Preserving Summer Herbs

by Erin Fossett

September is a month of changes. When our lives were bound more closely to the land, it was a time of hope, and celebration of the harvest. It was also a busy season, as farmers worked feverishly to bring in their crops before the first freeze. There was a feeling of abundance, but also of transition, of letting go.  We still feel it, watching the change of the seasons. The days continue to shorten, leaves change colors, and even in the glory of Indian summer the nights take on a chill. In our own gardens, the plants that we nurtured so carefully for months are now going to seed, losing their summertime glory. Soon it will be time to clip away the old growth and turn the soil over, preparing the ground for winter.

One way to celebrate the energy of September is to preserve the flavors and scents of summer through herbal teas, vinegars, flavored oils, and honeys. Whether you have a full garden, a kitchen window box, or buy your herbs dried and in bulk, these creations are fun and relatively simple to make, and offer another way to share seasonal bounty with your friends. (For buying dried herbs in bulk, as well as herbal making supplies, visit Mountain Rose Herbals.)


Herbal Iced Tea Cubes. In September, I try to make daily batches of strong herbal tea, using the last of my chamomile, lemon balm, peppermint, and catnip. I let the tea steep for up to eight hours, and then pour into ice cube trays and freeze. The finished ice cubes will store in freezer bags for up to three months, and can be added to smoothies, or melted and diluted with hot water for a refreshing cup of herbal tea.

Ice cube trays are also handy for freezing big batches of fresh tomato sauce or pesto, using the last basil from your garden. Let the sauce cool thoroughly before freezing, and store the frozen cubes in freezer bags for up three months, thawing as needed.


Herb Infused Vinegars. Herbal vinegars make a flavorful addition to salad dressings and dips, as well as a nourishing daily tonic to help strengthen the blood or tone the digestive system. Good herbs to use in your vinegars include garlic, basil, oregano, thyme, tarragon, and sage. Experiment with combinations. Pairings of dill and peppermint, or fennel and ginger, are wonderful for upset stomachs.

Place about a cup of finely chopped fresh herbs (or ¼ cup of dried herbs) into clean pint-sized glass canning jars. Cover the herbs with organic apple cider vinegar, leaving about an inch of room at the top of the jar. (Avoid white vinegar, which is bleached with harsh chemicals.) Cover the jar tightly, label with the ingredients and date, and then store the mixture in a dark place at room temperature, shaking vigorously every few days.

After about four to six weeks, strain out the vinegar by pouring it through a colander lined with a doubled piece of cheesecloth or an old sheet. Be sure to squeeze out all of the infused liquid from the plant material before composting. Store the mixture in glass jars or tincture bottles, carefully marked with the ingredients and date. The finished vinegar will keep for a year.

Herbal Oils. You can also use herbs to make flavored olive oils, for both internal and external uses. In this case, place 1/3 cup of already dried plant materials in a clean, dry glass jar. (Make certain the jar is completely dry, as any moisture can ruin the oil.) Cover the herbs with high quality, organic olive oil, leaving an inch or two of room at the top of the jar. Cover this mixture with a cloth for the first few days, before you seal the lid, as the plants will continue to expel gasses as they absorb the oil. Also be sure to check the mixture after a few hours to see if more oil is needed to cover the herbs.

Let the oil sit in a sunny window for 10 to 14 days, shaking daily, before straining the plant material out. Store the finished oil in a dark place, and use within a year. You might want to try garlic, oregano, or basil for use in cooking or dressings. I also like to make a mixture of calendula blossoms, lavender, and plantain for a wonderful skin conditioner.

NOTE: An easy way to dry herbs is to scatter them across an old window screen outside or in a sunny window, or hang bunches upside down until the blossoms dry and can be extracted.

Herb Infused Honey. Herbal honeys provide a wonderful addition to hot teas during the winter cold season. To make these, melt a quart of locally grown (if available) wildflower honey over low heat until it is just warmed through. (Don’t let it boil.) Add ½ cup of finely chopped fresh herbs, such as lavender, ginger, lemon balm, or chamomile. (Use only ¼ cup if the herbs are dried.) Leave the mixture on low heat for 15 to 20 minutes, stirring occasionally, and then pour the honey (without straining) into heat-resistant glass canning jars. Secure the lids and label with the ingredients and date. The herbs will continue to infuse the honey as it sits. You can then either strain out the honey as you use it, or drink the tea with the herbs still in it. The honey will keep for 18 months.

Erin Fossett is a freelance fiction writer and editor living in Colorado. Her fiction has been awarded by the Colorado Council on the Arts. She provides writing coaching and editing services through wild Word Writing and can be reached at wildwordmedia AT msn DOT com.

All photos taken by Erin Fossett.

First published August 29, 2010

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Leaf Prints

Last week while downtown in Seattle, I found these glorious leaf prints on the sidewalk, and they seem to be the perfect illustration of what happens when nature meets the city (in this case concrete sidewalks).

Of course, I went looking for information about what causes leaf prints. The main theory seems to be that they are created by tannins in the leaves, the same tannins that dye the water brown when you make tea or that make your mouth pucker when you drink relatively young red wine. These tannins don’t leach out of leaves when they are green, but only when they are decaying in autumn.

The word tannin comes from the word for oak tree (Tannenbaum in German) and is related to tanning, as it was used to tan leather. Tannins that leach into water from decaying vegetation can create brown and even black colored rivers.  This photo I found at Wikipedia, which was taken by Doronenko, shows the confluence of the Morava, a blackwater river, with the Danube (the light color in the top left).

In my neighborhood, most of the leaf prints have disappeared, washed into the gutters by the rain, or perhaps my neighbors swept them away before they could set. I don’t know the optimal time frame for creating a leaf print. I think it’s time for some experiments. Maple leaves seem to be the best for making prints on the sidewalk, though I’ve also seen oak leaf prints at this link.

Another website solicited names for these, besides leaf prints, and got some creative versions including leaf stains, ghost leaves, tannin shadows, leaftovers and foliagraphs.

The web is full of craft projects to do with children to create leaf prints. Most use the simple technique you probably learned as a child, painting the leaves with tempera paints and pressing them on paper. Or putting a paper over a leaf and crayoning on top of it. The craft project I found most interesting was this one which suggets using a hammer to mash the actual color of the leaves and flowers into a page of paper.

Many years ago, I was given a beautiful book called Leaves: In Myth, Magic and Medicine, by Alice Thomas Vitale which elevates leaf prints to an art form. She simply used black ink and a brayer to create this elegant studies of various leaves but the results are amazing in their detail and vitality. The text is as lovely and respectful of the plants as are the leaf prints.


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Counting Leaves

Another great essay from Bill Felker’s lovely essays about his seasonal observations in Yellow Springs, Ohio, taken from Poor Will’s Almanack. This is from November, 2005:

Thus times do shift; each thing his turn does hold;
New things succeed as former things grow old.
Robert Herrick

On the night of November 11th-12th a year ago, the temperature in my yard dropped to the middles 20s. At 8:30 in the morning, I looked out the back door as the sun was coming up over the houses on High Street: I saw the green leaves of the white mulberry tree starting to fall.

I was excited because I had never witnessed the total collapse of the mulberry. My notebooks have kept sporadic track of that particular tree’s history. It lost its foliage on the 3rd in 1991, on the 4th inn 1988, on the 6th in 1982, on the 8th in 1990, on the 11th in 1984 and 1986, on the 12th in 1983 and 1992, on the 17th in 1989, on the 23rd in 1994. But I had never actually seen the leaves come down all at once.

So now I watched in awe; the branches hemorrhaged, leaves clattering down in sheets for almost an hour. At 9:30 the tree was empty, and the ground was covered.

Trying to understand what I’d witnessed, I went out and counted the number of leaves in a square foot beneath the tree: 65 leaves large and small filled the space. I measured the area that held most of the newly fallen leaves: 55 by 40 square feet. I multiplied, came up with 2,200 square feet, multiplied that times 65 leaves per square foot. I had seen something in the neighborhood of 143,000 leaves come down, gave or take maybe 50,000. Divided by 50 minutes, that would be about 3,000 leaves a minute.

Driving through the country later in the afternoon, I saw the remnants of other white mulberries. It seems they had all come apart at the same time. And the next morning when I arrived at work, I found that the ginkgo near my window had shed all its leaves overnight. I went outside and counted again. There were about 100 ginkgo leaves in a square foot, all lying in an area about 35 feet by 35 feet: my math produced 122,000 leaves.

Now concerning to the value of such imprecise and frivolous calculations, I’m not sure what to say. The numbers are one way of trying to gauge the enormity of the end of summer. Counting, like keeping records, is an attempt to touch the elusive movements of time. Tallying the leaves, I pretend to experience and salvage more of their passage.

Bill Felker who writes and records the signs of the season in Yellow Springs, Ohio. You can order his 2011 Poor Will’s Almanack  here.

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First Rains in Los Angeles

Photo by Jim Bradley

by Kelly Fine

Plants have been waiting all summer for what we Angelenos call the “winter rains.” I’m not sure why we refer to rain in the plural, but this does clarify the fact that we’re referring to these showers as events. Every shower in Los Angeles is an event worth celebrating. A typical summer brings no rain, and even during the so-called rainy season, rain is rare. The wild shrubs and perennials have their ways of surviving the summer drought, but they need the rain to resume growing. Every fall we start fretting about whether this season will bring enough rain.

This year the first winter rains came early. A light rain snuck in overnight on September 8. The thirsty earth drank it down, but there was no mistaking its fragrance. A home weather station in my neighborhood reported that .04 inches had fallen that night, breaking the summer stretch of 112 dry days. It was so early for winter rain that at first I considered it a rare summer shower. But on more than one morning after that, I found moist spots on the driveway and beads of water on the car, the fence, the roses. It wasn’t enough rain for the weather station to catch, and maybe it was just dew. But that too would have been a sign of fall: our dry summer air rarely hits the dewpoint.

In the last week of September, we were visited by a wave of humid heat unlike any weather I’ve seen in my four years here. It felt like July in Georgia. On the afternoon of September 29, the second day of the humid spell, the sky clouded up, and over the course of an hour I heard a good deal of thunder — rumbling, rambling, ambling thunder, thunder in no hurry to make its point. The sky flashed a few times, but I couldn’t see any lightning bolts. Finally some fat drops of rain fell to the ground, but after a minute they stopped coming. Despite the humidity, the water evaporated so quickly from my porch that I watched it vanish.

On October 1, thunder woke me. I lay in bed listening. The thunder was loud but dull, as if it was buried in the clouds. Once or twice it seemed to crack their surface. Soon I noticed another sound, and I left my bed to confirm it: yes, it was pouring. An hour later the clouds cleared, but a fair amount of rain had fallen: .28 inches. I’m sure I wasn’t the only person who felt a strange pride that day, as if I’d had some part in calling down the first substantial rain.

In the next few days, the strange weather brought a few more minute-long showers. Each one was followed by mist and hot sun that heated the mist until it felt like steam. The subtropical air moved on, but just after it left, we were blessed with more rainfall. On October 4, we had our first day of typical fall rain: not a dramatic storm, just plain rain falling from layer clouds that shrouded the earth all day. In fact the clouds stayed for three days, and the rain came and went. As of October 6, my neighborhood had received 1.34 inches of rain this fall, plenty for this early date.

Let me show you my rainy yard. It’s not easy to write on wet paper, so I’m watching the world from my porch, which is covered by an awning. The day looks as grey and wet as it would if this rain were falling in January. The air smells the way it does in winter rain: like the rosemary bush near my porch, like smoke from somebody’s fireplace. But by midwinter, rain willing, my yard will be lush with long grasses and leafy green weeds. Now its ground is bare, covered by little more than a few tatters of long-dead grass. I don’t water the lawn, and grass can’t survive L.A.’s dry summer unless it’s watered.

Photo by Kelly Fine

The rain eases off, and I go out to look more closely at my yard. The big bougainvillea against my fence has thrived through the dry summer, offering swallowtails and fritillaries its flowers every month. When any of its seeds ripen, the bracts surrounding them – those magenta petal-like structures that draw your attention more than its actual flowers – detach with the seeds and go tumbling off across the yard. In time they lose their color and stiffen until they resemble thin veined paper.

Here are some old bracts that the fence stopped from tumbling on. Most of them have faded to the color of dead grass, and now they’re soaked. I squat down to look at one. It’s translucent in the rain, and I can look right through it to a filigree of impossibly tiny droplets that cling to its underside. Each droplet is rimmed with gold, the rain’s interpretation of the bract’s tan shade. Layered over this filigree is a fluid silver gloss: here the bract’s upper surface reflects the grey sky.

Photo by Kelly Fine

It would make an exquisitely detailed pendant. But only this rain glossed it, only this rain evaporated and recondensed on its underside, and only these clouds gleam forth from it. Its iridescent lights will fade as the rain dries. If this land is lucky, though, if this winter brings all the rain it needs, enough to slake every plant’s thirst, enough to replenish all the streams, I might get the chance to glimpse more of these jewels. Maybe this bare ground will even sprout a new bougainvillea.

Kelly Fine writes from the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains near Los Angeles.

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Spiders of the Season

I’ve seen many spiderwebs in the last few weeks. At first, I thought I was just noticing them more, perhaps because of a trick of the autumn light. But when I went to my garden, there were webs all over my bay tree.  One spider had a striped grub all wrapped up in the middle of the web. I tried to trim the tree without disturbing the spider’s web but I accidentally tore one of the threads and watched the spider scuttle to safety on the topmost twig of the tree. I think it was an orb weaver: a big, round golden spider. It looked very healthy.

A little bit of web research (none of it definitive) suggests that many spiders only live for a year. The orb weavers I am seeing are probably females who are waiting for males to find them so they can mate and lay eggs. The males will die shortly after mating while the females will survive until the first frost. Other spiders, like hobo spiders, hibernate in the winter.

It took me a while to recognize that I had just posted a message to subscribers to my weekly Calendar Companion suggesting they look for an animal ally. So I wondered if I was noticing the spiders because they had a message for me. In Medicine Cards, Jamie Sams and David Carson say that Spider’s message is to create, create, create. That makes sense as I’m currently working on revising a novel, revising one flower essay and creating another one. So I’m definitely in the throes of creative chaos.

Sams and Carson also say the appearance of a spider might remind you to look at what you’ve caught in your web. That makes sense to me as I just learned I was awarded an Artist Trust grant to write the final essay for my book of essays on flowers. It’s the first time I’ve ever received a grant after many applications and I’m delighted.

The great photo of a rain-dotted web was taken by Shaw Fitzgerald in October 2013.

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Descent: A Holy Longing

By Ruby Sara

The radiators in our building came on two days ago. Their ominous and persistent tapping and clanging will now be our constant companion ’til spring. I admit to feeling a small thrill, the official beginning of fall and everything, but mostly I’m plain chock full of dread. Ever spent a winter in Chicago, doveys?  If yes, then you know of what I speak. But it is still only September, if only for a few days more, and then the heart-aching savage splendor of October and the bone-mother breathing in of November to go before my heart will declare it Winter-For-Sure, so I count my blessings in gingko leaves bright as butter and the breathy purple weight of the common reed in bloom. This year I noticed where I hadn’t before the profusion of sawtooth sunflowers in every opportune thicket behind parking lots and roadways – every year I seem to notice some new plant. Some plant-folks believe that an abundance of a plant in one season means that it will be needed medicinally in the following season – that the Mama sends us medicine in anticipation of our need. While I don’t know if sawtooth sunflowers have any physiologically medicinal purpose, I think their mirroring of sunlight could be a clue for me to begin stocking up on vitamin D, as the days grow shorter and Mother Night shows her wicked teeth. For it is indeed, in the teeth of its soul-rocking beauty, the season of descent.

The exquisite weather and impending holy days breed many ponderings, and much writing – honeybees, madness, liturgy, candles, poetry and bread. And of course, speaking of bread – much baking. Rosemary loaves and basil rolls and apple gingerbread. Harvest Home!  We have been full up in celebrating it this year it seems – from large rituals to smaller gatherings to potluck feasts, this fall has been duly marked in the book of my body, and I have no complaints. Already I have begun to eyeball pumpkins. Pie made with honey and freshly baked pumpkin, y’all…I see no reason to stop celebrating.

On one recent gathering to mark the equinox proper, a handful of friends and I convened on a small fire ring near Mother Lake, surrounded by tall trees, and the wind that night moved outrageously among us – snatching up our small voices and throwing them out among the sand and beach grass. It is hard to pin down a concrete thought when the wind blows as it does in September, I admit. The oceanic boom and hiss of trees in the wind is like an electric signal in the skin, and I can’t help but be moved – my heart in my chest, my arms in the air. A human animal, small and grinning.

I have always had a love affair with the wind. Weather in general has been my love for as long as I can remember, and the wilder the better, but most specifically the wind. As a child I would wander within the confines of our scrubby Colorado yard examining snowflakes or looking for spirits in the lilacs and the bearded irises, and always no matter the time of year the wind was present, and we decided early on that we would be friends. So it is that this marvelous season is made more marvelous by the thrill of wind – great gusts rising in the leaves and over the lake. Kindling in my heart the unknowable longing.

The Holy Longing

Tell a wise person, or else keep silent,
because the mass man will mock it right away.
I praise what is truly alive,
what longs to be burned to death.

In the calm water of the love-nights,
where you were begotten, where you have begotten,
a strange feeling comes over you,
when you see the silent candle burning.

Now you are no longer caught in the obsession with darkness,
and a desire for higher love-making sweeps you upward.

Distance does not make you falter.
Now, arriving in magic, flying,
and finally, insane for the light,
you are the butterfly and you are gone.
And so long as you haven’t experienced this: to die and so to grow,
you are only a troubled guest on the dark earth.

Johann W. Von Goethe

I am indeed often a troubled guest on the dark earth. That familiar ache for…something. When I was in my early twenties I stumbled across a Jean Houston book in a used bookstore called The Search for the Beloved, and the title alone rocked me to my core – a linguistic clue to the longing (the book didn’t bear out the promise of the title for me, but I kept it on my shelf for years anyway as a reminder). As my personal theologies moved and shifted, I identified it with a yearning for magic, for God, personal wholeness, the southwest, Beauty, the road, for living in harmony with the earth, for illumination. It is all of these things really – I am too much of a hot mess to narrow my focus to one tinderbox. The holy longing is often interpreted as a yearning for “God,” a singular, aterrestrial and transcendent deity that is found outside the body, above the earth, outside or beyond material existence and necessitating a severe asceticism – some could even interpret Goethe’s poem that way I suppose. But I would propose that Goethe instead suggests that until one digs down very deep, into life – a life that burns with desire and passion and being – into the rich, material darkness at the heart of the earth, where true light is born (to meet Her, Night Queen and Solace to the Dead, to “die before you die,” a common trope of mysticism)… that it is only then that it becomes possible to move – that it is within the earth that seeds break open with death and life cracking simultaneously in the dark, vaulting upward, and that until the very meat and bone of earth is grokked, we are only guests, not Family. And I want to be Family with the earth, my god – my Beloved.

So I have made no plans for escaping this mortal coil – to truly grok body and earth is a life’s full set of mysticisms and I am happy to pursue them (and fail at them more often than not), pulled along by some lake-fire/night-wind/unnameable weight in my chest. The fall light lifts my heart and turns it to smoke, readying my body for Samhain’s hard lessons…each year we grow white-hot and are plunged again into water, tempered by the Mama’s seasons, and polished to precision. To be blades for digging. To find a hand at our ankle and pulling us under. To meet our Beloved below the earth. To become Queens of the Midnight Sun.

Grok the coming of that Mother Night, beloveds. Samhain comes, singing the song of descent. Pray wind and fire, pray mercy and strength – pray forever, without ceasing.

Poet, performance artist and liturgist, Ruby Sara is a regular columnist for Witches and Pagans magazine, a member of the performance collective Terra Mysterium, and the author of the blog Pagan Godspell. She lives in the fiercely wild urban Midwest with her intrepid spouse and their demon-monkey-cat, Pinky.

All the photographs were taken by the marvelous Cate Kerr of Beyond the Fields We Know.

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Mid September, Los Angeles

Photo of adult alligator lizard by Helen Wong

by Kelly Fine

Yesterday I opened my bedroom door to find two baby alligator lizards (Elgaria multicarinata webbii) sitting a few feet apart in the hall. I eyeballed their length. They were a little too long for the cup and piece of stiff paper I use to carry spiders outside, but they were both sitting with their tails looped forward. I fetched the cup and easily scooped up the first lizard. Its only prominent marking was a tan stripe running down its spine. I carried it outside and let it go under the passionfruit vine where I most often see alligator lizards. (The passionfruits are ripe, but last spring the vine climbed a tree, so I can’t reach many of them. I’m leaving them for the birds and squirrels. They aren’t particularly tasty anyway.) When I returned to the hall, the second lizard was gone. I searched my house for twenty minutes, then gave up.

Lizards enter my house two or three times a year, always between May and September. Only a few are alligator lizards; most are fence lizards (Sceloporus occidentalis longipes). I rent a ramshackle house, and they slip through the gap under the front door. I suppose they come seeking shade or coolness or both. The lizards that hatch every August are particularly fond of entering my house during their first weeks of life. I’m not sure why they come more often than adults do, but from what I’ve seen, both young fence lizards and young alligator lizards are more curious than cautious. Last weekend a baby fence lizard watched me come and go as I filled pitchers of water for my bird bath. It sat on an open sunny stump a foot from the faucet, almost in my path. I finally reached out to pet the lizard just to test its tolerance, but I hesitated a little and it scooted a few inches away, then settled in to continue watching me. Do lizards develop suspicion as they grow or do only the cautious ones survive to adulthood?

I live in Altadena, a suburb of Los Angeles pressed up against the nearly vertical San Gabriel Mountains. Summer in this town is a season of drought. For several months, no rain whatsoever falls here. In the natural areas, most annuals die over the summer, and many shrubs and perennials go dormant. (Most of the wild lands within walking distance of my house are covered with shrubs, not trees.) Leaves dry up and lose their color as they might in autumn elsewhere. More plants fade with every passing month until December or so, when the first substantial rains yield new growth.

The Angeles National Forest is a few blocks from my house. When I go there in September, I find many plants withered. But some of the plants that have lost their leaves and others that have continued to flourish are quietly fruiting.

Most clusters of laurel sumac berries (Malosma laurina) have been ripe for a few months. When the berries are big and green or newly burnt-brown they taste like pink peppercorns and stay cold on my tongue after I swallow. Some berries (technically drupes, stone fruits) are still green now, some are brown and ready, and some are shriveling to dots. The dried fruits taste mildly nutty and they squeak my mouth clean.

Ripening coffeeberries. Photo by Gabi McLean

Sumac and other large native bushes sink their roots deep into the water table and stay green all summer long. Coffeeberry (Rhamnus californica), a big green shrub, is full of berries now. Most of the berries are still green, but that’s because birds are checking the bush every day and eating the few coffee-dark berries. Over the course of five minutes, I watch five birds of three species land in a single coffeeberry bush. A band-tailed pigeon (Patagioenas fasciata) lands with a great thwump and searches the bush for the ripest fruits. It finds a particularly attractive berry and actually hangs upside-down to pick it. Leaves obscure the bird so I can’t see just how it’s holding on, but I can see its tail pointed skyward. It’s bigger than a city pigeon, and it looks ridiculous upside-down.

Most buckwheat flowers (Eriogonum fasciculatum) dried and turned red-brown in July. Their rust has warmed the mountains ever since. Some clusters of fresh white flowers are still scattered among them, but every month more flowers dry and more seeds mature. I notice more buckwheat rust now that so many surrounding plants have dulled to tans and grays.

Photo by Gabi McLean

Mountain mahogany bushes (Cercocarpus betuloides) are covered with thousands of feathers, each one ready to carry its attached seed away in the first warm Santa Ana wind. I call these odd attachments feathers because they’re long and haired and their spines are prominent, but in fact they don’t look much like feathers — their short fur fluffs out from flexible spines that curl now that the seeds are ready to go. It’s hard to believe that these flourishes serve a purpose.

The flower stalks of common phacelia (Phacelia distans) were tightly coiled last spring. Each one straightened gradually to display its flowers as they bloomed first near its base, then farther along its length. People call these and several similar plants “caterpillar phacelia” because their hairy stalks look like caterpillars. Now the caterpillars are stalks of bristly brown seeds, and they’ve unrolled completely. They appear to be balanced precariously on their butts or hindmost legs, trying to climb into the air.

I found the second lizard the next day. It was sitting on an open stretch of the living room floor. Its tail was stretched out behind it, so it looked too long for my cup. I fetched the long Tupperware container I’ve dedicated to moving lizards. My usual method is to set the container over the lizard, slide it forward as the lizard runs, and finally slide the lizard out the front door. This was the first youngster I’ve transported this way. Despite the afternoon heat it was less energetic than the adults I’ve moved – even after it was enclosed, it just wanted to sit still. But I prodded it out the door, and now my house is lizard-free. At least I think so.

Kelly Fine writes from the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains near Los Angeles.

The photos of native plants were taken by Gabi McLean and are reproduced with permission from Plants of the San Gabriel Mountains: Foothills and Canyons by Cliff and Gabi McLean. For more photos or to order this excellent CD, visit their web site.

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Mid-August, New York

The old Celtic and Gaelic calendars marked the beginning of autumn at August 1st, and here in farm country that makes a great deal of sense.  While spring has a feeling of galloping joy and summer a tone of happy waiting, now there is a small but noticeable tension.  It’s time to start thinking about the approaching winter – the countdown has begun.

The first cutting of hay is in and the second underway, tree fruits are in or waiting, fields and vegetable gardens are bursting with ripening crops.  Even if crops aren’t ready yet, a practiced eye can see what the yield will be, and there’s no more time for adjustments: we’ll get what we get, and any changes will have to be made next year.  Stores are full of canning supplies; man and beast alike are stashing away the bounty.

Looking down over the swamp (we prefer the term “wetlands”), where a month ago it was pink and blue with wild phlox, cornflowers and mallows, now it’s the deep rose of Joe Pye Weed and milkweed, with fluffy white Queen Anne’s Lace and touches of early goldenrod.

The flower beds have hit a lull, with only echinacea (thank goodness for all the new varieties!), Phlox “David” and “Bright Eyes” and a few lingering daylilies still in bloom.  Mums haven’t cracked color yet.  The summer annuals are still in bloom, but are starting to look a little tired – time to gather seeds for next year and make notes in the garden journal.

The birds aren’t as full of conversation as a month ago, now that the babies are fledged, but crickets, grasshoppers, humming bees and a few cicadas are heard during the day, and the full chorus of katydids at night.  Still a few frog voices, but not as many.  I haven’t seen any monarch caterpillars on the milkweed yet, but they should be along any day now.

The skies darken earlier, of course, and are more likely to be free of haze.  We’ll be watching for shooting stars around the 15th!

Karen Albeck is an amateur naturalist and natural journal-keeper who watches for Signs of the Season in central New York state.

Photos were provided by Karen Albeck.

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The Autumn of Life

by Edia Stanford-Bruce

The year I turned 40, I disappeared.

It had been coming on gradually, this “fading,” but I waved it away as the mere product of an over-active imagination or peri-menopausal anxiety. The atmosphere in several areas of my life was shot through with an unsettling chilliness and the earth seemed to be holding her breath; waiting for something.  Then, one night, frost hit. The next day, I was “middle aged.”

I began to notice magazine covers in bookstore racks. There were articles about how to be a sexy lover; how to be a beautiful bride; how to be a happy mom-to-be; how to be a good mom, how to pay for college and then, that was it. There was no sign life existed after 35.

I would pick through the mall attempting to dress a body that was betraying me, not shedding the creeping weight gain, shoving me toward the women’s sizes.  “My size” clothes were now located deep in the innards of stores hidden well away from the “career” misses and miles away from the uber-trendy petites on the highly visible outer aisles. Clothes after 35 were cheaply made, boring colored and fashion null. The personnel in my favorite stores began to ignore me and I sought solace in new boutiques especially for “my size”.

The changes growing older brought frightened me. Every year something that to my mind affirmed my identity as a woman, as a mother, as a productive member of society, dropped away. I shriveled inside like leaves denied the summer sun. At the point I thought that there was no more purpose for living and no more reason to expect anything but to blow away, I turned 50.

My gardens and all the earth became my professors. I began to listen and examine closely the lessons about living they were teaching. The first, most important lesson is that each season has its own specific work. Autumn is the season of harvests. The work of autumn is to gather in– whether for dinner, for preserving, or for next year’s seed. So, with same the purposeful energy that I harvested my peppers and tomatoes from the gardens I gathered in the produce my soul grew in the summertime of my life.

At 40 I was examining the early fruit harvest of my poison beds (habitual negative thought) — lack of self esteem and depression. However, by 50 I had learned that there were several more harvests to come before the killing frost that signals the beginning of winter. Now was the time of the fruit harvest of the more prosperous intellectual groves of beautifully ripe love for art, literature and spirituality. Not only that, the grain harvest of the second career 30’s and 40’s was standing in the field, ready for the scythe. That meant the half-century mark of my life was no time to mourn the passing of life’s summer. There was still work to do.

Most mind bending of all, I discovered an “interim” planting time—a time to sow the seed of a third career. Then I really began to appreciate the benefits of the season when the oppressive heat cools into twilight glow. The invisibility of the autumn woman came as a surprising blessing. The pressure was off to be pretty, perky and cute. People would carry home my words like prized cuttings because I was now someone who would be seriously listened to. Some of “Mami’s wisdom” gained from living would be preserved, not in Mason jars, but in scrapbooks and the memories of those who heard the stories.

This was not a time to categorize myself as “lost potential.” It was not a time to envy the energy, smooth skin, and toned muscles of youth. I began to notice more positive—even sexy– images of autumn women boldly looking out at me from magazine stands and more stylish clothing in stores as I turned 56 last month. However, there is still resistance to full acceptance and understanding of the seasons of adulthood after summer. I disappeared as a customer to the media and businesses that pandered to the youth market. Yet because of this, I entered a new season of freedom where I did not have to cater to images of how I should look or behave. There indeed was life—a new adventure– after 35. I embraced the crone and danced into the autumn life.

Edia Stanford-Bruce is a freelance writer and the Vice President for Public Relations, Booz-Allen Hamilton Toastmasters Club in Tyson’s Corner, VA. She earned the BA from Norfolk State University School of Journalism and also holds a M.Ed. in early childhood education from Rutgers University, specializing in literacy. Currently, she volunteers with Reston Interfaith as an administrative assistant supporting Stonegate Village Residents Services Office in Reston, VA. She and husband, retired pastor Rev. Dr. George Bruce, are happily empty-nesting in Reston’s Historic Lake Anne neighborhood. Her commentary about searching for work in the second half of life, “Victoree’s Blog: No White Flag”, is available on

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Books on Uncluttering

By Virginia Roberts

Most people engage in spring cleaning. I do. But I also believe in a full, plentiful and productive harvest—starting with my living quarters. Now, I am a packrat. I won’t go so far as to say I am a hoarder on the level of those folks found on reality television or in Homer and Langley, a novel by E.L. Doctrow based on the lives of two brothers who were found dead in New York early in the last century, essentially victims of their own mad collecting—but what my home contains is well, rather intense. (And the aforementioned are really good inspiration to clean out closets).

I am not ashamed to say my book and media collection is larger than the local library. This is what happens when a librarian marries a literature professor and they breed. When the shelves were outgrown in the formal living room, more were built elsewhere. Closets have been taken over. Books line stairs, and are stacked against walls (they make exceptional insulation). I justify my yarn and craft item stash by giving away most everything created from it. I cannot justify three generations of shoe and clothing collection. Except to say most was given to me.

That is how it often happens. I am a stuff magnet. People know I know how to give it away. And I do. It is almost a second job. I have many area charities and shelters programmed on my cell phone. Local schools, libraries, churches, and most of the adults and children I know have been recipients of windfalls of items that have no use at my work or in my life (with consent—I always ask). No one seems surprised by the amount of stuff.

But let’s be honest. What to do with all this stuff? Well, there is lots of stuff advice out there. Some good and some, well, completely useless.

First, some practical advice, don’t buy the “organize your stuff” books and vids, borrow them. I am not saying this because I am a librarian. I am saying this, because in the land of the chronically disorganized the organizational media rarely takes priority.

But, if you are looking for a justification for your mess, Eric Abrahamson and David Freedman, authors of A Perfect Mess:  The Hidden Benefits of Disorder—how crammed closets, cluttered offices, and on-the-fly-planning make the world a better place will make you feel better. They discuss the messy but organized strategies of millions. They also believe messy is the root of creativity as well as invention, and that oldie but goodie: a clean house (or desk) is the sign of someone with too much time on their hands. They do give great tips on how to optimize your messy (organizational) style, and how not to look a mess. So, even they recognize the psychological truth that it just isn’t socially acceptable to live in a fire hazard or have your life a walking designated disaster.

But<gasp>there are TONS of books on the shelves of the library! So now organization is overwhelming!  Well, for a traditional approach, I recommend Organizing from the Inside Out by Julia Morgenstern, which contains several different styles, levels of organization, and bullet points. It also has a very good what works and what doesn’t section at the end of each chapter. She recommends schedules for when to do things and using lists of supplies, either preprinted or in an designated area, to organize shopping so over-purchase—and therefore clutter does not occur. Now, to be fair, almost every one of these books offers a certain amount of this, but Morganstern is realistic about the amount of prep time and the actual time organization can take. She is less realistic about the skills and cost required to organize your space. Her latest book When Organizing Isn’t Enough—SHED your stuff, change your life explores the emotional connection with personal belongings at length, and how to separate the wheat from the chaff and easily chuck the stuff from life that might be a drag.  I like this book. I like it a lot. It offers personal stories. It gives excellent reasons and allows time for someone to get used to the idea that the stuff needs to move on. And then it offers encouragement to remove the stuff. Because removing the stuff does change you. A weight can be lifted.

There is an Idiots Guide for organizing and a Dummies book on the same topic. The Idiots Guide by Georgene Lockwood is a comprehensive guide that is sympathetic to the plight of being disorganized, and its various permeations. She examines organizational goals by areas of life rather than where you live. While there are clear rules of engagement, she also gives endless possibilities based on different styles so it’s not a lock on how organization has to take place. The For Dummies book by Eileen Roth is more like that famous organizer and housecleaner (and pitchman) Don Aslett in that it has less exploration of the emotional wheres and whyfors and more on the this is your space, this is your mind, and this is how it should be organized. This book does offer some neat tricks and gadgets (you can buy more stuff!) to organize the stuff. If operating with very clear boundaries is the goal, this is the book for you.

HGTV Mission Organization is for those folks who have no time to read a book but do have time to sit in front of a video. Host Gail O’Neill works with individuals and spaces. As reality television, this series strikes me more as inspiration rather than a how to, unless you want to purchase or make stuff to organize your stuff.

For the paper-challenged there is also a website that offers tips, tricks, and if you email her, personal encouragement. While there is an online shop, that is not her purpose. The first message you see on her site is the question: “Do you live in CHAOS (Can’t have Anyone Over Syndrome)?”  She literally has a “baby steps” tab that which begins with the suggestion you “shine your sink” daily because if you can clean that every day, other cleaning is sure to follow. She isn’t kidding. I cleaned under my sink (after shining it) for the first time in 10 years. The stuff that didn’t get thrown out, and did not go into immediate circulation landed at a local shelter. I don’t need 100 small containers of stuff or 15 tubes of lipstick—and before you get upset, they were less than a year old and unused, beyond that, I am not saying.

For more specialized or different models of organization that are not just for the specified audiences—Organizing the Disorganized Child by Martin L. Kutscher and Marcella Moran is a short, readable book for parents. It discusses different learning and organizational styles and encourages parental involvement. The authors stress life skills, visual organizers and planners, the importance of routine and the possibility that some other factors may be in play, like ADHD.  There is also Organizing Solutions for People with Attention Deficit Disorder by Susan C. Pinsky. It’s a great place to start, with its bold font and one tip per page. Pinsky lists the rules of organizing in the front of this thin completely useable volume and stresses  visual organization and routine—clear bins, stuff on shelves rather than cabinets (easy enough to do—remove the doors), papers kept in clear files and binders and placing things like mail and keys in the same place every day—so needed items are seen rather than stored.

Ultimately, you alone determine what to harvest, what to store and where to send your surplus. But as a nation, the bulk of us cannot travel with our houses on our backs anymore—or even in a house and storage unit—and wouldn’t know where to start if we tried. So it might be good to plan a little fall harvest, even if you don’t have a vegetable garden. Next month, books regarding a more traditional harvest.

Virginia Roberts is a library director, currently embroiled in an organizing frenzy, in a small, rural, northern great lakes village where she enjoys wind, water, and the abundance of the seasons.

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