Friday Night Lights

Maybe I am ridiculously unobservant, but I have lived in Charleston for over 12 years and have never seen a lightening bug.  Ever.  Last night, all of a sudden, lightening bugs were everywhere.  We quickly grabbed some jars and ran outside to catch a few.  Catching lightening bugs growing up in Tennessee was a summertime right of passage.  As a kid, I remember being clean from the bath, running around outside in a cotton nightgown trying to corral all the little luminaries into a jar for my nightlight. Well, it was much harder to do than I remember!  Last night we mostly just ran circles around the yard in awe of the little bugs…but managed to get one into a jar.  Enjoyed him for a bit and let him go…

I hope they come back tonight!

This new memory was made much sweeter with my mama hen-tail, freshly juiced watermelon with a fistful of fresh mint.  So delicious I didn’t even miss the vodka!

“The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.” – Mark Twain

green + out of hibernation

It has been months since my last post!  I wish I could  say I was hibernating too, but the truth is I was too busy to keep up with mysunlean blog.  Much has happened since the last entry, but nothing inspires me to write more than a garden waking up for spring!  We have such mild winters (though this past one was a bruiser) that our garden provides all year long, but planting for spring and summer feels like a whole new endeavor.  Less root vegetables and more green shoots, flowers, fruits and vegetables on the vine. Visual gratification instead of all the hard work happening under the soil.

The past two weekends we readied two new large plots for potatoes and asparagus. We planted potatoes in the beds last year, but enjoyed harvesting and eating them so much (maybe some Irish in our blood!) that we decided to do even more this year. I could eat a variation of potatoes at every supper.  And what we can’t eat, well, we’ll invite others over to enjoy all the yellow, purple and fingerling tubers that will be ready early summer.  My son’s strawberry plants have been in for a while and thankfully survived the harsh frosts (we covered those precious berries with blankets and a tarp on the cold nights!).  And this is the time for lettuces, spinach, pea shoots, radishes and carrots…a perfect salad – so crunchy and fresh minutes from soil to plate.

“To be happy for an hour, get drunk; to be happy for a year, fall in love; to be happy for life, take up gardening.” – Chinese proverb.

Though, I think if you fall in love with the right person you can be happy for life, too!


A pilgrimage to Charleston (a Bloomsbury house and garden)

I was in Columbia a few weeks ago for a few meetings and a lecture, so I added in some time to see Annie Leibovitz’s Pilgrimage at the Columbia Museum.  I gave the book to my mom for Christmas last year so I was familiar with the body of work and the stories, memories and ephemera preserved in Leibovitz’s photographs of the people and places that most inspire her – from Georgia O’Keeffe to Annie Oakley, Abraham Lincoln to Elvis Presley, Old Faithful to the Spiral Jetty.  Many dwellings, papers and images moved me and made me think very humanly about where (Walden Pond) and how (simply) historical and beloved figures like Thoreau lived ….what it looked like.  Photographs of Charles Darwin’s taxidermy and the skeletons of different breeds of pigeons he used as study made me laugh when I read that his wife could not stand the smell and muck in the kitchen as he prepared and boiled his specimens….reminded me of the dead things I often find by surprise in my freezer (most recently a bucket of marsh hens).  I left the exhibition curious to learn more about the Bloomsbury writers and artists at Charleston house…I was inspired for decor inside my own home…

Charleston was a house inhabited and visited by writers (Virginia Woolf) , artists (Roger Fry) and an economist (Maynard Keynes) during WWI era.  In a book about the house and its tenants a writer (and daughter of one tenant) writes…”Above all, Charleston was a place where, for both children and adults, messy creativity was a way of life.  My brother and I…grew up with the conviction that Art was something everyone could do.  Paint and clay, mud, glue and matches were all endlessly available…There is a wonderfully uninhibited, irreverent quality to the decoration of the house that is of a child let loose to experiment and which is extraordinarily liberating.”

While I am not quite ready to give it a go and paint on my warm white walls (though there is one curved wall I would love to give over to the artist Sally King Benedict one day), I do fully embrace the constant creative flow of a house.  I never want my house to feel too perfect, too clean or too “done”.  I want it to feel lived in and loved – uninhibited and very inhabited.

Honey Do List

And I’m half the “honey” here, too.

House projects have been dormant, due to lack of funds and lack of time.  Not that either of those have miraculously appeared, but I’m getting antsy.  I love a project.  I think before year end we will try to get some shutters on the house and rework the courtyard.  Someone gave us loads of these antique bricks for free.  Yes, free.  Minus the cleaning and the hauling over.  Considering that bricks this old are about four bucks a piece, this was quite a score.  My husband is good like that!  I also think we are are close to finding the rest of the heart pine (thanks to craigslist!) that we need for the pergola.  I’ll also redo and transplant some of the flora around the courtyard. I’ve learned I’m no good at pruning roses (they look a mess and have got to be moved…).  So if all goes as planned we should have a finished courtyard in the new year.

For now the best way to get my project fix is in the garden.  Rita came over today and helped me plant for fall.  I cleaned out the summer beds a few weeks ago, added more soil and fertilized.  I’ve got a lot of notes to upload to the garden page.  Today we planted peas, beans, sunflowers, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, beets, carrots, parsnips, turnips, radishes, spinach, bok choy, arugula, lettuce, kale and collards. YUM.

I’d also like to get the chicken coop built in January or February.  And you can see from the list above one day we’ll have a pig, too.  And my neighbor wants a donkey named Disco.  So it only makes sense that we also get a mule named Moscow.  But as my friend Tara says, “Don’t rush the livestock!”.  It’s hard enough keeping track of these two little monkeys…


Space to Create

It’s amazing how strong my need is to create – sewing, journaling, gardening, water coloring with my daughter, lego-building with my son, even writing this blog…

Since I spend hours at a desk, I have to find some time during the day to actually make something…and more often that not, that might just be a good meal in the evening for my family.  But I must unearth some small creative gesture to satisfy the right side of my brain.  Everyday.  When I am lost in day dreams I am normally designing a room, shed or workshop of my own….what exactly I’m doing in there changes from day to day…potting seeds, weaving rugs, painting, stitching textiles….on somedays maybe I’d just nap in that little space.

For anyone that creates for a living, it is so important to have a room of one’s own. On A recent trip to Athens, Georgia I had an opportunity to get inside  a handful of artists’ studios.  Studios are little worlds unto their creators.  Simply stepping across the threshold you can inhabit the ethos of that artist.  The nuances of their work are so reflective of the spaces in which you find them.

I loved visiting Rinne Allen’s studio, the sister of my friend Lucy.  I have long been a fan of her photography and design work – from projects like Hugh Acheson’s cook books to her light photography, to the annual design installation called Field Trip that Lucy and Rinne put on together.  Her studio – pilled high with textiles, antique china, photography, feathers, bones, dried flowers, books, etc – was a lovely exhibition in and of itself.

This blog post was also partially inspired by an article today in the Home and Garden section of the New York Times about artist and musician Mileese Petre’s natural oasis in LA.  A miniature botanical garden, music studio and airstream trailer.  Have a look at the slide show.  That is where I am napping right now, in my day dream…

“Back there, there’s a nectarine tree.  So I can take a shower and eat a nectarine straight off the tree.  So rad.”  Photo of Mileese in her garden, below.


Traveling Light

Summer traveling is about to come to a close…one last short trip to the mountains on the horizon.  It’s very easy to pack for summer trips, but somehow I always miss something.

I can’t remember where I first saw Joan Didion’s packing list, but I have saved it since.  It’s absolutely perfect in its simplicity.

Just add a bathing suit.


Imaginary Dinner Guests

Everyone loves to imagine who they might invite to dinner – living or dead.  I have lots of different dinner parties in my head – the literary crowd (Hemingway, Plath, Updike, Salinger, Kingsolver, Allende, Marquez, Neruda, Dickenson…can you imagine the conversation?!), musicians and actors and of course social activists, inventors, artists, philosophers….I’m getting really tangental in my head right now imaging the menus and conversation…

The most interesting dinner guests, however, might be a batch of foodies – writers, chefs, farmers, advocates.  I got a glimpse of how the conversation might unfold in a recent issue of Smithsonian Magazine with a piece called The American Table.  It is a discussion between Ruth Reichl and Michael Pollen about American food culture.  It’s a fascinating article and as close as I’ll get to having dinner with the two of them.  “Yes, Ruth, I’ll have a deviled egg.  Thank you.”

Michael Pollen: “It’s empowering…for everyone.  Food choices are something fundamental you can control about yourself:  what you take into your body.  When so many other things are out of control and your influence over climate change – all these much larger issues – it’s very hard to see any results or progress.  But everybody can see progress around food.  They see new markets rising, they see idealistic young people getting into farming.  It’s a very hopeful development in a not particularly hopeful time.”

Pollen aslo said, “I think the next chapter of the food movement will involve paying more attention to workers in the food chain – on the farm, in the packing plants and in the restaurants.”  One of my favorite chefs and advocates (and also a really lovely person) is Andrea Reusing.  She discussed the plight of the workers in her recent TEDxChapel Hill talk.  I’ve mentioned Reusing’s cookbook, Cooking in the Moment, in an earlier blog post.  This past week I referred to it quite a bit.  I harvested all the remaining beets and made a couple batches of her pickled beet recipe and with the mass of tomatoes (trying to get to them before the stink bugs do!), I made a couple jars of her delicious hot tomato relish.

Farm workers and laborers should have a seat at my imaginary table, too.

Ruth Reichl is really my ultimate foodie hero.  She’s been a food editor for many publications, but most notably – the no longer in print – Gourmet.  I grew up with Gourmet magazine the way most kids remembering growing up with National Geographics.  My mom had shelves and shelves dedicated to her issues.  And the beautiful thing about being a subscriber was that there was no text on the cover – just the beautiful cursive name (unlike the copies found in stores with content highlights diminishing the cover photography).  Each issue was just as beautiful and exotic to me as a National Geographic.  I desperately miss Gourmet magazine.

Ruth Reichl: “Chopping is like meditation…I love everything in the kitchen – even doing dishes.”

I couldn’t agree more.

When in doubt…


“When in doubt, turn off your mind, relax and float down stream.” – The Beatles

We floated up the creek on the incoming tide.  One of my favorite days of the year. The 4th annual Floatilla. Only three rules: no kids, no dogs and no whining!

Photos courtesy of Tara, pictured above, her first float.



An affair with Bunny William’s house

When I was in New Orleans a few months ago, a friend I was visiting suggested I write a book about Sunlean based on my blog entries, “Sort of like Bunny Williams’ An Affair with a House.”  In all of my obsessive collecting of design books, I had never picked this one up, though I had seen on many shelves and coffee tables. I have Bunny’s On Garden Style, which I have found to be very inspiring and insightful, but when it came to home decorating and renovating I simply thought that given my budget, style, and resources, there would not be much I could glean from An Affair with a House.  Was I wrong!  I have taken this book with me on two vacations now and have poured over the pages, wishing I had been smart enough to take some of Bunny’s advice months ago.  I love that the book is chaptered into the different areas and dwellings on her property, a disparate mix of styles and elements that she has mingled together so beautifully over the years.  It is apparent that this was all very much a process, which is important for me to remember, as there are so many projects I want to get started, I hardly know where to begin…on a shoe-string budget and with about 2 minutes of free time to spare…

“The rooms you use on a daily basis are the rooms people will always want to sit in, because they have soul.”  We deliberately built our house out of only useable rooms. When I was growing up there were rooms we were not allowed in as children, but I noticed even during “grown-up” parties every one seemed to congregate in the main living spaces and kitchen.  To me, fewer rooms equals less dust, less stuff and livelier parties.  By making no room more “special” than the rest, all rooms become sacred.

As my attention begins to focus more and more outdoors, I found great tips and examples in the chapter “The Porches” – I think we have more porch space than interior space!  I am green with envy over the pages about the potting shed, greenhouse, conservatory and Bunny’s many gardens.  And the chicken coop – or aviary, rather !  In my own little vision I also have a small stable for a donkey or a few mules rescued from the carriage companies downtown.  Of course my husband thinks this is a horrible idea, but my daughter and I are in cahoots…

“When you’re doing a plan of your property, always remember that the spaces you leave empty are just as important as the spaces you fill…An expanse of lawn offers serenity…and provides the perfect place to put up a tent for a party.”  I love the expansive green in between our house and the marsh.  It also serves as a big parking lot with everyone down at the cookshack for beer and BBQ.  Maybe not the tented party Bunny had in mind!

I love this book and know I will continue to refer to it again and again and again.  I am encouraged to see that even for Bunny Williams, it is all very much a process.  A house is not decorated and completed overnight, it evolves as one lives in it.  It is very much an intuitive journey that can and should be enjoyed every step of the way.

Beginner’s Luck

Maybe it is beginner’s luck or maybe it’s the amazing soil we mixed and installed in the beds or maybe it’s all the great rain we’ve had or maybe it’s Rita’s tutelage…or maybe a little bit of all of the above.  Whatever it is, the garden has not only done well, but has thrived!  As a first time organic gardener, I am thinking I might just have a green thumb after all, but before I get too carried away, I should probably get through a year of seasons…nature is most certainly in charge and will eventually deal me a losing hand.  Much thanks goes to my little helpers: my daughter who loves to plant the seeds and tend the beds and my son who very much likes to harvest (pulling, cutting, clipping and snapping).  He has also been “harvesting” a lot of sticks and leaves from around the yard, taking full advantage of his new verb.

This is our first season in almost 7 years we have not joined a CSA.  At the beginning of the season I was still hitting up the farm stands quite a bit, but now I feel like we should start our own farm stand!  Yes, it took time, work and money – but what a self-sufficient luxury to not have to buy any vegetables!  (Well, ok, berries – our raspberries and blueberries won’t start producing fruit until next year.)  Now I am busy cooking and “putting up”.  Though I am still a little fearful of canning for some reason (next year I will learn!), I have been refrigerator pickling cucumbers and beans.  And I never thought I would be SO EXCITED ABOUT A STAND UP FREEZER, but I am!  I picked one up at Sears yesterday afternoon.  So now its time to get freezing – all manner of soups, stocks, stews, and simply blanched veggies to eat in the winter. I’ve got my work cut our for me this weekend, between the harvesting and the cooking. But I love it.

I have hardly had time to keep track of garden notes in my journal, so I am going to start a new page on the blog just for Garden Notes.  I think this is likely the best place for me to organize all the season’s dos, don’ts and try next times…