to keep these fins going as long as I could keep swimming, which I hoped might be another 20 years. I silently patted myself on the back for saving the cost of a new pair. In the 90s the fins had cost about $75, now they sold for an additional $100. The repair cost $30 plus shipping.

Back in the pool with my repaired fins, I marveled at how fortunate I was to have taken Claudia’s advice. Faintly and to myself I had cursed Claudia for coercing me to make the purchase, marveling that she held such power to override my usual frugality and preference for equipment-free swimming. I must have had more interest in improving my work-out than I confessed to.

Wherever you are, Claudia, all is forgiven. Maybe even a thank you is due.

Then maybe six months ago, a fin began to split where the ankle cover meets the base (left photo below). I tried sealing the crack with superglue to no avail. The fins are very sturdy so the split progressed slowly. Still, the cracked fin hurt; the force of the water twisted the fin into the sole of my foot. I faced the reality the owner of an old car faces: replacement is the only option.

I called Bob back to order a new pair. Fortunately, I did not get him so he could not lsay “I told you so.” In fact, he had not urged me to replace the fins at the time I made the repair. The fins are manufactured in Pennsylvania, I learned, and I’d have to place my order online. My original fins were a dark, matte blue. When the new fins arrived they were black — very black and very shinny. I was shocked. How could I have ordered black, and how could I ever wear what I’d received?

I sent word of my disappointment. They sent a copy of my online order. I’d checked black as the color. For a couple of weeks I debated whether to waste the postage times 2 or suck it up and use the new fins. The shine disappeared in the first swim, and now I love the black.

Here’s why my swim fins get an award. My kick is even; my ankles flex; I stay on the surface of the water; I swivel along a central axis imitating a torpedo. But with the fins and likely because of them, each of those attributes is heightened. (See Slim Fin literature in bubbles from 1990s.) I get more power out of my kick even when using the fins upside down as in the back stroke because the extra load from the increased surface area of the fins. They force my ankles to extend. They help keep me level. They demand more effort from my quadriceps, increasing the cardiovascular workout I get.  And I swim a bit faster. Not that swimming is a race for me — I never swam competitively —  but completing my 3 times a week, 1 and almost 2/10s miles routine in 50 minutes is a plus.

I give an exemplary service award to my slim fins for their long contribution to my comfort and happiness while swimming. May we still be in the pool lapping together in 20 years.


A flock of birds, likely robins, devoured the winterberries. I missed the feeding frenzy this year. with its loud, chaotic soundtrack. The berries are said to have a higher nutrient value after a hard freeze. We’ve had plenty of those, so I assume the birds got a big boost from the berries. They certainly stripped the bushes clean.

Small-waisted red cedar

Deer have browsed an even smaller waist into the red cedar at the edge of the meadow. The “Deer Out” I sprayed in the fall apparently was not a deterrent or maybe the deer have been especially hungry this season. I am grateful they have left the rhodies along the road intact.

A great horned owl called all night on Valentine’s eve. I heard him while I was snuggled up in my reading nook before bed, the couple of times I awoke during the night and again in the light of early dawn. If he was calling a mate, he got no answer. He’s moved out of hearing distance the past few nights, but I know I’m living in his territory.

I love the rufous hue of little bluestem in winter. Its fuzzy flowers catch the sunlight in a magical way. The tan switchgrass is a blah color, although its inflorescence–the highest in the field now as in summer–is majestic. The broome sedge has more red than switchgrass and less little bluestem, but it’s feathery stalks make up for the fact that its a lousy forage plant. Unlike the winterberries and the cedar, no one’s eating it anyway.

Finally, the days are getting longer. The sun rose today at 6:32 and set at 17:22. The arc it takes through the sky is still low to the horizon making long shadows, even at noon.

Five years and one day ago, Sandy ravaged the East Coast. New England was on the outer edges of the storm’s violence but suffered profoundly nonetheless. My participation in the event required five days without power. I was totally undone by the experience. One of my kids remarked that he thought I was more of a pioneer woman than my behavior indicated.

Last night on returning from a weekend in NYC, I drove from the train station – bright lights on – in the middle of the road to avoid splaying the water pooled in the small floods that edged the roads. Enormous raindrops caught my headlights before angling horizontally into the windshield. I was happy to have new tires but worried they might be damaged by all the tree litter strewn across the road.

Fortunately, no deer leapt from the woods and few cars came in the opposite direction. I took note as I passed the driveways of the few people I know along the route in case I needed emergency road service – which I didn’t.

Later as I turned off the light to start what’s for me a fairly involved fall-asleep process, I tried to ignore the wind. But from time to time, there’d be a thump – something falling in the yard, on the roof, off the benches beside the mudroom door, on the porch. I had not brought in the tray of White goldenrod seedlings awaiting repotting or the watering can. Maybe the watering can had taken in enough water to be too heavy to fly off the bench and maybe not. Surely the seedlings would be knocked to the ground. I’d left a bucket with a scrub brush and a rag to dry on the porch after washing the rugs. Were those things blowing around? It was too wet to check and getting up while in the fall-sleep process is always a bad idea. But when I remembered that the hourly weather prediction used the high winds symbol till the middle of the next morning, I got up to take an Ibuprofen pm bill to get some sleep.

I was slow to realize in the morning that the power was out. I did not have Internet service, but when I could flush the toilet and get water from the sink I presumed the problem was router related. Usually that’s a problem that can be fixed in the front house but not today. So I went to the back house to reset the FIOS router. Ah ha, no power there. The phone battery pack was beeping, about to die. Refilling the bird feeders in shed #1, I switched on light – not because I needed it but as a test: power there.

Finally it dawned on me that I was experiencing my first real use of my battery powered solar generator! The electric clock in the front wall showed the correct time. The fridge was on. The kitchen lights worked. I had to move the coffee pot and grinder to different outlets but water, even hot water, flowed from the faucets.

It’s miraculous! In four years (?), this is the first long-term blackout. The batteries are working noiselessly, apparently reliably. Today’s sun is generating more electricity; I can monitor the output on the inverter. Does this mean I’ll be able to keep powering the house for the coming days? Could I be so lucky?

On a walk down the road, I found at least part of the problem: a large Norway maple limb lies across the electrical wires half way down the road. Maple on Post

I have not seen a National Grid truck drive down the road. The word is that it could be several days before everyone has power again. (I can’t complain when I think about Puerto Rico!) I trust that we will not be powerless as long as we were after Sandy. And as long as the generator works, I can reestablish my credentials as a pioneer woman — not in tolerance for the hardships of blackouts but in alternative power.

A light bulb icon appeared on the dashboard of my Jetta alerting me to a burned out bulb somewhere unspecified. A house guest and I were about to drive across the Jamestown and Newport bridges and along various highways monitored by state and local police for some ecotourism and socializing with other friends. Servicing the car was not part of the plan.

After two more days of traipsing around the state with a burned out light bulb, I took the car to the dealer. An hour later as I settled the bill ($4.51 for a left brake light bulb and a few dollars more for labor to install it), I said to the agreeable, young, white man in the service department — a person who knows me as a regular customer just as I know him as the young man in the service department, as a “person in my neighborhood” according to Mr. Rogers, “Good thing I am not a black man. Instead of settling this transaction with you, I might be dead.”

My comment did not fit the circumstances. The young man chuckled hesitantly. No doubt he was thinking, “What did she say?” But he quickly processed what I meant, switched from any light-hearted tone to seriousness and said, “You’re right.”

Suppose I had still been driving my previous car — a 1993 Nissan named Minima. She was an excellent car but not as communicative as the Jetta. When a turn signal went out, the blinking noise the signal made changed from slow to fast. Aha, you’d say, turn signal is out. But I recall no other warnings of burned out bulbs. It could have taken me a very long time to realize a bulb was not working.

If I were a dark-skinned male driving an uncommunicative car would I have to do an inspection of all the lights every time I drove the car in order to stay alive?

I rattled the VW service department man. But we both will likely survive routine burned out car bulbs. In that moment, we both knew it.