Letter to Birdland | Food from plants and plants from food | Travel

Did I tell you about my sweet-

potato vines in the window?

I’ve been wanting a houseplant but haven’t figured out where to buy one here in China. My friends and downstairs neighbors go most weekends to visit her grandfather’s farm. They generally bring me back some vegetables — garlic leaves that I sauté with Napa cabbage and lotus roots or sweet potatoes that I steam in my rice cooker, and last week, a big mess of fava beans.

These were fun to shell, large green knuckles that fell into the bowl with a metallic thump. My friend said they would be good and sweet if I steamed them and added salt — and they were — especially when I drizzled them with sesame oil.

Before I could finish the sweet potatoes, they began to sprout. I cut off the ends and put them in a blue bowl of water, where they look like two tiny islands in a lake.

The vines grow upright on the hills like minuscule trees with red trunks. The dark green leaves are outlined and veined in red. White, almost glowing, roots grow daily, branching and wrapping around the heels of the potatoes, like a self-weaving basket. We can get food from plants — and plants from food.

You would love our little courtyard garden in the canteen. It’s on the second floor, so it’s both a courtyard — surrounded by walls of windows — and a rooftop garden.

In mid-March, after I got my bearings, I noticed it — the remains of a neglected bed, rows of tattered cabbage heads never harvested, and some kind of mustard greens bolted long ago.

In April, the door was open, and some kitchen workers were ripping it all out, tossing the vegetables into a wheelbarrow.

A couple of weeks ago, I noticed a woman with a blue watering can. What was she watering? Seedlings of corn in high rows. Now it’s about eight inches tall. I will be on my way home before it’s knee high, and it will be harvested before I come back.

I like my morning routine — a walk across the flower quad to my office. The roses are fading, but the coreopsis is in full flower — rich, sunny flowers the color of the yolks of our chickens’ eggs in summer.

Sometimes I call Michael to show him our gardens, and sometimes he walks me around the yard at home. He’ll say, “Look at these pink flowers,” and point the phone. It’s like peering through a blurry two-inch periscope, but eventually, the picture will focus, and I’ll see he means the sweet rocket — bouncing spires of delicate clusters of blossoms.

Or, “Look at those red balls!” He means, of course, the allium, spherical clusters of maroon florets atop a stalk. Yesterday, he was trying to show me the tadpoles without dropping his phone in the pond, when here comes Maude, the renegade turkey hen, to get a long drink.

I think I told you that she had disappeared, emerging suddenly on occasion. I was convinced she had a nest in the barn, but Michael had searched simply EVERYWHERE, so she couldn’t have, could she? It appeared she has just gone rogue.

Still, I prevailed upon him to follow her, just casually, you understand, so she wouldn’t be suspicious. And what do you think he found in the barn? A nest with 18 speckled eggs.

Since it’s her first season, they may not hatch. We don’t even know if they’ve been fertilized, though a week ago, a wild Tom came calling, getting into a duel with Marcel, our bronze Tom.

Michael got a video of the two jousting, and Marcel came out ahead, hightailing it to the woods. We’ll wait to see what tomorrow brings, maybe a parade of 18 turkey poults following their proud mother.

Wait in beauty; hatch in peace; blessed be.

Mary Lucille Hays is visiting China. If you’re missing your weekly dose of Birdland Letters in The News-Gazette, you can still read them every week in the Piatt County Journal-Republican. Consider subscribing to support your small-town newspaper. You can see pictures about this week’s post on Instagram (@BirdlandLetters). Mary can be reached at letterfrombirdland@gmail.com or via snail mail care of the Journal-Republican, 118 E. Washington St., Monticello, IL 61856. She wants to thank her friends for writing and will answer you all soon.

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