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Author Archives: Karen Koch

Dr. B. Smart and the Invasive Vine

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green leaf trees

Photo by imagesthai.com on Pexels.com

“The wild grapevine is taking over the woods again,” Bernadette hears Papa say to Mama.  “I need to go pull it down before it gets too big and strangles out the trees.”

“Yes,” Mama replies, “I’d noticed that it was getting unruly the last time I was out there.  Why don’t you take Bernadette and Martha Washington with you? Martha can chase squirrels while Bernadette helps you pull.”

“Excellent idea,” Papa answers.

Bernadette bounds into the kitchen.  “Sir!” she cries. “I just received notice that you have need for a pair of fearless jungle explorers to help you eradicate a dangerously invasive vine from the rainforest!”

“Why, yes,” the wizened botanist replies.  “Do you know of any such explorers brave enough to come to my aid?”

“Allow me to introduce myself.  I am Dr. Bernadette Smart, Jungle Explorer Extraordinaire.  I have much experience with these terrible plants, and my companion Martha Washington will accompany us.  She is a skilled hunter and will protect us from the jungle beasts.”

“Dr. Smart, I am pleased to accept your offer,” the botanist says as he bows to her.  “Are you and your companion prepared to depart immediately?”

“Most certainly!” replies Dr. Smart.  She whistles to Martha Washington, who is at her side in a moment.  Once Dr. Smart explains the gravity of the task, Washington sets her face toward the rainforest ready to plunge into the challenge.

Clothed in long sleeves and long pants to protect their skin from foliage such as the dreaded poisonicus ivycus, and hats to ward off blood-sucking insects like tickus grossicus, Dr. Smart and the old botanist enter the jungle.  Even the edge of the forest holds danger, as large raspberricus thornicus bushes grab at their sleeves.  “We must be careful,” Dr. Smart advises.  “The jungle is not a friendly place to the unwise intruder.”

“Agreed,” says the old botanist.  “Shall I precede you down the path?”

“Perhaps Washington ought to go first, to be sure no beasts lie in wait,” Dr. Smart suggests.

“Ah, your wisdom exceeds your years, Dr. Smart.  Washington? Go on!”

Mighty hunter Martha Washington trots ahead of them, sniffing her surroundings.  Soon she leaves the path. “I do believe she has caught the scent of the fierce squirrelicus brownicus,” Dr. Smart surmises.  “She will run it off while we attend to the task before us.”

Dr. Bernadette Smart and the old botanist turn their attention to the treacherous vines just ahead of them.  “Ah, yes. Their encroachment on the surrounding foliage certainly could spell death for the forest,” she nods, squinting her hazel eyes at the vines and tucking her brown hair more securely into her cap.  The humidity has begun to frizz her hair and she is grateful the hat will keep it out of her way while she works.

The old botanist hands Dr. Smart a pair of gloves, and they set to work.  Sometimes they each take hold of separate vines, and sometimes they must pull together when the organism has wound itself tightly around its tree victim.  With great satisfaction, the two pull until the tendrils let go. The botanist cuts the vines with his strong-jawed clippers, making sure the ends of the vines will not re-root into the ground.  As they work, the devoted Washington checks frequently on their safety running off again to frighten away any number of jungle beasts.

Sweat trickles down Dr. Smart’s back.  The vines scratch at her cheeks, but still she pulls while the botanist yanks and cuts and piles.  The whine of enormous mosquitoes (mosquitocus giganticus) fills her ears.

“Dr. Smart, I do believe our task is complete,” the botanist finally declares.  “If you will help me drag the vines out so we can burn them, we can call it a day.”

The promise of the end in sight bolsters Dr. Smart’s energy.  She grabs hold of as many vines as she can, and, whistling again to Washington, begins the trek out of the jungle.  The rainforest becomes less dense, and sunlight peeks through leaves. Finally, she can see the clearing ahead, and she feels more spring in her step.

With the help of the old botanist, Dr. Smart piles the vines into a tower, which the man sets afire.  Washington throws herself on the grass, wiggling and scratching – whether from mosquito bites or the delight of the hunt, Dr. Smart cannot tell.  Washington has some strange ways.

The old botanist takes off his hat and wipes his brow with his forearm.  “I thank you heartily, Dr. Smart,” he says. “The task was less daunting with you and Washington at my side.”

“My pleasure,” replies Dr. Smart.  “The only thing that could make our accomplishment sweeter would be –”

“Bernadette! Danny!  Want some lemonade?” Mama’s voice sings from the back porch.

“Lemonade!” Bernadette grins.  She and Martha Washington race to the house, with Papa loping along behind.

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Entropy

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Life tends toward chaos, and nowhere is that more evident to me than life on a little farm.  Weeds take over the driveway.  Grapevines grow through the woods and try to choke out the trees.  Poison ivy climbs the fences.  Mulberry trees and black walnut trees sprout up everywhere.  Tree branches hang low.  And of course, the grass grows.

Summer is when I work to beat back entropy.

Last week I discovered that grape vines were not just in our woods (something we knew when we moved here), but actually growing on the corner of the house.  I pulled them off, cut back the walnut trees that had sprouted up amidst them, and tidied that area.

When I walked over to the neighbor’s house to let out her dog (she’s got a new job that requires her to be gone for long hours), I noticed that the side of our barn had weeds and grapevines, plus an overgrown maple tree that needed trimming.  So while Boomer (the neighbor’s dog) watched, I took care of all that.

Poison ivy is sprouting up on fences and trees and around Husband’s wood shop.  I took a bottle of Round Up to all that I found.

A few days ago, I noticed that our 80-year-old neighbor, as he mowed his back field, struggled a bit to mow around a mulberry tree whose branches were sagging all the way to the ground.  I called over and asked his wife if it would be okay for me to cut it back for him, and she said that would be just fine.  So I wiggled through the woods and over the fence with my nippers and cut down some sizable branches.

Then I made my way back into our woods where I knew the grapevines were going crazy.  I cut a bunch of them off and hauled out what I had energy for.  Vines are still hanging from the treetops, but they’ll die since they aren’t connected to the ground anymore.  Someday I’ll get back in there, yank them down, and pull them to the fire pit as well.  I wish I knew a way to kill the things.  They are so darn resilient.

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There’s a big pile of stuff to burn now, and as soon as it all dries out, I’ll light it up and take delight in watching it burn.  It brings a little order back to the place.

Until it all grows back.

Fairy Finder

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A Bernadette Smart Adventure

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They call her Beena the Fairy Finder.  She wears overalls and a straw hat, but keeps her feet bare.  “If a fairy sees giant shoes coming, she hides more than ever,” Beena said once in an interview.  “Fairies are terrified of shoes, for some reason. Maybe it’s because they don’t wear any.”

Today, Beena’s search takes her to a strawberry patch.  She is especially fond of Fruit Fairies – those who live amongst strawberry plants, blueberry bushes, and orchards.  When the fruit ripens, Beena has found, a careful hunter is more likely to find the fairies. “They assume you are looking just for the fruit,” she explains.  “So they are less afraid and more bold.”

Beena carries an aluminum sieve with her to gather the strawberries.  She has rolled up her pant legs to avoid brushing against the plants and startling the fairies.  Quietly, quietly, she enters the strawberry patch. It’s the end of May, and the ripe strawberries are abundant, their fresh aroma on the breeze.  Beena begins to pick the bright red fruit, keeping a sharp eye out for those for whom she is really looking.

It takes a while before she sees one.  Even on their most careless days, Fruit Fairies are secretive and difficult to spot.  Finally, Beena sees a shimmer in the corner of her eye. “Ah ha!” she thinks, but makes no sudden moves.  She continues with her task, but half her attention is now directed toward the place where she saw the movement.  Now, a slight flutter beneath a leaf. Beena works her way toward the tiny creature. “Tika tika tika too,” she sings softly.  Another movement. “Nikatee pop!” she says.

No one knows how Beena learned to communicate with the fairies, and she says the language is impossible to translate to English, but somehow she makes the fairies understand she is no threat.  “Teedle-dee nick-swop!”

A rustle of leaves.  A flitter of wings. Two eyes peer out and blink.  Beena smiles, moving slowly toward the fairy. A young one, she observes, with wispy red hair and light, green, chiffon-like clothing, and a wee green cap on her head.  For a moment, the fairy hides again behind the jagged strawberry leaf. Beena reassures her again with another “Tika tika tika too,” and the minuscule creature, brave but cautious, inches out.  “Beena neewalla,” Beena the Fairy Finder says.

Perhaps because she is young, or perhaps because she is unusually courageous, the fairy unexpectedly comes out from under the plant.  “Berrah neewalla,” a tiny voice replies. Tiny, but rich and sweet like honey, not a bit tinny for all its smallness.

“Ah, Berrah!” Beena breathes.  It is incredibly rare for a fairy to introduce herself to anyone, and Beena relishes the moment.  She begins to reach out, ever so slowly, to Berrah, when something suddenly startles the fairy, sending her flying across the strawberry patch.  Beena turns to see a sleek black cat trotting toward her.

“Oh, Mr. Wiggles,” she sighs.  “You scared her away.”

“Mrow,” Mr. Wiggles apologizes.

“Oh well.”  She scratches Mr. Wiggles under the chin.  “Maybe I’ll see her again. For now, I’ll finish picking the berries.”  Bernadette smiles, knowing there will be strawberries and cream for dessert tonight.

The Stick Farm

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In that photo, past the snowflakes (!!), you might just be able to see some sticks protruding from the ground.  This is our little orchard — soon to be a much bigger orchard!

Husband decided to place a big order this spring, for fruit trees and berry bushes.  We had been adding just a few a year, but he’s impatient for plums and cherries and blackberries and raspberries and peaches.  He decided to splurge this spring and buy a whole bunch of trees and bushes.  When he called the seed company to make the order, he told them that he was going to be out of the country and to please wait until a particular date to ship the plants.

And then he was off to the northern part of Canada.  I held down the fort, keeping fed the dogs, the cat, the chickens, and the rabbits.  One day when I got home from school, I saw a package at the front door.  Since we never use the front door (always going in the back), I forgot about it.  And the next day, I saw it there again and figured I should retrieve it.  Assuming it was probably tools or something that Husband had ordered for his business, I was in no hurry.

Except it wasn’t tools.  It was trees.

And Husband wouldn’t be back for almost a week.  And I had no time to plant trees. Their fate was to languish by the back door until he returned.

So I carted the box to the back porch and hoped for the best.

When Husband returned home, he contacted the seed company and explained what happened.  To make up for it, they agreed to send the whole shipment again, free of charge, and we could keep the original shipment, too.

So, we planted about 10 bushes and 8 trees.

And then when the second shipment of bushes came, we planted those, too.  The second shipment of trees hasn’t arrived yet.

It looks like we are growing sticks out there.  But someday, we hope, we’ll be growing lots and lots of fruit.

Miss Mayor

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A Bernadette Smart Adventure

 

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In March, the sunshine kisses the frozen ground and begins to soften the ice into mud.  The days lengthen, the time shifts, and the sun sets later.  Bernadette Smart, Mayor of Animal Town, pulls on her jacket and ties back her hair.  It’s time for canvassing her constituents.

She swings her leg over her bicycle and pedals hard to the south.  Her first visit is to the wild ducks and geese who live on the river.  Some of her council members feel that the wild animals aren’t worth her time.  They never vote anyway, so why bother with them?  But Bernadette has a heart for those citizens of her town.  And how better to make them responsible, voting citizens than to show them that their Mayor cares for them?  At the park, she dismounts her bike and stands it responsibly against a tree.  Her shoes become muddy as she treads carefully down to the bank.  She reaches into her pockets and pulls out bread scraps.  Her friends hear her and come running – er, waddling – to see her. They tell her the news (the nests being built, the migraters coming back) and their complaints (erosion on the bank just past the subdivision, the old tires in the river.)  She nods and commiserates, promising to look into the issues.

Her next stop is at the Field of the Seven Horses.  They come trotting toward her, and she carefully distributes one sugar cube to each animal.  Callie – a tan mare with bleach blonde hair, as if she’s a native Californian – nuzzles her and requests a nose rub.  These are carefree horses with few complaints.  They’re well fed and not worked hard.  In fact, Callie would like to have more to do, and Mayor Smart promises to look into a riding program she can get the mare involved in.  Old Blackburn, a wizened black gelding with gray around his muzzle, grumbles that he’s heard the horses are going to have to share their pasture with goats soon.  Goats! he snorts.  Bernadette tries to convince him that the company would be good for him, but Blackburn will not listen.  She pats his flank, assuring him that he’s complained about that rumor for the last two years and nothing has come of it.  He snorts again and saunters in the other direction.  With one more nose rub for Callie, Bernadette takes her leave.

Just a little bit north and around a bend is a small goat farm, and Bernadette loves visiting, even though she’d never tell Blackburn.  The goats, though impossible to talk to, run around, climbing onto concrete blocks, bounding in and out of old tires, and balancing on seesaws.  They are fun-loving and mischievous.  She’s had to speak sternly to them more than once about property lines and staying inside their boundaries.  They’ve been doing better lately, and no one has called to complain in the last month or two, so she leaves off scolding them today.  After watching them for a while and acknowledging their friendly baas, she moves on.

Her last visit for the day is with the barn cats just across the street from her home.  There’s a new litter of kittens, and the Mayor checks in to be sure Minnie, the young mother, has everything she needs.  She reminds Minnie to keep her children out of trouble – there have been fights among neighborhood cats, and that’s no good for Animal Town.  Keeping the peace is an important part of Mayor Smart’s job.

Finally, Bernadette returns home, parks her bike in the shed, and goes inside to make notes about her visits.  She is confident it will be a productive spring in Animal Town.

A Season of Waiting

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A February sunrise at our place.

It isn’t quite spring, but perhaps the coldest weather is over.  Still, it’s too early to plant herbs or tomatoes or peppers or squashes.  It’s too early to plant berry bushes or fruit trees.  The seed catalogs have come in the mail, and they tempt me with their colors and their promises of fresh, juicy flavors.  The trees are still bare and the grass is still brown, but the birds have started chirping more, knowing that the days are getting longer, and there is just a little time before spring breaks out.

The busiest season of ice carving is coming to an end.  After two months of extensive travel, late nights of barely sleeping, and carving so much his hands swell, Husband sees the light at the end of the tunnel.  It’s nice to have the income.  But it will be nice for him to be able to relax, as well.  And after some rest, the work on the house will resume – the milling, the shaping, the fitting together of beams.  But this week, there will be the catching up on sleep, the organization of paperwork that was neglected during the crazy months, and the preparation for a different kind of work.

One of the busiest seasons of teaching is ahead.  We’ll do state testing this week, and then we’ll have just one more week until spring break.  Then March, April, and May will be filled with students’ research projects, field trips, another round of testing, choosing materials for next year, and all the other craziness that accompanies the end of school. I try to work ahead and get things ready, knowing that no matter what I do, I’m never truly prepared when the cyclone hits.  For now, for just a little longer, I enjoy the calm before the storm.

For now, we wait.

Dr. Smart’s Antarctic Expedition

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The temperature hovers around forty below.  Dr. Bernadette Smart is American and automatically thinks in Fahrenheit, but she knows that at this temperature, it doesn’t matter.  First, forty below is the same in Fahrenheit and Celsius.  And second, either way, it’s just really darn cold.

Not that she was unprepared.  She knew that when traveling to the southernmost continent in the world  to study the effect of amounts of sunlight on researchers, she’d experience a climate unlike any she’d ever encountered.  Right now, in January, for example, it is daylight all the time.  There is no sunrise or sunset.  No dawn or dusk.  Just noon, all day long.  

Even for Bernadette, who loves natural light, this seems almost excessive.  She knows that six months from now, when it will be night all the time, her mood will be very different.

But for the moment, she revels in the sunlight glinting off the ice.  She has volunteered to go with her trusty canine companion, Martha Washington, to meet the mail plane.  The path is clearly marked to the landing strip and the weather is forecasted to be clear and calm, so she has no fears.  Besides, despite the cold, she needed desperately to get out of the research facility and into the fresh air.

The spikes on the bottom of her boots crunch in the ice as the dog bounds beside her.  She is bundled up so that nothing is exposed but her eyes, which scan the horizon for animals and birds.

Finally, she spies the mail station up ahead.  The plane is just taking off again, she sees, and she opens the door to the shelter where the mail for her facility will have been left.  She steps in, gathers the items, and takes a deep breath to prepare herself for the long walk back.

She looks through the deliveries, hoping for a care package from home.  She misses her mom’s cookies.

A car zooms by, bringing her mind back to where she really is, in Whitetail, Indiana.  She waves at the neighbor who is shoveling his driveway and says, “C’mon, Martha Washington.  Let’s take the mail back to the house and see if Mom has those cookies out of the oven yet.”