Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Garden update and a review of the mystery novel The Crossing Places

Finally we have a week of beautiful weather. I tiptoe around the edges of the garden. I’m bent over, peering down, looking for signs of green, brushing away a little leaf mulch and then putting it carefully back. I have to time my garden activity perfectly. If mulch is raked away too early, it won’t protect the tender shoots from late frost, but if left too long, there could be injury to the new plants it protects. When the forsythia bloom is the general rule here. Cut back perennials, prune roses and remove mulch when the forsythia begin to flower. (Southern gardeners are probably wondering why anyone would try to garden in a place where the last spring frost date is May 15th:)

Every spring I regret not planting more very early bloomers like hellebore and crocus. It’s the high failure rate that always makes me hesitate. More often than not, early flowers are either buried under several inches of snow or ruined by hard freezes. The failure years always seem much harder than if I had nothing at all to anticipate.

I’m surprised to see how dry the upper layer of soil is. After the abundance of snow that just melted, I expected the ground to remain wet longer. Rain is predicted for this weekend and we really need it to give plants a good start.

The lamium leaves are limp but still hold that pretty green and white pattern. Lamium tries to be an evergreen, remaining leafed out all winter, protected by the snow. Strawberries too and heuchera keep their foliage. I’ve seen early daffodils blooming in other gardens but mine are way behind. Some of the distinctly striped species tulip foliage is showing--not much. I planted a dozen or more bulbs last fall and not nearly that number has emerged. Disappointing.

The pagoda dogwood leaf buds are swelling and the lilacs are just forming flower buds. Spring is always cautious in the north. In May the earth will explode, making up for time lost.

This is Hocus Pocus, the perfect friend to share a comfy chair or a pillow with while reading a good mystery.

Hocus and I recently spent a day reading The Crossing Places, a first novel by Elly Griffiths. Since my garden updates are so pitifully brief, we decided to include a book review. (Really, it was my decision, Hocus had no opinion either way. Another reason to love cats, they never argue:) My review follows.

Round the eastern coast of Norfolk, the North Sea creeps upon the land and leaves behind a desolate place known as the salt marsh; a landscape of oozing mud and deep pools hidden beneath rampant grass and reeds. Thousands of years ago, this hostile place may have held religious significance for primitive peoples. Upon it they built a wooden henge and set markers to navigate the quicksand beds.

Today, this lonely site is shunned by most, but Dr Ruth Galloway chooses to live here near where she first excavated the site of the ancient henge. Dr Galloway, archaeologist, anthropologist, and professor at Northern Norfolk University, views the salt marsh with a strange combination of fear and awe, love and loathing. Although the road to her cottage, one of only three houses on the marsh, is frequently flooded and impassible, she is determined to ignore these inconveniences and remain living with the history of the long ago people who dwelt here.

Her anthropology expertise makes her the logical person to consult when the shifting bog gives up the body of a child. Could this child be Lucy Downey, taken from her home ten years ago with never a trace or clue to her fate? The missing child has haunted Detective Chief Inspector Harry Nelson these long years. After the child went missing, the kidnapper taunted him with letters giving cryptic clues to Lucy’s final resting place. A brief examination by Dr Galloway results in the discovery of an Iron Age torc around the child’s neck and she determines this is not Lucy but rather an amazingly well
preserved corpse that dates to perhaps 600 BC.

Another crushing disappointment for DCI Nelson, but a career building discovery for Galloway. Still, the Inspector senses an ally in Ruth. Her ready knowledge of folklore and ancient myths may aid him in discovering clues in the letters written by the kidnapper (if they were indeed written by him and not some publicity seeker trying to gain attention from a high profile case). Thus, Ruth is drawn into the search for the long missing Lucy and her abductor.

Author Elly Griffiths creates a vivid picture of this desolate bog, a place of neither sea nor land that holds many secretes and must be coxed into revealing them. The British have a knack for writing dark and brooding atmosphere. I have a feeling that we Americans would look upon this place as a mostly sunny wetland full of wonderful birds and colorful plants, but that would not add to the sinister tone of the story. Instead, Griffiths paints us a landscape, lonely and unfriendly, dark and wet and always willing to
accept the sacrifices of man and hold them forever.

Ruth Galloway is an unusual main character. Neurotic, aging and overweight, struggling with a lot of anger and self worth issues, she isn’t at first a very likable heroine. We glimpse her thoughts and see mostly self absorption and repressed hostility. It was not Ruth’s character, but rather the romance of ancient legends that pulled me deeply into the story. DCI Nelson is a more compelling character. He is both intense and focused and the reader can’t help but sympathize with his frustration over his failure to resolve the
Lucy Downey case.

Familiar as we are here in America with police procedurals (we are bombarded by forensic shows such as CSI, NCIS and Law and Order) we may also wonder why the Norfolk police didn’t call in experts in the fields of mythology and religion to analyze the letters at the beginning of the abduction case rather than ten years later. All I can say is that most novels have these irritating flaws but if the author has already hooked her readers, minor problems can be overlooked.

For years I have been an avid reader of the novels of Beverly Connor and Kathy Reichs, both anthropologists. Elly Griffiths’ first novel The Crossing Place is different even though the theme is similar. Slower paced and featuring not the self assured professional women created by the first two authors, but rather a competent academic who is more comfortable with cats than police inspectors and who, every morning must deal with her own self image before she can face the challenges of the day.

This book lost points with me for the following reasons:
Animal cruelty. I know it’s just a book, but the cruelty was senseless.
Too much angst and self-absorption.
The ending was just too well tied up. All the puzzle pieces fell in place much too quickly and too perfectly.
I knew who the evil doer was from the beginning (but there were a few surprises in the red herrings Griffiths threw at us).

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

It was one of those March days

when the sun shines hot and the wind blows cold: when it is summer in the light, and winter in the shade.
~ Charles Dickens

Except for one little weather hiccup on the first day of spring, which brought a couple inches of snow, things are looking good here in northern Illinois. The snow was completely melted by the following day and the brutally cold wind of Saturday night had calmed to a pleasant breeze. On my way to Core Mariae to visit with my Dad, I saw my first big drift of daffodils covering a south facing bank along Spring Creek Road.

I took my camera with me Friday and got a few photos as I moved from place to place during the day.

A lovely sunrise greeted me as I drove down my little lane on the way to work. The ground fog sweeps along the low lying troughs like a frothy river.

This is the Kishwaukee River very near to where I work. Clouds building all day brought snow late that evening.

The Kishwaukee River views were taken using a new (new to me) type of photo editing called tone mapping. Both images are pseudo HDR from a single photo image.

Photographs have a limited dynamic range which is inadequate to reproduce the full range of light intensities present in nature and visible to the human eye. Tone mapping is one step in the HDR (high dynamic range) editing process. Tone mapped images have more luminescence and more of a three dimensional look. I know I'm not explaining this well but it's only because I don't understand it myself:) I'd like to thank Jennie at Views From My Camera for her advice on HDR photography. Thanks Jennie, this is fun!

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Erin Go Braugh

St Patrick's Day parade. Photo courtesy of Rockford Register Star

Wishing you all a happy and green St Patrick's day.

My mother's maiden name was Brennan. Her great-great grandfather immigrated to the US from county Galway in the 1800's to work on the railroads. The Brennan clan has a colorful history reaching far back into Ireland's past. Songs are still sung about one famous (or infamous) Brennan in the late 1700's. A harsh time when England invoked cruel laws on the country and Ireland relinquished its parliament.

This is the legend of William Brennan, Ireland's Robin Hood. Willie was the son of a tenant farmer on the banks of the Blackwater who witnessed his family's eviction from their home. His mother was forced from her sick bed and soon after died. Brennan resolved to protect the poor from such tyranny and revenge his family for the terrible injustice (or so the legend goes).

He gathered around him other men with similar tragic stories and took to the hills to begin robbing the rich and helping the peasantry. He was much beloved by the locals because of his aversion to killing and his generous character.

Tis of a famous highwayman
A story I will tell;
His name was Willie Brennan,
And in Ireland he did dwell;
And on the Kilworth mountains
He commenced his wild career,
Where many a wealthy gentleman
Before him shook with fear.

Brennan on the Moor,
Brennan on the Moor.

Bold, brave and undaunted

Was young Brennan on the Moor.

A brace of loaded pistols
He carried night and day;
He never robbed a poor man
Upon the king's highway;
But what he'd taken from the rich,
Like Turpin and Black Bess,
He always did divide it
With the widows in distress.

One day upon the highway,
As Willie he went down,
He met the Mayor of Cashel
A mile outside the town:
The Mayor he knew his features;
"I think, young man," said he,
"Your name is Willie Brennan; You must come along with me."

Now Brennan's wife had gone to town,
Provisions for to buy,
And when she saw her Willie,
She began to weep and cry;
He says, "Give me that tenpenny";
As soon as Willie spoke,
She handed him a blunderbuss
From underneath her cloak.

Then with his loaded blunderbuss,
The truth I will enfold,
He made the Mayor to tremble,
And robbed him of his gold;
One hundred pounds was offered For his apprehension there,
So he with horse and saddle
To the mountains did repair

Then Brennan being an outlaw
Upon the mountains high,
With cavalry and infantry
To take him they did try;
He laughed at them with scorn,
Until at length, 'tis said,
By a false-hearted young man
He basely was betrayed.

We are finally snow free. Temperatures in the 50's, even reaching into the 60's on a few afternoons, have melted all but the monster piles of filthy snow in parking lots. Maybe the luck of the Irish will bring an early spring and keep those late season snow storms away. Wherever you are, hope it's sunny and warm and things are starting to green up in your gardens.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

"Mom always loved you best."

Do any of you remember that famous line Tommy Smothers used when he got into an on stage argument with his little brother Dick. This time of year I feel that way. Not about my mom or my brother and sister, but about Mother Nature and the gardeners in warmer climate zones. In the mornings, visiting my friend's blogs, I see photos of blooming crocus, daffodils, Lenten roses and sometimes annuals or even flowering trees. Looking out my own window I see snow and mud under a weeping sky the color of pewter.

In the northern states the daytime temperatures are getting into the 40's . The soil which is saturated from the melting snow turns to a quicksand like mire. Rural roads are closed to heavy vehicles because the underlying ground cannot support the weight and the pavement will crumble. When I kept horses here, I would walk behind the barns to fill the hay racks and my boots would be literally sucked from my feet. What a horrible sensation to stumble out of your boot and end up stocking footed in frigid mud two feet deep.

The deep snow is slowly melting from the garden beds.

Have I convinced you all that Mother Nature really does love warm climates best? After battling months of deep snow, treacherous ice, and brutal cold, it is this transition period that is hardest on us northern gardeners. The next month will seem like an eternity. We look with envy at the beautiful photos from southern gardens, we look outside at our own gardens and we think this doesn't seem fair.

The wild flower bed beneath the lilacs.

Yesterday, I walked down the drive looking at my garden. A lot of snow has melted in the last week so about half the garden is now visible. I would have liked to cut down some sedum stalks but didn't dare step off the pavement for fear of churning up mud and compacting the soil. Another month or more before I can start cutting back rose canes, removing dead foliage and thinking about moving plants. A minimum of two months before we dare to put out tender annuals.

Strawberries hidden under an insulating blanket of snow look pretty much the same as they did in November.

I'm hoping Mother Nature will relent a little this year and give us an early spring. It doesn't happen often but occasionally we will get unseasonably warm temperatures in April. Even in years when April seems almost perfect, we must be very careful. Nature has a way of playing cruel tricks in the north. A seventy degree week in late April spurs gardeners to rush their favorite annuals into the gardens. Then in May we get just one or two nights when the temperatures dip into the 20's and annuals and even the flower buds on shrubs are killed.

So back to the Smothers Brothers, I thought they were hilarious back in the 70's. I don't see them often anymore but still get a kick out of their off center humor. It helps to have a sense of humor if you are a northern gardener. If you can't laugh along with Mother Nature, she will surely drive you insane:)

I apologize for the snafu that caused this blog to show up on the blog rolls way ahead of the posting. Operator error:)

Everybody have a great week!

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Khlem Arboretum

I want to thank everyone of my friends who kindly wished my father a speedy recovery. Altho we still don't know the cause of his illness, he seems to be doing better. He is spending a few weeks in a therapy center getting his strength back. We hope he will go home soon.

The last of my stash of photos from the Council of Rockford Gardeners garden walk June 17, 2009. Khlem Arboretum my last stop on the tour that day.

If the name Khlem sounds familiar, you are probably familiar with the family that has maintained a presence in the nursery business in Illinois for over half a century. A little history about the arboretum. Landscape architect William Lincoln Taylor established this 155-acre site in 1910. My Taylor used the land to introduce and study rare trees he wanted to use in his landscape business.

In 1968 the Khlem family bought the land and maintained the plantings, then in 1990 they decided to donate the land to the Winnebago County Forest Preserve District with the stipulation it be used as a forest preserve. A team of arborists inventoried the site and determined that it contained an assortment of rare plant life unlike anywhere else in the US.

A singularly unattractive education center was built and a maze of roads, parking lots and paved paths now overwhelm the once natural landscape. In spite of the 'improvements' the arboretum still has much of it's original charm.

I was really taken with this birch birdhouse. I may try to copy it for my home garden.

When I think of Khlem's, I think of peonies. The family has hybridized some lovely varieties. The arboretum features a large formal peony garden.

The water features are my favorite. This is truly a lovely place to sit and soak up the restful atmosphere.

These shallow bogs contain some lovely plants. They are also a favorite bathing and drinking spot for birds.

Water rushes over the rocks and falls into the lily pond.

A bridge crosses the creek and enters the wooded area.